Biographical studies on Sir William R. Nicoll
Nicoll’s friend the Rev. T.H. Darlow successfully published the only complete, definitive and authorised biography in 1925. This was published as William Robertson Nicoll: Life and letters, by his old firm Hodder and Stoughton. He produced a fine biography, which manages to maintain a warm appreciative view of his subject with a degree of objectivity and candour that is surprising seeing that he produced the biography only two years after the death of his friend. Nicoll’s granddaughter has remarked that initially it was felt to be wanting by the family, but soon became the settled text and interpretation of his life. He manfully sought to engage with Nicoll’s hand writing in his letters to his friends; however he did have Lady Nicoll to help him, and even his family maintain that she alone could ‘decipher’ his hand-writing. Such letters as he found from Nicoll he used, but Nicoll was never a good correspondent.
It is the judgment of this study that Darlow was necessarily acquainted with the latter end of Nicoll’s life to such an extent that this has skewed his portrait in some important respects.
First, Darlow paid insufficient attention to the importance of preaching to Nicoll. This was an important element in what made Nicoll a success, and his commitment to encourage vibrant and real preaching was continually breaking out in his articles in the British Weekly. Nicoll was always a preacher. He had, in his early days wanted nothing else, than to be a successful popular preacher, in the mould of such pulpit performers as Spurgeon, Parker, or Whyte. Darlow came to know Nicoll only when he had become a force at Hodder & Stoughton – the last 25 years in particular – and it note worthy here to reflect on Darlow’s own statement about his writing the biography: “For six months I was fortunate enough to obtain the regular help of Miss Evelyn Smith, who had acted as Nicoll’s private secretary from October 1914 down to the end of his life. By her personal knowledge, her skill and accuracy, combined with her sympathetic insight and interest, she rendered invaluable service in the heavy preliminary work which the biography entailed”. This possibly accounts for Nicoll’s early passion failing to get the emphasis and coverage it merited.
Second, Darlow was too close to his friend’s influence and the latter years eulogising estimates of Nicoll’s achievement, particularly those given immediately after his death in 1923, to be able to have much reflection and historical perspective and evaluation. That generation is long past, many of the significant names have gone and been forgotten, so that today there is needed a glossary to explain who they were. But Nicoll had full-blooded relationships with so many of the great personalities and leaders of his day.
Third, Darlow did not write a hagiography, but he was a close friend and he would be careful, rightly, not to be too incisive, particularly in deference to the family. However, though Darlow was not blind to some blemishes in his friend’s character and his attitudes, there is a need for closer look at his perceived faults. Nicoll could be controversial and was not above upsetting a number of people in his fields of journalism, politics and Church matters. Moreover, in considering Nicoll himself, it has been thought right to consider his personality and achievements in a fairly ‘no holds barred’ approach. It is the belief that this is the way that Nicoll approached his biographical subjects. He had an extraordinary range of inconsistencies, which baffled acquaintances and friends alike, and he had an extraordinary concern over what was written about him.
Fourth, there is some information that has come into the public arena that Darlow just didn’t know about, and could not have the luxury to assess it, which a distance of time gives. The appreciation of Nicoll’s overall role in the progress of Hodder and Stoughton as a firm, Nicoll’s contribution to the success and perhaps ultimate failure of Lloyd George to return to power after 1922, these, and other elements of Nicoll’s career call for a wider appreciation of his life and times than Darlow could have hoped to give in 1925. Darlow, also, had to neglect any more systematic survey and appraisal of Nicoll’s writings. He does give some judicious quotes, and notes from an occasional address or lecture, but made no attempt to appraise the sweep of his publications, save to say that they were much appreciated. The truth is that most of his writing was ephemeral and have past into the archives, and are not seen as candidates for any republishing revival of interest.
 Crosland, T.W.H.: The Unspeakable Scot (Grant Richard, London 1902)
 Ibid 17-9
 Ibid 64-7
 Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1938 and serialised in the British Weekly in the same year
 Stoddart: Harvest of the Years op cit 279-280
 Matthew H.C.G.: ‘Jane Thompson Stoddart (1863-1944)’, New Dictionary of National Biography edited Professor H.C.G. Matthews (Oxford University Press, London 2000)
 Mrs Prudence Kennard, WRN’s granddaughter in conversations with the author
 Hine Sophie: ‘J.T.S. at play’, British Weekly Jan 4 1945: “Our J.T.S. could order a meal better than any woman I have ever met – or ever expect to meet. But she could not cook! And somehow she found out that I could, or she would always say so.”
 Thomas Herbert Darlow (1858-1927) Darlow had not only written many articles for the British Weekly, but was also a close personal friend, in fact one of that select group with whom Nicoll could enjoy a ‘twa some crack’. Lady Nicoll described Darlow as “another constant friend of my husband’s, [and] was minister at New College Chapel, Hampstead ... [he] came to Bay Tree Lodge at tea time every Thursday, my husband’s free day, and spent an hour or two with him. When in 1898, he became Literary Superintendent of the British and Foreign Bible Society and moved to Northwood he would come on Fridays at six o’clock and tea would be carried up to him in the library. It must have been these regular weekly talks extending over thirty years, which enabled him to accomplish ... the difficult task of compiling a comprehensive biography. Nicoll, C.R. Under the Bay Tree, op cit 79
 Mrs Prudence Kennard, WRN’s granddaughter in conversations with the author.
 Only some of Nicoll’s letters (72) to Marcus Dods are in the Nicoll Papers in Aberdeen University Archives (MS 3518/ 32)
 Darlow: op. cit. Preface vii
 This later concern can be demonstrated even to his gathering folders of newsprint, not only containing reviews or mere mentions of his books, but also any published reference to him!
 Carswell Donald: Brother Scots (Constable and Company Ltd London 1927) 220
 Ibid 237
 Buchan, John: Castle Gay (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1930) 31, 29-30
 Nicoll C.R.: Bells of Memory (for private circulation, 1933) 180-181
 Swan Annie: ‘Robertson Nicoll’, Great Christians, edited R. S. Forman (Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London 1933) 385
 Swan Annie: My Life: An Autobiography, (Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd London 1934)
 Nicoll, Mildred R. (editor): The Letters of Annie S. Swan (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1945) 20-1
 Doran George H.: Chronicles of Barabbas: 1884-1934 (Methuen & Co Ltd London 1935) 80
 Peake A. S.: Recollections and Appreciations, edited W. F. Howard (Epworth Press London 1938) 25-26
 Simpson P. Carnegie: Reflections: mainly ecclesiastical but sometimes human (Nisbet & Co. Ltd London 1943) 42
 Deane Anthony C.: Time Remembered (Faber & Faber Ltd London N/D [c1945]) 157
 Porritt, A.: More and more of Memories, op cit 74-5
 Marchant, Sir James: ‘Advance! The British Weekly’, British Weekly, Nov 7 1946
 Miles, Constance: ‘The first editor of The British Weekly: A Pen Sketch by his Daughter’, ibid
 Nicoll, Mildred Robertson: ‘A 75th Anniversary Tribute to our first Editor’, British Weekly, Nov 9 1961
 Attenborough, J.: A Living Memory, Hodder & Stoughton Publishers 1868-1975, op cit
 Ibid., 92