The Successful Life of Sir William Robertson Nicoll

 Sir William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923)



Sir William Robertson Nicoll in 1897





"The most successful Christian of Modern times": Sir William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923)'?


The statement was made in the Punch magazine, and his wily friend and confidant, the Methodist scholar, Arthur Peake commented on this, after Nicoll’s death, “He was himself a remarkably successful man. Punch spoke of him as ‘the most successful Christian of modern times’. And as Nicoll grew older he tended to make success more and more a test of merit.”[1] Peake was reviewing the authorised biography of Nicoll by Thomas Herbert Darlow (1925), which displays the real measure of success Nicoll had enjoyed in his life, but also picked up the fascination that Nicoll had with ‘success’ by noting a statement from Nicoll’s eldest daughter, “I think we were brought up to consider unsuccessful people as not much worth knowing”. Peake mitigates for his friend, “In justice to Nicoll it should be added that this attitude was not rooted in snobbishness, but in the conviction that if a person did not succeed, the fault lay as a rule, with his laziness[2]. Nicoll was rarely ready to admit that a man’s failure might be to his credit. This rather unattractive feature in his character is the more surprising since he often wrote tenderly,”[3] about the broken, the disappointed and the bereaved. This seems to have been one of many paradoxical attitudes, which makes the character of Nicoll so fascinating, but difficult to grasp.


Nicoll was and has been regarded simply as a consummate journalist and editor who worked primarily for Hodder & Stoughton – so he was, but he was also very much more. He achieved much success for himself, truly a ‘rags to riches’ tale, given the comparative poverty of his beginnings, and the degree of opulence he gained, but also he brought success for the firm of Hodder & Stoughton, for he was one of the forces that helped transform the firm into the successful and wide ranging publishing house that it has become. Nicoll was also very much a man of his times; an individual who, though sedentary, and he hated sports, nevertheless, was not a recluse, but interacted with much that was going on around him, on the larger canvass of the nation.


Nicoll began unpromisingly by being born in a bleak Scottish rural outback of Nineteenth Century Aberdeenshire. This was on October 10th 1851, and he was the eldest son of Rev Harry Nicoll of Auchindoir and Jane Robertson. As a child of the manse, he admired and sought to emulate his father in his love of books and reading. This life in the manse in Lumsden was austere and sparse, and rendered even more so by his father’s obsession with building up his library of over 16,000 volumes. His obsession consumed much of his meagre clerical salary, leaving his family, at least, undernourished. Nicoll later wrote a short biographical study called simply, My Father, which he saw as a counter weight to Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Nicoll thought Gosse was too ruthless in exposing his father and showed too little tenderness and compassion. However, others have thought Nicoll was all too kind to his own father, who basically almost starved his constitutionally sickly family to feed what his son called, his ‘Chinese obsession with paper’.

As well as his love for books, Nicoll learned other things from his father:

1.      He gained his love and ambition for preaching and to be a minister of the Free Church of Scotland – though the son was ambitious to become a popular preacher.

2.      He learnt how to apply himself to acquiring good methods of doing things and utilising what he had been given. He saw the bleak winters as opportunities for reading, he later wrote, Looking back, it is the winter that strikes me as the dominant influence of the region. It was very long and very rigorous. The countryside was famous for its snowstorms, the huge drifts they left behind them often impeding traffic for days. It was impossible to work out of doors during the dark and roaring nights and the scarcely brighter days. People were thus thrown upon their own resources, and were either made or marred by their use of the winter.”[4] This habit of avid reading never left him, and he was able to put the long winters to good use. This continued into his first pastoral charge at Dufftown where ‘enjoyed’ his snowed in times.

3.      From his father he learned how to concentrate and apply himself to hard work – an ethic learned in many a Scottish manse. Nicoll exemplified the ethic and was most intolerant of slackness and feeble excuses.

4.      Yet he, also, contrasted with his father. Both had an avidity to acquire knowledge that was prodigious, but whereas the father always remained an ‘eternal student’, with no desire to pass his knowledge on, the son was driven to be successful in teaching and passing on his knowledge.  Nicoll’s friend the novelist Annie Swan wrote appreciatively, after his death, “His son was different … from his own colossal and precious store he so much enriched the lives of others. In that respect he was one of the greatest givers I have ever known.”[5] Or perhaps, as a tongue-in-cheek Donald Carswell, in his humorous Brother Scots, put it: “Where he differed from his father … was that at an early age he made up his mind that the first object in reading a good book and the only object in reading a bad one is to convert them both into hard cash.”[6]


Nicoll inherited his weak constitution, from his mother, and then with the problematic climate, and a parsimonious father, all spelt increased dangers for the family. Nicoll’s mother died when he was eight, his father didn’t marry again, and he had his books! But by 1894, with the death of his sister Maria Nicoll, at 43, was the sole surviving child of the five children.[7]


His school and University work saw him ever industrious. However, it was not always at his set subjects; he was often in the library reading the newspapers, journals and magazines for he had a great fondness for literary and ‘discursive’ reading. He gave private tuition, which helped him to be almost self sufficient of his father, and also, he swelled his meagre income by writing articles for the local press. During the whole of Nicoll’s theological studies he was as good as a regular staff member of the Aberdeen Journal with his own weekly column, and at the same time contributed regularly to a number of other journals.[8]  He wrote reviews and a column of general notes, and gained prizes for his poetry.  His love of poetry remained with him and particularly his judgment of making good selections. All this gave him a regular income and developed his experience of journalism in a practical way.  “I had a £15 bursary, I made £40 a year by journalism, and £50 by private teaching, and I saved money.”[9]  Nicoll faced the future with the prospect of a ministerial career and the means of a good supplementary income from journalism. He even had some of his poetry published.[10] His income became ‘about a hundred a year, and from that time never cost his father a penny.[11] Nicoll, the dutiful son, did not impinge on his father’s ability to forge ahead with his book collection!

Nicoll attended the Free Church College in Aberdeen, and began to develop friendships with key people, who would be useful to him, such as Alexander Whyte. There were also influential teachers who left their marks on the formation of his views, such as Dr/Principal David Brown and Professor William Robertson Smith. Initially Nicoll had more identity with Brown, as an Evangelical and sided with him against Smith in the heresy trials of 1876-1880. Smith came to nurse a personal antipathy towards Nicoll because he voted against him, but more specifically, Nicoll had visited Wellhausen in the early 80s and released some of Wellhausen’s comments about Smith and his views. Smith always refused to write any article for his successful former pupil, but Nicoll accepted much of Smith’s teaching and became a paid up member of, what is known theologically as ‘the believing critics club’.


Nicoll wanted to succeed as a preacher and so used his winters to study the ‘masters’, in particular Charles Haddon Spurgeon, on whom Nicoll became something of an expert[12]. He was succeeding well as an up and coming preacher first at Dufftown (1874-8) and then at the more prestigious church associated with Horatius Bonar, at Kelso (1878-1885). His life and career as a minister and writer was flourishing well, but then on a brief holiday in Norway, which was to have been a period of recovery after nursing his dying brother Henry, he contracted typhoid. He recovered, but his lungs were permanently impaired. As a member of his Kelso congregation, and later colleague and friend, Jane Stoddart recorded, “The doctors insisted that he should give up public speaking for two or three years, and Sir Thomas Grainger Stewart, a leading Edinburgh authority on lungs, pronounced the ominous word ‘Resign’. Imperative orders were given that he should remove for the winter to a milder climate”.[13] So initially Nicoll went to Dawlish in Devon, then to London, and the package of measures to husband his health, included a winter fixture in Southern France or Italy.


Nicoll’s literary pursuits, which had always interested him as an important sideline now became the means of his livelihood and the support for his wife and two children. He had not only continued to write articles, he also had published 3 books and edited a series of popular theological books; Household Library of Exposition (1879-80), The Contemporary Pulpit (from 1884) – he even published an anthology of poetry (which included some of his own verses). More importantly he was ‘discovered’ by Thomas Stoughton and brought into the firm of Hodder and Stoughton. Initially he took over the editorship of the Expositor, maintaining the policy of its founder, Samuel Cox, who had picked up ‘flack’ from the readers who objected to the journal becoming a position for him to promote some ‘heretical’ universalistic views. Nicoll stabilised the read-ship and gave it a broader appeal by bringing in figures like B B Warfield of Princeton. Interestingly Nicoll contented himself to editing and adding odd notes, but never seeking to write any substantial articles[14]. Willis Glover did a study of evangelicals and higher criticism in 1954, in which he sought to demonstrate that with the Expositor: “W R Nicoll must be accorded a high place in the history of Biblical criticism in England because of his achievement as editor of the Expositor ... he never questioned the principle that free scholarship was the only satisfactory way to settle critical problems, and he practised this principle in editing the Expositor, which was the primary vehicle in England for the expression of critical opinion.”[15] There is truth here but Glover seemed to miss other influences and personalities, not least Nicoll’s Aberdonian friend James Hastings, the editor of many Dictionaries and the Expository Times.


In October 1886, he was supported loyally by the partners, Matthew Hodder and Thomas Stoughton, and able to launch the British Weekly. He succeeded in launching and in maintaining his post as editor until he died in 1923. This was a remarkable successful achievement considering the volatile and demanding world of Journalism. Nicoll had studied the market and knew the world of religious journalism very well; so he copied and developed the best methods and styles of writing and production that he saw available. This best practice that he saw, he had the skill to learn, apply, and adapt. He was not content to stay in the tried and trusted paths of the customary style of religious journalism. His lessons learnt were from the secular world of journalism, but by so doing he set new benchmarks for others to attain and emulate. He was nothing if not methodical, but he also could be idiosyncratic. How many editors have done so much of their best work, while dictating from their bed? However, Nicoll was determined to apply himself and knew that nothing came to any reasonable standard without disciplined application. For one who looked so frail, he really did work hard at what he did and expected others to be similarly minded. He had his own standards, which included a concentration on short ‘punchy’ news and comments, personal studies of the people in the news, but for Nicoll, there was an emphasis on his leading article, after the manner of W T Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette, but for Nicoll it had to be predominantly religious and devotional. In 1890 he published a biography of a fellow Aberdonian journalist, James Macdonell (of the Times), who had come south to England successfully, Nicoll noted and applied Macdonell’s successful methodology as a master in the field of journalism.


Nicoll was always the Scottish ‘exile’ in England, and determined to maintain his essential Scottish orientation, speech and his roots (Nicoll always took a summer holiday in Aberdeenshire). Some have pondered whether the extent that he employed so many Scots on his papers, was tantamount to a ‘Scottish invasion’? Again Donald Carswell comments, “In general he was inclined to play up to the part of the Scotsman of English tradition – the Broad-spoken, sentimental, Sabbath-observing, casuistical, contentious, industrious, ‘bang went saxpence’ Scotsman, and it cannot be said that in so doing he did himself any injustice.” Nicoll loved the role of the quintessential Scotsman in England. However, he also, succeeded in establishing himself as a leader amongst English Nonconformity and was fully perceived as identifying with them in their aspirations, but friends who knew him have doubted, that as a Scot, whether he could really understand the Nonconformist mind[16]. Yet his work with the British Weekly enhanced and developed the link and appreciation between the Free Church (United Free Church as it became in 1900) and English Nonconformity. This could be seen in the British Weekly and the British Monthly in their coverage of the Celebration of Union, at which English Nonconformists, Joseph Parker and Alexander Maclaren joined Principal Robert Rainy in Edinburgh. Nicoll’s papers celebrated with column inches in both papers, with a considerable number of plate photographs (it was for the short-lived Monthly its finest hour!).

Nicoll established himself as a valued member of the Hampstead set, always succeeding in making new literary and clerical friends. At his home in Bay Tree Lodge he built his personal library to house his 20,000 books and more (He had patterned it after Gladstone’s library at Hawarden). His first wife, Isa (short for Isabelle) died in 1894 and he married his second wife, Catherine Pollard in 1897. He had three children in his first marriage, but a son died in infancy and a daughter from his second marriage. By 1897, Nicoll had succeeded in establishing in his literary and publishing work, but also following some improvement in his health and a change in his style of public speaking, meant that he could again preach and give lectures.[17]

In his latter years politics became the focus and expression of his work and his support for the Liberal Party and then Liberal government saw him increasingly influential and suitably rewarded by grateful political leaders, with a Knighthood and a Companion of Honour. Nicoll’s last years saw him continuing to work hard, rallying and scolding the Nonconformists during the First World War. He lamented the passing of the age of the great preachers and seemed at times surrounded by success and nostalgia, which he enjoyed. He remained a valuable title and name for Hodder and Stoughton to the end. Donald Carswell concluded, “He died at Hampstead on May 4, 1923 in his seventy-second year, the cleverest, shrewdest Scot of his generation.”[18]



He succeeded as the editor of the British Weekly, but he has not succeeded in being generally remembered. As Nicoll’s official biographer noted, “It is the irony of good journalism the more aptly it serves its immediate purpose the more fugitive and ephemeral it must appear in retrospect. Few newspaper articles bear reprinting.”[19] Nicoll wrote (in truth his handwriting was awful, as his eldest daughter affirmed), or perhaps, more correctly dictated, a vast amount of newsprint, and he maintained, that in the early issues of the British Weekly, he wrote most of the paper. His speciality was his leader, and quite a number of these articles were printed sermons and lectures, and many saw a more permanent re-issue into a number of his books. They were written in his own particular style, short flowing sentences, and in a direct, personal, even if in a definitely preachy way. They are in the main expository, doctrinal and applicatory. His writings are interesting, if dated. Nicoll was at his best communicating information and this was the business that his readers wanted. He rarely wrote in epigrammatic brilliance that lights up the page. He could and did try for effects, but these were rhetorical and more the exhortations of the sermon. The sales of his books continued for a little time with the younger generation [Such as William Barclay[20] who thought very highly of Nicoll’s articles] that had grown up with his writings, but quickly faded from the scene and the memories. Gradually, after his death in 1923, his books were quietly dropped from the publisher’s catalogue. Nicoll’s books dated quickly. This lack of popular durability was shown clearly when his wife and younger daughter brought out two anthologies of Nicoll’s quotations; taken in themes from his writings: The Seen and the Unseen and followed it with People and Books. This was in 1926, and later Harry Escott tried another more slender volume, which was a good deal sparser in its content. None was successful! The reason is not hard to find. Nicoll wrote in a deliberately homely and personal style, which had immediacy and intimacy for the readers of his day. 


Nicoll believed that his real skill in making the British Weekly a success was in his ability to arrange the contents of each paper. Nicoll had commented that there are four essentials for a successful periodical – ‘THRILLS, NEWS, SENSE AND PASTIMES’. Each issue contained news, comment, reviews and gossip – there was also compulsive serialised novel, competitions – and even the odd stunt [such as a census or popularity poll]. His particular success was in the skill with which he mixed the ingredients of both an article and an edition of the paper. He would liken himself to a cook preparing a meal, and needing to get the ingredients right and balanced. Nicoll was in the fortunate window of history, following the Education Acts of 1870, when there was a readership that needed to be informed, and so he was even more fortunate in being in a position to be able to share with others his dearest hobby – reading, and particularly biographical reading. He dwelt on the personalities of the writers, scholars, clergy and politicians, and from etchings to photographs – he showed his readers the people behind the books and events. Nicoll’s interests can be seen in his popular ‘Claudius Clear Column’, which became a popular permanent fixture in the British Weekly, and all his own work after the early issues. Here Nicoll could write about anything that interested him, literature, and especially biography. He read so much and had cultivated so many relationships that he could find personal information and his own insights into people, producing a compulsive and interesting article. He made a speciality of commenting on lives of notable people, whether by producing a memorial issue on their death, or his own review and comments on a biography that had been written. The one book this author would recommend for reprinting would be Princes of the Church.[21] But in his day Nicoll’s writings had a great influence and people accepted his somewhat ‘school teacher’ style with its tendency to be a little patronising as part of the price of being informed and ‘educated’ in an atmosphere of culture. In 1925 Darlow assessed Nicoll influence: “The editor might often annoy people, or even enrage them, but they wanted to see what the editor had to say. Nicoll attained this influence by the way in which he brought his own personality into direct contact with such multitudes of men. Perhaps no modern journalist came habitually so close to his readers, and seemed so conscious of their existence as individual persons, and made so many of them aware that he felt a certain personal responsibility for them – that they belonged to his flock to whom he owed guidance week by week.”[22] Some of his readers prized his journal to the point of devotion: “One of his readers, who had an almost idolatrous regard for him, told his son that ‘he would rather go without his lunch in the dockyard on Fridays than miss reading the British Weekly’. Another Nonconformist family passed round the paper so that ‘we all knew and read Robertson Nicoll’s articles.’”[23]


As far as his approach to writing was concerned, Nicoll had been drilled from his childhood by his father about ‘good style’, he, also, paid careful attention to the ‘masters’ of the craft, and perfected his clarity of style, with its uncomplicated short sentences. George Doran, an American bookselling friend, said about Nicoll, “Observing him closely one might discover that he read, thought, spoke, and listened only in terms of writing. Every sentence he uttered was in final printable form. He was the master of the adequate word – no more, no less.”[24] This may be considered harsh and not really appreciative of Nicoll’s achievement, but contains an element of truth. There were a few literary flourishes, but he wasn’t out to write great prose, though he might well have liked to think so, given the warmth of some of the adulations to his skills as a writer while he was alive. His style was smooth, simple, business-like and readable, especially by the keen but uncultured new readers. Lloyd George said many complimentary things about Nicoll, but a comment that is germane was: “You have got the gift that no other journalist has of making every subject you take up interesting. It is nothing for a journalist to get an article read if you want to read it, I read things of yours that I do not care anything about, theology, for instance.”[25]

Nicoll did have an extraordinary power to inform and persuade, as Darlow wrote: “Nicoll was superbly successful in his own journal, because there he could give full and free expression to himself. In its columns he poured out his opulent knowledge, his beliefs and hopes, his experiences and thoughts and views of things, with inexhaustible freshness and fertility; striking a note not always profound but always arresting and original, speaking with a voice which soon began to echo through the literary, political, and religious world.”[26] There are some well remembered headlines; ‘United we stand’, or ‘Set down my name, Sir’, but these were hardly original to Nicoll. Nicoll was not an original writer; most of what he wrote was derivative and dependent on his wide reading. Here’s Donald Carswell again, “‘Claudius Clear’ [Nicoll] never said a single great thing – it is not the business of a journalist to say great things even if he could – but he was always saying good things, and his manner of saying them entitles him to rank as the perfect stylist of popular English journalism. His versatility is bewildering.”[27]


Nicoll’s achievement with the British Weekly saw its circulation build up, so that at its height of popularity it claimed a readership of over 100,000. Such popularity and longevity of tenure in an editorial chair is success unique enough, but Nicoll maintained this quality and drive alongside so many equally demanding roles and other projects, other journals; such as Woman at Home, and the Bookman, not to mention successful series; such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentaries, and The Expositor’s Greek New Testament Commentary. The British Weekly was Nicoll’s main achievement and success, as his friend and former colleague J M Barrie said in Nicoll’s memory in 1923: “Seldom, I suppose, has there been an editor who was his paper peculiarly as Nicoll was. He made the British Weekly off his own bat – made it by himself out of himself; it was so full of his personality that he came stalking out of all the pages, meeting every reader face to face, so that it can truly be said he paid a visit every week to every person who took in the paper. Myriads of people must have grown up under his guidance … his glorious enthusiasms and the passion of his soul.”[28]


Nicoll’s work context was always with Hodder and Stoughton. The partners had their part in providing a secure context, and a steadying hand on several occasions, so enabling their ‘discovery’ to take the firm to new heights of achievement. Nicoll had a particular part he played in his relationship with Ernest Hodder-Williams; he was involved in his training, mentoring as well as in advising a faithful friend. Nicoll, also, gathered an extraordinary able team around him, from his trusted secretaries to his assistant, Jane Stoddart, even his future ‘chief’ in Ernest Hodder-Williams, all had their part in the achievements that Nicoll made. Nicoll led his team, he trusted people to do what was expect of them, but he was not a democrat in the work place. He knew what he wanted, and his achievements are to be seen in that which he coaxed, bullied or demanded from his writers and staff, but he certainly led by example. Nicoll was a discoverer, encourager, inspirer and stimulator for a great many who, in turn became successful writers. However, he would use them in the hardheaded world of the need to produce a popular and readable product for the market he had identified. Some folk have a way of calling anyone who is successful at exploiting the talents of others in order to serve his own ends of selling papers – ‘cynical’. That was not true of Nicoll, but he did have good business ‘savvy’, a good eye for the way an article should be written, and this was backed up by experience, and at times an intuition, of knowing what would be successful. His role in refining Rev John Watson, turning him into the successful ‘Ian Maclaren’ writer of sentimental Scottish tales, is an obvious example of his success in this respect, and he bolstered the careers of Marcus Dods, Alexander Whyte, Alexander Maclaren, James Denney, James Moffatt, amongst many others. It is also necessary to note that he could lose interest in a project and at times fail (Such as the failure of The Success in 1895, and around the same time Nicoll had dealings with the literary forger Thomas J Wise[29], there were 2 volumes of Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century [1895-6] all demonstrated as bogus, and a promise of some early Bronte MS – but all mysteriously stopped. Perhaps another ‘failure’ was R J Campbell, whom Nicoll ‘puffed’ as a preacher, only to see him expound a ‘New Theology’ from the City Temple [London]). Nicoll would quote Matthew Hodder’s words: “What is past, is past. What is done is done. Learn from the past and go forward to the future.”[30]

Nicoll lived at a time when ‘image making’ and practice of using personalities as celebrities, even showing the person behind the book or article, was being extended the newspapers. Though the style originated in America, Nicoll embraced and used this to the full in the British Weekly and the Bookman; it was that ‘human interest’ element, which he knew would be popular. This is still, very much, a journalistic way of life, but for this study it is particularly centred on the usefulness to Hodder & Stoughton of the name ‘Sir William Robertson Nicoll.’ Nicoll had several times talked about wanting to retire, even threatened to retire (a devise known to be placated by a raise or some perk), but extraordinarily he stayed at his post and died still in harness in 1923. It seems that his name had become a most useful and marketable commodity to his firm.

John Attenborough is most appreciative of Nicoll’s influence on the success of the firm: “The business of book publishing continued – but with a difference. And the difference was … Nicoll. With a rich mind enriched by the great literary resources of his father’s library and his own prodigious memory, it was quite impossible for him to keep his ideas within the framework of the partners’ more limited objectives.”[31] “It must be admitted that his literary discoveries were less significant, his library less valuable and his failures more numerous that he liked to mention … Literary critic? Editor? Raconteur? Mystic? Preacher? Theologian? Publisher? He played all these roles in his life. But in the Hodder and Stoughton context, it must also be stressed that he was … a great teacher … the basis of the lasting friendship between him and his one-time apprentice, Ernest Hodder-Williams.”[32]


Nicoll took seriously his ‘mission’ to raise the cultural standard of the Nonconformists and remove the Matthew Arnold’s stigma of ‘barbarians’ or ‘Philistines’ from Nonconformity. He recommended, critiqued and advised his readers on what he thought would be good for them, and that they would enjoy reading. He broke one of the old Evangelical prejudices against novel reading and not only popularised them, but also made the serial of one of them a standard expectation of the British Weekly. Nicoll went even further and promoted his own line in novels known as the ‘Kailyard School’ of Messrs Barrie, Ian Maclaren and Samuel Rutherford Crockett. Some have doubted whether Nicoll really did have quality literature in mind, or just plain ‘popular literature’. Andrew Nash appraises Nicoll, saying that he had not acquired, “his exalted position on the contemporary literary scene by a fluke. He was enormously well read and took an eager interest in the dissemination of literature and literary knowledge … of course his morals, politics and religious beliefs affected his opinions on literature, but he was greatly interested in the history and development of literature itself … his most important and successful venture in this respect was the launching of the Bookman in 1891. This magazine remains a neglected landmark in Victorian literary publishing and represents a major attempt to shape the course of British literary culture.”[33] Nicoll’s agenda was to find and promote fictional literature that had a Christian moral to it, hence his promotion of Annie S Swan and Woman at Home, and his delight and continual recommendation of the novels of ‘Mark Rutherford’ – William Hale White.


Nicoll, also, was aware of the windows of opportunity that were presenting themselves, with the national thirst for knowledge and education. Although he disliked scientific knowledge and the ‘how does it work mentality’, he had the ability to see and take advantage of the latest technology. This is demonstrated in his use of the latest and most efficient ways of printing. He also learnt from the styles and content in the secular press, their best practices, and, surprisingly, a full-blooded encouragement and use of advertisements. On the latter it still can shock some to find a religious paper carrying full page adverts for drinking chocolate, soap, and even ladies underwear!


Nicoll’s success in his political career deserves mention. He was always ‘an advanced [Radical] Liberal’ in a conservative way! This is just one of many contradictory tensions in Nicoll’s character, making it very difficult to pin the whole man down. His editorial role of a journal with over 100,000 readers was a good resource to have as your political mouthpiece, and politicians were not slow in courting Nicoll’s support, which he gave increasingly as his theological interests seem to plateau.

1.      Nicoll gave clear leadership and support for the Liberal Party, in focused and substantial leading articles, and also by holding before the constituency of his readers the policies and aims of the Liberals – this he maintained particularly when they were in government.

2.      Nicoll rallied and even crusaded to keep Nonconformist support for the Liberal cause; Opposition to the Education Bill of 1902, and his encouragement of the rates protest, the Election of 1906, the People’s Budget of 1909, the Constitutional Reforms of 1910-11, and supremely his support for the Liberal Government and then the Coalition Government throughout the First World War, with such influential headlines as ‘United We Stand’ (August 6th 1914) In it he encouraged a rallying behind the Government’s declaration of war. He had written to his son two days before, “I never had such a difficult job before me as the writing of my leader tonight, but I suppose I shall get through it somehow.”[34] Later he urged his readers ‘Set Down My Name’ as he encouraged volunteers to enlist and particularly from amongst the usually pacifist Nonconformists.

3.      Nicoll personally wrote much of the publicity for the ‘Coupon’ Election of 1919, he saw securing the return of the Coalition Government of Lloyd George as a national cause and crusade. In private memoranda, Nicoll writes about how he was persuaded to be involved: “The Election is to go on. LG wants me to write a brief account, four pages, of the things he has done since the War began, to be published first in the B/W with my signature and to be scattered over the country for electioneering. I said to George [Riddell], ‘Of course you and I would have to do it.’ Unless the PM revised it and corrected it I would have nothing to do with it’ ... but this is to be kept quite private and none to know that he sanctioned it. But he must go over it. One of his secretaries and George Riddell are engaged today in making a rough draft which is to reach me on Monday, and then I am going over it to rewrite it, make suggestions, and do what I can, then after that the PM must read it. It will appear in the B/W, not this coming week but the week after, for the election. But of course that is an entirely private transaction. I said I was exceedingly anxious to have it anonymous but they wanted the name.”[35] This became British Weekly leading articles, ‘The Premier’s War Record’ (Nov 21 1918), and then ‘The Hero as Statesman’ (Nov 28) the week following.

Certainly his successful support of the Liberal Party and Lloyd George in particular brought him rewards in the form of honours: a Knighthood in 1909 and a Companion of Honour in 1921.


Nicoll’s friend Thomas Herbert Darlow[36] successfully published the only complete and authorised biography in 1925. 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 subject. Nicoll’s grand-daughter[37] remarked that initially it was felt to be wanting by the family, but soon became the settled text and interpretation of his life. 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.

1.      Darlow has paid insufficient attention to the importance to Nicoll of preaching. 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. He lived the romance and privilege of preaching, and when ill health shortened his own career he delighted in hearing and encouraging the ‘younger men’. His articles, even the political and literary ones have many aspects and particularly exhortations that are sermonic, even when he tried to disguise this. If he couldn’t preach himself he could facilitate, and enthuse for others. He was absolutely delighted in his second chance at some pulpit ministry after 1897, although it was with a much weaker voice, even if he could articulate wonderfully, and could delight congregations with his sudden dramatic flourishes. Nicoll was fascinated by powerful oratorical skills. He was always drawn to an orator who could command an audience/congregation, and especially if they did not use any notes. It was this fascination that helped draw him to his interest in politics. It is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons that he identified with and supported Lloyd George, because he delighted in the abilities and oratorical brilliance that the Welsh Wizard displayed with his audiences.

2.      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 passed, 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. Some characters he helped make or enhance their reputations, such as Marcus Dods, Alexander Whyte, James Denney, Alexander Maclaren, some he used like Joseph Parker, R W Dale, Henry Drummond and even Charles Haddon Spurgeon, although Nicoll opposed Spurgeon’s quest in the Down Grade Controversy, he kept the ‘doings’ of the great preacher before his readers – almost issuing a ‘court circular’. All Nicoll’s relationships call for a more rigorous analysis and appreciation, not least Nicoll’s cultural relationships such as his friends of the ‘Kailyard Novels’ [Barrie, Ian Maclaren, Crockett] and his many Bookman and publishing contacts, but it was his relationships with political figures that needed more investigating. Take Lloyd George, here there was mutual exploitation, extraordinary flattery, and yet with a genuine person appreciation of the other’s unique qualities and gifts.  

3.      Although 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 holes 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.  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!

4.      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 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 has past into the archives, and not candidates for any republishing revival of interest.




A Portrait of the successful Man – some tensions and inconsistencies?

Success always brings its critics and never more so than when you are in the business of informing, leading and moulding peoples’ opinion. Some criticism was just sour grapes and envy, but some criticism hit the mark.

He was known to have firm views about most things and loved debate, often provoking argument to test ideas and views. Many said that there was more to Nicoll than Darlow had managed to get into his biography and the problem was not so much the sheer scale of what he achieved, but the difficulty of conveying the extraordinary personality that he had, and in which many people noticed extraordinary inconsistencies or tensions, that often defied explanation:

·         He was a man with great work capacity and drive, who yet often appeared physically weak and sickly.

·         He worked quite often from his bed and yet was able to push levers of influence in the corridors of power at the highest levels in the country.

·         He was a full-blooded and ever-patriotic Scot yet became a leader of English Nonconformists.

·         He did not suffer fools gladly and yet had seemingly infinite patience in conversation or with a youngster who showed a real determination to acquire a skill.

·         An advanced liberal, who could be radical in politics and religion and yet he was most conservative in many aspects of life and certainly in his ardently held Evangelical faith. The orthodoxy of his beliefs comes out in his personal views and in his correspondence, yet his style of editing would allow writer and scholars to publish critical and sceptical views – which undermined the faith he was committed to.

·         He expressed himself in his papers with a kindly measured tone and appreciation and yet in private and with friends he could express himself on a book or person with devastating and at times with highly personalised bias.

·         He hated spiritism, and yet at one time became interested in palmistry.

·         He was not interested in art, but came to delight in the cinema.

·         Nicoll could arouse great devotion and loyalty and many antipathies and animosities; Darlow says that he “met with a full share of hostile criticism. Doubtless he expected it, and at times he may have provoked it or deserved it. But he took it generally in a half-amused, half-contemptuous spirit without much discomposure.”[38]

·         He seemed to be unconcerned about his reputation when he wrote his articles, but as Albert Dawson, Joseph Parker’s secretary remembered: “When I became more closely associated with him, he asked me to go at once to him if anybody said anything against him.”[39] [His Papers, at Aberdeen, reveal that he kept copies of anything that was written about him]

·         He could locate each one of his own 24,000 books in his library and yet would completely mislay the volumes he borrowed from others – “I ought never to borrow books. They generally get lost, but this is not my fault. I do not lose them; they run away of themselves.”[40] His prodigious memory was a phenomenon to behold, but, at the same time, Nicoll was a byword amongst his friends for forgetting the basics – pipes, matches, and pencils – even coats and hats!

·         Advocated prohibition, and yet had whiskey and champagne for his guests at Hampstead.

·         He was firmly against women suffrage, even lady speakers – yet, his second wife wrote, “My husband was, I think, especially encouraging to women. He preferred to have women about him in his work …because he found he could rely on them.”[41] Truth was that he achieved what he did with the assistance of two extraordinary and capable wives and an assistant in the office who identified with him in his projects and helped him carry them out with no little skill – Jane Stoddart.

·         At times could be genuinely humble and self-effacing but also at times proud and self-obsessed. He could ‘play’ a part, take a stance, argue a different opinion to his own settled conviction – and at times remain inscrutably himself.

It is impossible to reconcile his inconsistencies and diversities. To what extent was Nicoll aware of the puzzlement of these aspects of his character? The evidence seems to be that Nicoll was probably totally unaware of the perplexing nature of the mingled yarn, which displayed the web of his life. His friend Annie Swan attempted to sum him up, “He was an extraordinary man. Meredith [the novelist] is reported to have described himself as the possessor of at least six personalities. I am sure Robertson Nicoll had as many. I knew him intimately over a period of years, while we were neighbours in Hampstead … but I could not attempt a portrait of him. He was a staunch and wonderful friend, but he had a host of enemies, being ruthless in criticism and less than any man I have ever met ‘able to suffer fools gladly.’”[42] 


Nicoll was said by many to have a skill, even genius for friendship. He delighted in ‘twa-some cracks’, especially in the ‘den’ of his Hampstead library, with his friends from Church and literary life. Individuals were not attacked or defended from Nicoll’s point of view; rather he encouraged them to explore topics and subjects, people and events. He loved getting ‘his legs under the table with an interesting conversationalist. He abominated those individuals who seemed to be continually looking at their watches or were measured and less than frank and open in giving their views and opinions. The truth is that Nicoll often kept records of his conversations – particularly at dinner parties and at his Reform Club. He loved his news and gossip with a passion – and it was very useful to him! But let his friend Annie Swan have a last word here, “In trouble he was a matchless friend. While others were searching for the fitting word of comfort or hope, he had spoken it. He was a great comforter.”[43]



A ‘Successful Christian’ – some warm applause and some causes for concern.

This cannot be answered in any final way; that belongs to his Master, whom he sought to follow. Annie Swan was asked to write about Nicoll as ‘a great Christian’. She wrote, “When I happened to mention to a casual but very able friend that I had asked to write of Robertson Nicoll as a great Christian, he smiled, but made no verbal comment. None was necessary. I did not miss the significance of that smile. Nevertheless I accepted the task with alacrity, believing that Robertson Nicoll has every right to be numbered among the great Christians of his time. It is certain that he enabled many to hold on to the faith, and confirmed many feeble knees by the richness and beauty of his religious writings, which were inspired by his own unassailable belief in immortality.”[44] She gave a valid testimony as one who knew Nicoll very well as a friend, but others might have had more concerns and questions.

Nicoll always maintained a full, warm, devotional commitment to an Evangelical view of the Christian Faith.  Using Dr David Bebbington’s increasingly well-used quadrilateral[45] as a useful template in assessing Nicoll’s views and emphases in his writings.

1.      Nicoll’s ‘Biblicism’ was strong and an area that he valued and urged on his reader’s as necessary for vital maintance of a living personal relationship with Christ as Lord and Saviour. Nicoll took a ‘believing critic’ view of the Bible, well as far as the Old Testament was concerned. This was a halfway house position between a full Evangelical inerrantist position and the newer critical positions on Old Testament sources and origins, associated with German scholars. Nicoll seems to have had lingering conservative doubts, which are reflected in some of his personal letters and articles, he seems to have had some unease with the new views, but he thought there was alternative, but to let the ‘outer fortifications go’ [the Old Testament][46], liberalism seemed to be ‘calling the shots’[47], and he also had a wide spectrum of readership to maintain. His preferred policy was for a slow and gradual progress and change with new teaching and not the ‘revolutionary’ methods and style of those like his tutor, Robertson Smith. As Nicoll wrote to Arthur Peake, “The new truths should dawn on the church as gently as the sunlight, and I am not at all sure but that heretics ought to be burnt. I mean the fellows who make a big row and split their Churches.”[48]

  1. ‘Crucicentrism’ or the doctrine of the Cross, Nicoll considered as absolutely central, though Peake considered it as a mark of his essential conservatism: “At this point Nicoll stood resolutely by a strictly substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement. He was also a Calvinist.”[49]  He stood and continually wrote about the importance of the fullest view of the Cross as essential to appreciating the Place and the Work of Christ and this was what made Christianity to be Christianity. This was a particular area where he tried to stimulate enthusiasm and exhort interest, for it was an area where he perceived Christian basic standards were in danger. Nicoll published a series of sermons, The Return to the Cross (1897), in which he stood alongside Dale, Denney and Forsyth in respect of not only a high view of the Cross, but also the nature of the Atonement as central in understanding Christianity. He accepted that there were several ways or pictures of understanding the work of the Cross for the Christian, but the Doctrine of penal substitution was the view, which for Nicoll best displayed the glory of God’s loving concern for individual believers and Christ capacity as the Divine Son of God to have gained a sufficient salvation for all who trust in Him.

From his many articles a few examples of how he understood the importance of the Cross: “Amidst the changes of feeling, in times of deadness, even when our hearts are cold and unresponsive, the fact of CHRIST’S death abides valid.”[50] Nicoll followed this with a second article, in a subsequent paper: “Evangelicals have been afraid of that translation of the thought of CHRIST which every period required. And so their most precious beliefs have been regarded as hollow and delusive, ‘known by their always wearing the same formula, as spectres always appear in the same dress.’ They have timidly and pharisaically shrunk from the urgent social and political problems of their time. Still the Cross remains the pattern and the inspiration of love. In meditation and prayer beneath its shadow, and nowhere else, the lost enthusiasm will revive. There men’s burden falls from them, there they waken from the dull stupefaction of things temporal.”[51]

3.      Conversionism’ also was of great importance in Nicoll’s view of the Christian life and the point at which the work of Christ is made personal to the individual. He became concerned over reports coming to him of an absence in preaching with a desire of seeing conversions. “Remember also that the ministry which ceases to be evangelistic will soon cease to be evangelical. If you preach CHRIST and His Cross you will preach for conversions, and you will have them.”[52]

Nicoll was particularly concerned about the reluctance he detected in young preachers to preach evangelistically, he spoke and wrote about this. A typical example was seen in a letter to Arthur Peake, “I feel very deeply that if Primitive Methodists lose their evangelistic power they will lose their savour. You cannot in the circumstances make them [students] great scholars or great literary men, whatever you do.”[53] 

4.      The fourth element of ‘activism’ was essentially what Nicoll was seeking to exhort his readers to be doing; a living faith would demonstrate that it was alive. In his early ministry he was affected by the Moody and Sankey Meetings of 1873, and his early book, Calls to Christ was a series of ‘Addresses designed for the promotion of religious revival’. He was an active minister and latterly, when he had recovered somewhat from his incapacitating illness, Nicoll did preach when he could. But, really, he took this presentation of the Gospel further, for he tried to view his whole life and work as the arena where he displayed his activism in working out his faith commitment to Christ. This was not just, for him, his explicitly Christian activities, but it was linked to his holistic view of the Christian life. “In editing a religious newspaper it is more than ever necessary that the whole range of subjects in which men and women are interested should be dealt with from a frankly and distinctly Christian standpoint, especially now that the secular press inclines less and less to make definite Christian assumptions.”[54] For Nicoll this embraced culture in the form of literature and a full commitment to politics, this for Nicoll meant his support to the Liberal Party. Nicoll sought to hold the best from the pass, he had a real respect for the traditions of his Church, this made him appear to a number of more radically-minded individuals who wanted to move faster in embracing new teachings and perspectives, as bring conservative. The truth is that Nicoll was committed to using the new methodologies of modern living, even radically so, but always in ways that sought to hold the Christian community in a confident sense of the continuity of its witness with the past.

However, there was more in Nicoll’s understanding of the Evangelical view of the Christian Faith, indeed areas that can easily get excluded or at least played down if the Quadrilateral Template of Bebbington’s is too rigidly applied. Nicoll saw the Christian life as dependent on the Work of The Holy Spirit and the reality of the ‘New Birth’: “The world is increased by every being born into it, but the Church has no natural increase, only a supernatural. The Church lives by capture, by booty, by winning over from the world the citizens that make her number … her life is a perpetual resurrection, and she is for ever issuing from the tomb.”[55] Sadly this emphasis seemed to disappear as Nicoll got into the 20th Century and Nicoll enjoy the power, influence and rewards of the political world. Perhaps this is reflected by his attitude to the ‘Revivals’ of 1904-5 in Wales and 1921 in Lowestoft; he carried reports of the written by ‘reporters on the spot’, but made no editorial comment himself.


Nicoll worked, and at times crusaded, to restore the confidence of the Church in vital Christianity on several fronts, here he saw mixed success:

·         Nicoll was a member of the second generation after the Disruption brought the Free Church of Scotland in to being. He stressed a personal commitment to a full Evangelical orthodox doctrinal view of the person of Christ as declared in the New Testament. He sought to maintain this through maintaining Christ’s Penal Atoning work of the Cross. [The same emphasis that is found in P T Forsyth and James Denney] But at the same time he did not stand on the same ground as the Founding Evangelical Fathers, particularly is this noticeable in his more liberal view of the doctrine of Scripture. Nicoll lived at a period of great transition and considerable change; in many areas Nicoll sought to accommodate to the new ideas, but, in Darlow’s words, “At the bottom of his soul this accomplished man of letters always remained a sincere and humble believer.”[56]

·         He advocated ‘Believing Criticism’ as a damage limitation position over the attacks of criticism on the Bible; this meant that there was a letting go the Old Testament but defending the historical integrity of the New Testament portrait of Christ. He regarded the traditional view of the Old Testament as the ‘outer earthworks which must be surrendered’ in order to defend the Keep [i.e. – the New Testament]. Nicoll did sally forth to defend the historical integrity of the New Testament in his The Church’s One Foundation; however this was idiosyncratic and journalistic rather than scholarly. Nicoll was convinced, with the believing critics, that the ‘new views’ would increase the preacher’s confidence in the Old Testament, but Nicoll never demonstrated that confidence. Surveying Nicoll’s published sermons – he very rarely used the Old Testament, and when he did he often used a poetic, symbolic, or even mystical method of interpreting.

·         Nicoll believed and sought to stimulate Christian Mysticism as a deeper personal awareness and renewed commitment to the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament Scriptures. He encouraged Alexander Whyte in his talks/articles in which he explored the Mystics. He wrote his own study, A Garden of Nuts: Windows of the Heart (1905), which began as some lectures to students. Nicoll believed that this study would help recover and maintain vital personal spirituality for the Christian preachers. For Nicoll it was very definitely Christian Mysticism and not a general mysticism that might lead to pantheism. Nicoll believed in a true personal conversion experience with the living reality of Christ, anything less was simply a passing allegiance or at best a kind of formalism. He found this amongst other Evangelicals like, John Bunyan and C H Spurgeon, but also in a wide range of spiritual greats from other branches of the Church. He gave lectures, which became the basis for his studies in Christian Mysticism, The Garden of Nuts. He encouraged his friend and colleague, Alexander Whyte, to explore the subject and these were a vital part of the view of Christianity displayed by the British Weekly.

·         Nicoll crusaded a cultural and ethical input into contemporary literature. He promoted the ‘Kailyard School’ of novelists, and looked for writers of Christian and ethical fiction. Nicoll sought to demonstrate that Nonconformists should not be content with their ‘Philistine’ image and be prepared to appreciate good literature and be involved in the government and its decisions for the benefit of the whole country. Nicoll was prepared challenge and try to change some areas of traditional Evangelical mores with regard to culture and literature. He was, also, aware of the fact that the increasing affluence of Britain meant that the young people needed to be directed to worthwhile pursuits for occupying their increasing leisure time. He challenged the perception of ‘novel reading’ amongst Evangelicals, and also through competitions and direct articles sought to stimulate the reading and appreciation of the best in reading matter. Poetry and biography were particularly prominent in Nicoll’s life and these he encouraged and sought to pass on, especially to the young.

·         Nicoll was aware that, although Christianity was the religion of Britain and Evangelical Christianity had a certain place of dominance, yet there were signs that all was not as well as things seemed. Nicoll was a shrewd observer of the Church scene and could see much about how the battle for credibility and relevance the Church was involved in. He was aware of the drop in the popularity of religious books from his early days with the British Weekly and into the first decade of the Twentieth century. Nicoll tried to stimulate and hold the next generation; ‘The Young Men’s Page’ became an early feature and later he started a ‘Young Worshippers League’ – increasingly his advice that young people should read more became less exciting or relevant. Nicoll did manage to keep Hodder & Stoughton’s successful, but possibly his ‘puffing’ of fiction didn’t help – in the long term. But then ‘hype and promotion’ was good for displaying the Firm’s wares and this became the fashion and flavour of the day.

·         Nicoll began to appreciate that the flood of secularism in modern life would cause a weakening of support given to the Christian Faith and the Nonconformists in particular. In many ways Nicoll embraced the ‘progress’, but he sought to adapt and cut channels to allow for manageable flow. However, his measures of containment were overwhelmed by events, and he led the capitulation to political expediency for short term gains, so that, secularism flooding national life with improved living standards and affluence, found the Church unable to hold its dykes and dams.



So what ‘successful’ Legacy has Nicoll Left? A Summary and some assessment.

q  Of all his enterprises his contribution to Hodder and Stoughton has certainly maintained and flourished even more than in Nicoll’s day.

q  None of his Journals still exist, although the British Weekly was kept going under different editors, who tried to revive the successful years of Nicoll, but since the late 1980s it has disappeared under the banner of Christian Week.

q  He helped and facilitated the careers of many others; culturally, there was the Kailyard Craze, which Nicoll largely hyped up (and there were not a few other notable writers, he helped with strategic reviews; such has Arnold Bennett); theologically, there were his Scottish friends; then, also, politically, he supported the Liberal Party, and Lloyd George in particular with his able articles. At the same time he made use of them and admired and gloried in their success – part of which was his success also. 

q  There has been no dramatic Revival of the Christian faith in Britain, certainly in the way the young Nicoll expected, following his experiences during the Moody and Sankey meetings of the mid 70s, and the older Nicoll exhorted and encouraged the expectation in the early days of the British Weekly. The latest phase of his life saw Nicoll as a political string-puller in public life, and at this time his emphasis on the Work of the Holy Spirit and the expectation of a Revival were noticeably muted, considering his early enthusiasm for the work and impact of Moody and Sankey in the 1870s.

q  There has been the failure of his writings to wear well for the new generation of readers. His style was dated, although much of what he wrote about has perennial usefulness, particularly many of his biographical studies. His pattern for society has been left marooned on the beach of changing culture; many of his views strike us now as quaint and bygone – even at the end of his life he felt a Victorian in a changed landscape.

q  He seems to have represented a passing generation when there was a high tide of Evangelical dominance – but the tide went out, and even further than he thought it would. He sought to help the Church come to terms with the new age, but it is an open question whether Nicoll just used or unwittingly encouraged the forces of secularisation, critical destruction of the Scriptures, the down grade in social morality – all of which have quickened their pace since Nicoll’s day.

q  It remains to say that each generation has to make choices – and Nicoll chose his way deliberately and succeeded to an extraordinary degree and he sought to be true to his higher calling as a Christian leader. He was always a preacher and with his enforced change of career he found a profession that enabled him to maintain his interests in preaching and at the same time make a successful contribution to the culture and life of both the Scottish Free Church and the English Nonconformists. He tried to bring the Church and his old constituency of the Evangelicals in to the new age. He felt the message of the times was simple – change or become culturally and politically stranded and die – possibly there was to be an irony here – in that he may have succeeded at the cost of undermining or at least weakening its basic defence – the Bible. It is one of those stands from the successful life of Sir William Robertson Nicoll that our present generation need to reflect on with care.



[1] Peake, A.S.: Recollections and Appreciations (1938) 28.

[2] For Nicoll there had to be method and laziness was for him a failure to apply oneself to the reality and need for sheer hard work.

[3] Peake, A S: ibid 28.

[4] Nicoll: James Macdonell, Journalist (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1890) 8.

[5] Swan, Annie S: ‘Robertson Nicoll’ in Great Christians, edited R S Forman (Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London 1933) 386-7

[6] Carswell, Donald: Brother Scots, (Constable & Co Ltd, London 1927) 218.

[7] George (d 1858); Elisa (d 1873); Henry (d 1885); Maria (d 1894)

[8] Amongst the papers which accepted his articles were the Dundee Advertiser, the Scotsman, the Banffshire Journal, the people’s Friend, the Literary World, the British and Foreign review, etc.

[9] Darlow, T H: William Robertson Nicoll; Life and Letters (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1925) 26.             

[10] Stoddart: Nicoll, op cit. 35: “He gained a prize for a poem in the Peoples Journal which was afterwards reprinted in Poems for the People and praised in the Spectator.

[11] Stoddart: Nicoll, ibid 35.

[12] Interestingly Nicoll preferred to read Spurgeon than listen to him! On one occasion he could write, “Both Ruskin and Hale White had an immense admiration for Spurgeon, and I used to think that Hale White exaggerated his oratorical powers. I always thought him better to read than to hear. There was a certain monotony in his beautiful voice.” [Nicoll: letter to James Denney cited Darlow: op cit 367]

[13] Stoddart, Jane: My Harvest of the Years (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1938) 55.

[14] This could have been simply a reaction to the policy of is predecessor, who increasingly tended to fill the Expositor with his own writings, but it may display the fact that Nicoll was not an original thinker, but popularised and used the thoughts of others.

[15] Glover, Willis B: Evangelical Nonconformists and Higher Criticism in the Nineteenth Century (Independent Press Ltd, London 1954) 258. [“In 1887 when Nicoll had made the Expositor the primary vehicle of higher criticism in England”. 154]

[16] As a Presbyterian, Nicoll had an essentially ‘establishment’ mindset and liked but could never fully appreciate the voluntary diversity found amongst English Nonconformity.

[17] He learned to speak with his reduced lung capacity by using heavy articulation, which on the Aberdonian accent meant he could be heard in most churches and public halls. His confidence had been encouraged after a successful visit to America with James Barrie in 1896.

[18] Carswell, Donald: op cit 236-7.

[19] Darlow: op cit 321.

[20] Rawlins, Clive L: William Barclay – The Authorised Biography (Eerdmans Publishing company, Grand Rapids & Paternoster Press Ltd, Exeter 1984) The British Weekly, “had an unequalled effect on its generation. Perhaps no man has been made for his job as much as W R Nicoll. To his newspaper he brought not merely a spiritual sensitivity and nose for newsworthiness hard to find elsewhere in such balance, but also a sure literary touch that was recognised by all.” 27.  “Another of the lasting influences on Willie was the figure of W R Nicoll, whose editorials, books, and papers found their way week by week into the Barclay home. Nicoll’s love of life (and literature of life with which his books are replete) comes out well in his reflections on ‘the loss of the living presence, the hearty laughter, the brisk, conscious, vigorous life of congenial companionship’, a perspective he shares with C S Lewis … those love for hearty, ‘manly’ company is so similar to Willie’s own” 85-6.

[21] The exception being Princes of the Church (1921), which shows so many of Nicoll’s skills and qualities at their best. However, it would have a specialist interest, and only to those with a particular interest in the period.

[22] Darlow: op cit 81.

[23] Munson, James: The Nonconformists, op cit 64-5.

[24] Doran, George: Chronicles, op cit 76.

[25] Lloyd George: cited Nicoll, Mildred: ‘A 75th Anniversary Tribute to our first Editor’, British Weekly, Nov 9 1961.

[26] Darlow: op cit 81.

[27] Carswell, Donald: op cit 235.

[28] Barrie, J M: ‘Personal Tribute’, British Weekly, May 10 1923.

[29] Being fair to Nicoll, Wise was not exposed until Carter & Pollard in 1934. Intriguingly there is a MS of an early Shelley poem, with a letter, showing it had been examined for being genuine – it was stated that it was a forgery.

[30] Attenborough, John: A Living Memory (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1975) 45.

[31] Attenborough, John: ibid 34.

[32] Attenborough, John: ibid 90 &92.

[33] Nash, Andrew: ‘William Robertson Nicoll, the Kailyard Novel and the Question of Popular Culture’ (Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Volume 5, Spring 2004) 68.

[34] Nicoll: Letter to ‘Dearest Sonny’, August 4th 1914 (Nicoll Papers, MS 3518, Box 27).

[35] Nicoll: Private memoranda, dictated Friday Nov 8 1918, (Nicoll Papers MS3518, Box 26, Folder 7).

[36] Thomas Herbert Darlow (1858-1927)

[37] Pru [dence] Kennard (Grand-daughter) from conversations with the author

[38] Darlow: ibid 421.

[39] Dawson Albert: Review of Darlow’s biography [c1925]: Nicoll Papers MS 3518 Box 41.

[40] Darlow: op cit 411. [Reported by Dr Hay Fleming]

[41] Nicoll C R: Bay Tree, op cit 111.

[42] Swan, Annie S: My Life: An Autobiography (Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd, London 1934) 79.

[43] Swan, Annie S: ‘Robertson Nicoll’ in Great Christians, edited by Forman, R S (Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London 1933) 391.

[44] Swan, Annie S: ibid 385.

[45] Bebbington, D W: Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, op cit 2-3.

[46] The work and specifically The Problem of the Old Testament (1908) by James Orr seems to have been almost overlooked or ignored by Nicoll?

[47] “Many on the ‘left’ end of criticism liked to think, because they belonged to the ‘modern’ world, that their work was properly based, methodologically sound, and universally valid. It took work that was equally solid to demonstrate how culturally bound it was, how methodologically unsound, how philosophically committed – every bit as committed as evangelical scholarship. But none of these lines of thought are followed up, with the result that the picture of evangelicals at the turn of the century, and the nature of their primary concerns, is somewhat skewed.” Carson, D A: The Gagging of God (Apollos, Leicester 1996) 451.

[48] Nicoll: Letter to A.S. Peake, Oct 22 1897, cited in Darlow: op cit 160.

[49] Peake, A S: Reflections, op cit 16.

[50] Nicoll: ‘Aspects of the Cross’ [1], British Weekly, Oct 23 1890.

[51] Nicoll: ‘Aspects of the Cross: The Consecration of Jesus’ [2], British Weekly, Nov 13 1890.

[52] Nicoll: ‘We have an Altar’, British Weekly, May 4 1899.

[53] Nicoll: Letter to A.S. Peake, Feb 4 1898, cited in Darlow: op cit 344.

[54] Darlow: ibid 325.

[55] Nicoll, W R: ‘Revival Christianity: Principal Brown’, British Weekly, June 2nd 1898.

[56] Darlow: op cit 339.