As the marketing guru John Hegarty said (and I am fond of quoting) “Do interesting things, and interesting things will happen to you” – and how true this has been. Little did I know where my first visit to the Wedgwood Museum would lead … to Tasmania.
William and Catherine Nicholson’s daughter Mary (1787 - 1807/8) married a Captain with the East India Company, Hugh Macintosh (1775 - 1834) at Fort St George, in Madras, India. Sadly, she died very shortly after giving birth to William Hugh Mackintosh (1807-1840) in December 1807.
Hugh Macintosh eventually travelled to Van Diemen‘s Land (now Tasmania) where, in partnership with Peter Degraves, he was one of the founders of The Cascade Brewery Company in 1824.
Back in the summer 2016, I received an email from the author Anne Blythe Cooper in Tasmania in regard to this connection. As it was the middle of the day, and the time difference seemed favourable, I decided to give her a ring – only to find that she was in Yorkshire.
The subject of interest for Anne was Sophia (the wife of Peter Degraves), about whom little was known. Like the women in Nicholson’s life, and many at that time, so little was recording in writing that they are almost invisible today.
Anne was also planning a trip to Anglesey, which meant that she would be almost passing Staffordshire. Seizing the opportunity, we arranged to meet and spent many hours trying to fill plug holes in the histories of the Degraves and Macintosh/Nicholson family connections.
In The Shape of Water: Imagined fragments from an elusive life: Sophia Degraves of Van Diemen's Land, a work of historical fiction, Anne Blythe-Cooper tells the fascinating story of the life, hardships, imprisonments and eventual success of the Degraves family through the eyes of Sophia.
Knowing very little of the history of the Van Diemen's Land, renamed as Tasmania in 1856, I found it a fascinating read. The descriptions of the societal, entrepreneurial and environmental conditions are very vivid, and it was delightful to read William and Mary Nicholson’s first appearances in a work of historic fiction (as far as I am aware).
I was interested to learn of the Tasmanian tiger (sadly declared extinct in 1936) and Mount Wellington, the development of the brewery and the theatre. Peter Degraves, sounds like a nightmare of a husband – but that certainly makes the book an enjoyable read.
So far it is only available via Forty South Publishing in Tasmania, but as the early story is set in London and many of the characters have English heritage – it deserves to be published in the UK too.
For now, it can be ordered via via Forty South Publishing - The Shape of Water by Anne Blythe-Cooper.
Checking a few of the links on our list of Nicholson’s publications, I was delighted to find that there is now a copy of The Navigator’s Assistant available to read on Google Books.
The previous link (via the Hathitrust) attributed the book incorrectly to William Nicholson ‘master attendant of Chatham dockyard’. Unfortunately, quite a few other online links make the same error (including one on Worldcat – where I was surprised that I could not find a facility to report the error).
Published in 1784 in two volumes for 6 shillings, more than ten years after he had returned from his second voyage to China, this was Nicholson’s second publication in his own name. It followed on from the success of his An Introduction to Natural Philosophy in 1782.
Despite the success of his first book, Joseph Johnson was not interested in a work on navigation, and Nicholson eventually persuaded three publishers to spread the risk and work with him. These were Thomas Longman of Paternoster Row (1730-1797), Thomas Cadell of The Strand (1742-1802) and John Sewell of Cornhill (c1733-1802).
Sewell became a good friend of Nicholson, and was an interesting character. His shop in Cornhill was described in his obituary as “the well-known resort of the first mercantile characters in the city, particularly those trading to the East Indies. “ “He possessed, besides his professional judgement of books, a tolerable knowledge of mechanicks, particularly of ship-building … and was a most zealous promoter of a Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture,” - of which he persuaded Nicholson to become a member.
Two other historic nuggets - with no relation to Nicholson, but rather interesting - caught my eye in his obituary:
Businesses in Cornhill had suffered from a number of fires, and so Sewell came up with the idea of building a water tank beneath the coach-pavement which was kept full and was a ‘perpetual and ready resource in cases of fires happening in the vicinity.’
In 1797 mutinies were threatened by sailors of the Royal Navy – a time when Britain was at war with France – “the kingdom was alarmed and confounded” and John Sewell drew up plans for a Marine Voluntary Association “for manning in person the Channel Fleet”. Fortunately, the sailors came to their senses and the volunteers were not required.
Returning to The Navigator’s Assistant, this was not a great success. The Monthly Review described it as “undoubtedly the work of a person who is possessed of ingenuity enough to leave the beaten path” but goes on to criticise a number of technical errors.
The Gentleman’s Magazine kindly described it as “too refined and laboured for the class of persons to whom it was addressed: and therefore it is not much to be wondered at that this Assistant was neglected”.
A MOOC (for those of you like me who did not know what this was) is a ‘massive open online course’, and Lancaster University and the Royal Institution of Great Britain are hosting one about Humphry Davy which will start on 30 October 2017.
The course will run for four weeks. Learners will typically spend three hours per week working through the steps, which will include videos (filmed on location at the Royal Institution), text-based activities and discussion, and quizzes. Learners will be guided at all stages by a specialist team of educators and mentors. It's entirely free to participate, and no prior knowledge of Davy is required.
Humphry Davy was a good friend of William Nicholson and they were both keen disseminators of knowledge, so would encourage you to spread the word to anyone who might be interested.
In 1797 young Davy had ‘commenced in earnest his study of natural philosophy,’ but this ‘soon gave place to that of chemistry’ and in his note book he recorded that his first experiments ‘were made when I had studied chemistry only four months, when I had never seen a single experiment executed, and when all my information was derived from Nicholson’s Chemistry, and Lavoisier’s Elements.’ (style='"Times New Roman",serif;' (Davy and Davy, The Collected Works,1839.)
Then in the Spring of 1799, Davy made contact with Nicholson sending two articles to include in A Journal of Natural Philosophy and the Arts, both of which appeared in the May edition:
There is much more to tell about their relationship, but now is not the time, so let’s get back to the MOOC …
This FREE course is intended for anyone with an interest in Humphry Davy, or early nineteenth century literature, science, or history. It will explore some of the most significant moments of Davy's life and career, including his childhood in Cornwall, his work at the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol and the Royal Institution in London, his writing of poetry, his invention of his miners' safety lamp and the controversy surrounding this, and his European travels. The course will also investigate the relationships that can exist between science and the arts, identify the role that science can play in society, and assess the cultural and political function of science.
Free course – open to all - sign up today at
Image: The Royal Exchange, London c1750, Courtesy of Wikigallery
The following sentence in The life of William Nicholson by his Son caused me to Google ‘Change Time’ to see what this referred to:
‘And daily congregated in the shop after change time six or eight or more of the leading merchants to gossip over politics and the affairs of the day …’
Rather amusingly, an explanation came up from our very own Mr Nicholson in The British Encyclopedia, 6 vols of 1809, which I thought worthy of sharing due to the severity of the punishments threatened:
In 1703, the following notice appeared in the public papers: "An act of the Lord Mayor and Court of Alder men is affixed at the Exchange, and other places in this City, by which all persons are prohibited coming upon the Royal Exchange to do business before the hours of twelve o'clock, and after the hour of two, till evening change: Wherein it is further enacted, that for a quarter of an hour before twelve the Exchange bell shall ring, as a signal of change time ; and shall also begin to ring a quarter of an hour before two, at which time the change shall end : and all persons shall quit it, upon pain of being prosecuted to the utmost, according to law. That the gates shall then be shut up, and continue so till evening change time; which shall be from the hours of six to eight from Lady-day till Michaelmas, and from Michaelmas to Lady-day from the hours of four to six; before and after which hours the bell shall ring as above said. And it is further enacted, that no persons shall assemble in companies, as stock jobbers, &c. either in Exchange Alley, or places adjacent, to stop up and hinder the passage from and to the respective houses thereabouts, under pain of being immediately carried before the Lord Mayor, or other Justice of the Peace, and prosecuted."
For an explanation of Lady Day, click here
For an explanation of Michaelmas, click here.
While the phrase ‘gig economy’ has been all over the mainstream media recently with the publication of the Good Work: The Taylor Review of modern working practices, the expression has been around for nearly a decade and insecure working arrangements have been around for centuries. In 2015, The Financial Times chose the expression for its FT 2015 Year in a Word, by Leslie Hook.
Leslie traced the expression back to the height of the financial crisis in 2009, ‘when the unemployed made a living by gigging, or working several part-time jobs, wherever they could’ with the word ‘gig’ emanating from jazz club musicians in the 1920s.
I could not help noting the similarities with life for many in the 18th Century as I re-read the Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft by William Hazlitt. Holcroft was a good friend of Nicholson, and his early employment history included time as a shoemaker, a stable lad at Newmarket, and as a chorister where he earned the nickname ‘the sweet singer of Israel’.
Holcroft headed for London where, like many young people today, he ‘felt the effects of poverty very severely’ and ruminated on what might have resulted from a good education. He was getting so desperate for work that he was heading to the office which recruited soldiers for the East India Company when he bumped into a friend who mentioned an opportunity with a travelling theatre company in Dublin. Then, for several years, he traipsed about the country in search of one opportunity after another before finally settling in London as a writer and dramatist.
Nicholson too was no stranger to the gig economy, having first worked for Josiah Wedgwood on a 'consultancy assignment' to Amsterdam to investigate financial irregularities with the Dutch sales agency. This had led to an employed position in Amsterdam, but only for a discrete project and so Nicholson had to return to London in search of work.
When young William Nicholson came to lodge with Holcroft at Southampton Buildings in around 1780, Holcroft subcontracted bits of writing to him. He also tried to persuade Nicholson that ‘at least as much revenue could be obtained from literary publications, as from any of the objects … of his thoughts.’
Over 25 years, Nicholson successfully built a steady income from writing, translating and publishing. But, with a large family to feed, he also took several gigs on the side. Projects included consulting on technical issues, sometimes as an early patent agent, acting as Secretary to the Chapter Coffee House Society and the General Chamber of Manufacturers. Then in the mid-1800s, he took on assignments as a civil engineer for a couple of water supply projects.
Unfortunately, like many who operate in the gig economy today, Holcroft and Nicholson did not set aside enough of their incomes during the good times to provide for ill-health in their old age.
The gig economy is not such a new phenomenon, but it does remind us that workers did not always enjoy the social safety nets that we often take for granted and are comparatively recent developments in the history of employment:
•1908 – old age pension introduced for men over 70
•1938 – paid holiday introduced
•1940 – old age pensions introduced for women
•1948 - the NHS was introduced.
I have just noticed that 20 August is World Helicopter Day, and on a recent visit to the helicopter museum in Weston-Super-Mare (the World's Largest Dedicated Helicopter Museum) with my father, a former helicopter engineer, I spotted a reference to the three papers by Sir George Cayley in Nicholson’s Journal.
‘On Aerial Navigation’ was published in three parts:
I have since seen this described online, by Mississippi State University, as:
"Arguably the most important paper in the invention of the airplane is a triple paper On Aerial Navigation by Sir George Cayley. The article appeared in three issues of Nicholson's Journal. In this paper, Cayley argues against the ornithopter model and outlines a fixed-wing aircraft that incorporates a separate system for propulsion and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane. Both ideas were crucial breakthroughs necessary to break out of the ornithopter tradition."
This sketch from the November 1809 paper.
If any historians of aeronautic developments would like tocontribute a guest blog on the significance of Cayley’s papers, please email us at