At the age of 15, my sons were fairly obsessed with sportand under pressure to work towards impending exams. It is hard to imagine sending them to theother side of the world by sea with the East India Company at that age, as wasthe case with young William Nicholson. It is hard to imagine, the seafaring bustle of the Thames when shipswere built of wood, sails were sewn by hand and sailors could be seen hangingfrom the rigging as he boarded his first Indiaman in 1768.
Nowadays there are daily flights from London to Guangzhou (Cantonto Nicholson) with a journey time of less than ten hours. In 1768, the journeywould take several months and (not being any sort of sailor) it is hard toimagine the life on board – the routines, the food, the highs and lows – that wouldhave been Nicholson’s life.
Fortunately, under my Christmas tree this year was a copy ofPeter Moore’s Endeavour – The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World, abook tracing the history of this bark’s life from before it was launched in1764 through its early life in the coal trade between London and the NorthEast, along its famous journey to the South Seas to observe the Transit ofVenus with Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, and finally her role in one of thegreatest invasion fleets in British History.
Moore paints such a vivid picture of the bark and the charactersaboard, the environment in port or at sea, and the political and economicsetting – that it was a very enjoyable read and easy to imagine Nicholsonpassing the Endeavour in the Thames or the Channel as they set sail in the sameyear.
It was charming to meet the young Sir Joseph Banks when hewas full of fun and enthusiasm, eagerly collecting thousands of botanical specimens- for Nicholson’s encounters with Banks two decades later had left me with theimpression of a grand but arrogant and entitled character.
As a young man crossing the equator for the first time, andwithout the means to pay a fine to avoid the experience, Nicholson will havehad to partake in the traditional dunking ceremony which was described in greatdetail when Endeavour crossed in October.
While Cook’s South Sea discoveries have been told manytimes, Moore then traces the history of this vessel further on through a periodof sad neglect into a new role during the revolutionary years as part of the Navalforce which amassed in New York Harbour in 1776.
I was quite carried along by the tale of this doughtyworkhorse, and really enjoyed Moore’s telling of the international political backdrop.
You don’t need to be a historian of sailing to enjoy this historyof an enlightenment hero of the seas.
Image courtesy of Tawny van Breda via Pixabay
Rather frustratingly, William Nicholson Jr (1789-1874) refers to a book in which the births of all the Nicholson children are listed ‘in minute detail’ – I wonder if this still exists?
Meanwhile, I think it might be a good idea to share what Ido know, and maybe someone else might stumble across this post one day and be ableto help complete the picture.
Born 21 February 1782
Married John Edwards RN, 2 October 1811
Gave birth to John Edwards, 13 January 1814
Born 15 March 1786
Bapt 9 April 1786
Died in infancy
Died May 1814, Calcutta / Bengal.
Born 28 November 1787
Married to Hugh Macintosh (1775-1834) on 31 December at Fort St George,Madras, India.
Gave birth to William Hugh Macintosh (1807-1840) on 27 December 1807
Died very soon after childbirth 1807/1808.
Born 31 October 1789
Married Rebecca Brown, 18 August 1815
Son, John Lee Nicholson, born c1817
Died July 1874
Author of The Operative Mechanic andBritish Machinist.
Died in Australia (TBC).
Isaac Nicholson (?? -)
Possibly born around 1793, if at age 15 he was
1808, midshipman aboard the David Scott.
Bapt 28 September 1794
Married Robert Hicks (1777-1832), 27 May 1813
Married Rev James Sedgwick (1794-1869) in 1838
Died before 1869
Born 16 April 1797
Playmate of Mary Godwin (Shelley)
Married Henry Augustus Miller, 11 May 1815
Gave birth to Louisa Jane Miller, 1824 (Cuddalore?, East Indies)
Gave birth to Maria Miller, c1826 (India)
Married Richard Backhouse (?-1829), 15 January 1827
Died 7 July 1869
Martha Mary Nicholson
Born 24 May 1799
Baptised 4 July 1799
Playmate of Mary Godwin (Shelley)
Ann Nicholson (?? - )
This leaves one child still to be identified.
Potentially a twin!
Driving along at lunchtime today, Radio 4 reported on the number of public health funerals being paid for by local authorities at an average cost of £1,403.
Often called a pauper’s funeral, nowadays the local authority will pay for a basic burial when there is no family, or the family cannot afford to pay for funeral arrangements. There have also been stories in the media of people crowdfunding the cost of a funeral.
Neither of these were an option for Catherine Nicholson,when her husband William died at their home in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury on Monday 21May 1815.
Their eldest son had left home to work in North Yorkshire, for Lord Middleton, but described how ‘My brother remained with him to the last and Carlisle attended him.’
Old friend, and co-discoverer of electrolysis, Anthony Carlisle was at this time the Professor of Anatomy of the Royal Society and in this same year, he was appointed to the Council of the College of Surgeons where for many years he was a curator of their Hunterian Museum.
Nicholson reportedly drank nothing except water since he was twenty years of age, which Carlisle said was the cause of his kidney problems
Despite his sober approach to life and earning well above average for the time, there were also substantial outgoings for ‘a family often or twelve grown up people, adequate servants and a house like a caravansary.’
On the day of Nicholson’s death, Carlisle saw the impoverished circumstances of the family and appealed to John Symmonds at the Literary Fund (now the Royal LiteraryFund) to help:
‘Poor Nicholson the celebrated author, and man of science, died this morning. His family are in the deepest poverty, and I doubt even the credit or the means to bury him.’
I have set a person to apply to the Literary Fund, pray second that application and recommend it to their bounty to be as liberal as their affairs and their rules will permit.’
The next day John Symmonds voted through a grant of £21 for Catherine Nicholson in respect of Nicholson’s talents and industriousness, writing ‘I am extremely desirous that something should be done, most necessarily of that society’ … ‘As he neither prepared for his dispatch, you are written that no time must be lost’.
Once funeral costs were paid, £21 cannot have lasted long, and Catherine Nicholson moved to 11 Grange Street from where she wrote to thank the Literary Fund for ‘the generous respect they were pleased to have for her late husband's abilities’.
Nicholson was buried on 23 May 1815 in St George’s Fields, Bloomsbury, (now St George’s Gardens) one of the first burial grounds to be established at a distance from its church due to the growing problem of overcrowding in London graveyards.
Can there be a more perfect place for a day out than Bakewell? Not only is it in the centre of the most fabulous countryside with numerous walks and access to superb fly-fishing, but it is home to two, YES TWO! independent bookshops.
I cannot pass an antiquarian bookshop without popping in to see if they have anything by Nicholson (or Godwin or Holcroft). Invariably, the proprietor has not heard of William Nicholson (1753-1815) and thinks I mean the artist (1872 – 1949), and invariably there is nothing on the shelf for me.
But this weekend, I was thrilled to see that a new antiquarian bookshop had opened up in Bakewell and, although the owner had not heard of our hero, I was delighted to find a copy of Nicholson’s Chemical Dictionary, 3rd Edition in their scientific collection.
Hawkridge Books had a wonderful selection of books, and the shop is nicely laid out with plenty of space to move around – it is very stylish too. I have since learned that they specialise in ornithology and natural history, so it is well worth a visit.
The Bakewell Bookshop has long been a favourite pitstop after a day on the River Wye. As well as a lovely selection of books - an intelligent choice of fiction and a strong selection on local walks – it has the most welcoming coffee shop. You sit on tables within the bookshop and can borrow their Scrabble set if the weather looks too miserable to go outside. We treated ourselves to the Tea for Two – each person gets a scone, a piece of cake and a tray bake. The scones were fresh-baked that day (always the test of a good cakery), the carrot cake was ‘moistyliscious’ and the Bakewell tart was so good we had to take it home.
Both are well worth a visit.
The following article was first published in the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association newsletter on 15 August 2018.
‘I used to write a page or two perhaps in half a year, and I remember laughing heartily at the celebrated experimentalist Nicholson who told me that in twenty years he had written as much as would make three hundred Octavo volumes.’
William Hazlitt, 1821
This year has seen numerous celebrations of Mary Shelley’s ‘foundational work in science fiction’, but where did Mary Shelley learn about electricity?
Historians often trace this knowledge to a copy of Humphry Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy which was published in 1816 – but many years before this, the child Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had access to scientific instruments at 10 Soho Square with her playmates – the five daughters of William Nicholson (1753-1815).
The scientist and publisher William Nicholson was one of her father’s closest friends. In his diary, William Godwin records more than 500 meetings with Nicholson and his family between November 1788 and February 1810. Aside from their mutual friend the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1,435 mentions) and direct family members, only a handful of other acquaintances are mentioned more frequently in Godwin’s diary.
Nicholson had opened a Scientific and Classical School at his home in Soho Square in 1800. It was here in the Spring that, with Anthony Carlisle, he famously decomposed water into hydrogen and oxygen using the process now called electrolysis.
Electrical experiments had long been an interest of Nicholson who had two papers on the subject read to the Royal Society by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788 and 1789.
In those days, science - or natural philosophy as it was called - was also a leisure activity. Scientific instruments were the latest toys for the affluent and experiments provided entertainment. One after-dinner game was The Electric Kiss: where young men would attempt to kiss a young lady who had been charged with a high level of static electricity. Sadly, the kisses were rarely obtained as, on approaching the young lady, the men would be jolted away by an electric shock.
In a house full of several children, and a dozen energetic students, Mary witnessed and is likely to have participated in experiments and pranks with the air pump or Nicholson’s revolving doubler – his invention of 1788 with which you could create a continuous electrical charge.
Despite his circle of literary friends, Nicholson is better known among historians of science for A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts which ran between 1797 and 1813 and was the first monthly scientific journal in Britain. It revolutionised the speed at which scientific information could spread - in the same way that social media has done more recently - and the Godwin family no doubt received copies.
Full sets of Nicholson’s Journal, as it was commonly known, are rare. Certain editions are particularly sought after, such as those which include George Cayley’s three papers on the invention of the aeroplane.
But Nicholson’s first success as an author was fifteen years previously with his Introduction to Natural Philosophy in 1782. This was the same year that he wrote the prelude to Holcroft’s play Duplicity.
Nicholson quickly abandoned writing for the theatre, but he never abandoned his literary friends with their anti-establishment views, and his body of work is more extensive than the voluminous scientific translations and chemical dictionaries for which he is best known – some of which change hands for thousands of pounds.
Other works included a six-day walking tour of London, a book on navigation – based on Nicholson’s experiences as a young man with the East India Company – and translations of the exotic biographies of the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali Khan and the Hungarianadventurer Count Maurice de Benyowsky. Nicholson also contributed short biographies for John Aikin’s General Biography series; he launched The General Review which ran for just six months in 1806; and heproduced a six-part encyclopedia.
Before Nicholson came to London, he had spent a period working for the potter Josiah Wedgwood in Amsterdam. Wedgwood held young Nicholson in high regard, commenting in 1777 that ‘I have not the least doubt of Mr Nicholson's integrity and honour’. Then in 1785, when Wedgwood was Chairman of the recently established General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, he appointed Nicholson as secretary. In this role, Nicholson produced several papers on commercial issues including on the proposed IrishTreaty and on laws relating to the production and export of wool.
Towards the end of his life, Nicholson put his technical knowledge to work as a patent agent and later as a civil engineer, consulting on water supply projects in West London and Portsmouth. The latter project faced stiff competition from another local water company and, in 1810, Nicholson published A Letter to the Incorporated Company of Proprietors of the Portsea-Island Water-Works.
As William Hazlitt indicated, in the opening quotation, Nicholson’s works were extensive. His activities were varied and there is much in his writings that will be of interest to historians of literature, commerce and inventions, as well as to historians of science and the Enlightenment.
A full list of Nicholson’s publications can be found in The Life of William Nicholson, by his Son, which was first published by Peter Owen Publishers earlier this year (£13.99). The original manuscript, written 150 years ago in 1868, is held at the Bodleian Library.
Free postage and packing is offered to members of the ABA when purchasing direct from www.PeterOwen.com. Simply use the Coupon code ‘1753-1815’ in the shopping cart before proceeding to checkout.
'Angling - Preparing for Sport': published in 'British Field Sports' in 1831, this copper-engraved print depicts the kind of fishing tackle and clothing which would have been familiar to Sir Humphry Davy's literary characters Halieus, Ornither, Poietes and Physicus.
Salmononia: or Days of Fly Fishing, first published in 1809 by the Cornish chemist and inventor Humphry Davy (1778-1829), is one of the most collectable of angling books from the early nineteenth century. It was dedicated to the Irish physician and mineralogist, William Babington, a longstanding friend of Davy and a fellow founder of the Geological Society of London in 1807.
The book, written while Davy was ill, takes the form of a series of discussions between four imaginary characters: Halieus, the accomplished fly fisher; Ornither, a county gentleman who has done a little fishing; Poietes, a fly-fishing nature-lover; and Physicus a natural philosopher who has never fished.
John Davy, in his Memoirs of the Life of Humphry Davy, paints a wonderful picture of his brother on the river:
"I am sorry I have not a portrait of him in his best days in his angler’s attire. It was not unoriginal, and considerably picturesque – a white, low-crowned hat with a broad brim; its under surface green, as a protection from the sun, garnished, after a few hours’ fishing, with various flies of which trial had been made, as was usually the case; a jacket either grey or green, single-breasted, furnished with numerous large and small pockets for holding his angling gear; high boots, water-proof, for wading, or more commonly laced shoes; and breeches and gaiters, with caps to the knees made of old hat, for the purpose of defence in kneeling by the river side, when he wished to approach near without being seen by the fish; such was his attire, with rod in hand, and pannier on back, if not followed by a servant, as he commonly was, carrying the latter and a landing net."
Humphry Davy admits that Salmononia was inspired by ‘recollections of real conversations with friends’ and John’s memoir revealed that Halieus was inspired by William Babington. But whose conversations inspired the other characters?
Two friends of both Davy and Babington that must be strong contenders are William Nicholson (1753-1815) and Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840). They are best known for their decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, achieved in 1800 with a copy of Alessandro Volta’s recently invented pile – a discovery which so excited Davy that he wrote that: ‘An immense field of investigation seems opened by this discovery: may it be pursued so as to acquaint us with some of the laws of life!’
Davy met Nicholson when he arrived in London, having already corresponded and sent his first scientific papers to him in 1799 for publication in A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts – the first monthly scientific publication in Britain, running between April 1797 and December 1813. Over the course of its life, Nicholson’s Journal included some twenty articles on fish (but not specifically fly fishing). The most important was the editor’s own in the article on the torpedo fish in 1797, which speculated about the source of the electric charge within the pelicules of the torpedo, and which inspired Volta to try the various combinations of discs (an important hint) resulting in the development of his battery pile. When Davy was appointed as Director of the Royal Institution, aCommittee for Chemical Investigation and Analysis was established, on which Nicholson was invited to participate.
Nicholson had known Babington since 1784 when they were joint secretaries of a philosophical coffee house society established by Richard Kirwan, another Irish chemist and geologist. He also knew Carlisle, then at Westminster hospital, through his close friend the radical author William Godwin whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was attended by the surgeon before she died in 1797.
Unfortunately, we don’t have an account of Davy, Babington, Carlisle and Nicholson fishing together, but it is a scene that we might easily imagine.
Nicholson, who was a prolific publisher, in his 1809 British Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciencesdescribes fly fishing as ‘an art of so much nicety, that to give any just idea of it, we must devote an article to it.’ Sadly, he does not write about fly-fishing as eloquently as he does about chemistry, simply describing a number of flies and his only advice on how to fish is ‘keep as far from the water’s edge as may be, and fish down the stream with the sun at your back, the line must not touch the water.’
But, in a memoir of The Life of William Nicholson, the manuscript of which has finally been published 150 years after it was written, there is a charming account by Nicholson’s son of fishing trips with Carlisle in around 1803:
"Carlisle was at that time about thirty years of age, good looking and active …
Having passed his early days at Durham and in Yorkshire, Carlisle was fond of the country and country sports. We had many a day’s fishing at Carshalton, where his intimacy with the Reynolds and Shipleys procured him the use of part of the stream where the public were excluded. He was a skilful fly fisher and during the day I generally carried the pannier and landing net, but towards night when the mills stopped, and the water ran over a bye-wash, I with my bag of worms and rod managed to hook some fish as big as were taken during the day.
We also had fishing grounds at a place in Hertford called Chenis which was rented as I understood by Carlisle and a fellow sportsman called Mainwaring. These two gentlemen and myself as a third in a post-chaise used to start at 6.00 o’clock am, breakfast at Ware or Hoddesdon and forward to the fishing, which was fine for a boy of fourteen. And then Mr Mainwaring always took a fowling piece with him and occasionally shot a bird which was worth all the fish, rods and lines and all.
Chenis was a remarkably quiet rural place and the little inn we slept at was situated in a settlement of some half dozen cottages and houses, but what its name was I do not know. On one occasion when our companion was called away Carlisle and I remained there for a day or two. We were very successful in our fishing and were about to depart when it turned out there was a county election going forward and there was no conveyance to be had for love or money. Carlisle was wanted at home and we had no choice but to start on foot, so away we went after breakfast with a boy to show us a footpath way through fields to Rickmansworth where we hoped to get some conveyance to London.
Carlisle had the best share of the luggage and the boy and I the remainder. The country we travelled was beautifully undulated and of a dry sandy soil. It was very hot and I suspect I was the first to feel fatigue. After a long trudge we stopped at a gate leading into a sandy lane and looking back at the hillside I was amazed at the display of poppies in full bloom, the whole field was a mass of crimson, a new sight to me.
I was very thirsty and tired and have often thought of that field and Burns’ immortal lines:
Pleasures are like poppies spread;
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
or like the snow fall on the river.
a moment white then melts forever.
But time, like a pitiless master, cried onward and we had to trudge again. At last our guide left us on the dusty high road to Rickmansworth, where in time we arrived. Here we got some refreshment and awaited til a return post-chaise conveyed us to London. We had walked nearly 30 miles and it was my first walking adventure of any magnitude."
The story was written when young Nicholson was eighty, and his geography seems a bit muddled – I have been unable to locate a place called Chenis, in Hertford – but records exist for one in Buckinghamshire in the 1770s. Could he mean the river Chess if he was near Ware and Hoddesdon? The Chess also passes near a village called Chenies just a few miles from Rickmansworth. (If any readers of the Flyfishers’ Journal can help, I would be very interested to hear from them.)
Carlisle went on to enjoy a stellar medical career, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804, where he became Professor of Anatomy 1808 to 1824.
In 1809, he published an account of some experiments into how fish swam, by cutting various fins off seven fish each of dace (cyprinus leusiscus), roach (cyprinus rutilus), gudgeon (cyprinus gobio) and minnow (cyprinus phoxinus). He recorded how, on removal of the pectoral fin  its progressive motion was not at all impeded, but it was difficult for the fish to ascend; on removing the abdominal fin as well, the fish could not ascend; on removing the single fins, ‘produced an evident tendency to turn around, and the pectoral fins were kept constantly extended to obviate that motion; … and so on, until all fins had been removed from the seventh fish which cruelly ‘remained almost without motion’.
Carlisle was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary in 1820 to King George IV and was knighted in 1821. He died in 1840, never losing his love of fishing.
"Sir Anthony Carlisle had been called into the Prince Regent mainly to consult as to what wine he should drink. Having ascertained that brown sherry was the favourite of the day, he recommended it and gave great satisfaction.
Carlisle wrote to me, while I was engaged in a survey in Yorkshire, to find him a handy honest unsophisticated lad as a servant. I did my best and sent him one. The lad turned out a stupid dog, but when I visited London a short time afterwards and dined with Carlisle this boy waited and amused me by incessantly answering Carlisle ‘Yes Sir Anthony, … no Sir Anthony’ and ‘Sir Anthony’ at the beginning, middle and end of every sentence. All this passed as a matter of course and reminded me how calmly we bear our dignities when they fall upon us.
Carlisle was a true fisherman and a great admirer of honest Izaak Walton and used to quote from that delightful book The Compleat Angler, so that when any food or wine was better than common he said ‘it was only fit for anglers or very honest men’; and then he had another joke when we got thoroughly wet on our fishing excursions, saying ‘it was a discovery, how to wash your feet without taking off your stockings’."