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Nicholson, Edward Williams Byronfree

  • Mary Clapinson

Edward Williams Byron Nicholson (1849–1912)

by unknown engraver

Nicholson, Edward Williams Byron (1849–1912), librarian, was born on 16 March 1849 in Green Street, St Helier, Jersey, the only child of Edward Nicholson RN (1821–1850) and Emily Hamilton Wall (1821–1890), an actress. His father had left the navy in 1847 and died in California, a casualty of the gold rush, leaving his widow almost destitute. She moved with her son to Portsea, then to live with her mother at Llanrwst in north Wales, where Edward attended the grammar school from 1857 to 1859. After a term at Liverpool College, Nicholson was, from 1860, educated at Tonbridge School, Kent. In 1867 he went to Trinity College, Oxford, as a classical scholar; he gained a first in classical moderations in 1869 and a third in law and history in 1871. He won the Gaisford prize for Greek verse the same year and the Hall Houghton junior Greek Testament prize in 1872. He was school librarian at Tonbridge and librarian of the Oxford Union, demonstrating at an early age a laudable application to cataloguing by producing published catalogues of each library. After a brief spell of teaching at the Rookery School in Headington, Oxford, Nicholson was appointed librarian of the London Institution in January 1873.

The institution, founded in 1805 for the diffusion of knowledge by means of lectures and a circulating library, was by then almost moribund. With the support of its honorary secretary, the Revd William Rogers of St Botolph without Bishopsgate, Nicholson reorganized the society, increasing its membership and revenue, revitalizing its lectures, and greatly improving both the contents and the use of its library. In 1877, inspired by press accounts of a conference of American librarians, he was the prime mover in the organization of an international conference of librarians in London, at which, largely on his initiative, the Library Association of the United Kingdom and the Metropolitan Free Libraries Committee were formed. Nicholson was active in both associations, but resigned from the Library Association council in 1881, impatient with its reluctance to take a stand on major issues and its failure to instigate 'one single improvement however trifling in library-management or library-appliances' (Manley, 19–20).

Nicholson had married on 1 February 1876 Helen Grant (1850–1938), daughter of the Revd Sir Charles Macgregor, third baronet. They had three daughters, Violet (b. 1877), Myrtle (b. 1881), and May (b. 1885). Keen to make his mark on the world and to improve his income, Nicholson contemplated literary work. Then in 1881 Bodley's librarian died and Nicholson put his name forward hesitantly, aware of his shortcomings as palaeographer, bibliographer, and linguist, but confident of the relevance of his practical experience and his proven capacity for hard work and organization. Departing from a long tradition of scholar–librarians, the library's governing body of curators, to the surprise of the university, elected him. He owed his election to the support of Benjamin Jowett and to a general feeling that the time had come to modernize the Bodleian. Under the benign direction of H. O. Coxe, librarian since 1860, it had on the strength of its collections maintained its reputation as one of the world's great libraries, despite its cramped accommodation, minimal staff, and inadequate catalogues. In a prescient leader on 6 February 1882 The Times, while recognizing Nicholson's technical qualifications and thorough experience in the mechanics of librarianship, warned of the ordeal facing anyone chosen to succeed the courtly and scholarly Coxe. This view was echoed thirty years later in the Times obituary: 'it was a difficult post to fill and a difficult time' (The Times, 18 March 1912, 11).

In 1888 Nicholson published a report on his first five years in office, describing them as 'a time of transition and reorganization' (The Bodleian Library 1882, Bodl. Oxf., Library Records, d.34). It records many changes: the extension of the library into the remaining ground-floor rooms of the Old Schools quadrangle and into the basement of the Sheldonian Theatre; the introduction of new cataloguing rules and a classification scheme for current accessions; a great increase in the numbers of books acquired and of catalogue slips produced; the provision of open access to reference works in the Radcliffe Camera; and the enlargement of the staff by the employment of boys to undertake the more routine library tasks.

The report glossed over the opposition provoked by the rapid introduction of so many changes. Several curators mistrusted such wholesale reorganization and sought to curb the excessive zeal of the brash young professional. Falconer Madan, the senior sub-librarian, who despised Nicholson's deficiencies of scholarship and venerated the memory of Coxe's antiquated administration, fuelled their opposition with secret reports on the librarian's shortcomings and with anonymous criticism of the new regime in The Library. Nicholson, autocratic by nature, jealous of the dignity of his office, and impatient of criticism, went into battle on every issue. The result was a series of bitter conflicts which dogged his long term in office, broke his health, and masked the extent of his achievements, which were considerable.

It was Nicholson's constant refrain that the Bodleian was 'underroomed, undermonied and undermanned' (The curatorial election of February 1899, Bodl. Oxf., Library Records, d.43). Shortage of funds precluded new building or the enlargement of the established staff, but judicious recruitment, careful training, and meticulous organization—at which Nicholson excelled—made the most of limited resources. His staff were rigorously supervised, and their duties minutely detailed in the Staff Kalendar which was published annually from 1902. The employment of boys freed library assistants to work on cataloguing, while training and incentives for promotion produced a steady supply of better-qualified staff. Unfortunately Nicholson's insistence on very detailed cataloguing and on the continuation of Coxe's subject-catalogue slowed down progress on the essential author-catalogue. His vigorous defence of the copyright privilege and enthusiasm for the preservation of ephemeral printing increased accessions but exacerbated the shortage of storage space. It was only in 1907 that, thanks to Thomas Brassey, funds became available to remedy some of the underlying problems. Extra staff were recruited to revise the old author-catalogue. The north range of the picture gallery was converted into an additional reading room. Work began on what was to be Nicholson's most lasting monument, the first specially constructed underground book store ever made, equipped with rolling bookcases, to a plan first mooted by him in 1899.

By 1907 long years of overwork and of controversy had taken their toll on Nicholson's constitution. Heart disease was diagnosed as early as 1890. He suffered a breakdown in 1901 and twice collapsed in the street in 1907. His absences from work increased and he suffered a further relapse in 1909. Suspicious of the curators' motives, he resisted all their suggestions that he should take leave of absence until forced to do so late in February 1912. He died on 17 March 1912 at his home, 2 Canterbury Road, Oxford, and was buried on 20 March at Holywell cemetery.

Nicholson's interests outside the Bodleian were varied. He was a devoted husband and father, an enthusiastic cyclist and swimmer, a chess player and composer of limericks. He published on a wide range of subjects including classical literature, comparative philology, and Celtic antiquities. He was a strong opponent of vivisection and supporter of the cause of women—his last battle with his senior colleagues and curators was over the appointment of a woman to the permanent staff. In a memorial address to the annual meeting of the Library Association in 1913, Henry Tedder gave a graphic description of Nicholson, who was 5 feet 10 inches tall and of athletic build, with 'drooping moustache, small side whiskers, an ever-tumbling monocle, a straw hat worn summer and winter, a certain defect in one eye, a hurried and eager walk, and a general disregard for outward show' (Tedder, 108). His kindliness, consideration for their welfare, and total lack of malice towards his opponents were frequently recorded by his junior staff. G. W. Wheeler, who had known the Bodleian before 1882, summarized Nicholson's achievement in 1940 in a letter to R. H. Hill: 'I have always regarded him as almost the refounder of the Library' (Bodl. Oxf., Library Records, d.142).


  • K. A. Manley, ‘E. W. B. Nicholson (1849–1912) and his importance to librarianship’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1977
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Nicholson
  • Library records, Bodl. Oxf.
  • S. Gibson, ‘E. W. B. Nicholson , 1849–1912: some impressions’, Library Association Record, 51 (1949), 137–43
  • H. Tedder, ‘E. W. B. Nicholson … in memoriam’, Library Association Record, 16 (1914), 95–108
  • R. H. Hill, ‘The Bodleian since 1882: some records and reminiscences’, Library Association Record, 42 (1940), 76–85
  • C. J. Purnell, ‘Edward Williams Byron Nicholson’, Library Assistant, 9 (1912), 70–72


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., handbook of library management
  • Bodl. Oxf., library records
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. M. Bannister


  • photograph, 1855, Bodl. Oxf., library records, d. 1781, pl. 15
  • Stilliard & Banbury, photographs, 1883, Bodl. Oxf., library records, d. 137
  • Hill & Saunders, photographs, 1892–1906, Bodl. Oxf., library records, d. 137
  • D. Hardie, portrait, 1927 (after photograph), Bodl. Oxf.
  • engraving, AM Oxf. [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£3880 11s.; deficiency in free assets of £384 5s.: Bodl. Oxf., library records, d.142, fols. 92–3, solicitor's letter, 23 Oct 1912

Bodleian Library, Oxford