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Magnus Douglas Nicholson


Thanks to David Williams for this biography.

Early life

MDN was born on 27 February 1871-this date is given in the school log book on his appointment at Bedford, and also in the 1939 Register as noted below. Joyce’s Football League Players’ Records wrongly gives it as June 1871. His birthplace is given as “Oswestry” in the 1891 census but as “Llanyblodwell” in 1871 and “Llynclys” in 1881. Llynclys is in the civil parish of Llanyblodwell so the latter may be a more exact description (and is where he returned later in life, see below).

Joyce also wrongly gives the birthplace as Oakengates. 

Kelly’s directory for Shropshire,  1891,  under Llynclys, says “A village and small township 4 miles S by SW from Oswestry, 608 acres and 275 inhabitants in 1841….there are extensive limeworks…a considerable quantity of that commodity is used by farmers on the western borders of Shropshire and in Wales…”

His parents were-

Alexander Nicholson (father)

Probable marriage registration 5 Jan 1856 to Elizabeth Jones, at Oswestry

Probable death registration April quarter 1872 age 40,  Oswestry district

Elizabeth Nicholson (mother)

Died 6 September 1879 age 46 at Oswestry, widow of Alexander Nicholson (Wellington Journal 13 Sept 79)

MDN’s father was 33 in 1871 and his occupation given as “manager of Lime works”. He and Elizabeth already had five children, Lizzie (12), Edward Donald (10), Owen Malcolm (6), Margaret (5) and Ernest Leonard (2). Alexander and Lizzie had been born at West Kirby; Elizabeth and her next three children at Oswestry; and Ernest, like MDN, at Llanyblodwell.

Two relevant “private member” family trees appear on Ancestry. One was unable to give me any assistance, but the owner of the other, Carol A Hunter-wrote on 15/10/19:

“Hi, like you I’m not related to the family; my interest is the Fishing Families of Hoose (now called Hoylake) on the Wirral Peninsula.  Magnus’ father Alexander was originally a fisherman as was his paternal grandfather Alexander; his paternal grandmother, Martha Davies also came from a fishing background. His parents Banns were read for 3rd time on 23 Oct 1855 at St Bridget’s in West Kirby, which is my local church. I wonder why they postponed until the following year? I too have assumed that Malcolm Douglas was his son (yes, see below). . In the 1939 Register there is a Malcolm D Nicholson born 11 Jul 1902 insurance official, living in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire. He married Hilda Beatrice Wyett, b 9 Apr 1903, in the Jul qtr of 1929. Malcolm Douglas died 1973 in Worthing. Incidentally Magnus’ brother Alexander Charles married his paternal 1st cousin Lilian Mary Nicholson, whose father was Thomas Nicholson b1837.  Magnus’ mother Elizabeth was baptised 24 Oct 1832. Her sister Mary Ann, who was baptised 26 Sep 1830, married Donald Nicholson, Magnus’ uncle. Hope this helps Carol”

As can be seen from the above, MDN was orphaned at the age of 8. 

In 1881 he was living with his older brother Alexander Charles Nicholson (24), by then an accountant, and four other older siblings including his sister Lizzie who was a teacher .

In 1883 (Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News 4 August) a M D Nicholson is shown as having passed the College of Preceptors exam the previous June, attending Oswestry High School. At Christmas 1883 he won a prize for reciting Tennyson’s The charge of the Light Brigade at the end of term  prize giving ceremony (Shrewsbury Chronicle 28/12/1883).

By 1885 at the age of only 14,  he had become a pupil teacher, as can be seen from the Bedford records below, at the Oswestry National Boys’ School. Pupil teachers were basically apprentices, who were expected to continue studying in their spare time to improve their own education while being trained “on the job” by their headmaster/mistress. 

In the 1891 census he appears as a “visitor” in the house of Caroline Sackett,  a 49 year old widow living in Oswestry and he was described as an elementary school teacher. By now he was already teaching in Bedford (see below) and the 1891 census probably fell in the Easter holidays when he had returned home briefly.

This is his last appearance in a census which can be traced at present. Having joined Thomas Cook in 1894,  he was presumably abroad in 1901 and 1911. We may find he reappears in 1921 when that census is published in 2021.

Teaching career

Evidence here comes from the records of the Harpur Trust Boys’ Elementary School in Bedford, preserved in the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives, especially the minutes of the Committee of the governors appointed by the Trustees (Beds Archives reference HT5/8/2) and the log book kept by the headmaster, George Bates (HT9/7).  He had been headmaster since 1875 and served for some 37 years, retiring only shortly before his death in 1912 (Beds Mercury 7/7/1912). The school was often referred to simply as Bates’s School.

This school was formed and run by the trustees of a charity originating in the 16th century from the will of Sir William Harpur, a Bedfordian who had made his fortune in London and become Lord Mayor. The trustees were responsible for the compulsory  free education of children introduced by the 1870 Education Act for some years before responsibility passed to the local authority,  and they still run Bedford’s three independent schools.  In the past they also operated a hospital and almshouses. Their influence is shown by the street names Harpur Street and Dame Alice Street, the latter named from William Harpur’s wife.

The school (and the girls’ elementary school which was under the same management) was located at the junction of Harpur Street and Horne Lane and adjoined the site of Bedford Modern School (BMS), one of the independent schools run by the Trust. The façade of the building is still there as part of a shopping precinct although the school itself (having become a local authority secondary school) closed down in the 1960s as part of the comprehensive reorganisation and its buildings were used by BMS until the latter moved to the northern outskirts of the town in the 1970s and the site was redeveloped.  


The façade of the Harpur Trust Elementary School today (above) and (below) as it looked in MDN’s time. The BMS buildings are furthest away from the camera


The 1892 Bedfordshire Times Directory (below) shows a list of staff and says there were “about 900” boys.  With 16 teachers this gives about 56 per class!


MDN was appointed with effect from 2 June 1890 when the headmaster minuted: “Mr Magnus Douglas Nicholson began work here as successor to Mr Bond. Born Feb 27th 1871, P[upil] T[eacher] in Oswestry National Boys School from March 1st 1885 to March 1st 1889. Subsequently assistant master in same school”. 

As can be seen from the directory he lived in Wellington Street, although no house number is given and he doesn’t appear in Kelly’s directory for that street, suggesting he was a lodger rather than a householder. The street is still there, about ten minutes’ walk from the school site to the north of Tavistock Street and can be seen on Google Street View, now quite heavily rebuilt but still retaining some of the original terraced houses and a pub which would have been there in the 1890s.

Note in the staff list his Bedford FC playing colleagues H W Oclee and E G Capon.

The Governors’ minutes don’t disclose MDN’s salary, but they do mention those of some of his colleagues. Oclee, for example, was given a pay increase with effect from 1 October 1889 from £60 to £65 a year, having had a previous rise from £55 to £60 two years earlier. He asked for another rise in 1890 which was refused, without a reason being minuted (Beds Archives reference HT 5/8/2, pages 44, 101 and 130). Oclee was over seven years older than MDN and more experienced as a teacher, having begun as an assistant to his father at Maulden before joining the Harpur Trust school, so it’s likely that MDN was paid even less.  Round about the time MDN left, on 26 April 1894, the Headmaster recorded that one of his colleagues, Mr W Wright, had given notice after obtaining a new job (presumably still in teaching) at Walthamstow at a starting salary of £70-one imagines that this was an improvement on his existing salary. Even at the adjacent BMS, which was a grammar school and a distinctly higher step up the educational ladder, the Headmaster, C W Kaye, was complaining at the turn of the century that “the salaries of many of the junior masters (£50-£100) cannot be said to approach a living wage….they drift on in the school with occasional small increases in their pittance” (Andrew Underwood, Bedford Modern School of the Black and Red, 1981, page 74).  (£70 in 1894 would be worth less than £8,000 uprated on the RPI to 2018. However, teachers even on these salaries might be slightly better off than average earners who might take home only some £61 a year. See ). 

In his report for the 1890/1 school year HM Inspector writes “Under Mr Bates’ able management this school continues to maintain the high reputation it has deservedly acquired. All the subjects are well taught while  geography, arithmetic, Euclid and Algebra are conspicuously good”.  A similar report dated December 1891 referred to the “high reputation of this school for thoroughness, accuracy and intelligence of work” and said that the “discipline and tone of the boys are decidedly good”. 

On 29 Jan 1892 MDN was recorded as “absent with leave”, however “he provided an able substitute in the person of a certificated teacher who was in the neighbourhood, otherwise I could not have spared him”. (MDN is described as a “ex pupil teacher” in the log whereas Bates and his deputy are “certificated”, meaning they had been approved by HM Inspector and were paid on a higher scale). 

On 22 and 23 November 1892 MDN and his colleague a Mr Cook were absent with leave to attend a Civil Service exam in London. Evidently nothing came of this in MDN’s case although it indicates he didn’t intend to stay in teaching for ever.

On 12 Dec 1892 the headmaster wrote “Mr Nicholson away from school. He was hurt rather badly I fear, on Saturday”.  He was still away a week later (entry on 19 Dec 1892).  On 10 Dec 1892 he played for WBA in a 1-0 home defeat by Preston;  the report (Birmingham Post 12/12/1892) doesn’t mention an injury but he does not seem to have played again in their first team until much later that season (see below under his football career).  He was back in time for the start of the next term on 17 January 1893.

The HMI report for 1892 refers to “many changes in the staff* which had rendered the work more than usually arduous”, but goes on “the school has once again passed an excellent examination”. It criticises one class for being weak in English and map drawing, and also the habit of “whispering in examinations”, but says “the boys are diligent, obedient and orderly in their movements and the tone of the school is decidedly good”. The 1893 report is also good although it says that some of the written work “is not so uniformly good as it would be if the staff were more adequate for the needs of so large and important a school”.  

*An entry apparently made after MDN’s departure (1894) lists 10 masters who had left since 1893

On 28 Feb 1894 appears the intriguing note “Mr Nicholson absent at Manchester attending under a subpoena order at the Assizes as a witness in a libel case”. For more on this see below under his football career (The Newton Heath Affair). 

On 6 April 1894 the headmaster recorded “Mr Nicholson has been offered and has accepted a post under Messrs Thomas Cook & Co in their banking department. He has given the customary month’s notice.” His actual departure is recorded on 5 May.

On 8 October 1909 the head recorded “Mr Nicholson who used to be a master here called to see us”. That seems to be the last mention of him.