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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.

Football career

First mention in the press seems to have been in a report of the Shropshire Junior Cup final playing for Oswestry Crescent FC v Oswestry Town “A” in Shrewsbury (Oswestry and Border Counties Advertiser 24/4/1889) when he played inside right and scored at least two of the Crescent’s goals in a 5-1 win (the last two scorers were unrecorded).

By the start of 1889/90 he is playing for Oswestry Town’s first XI at half back (same paper, 18/9/1889) but by November he is at full back along with S Powell (see below) (same paper 6/11/1889)

By Xmas 1889 he has been picked for a North Wales XI to play Staffordshire at Stoke on Boxing Day (same paper 18/12/1889) along with three other Oswestry players, although I can’t trace a report of this match.

He appeared for Oswestry Town in the Shropshire Senior Challenge Cup in 1889/90 (Oswestry and Border Counties Advertiser 15/1/1890) at right back partnering S Powell (see below) and his team went on to lose to Ironbridge in the final (same paper 9/4/1890)

Having moved to Bedford to take up his teaching job (see above) his first known appearance for Bedford FC was on 20 Sept 1890 in a 4-0 win at Wellingborough (Bedfordshire Mercury 27/9/1890). This was said to have been the first match of the new season.

MDN, back row left, with his Bedford team mates.

On Friday 3 Oct 1890 he seems to have played for “Notts County Rovers” against a “Notts Church Association” team at Trent Bridge in a friendly-played during the local Goose Fair holiday. “Notts tried a new back in Nicholson, from Bedford, and I am told he played a good game, especially in the second half against the wind” (Athletic News 6/10/1890). This doesn’t seem to have led to any more traceable appearances for Notts. 

After his only season with BTFC in 1890/1, which was highly successful for the club (see my Bedford Old Eagles site), he was with WBA from 1891/2 (FA Cup winners) to 1893/4 but was still living in Bedford and as can be seen from the schoo, records, still teaching. His name crops up regularly in cricket reports in the summers of 1891, 1892 and 1893 playing sometimes for the Bedford Town club and sometimes for a Bedford Teachers XI. 

At BTFC’s annual dinner in May 1891 MDN revealed that he would be playing elsewhere next season, having been approached by Kettering and Luton, but his friends “might be sure he would not leave them for any of these local teams…but he had been asked to play for WBA,  and that was one of the first [leading] teams.  He had friends at Birmingham. The back he should play with was an old chum, and of course he would get better football by playing there…” and he hoped to be able to play for BTFC in Cup ties [he didn’t, mainly because the club had folded by then]. (Beds Mercury 9/5/1891). 

The Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News for 15/8/1891 announces that MND will play for WBA in the coming season having had a trial for them at the end of the previous season, his full back partner being Seth Powell, another former Oswestry player who would appear as a professional. This is presumably the “chum” MDN referred to above.

Possibly his move to WBA was connected with an appearance against WBA for what looks like a special selected “Kettering and District” XI at Kettering on 31 March 1891 (Sporting Life 1/4/1891) where he was one of five non Kettering players in the team which beat WBA 2-1 before a 4,000 crowd.

He and Powell were in the WBA team right from the start of 1891/2 (Sporting Life 2/9/1891). Although struggling in the League (they finished third from bottom), Albion reached the FA Cup final with a 6-2 semi final replay win v Notts Forest at Derby’s ground before 15,000 (Sporting Life 10/3/1892). By now Powell was no longer in the side (per Joyce he only made 30 first team appearances before moving on to non League clubs and eventually returning to Oswestry)

In the final at Kennington Oval on 19/3/1892 WBA beat Aston Villa 3-0, before an attendance of nearly 30,000, a record for the final, though so many people crammed in that many were unable to see the play. WBA were the underdogs (Villa finished eight places above them in the League) but won due to “superior play and generalship”. MDN was said to be 5 feet 11 and weighed 12 stone (Sporting Life 21/3/1892). “I don’t think I ever saw a better defence than McCulloch, Nicholson and Reader” [two full backs and keeper] said “Old Athlete” in the Athletic News for 21 March.

In the preview of the 1892 Cup Final in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic news for 19/3/1892 he is wrongly said to be a master at “Bedford Grammar School”,   an error which appears several times (Bedford Grammar School, renamed Bedford School in 1917, is one of the independent schools under the Harpur Trust), and he was said to “play a very good game at right back”.

In 1892/3 he seems to have been less of a regular in the WBA team in the first half of the season and I can only trace one League appearance after Christmas (v Notts Forest on 3/4/1893 where Albion were said to have “included several reserve men”, see Birmingham Daily Post 4/4/1893)  and also played in several Birmingham Charity Cup ties and in a friendly v Aston Villa on 4/3/1893 (Birmingham Daily Post  6/3/1893 . The fall off in appearances may be connected with the injury which kept him off school in Dec 1892 (see above)-even if the injury itself wasn’t long term he may have been unable to regain his place when he recovered. He also acted as referee in some minor matches involving other teams, eg Luton v Wolverton (Sporting Life 1/2/1893), but is more regular in 1893/4 where he seems to be in WBA’s first team down to the end of the season. However it was noted that he was, unusually, picked for WBA in a Birmingham Cup tie v Walsall on a Monday …”including even Nicholson whose scholastic duties almost invariably prevent his appearance…any day but a Saturday (Walsall Advertiser 3/2/1894) (WBA won 1-0). The report refers to the “impetuous neck-or-nothing rushes” of Nicholson and says that “the methods of the two [WBA] backs-Nicholson more particularly-do not commend themselves to everyone..” but adds that there is no doubt they are effective players.

The Newton Heath affair

In Feb 1894 appears an odd reference in MDN’s school log about his being subpoenaed to appear in a libel trial in Manchester (see above). This chance remark led, via the British Newspaper Archive, to reports in the Manchester papers about the strange case of Newton Heath FC v The Birmingham Gazette.  Newton Heath was of course the original name of Manchester United and they were fellow members of Division 1 with WBA. The case arose out of the match between the two at Manchester on 14 October 1893 which Newton Heath won 4-1. There is an entertaining piece about the affair on . Basically the Gazette report, written by William Jephcott and published on 16 October, alleged that:

“It was not a football match, it was simple brutality, and if these are to be the tactics Newton Heath are compelled to adopt to win their matches, the sooner the Football Association deal severely with them the better it will be for the game generally.” 

He added a list of allegations against specific Newton Heath players that they had kicked named WBA players and concluded:

“I notice that next week Newton Heath have to play Burnley, and if they both play in their ordinary style it will perhaps create an extra run of business for the undertakers.”

Newton Heath sued the paper for libel and the case was heard before Mr Justice Day and a jury at Manchester Assizes on 28 Feb and 1 March 1894.  That of course was the case in which MDN was to be a witness as he had played in the match. There was much learned discussion about whether a company could sue for libel but Newton Heath argued that if their reputation was damaged their gates would suffer and so they would incur financial loss. Witnesses for Newton Heath included the match referee, James Strawson of Lincoln, who said he hadn’t seen any deliberate kicking or else he would have sent the players concerned off: a Manchester based journalist who thought the match was one of the best he’d ever seen; a local headmaster who thought it was a “fair, inoffensive and manly match”, and a local Vicar who said the match was “disappointing and unusually tame”, and quoted a lady friend who had agreed with him (“laughter”). But the WBA players’ evidence was that the game was very rough, and that John Peden of Newton Heath was “noted for hacking” and had sworn to get revenge for alleged injuries in an earlier match between the clubs; John Horton of WBA claimed that Peden had “grinned in his face and kicked him in the lower part of his body” while the referee’s back was turned;  Reader, the WBA goalkeeper, said he was kicked in the back when the ball was already in the net for one of Newton Heath’s goals; and then MDN (wrongly described as “Thomas Nicholson” but correctly as a schoolma