Hugh Beavin

John Nichols - Hinckley's first historian

AS A local historian I am fascinated by the study and work of earlier local historians. The first to publish his researches was John Nichols, who was born in Islington in 1745. I find this of particular interest because I came from Bromley, now part of London, and was born around 200 years after John Nichols. History, in part at least, has a way of repeating itself.

John was a baker's son but became apprenticed to a printer, William Bowyer. In 1766 he became Bowyer's business partner, marrying Anne Craddock in the same year. In 1776, Anne died and in the following year William Bowyer also died leaving John Nichols as owner of the firm, now located in Red Lion Passage, Fleet Street.

In 1778, John married Martha Green, a widow of Hinckley, thus beginning his interest in the history of this area.

In the same year that he married Martha, John became joint editor of the Gentleman's Magazine which published articles of antiquarian and historical interest. He frequently contributed articles and in 1782, John produced his "History and Antiquities of Hinckley in Leicestershire".

This was the first recorded history of the town and included the earliest known street plan of Hinckley, drawn by John Robinson. John Nichols was generous to his adopted town, presenting St Mary's Church with a picture of the presentation of Christ in the Temple by the Italian 17th century artist Giordano. It is still to be seen in the church today and is, in essence, Hinckley's "old master".

In 1787 John wrote the "History of Aston Flamville and Burbach (Burbage)" followed three years later by the "History and Antiquities of the Town and Country of Leicester".

John's interest in Leicestershire continued despite Martha's death in 1788. Between 1795 and 1815 John Nichols produced the massive eight volume "History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester". It was the largest of the great county histories to be produced at this time and had 4,500 pages, more than 2,500 illustrations and more than five million words.

A fire occurred at the printing offices and destroyed many volumes in 1808. Shortly before this, John had fractured his thigh but despite these misfortunes he continued with his writing and research, not least upon the subject of his adopted county of Leicestershire.

John died at Highbury Place, Islington in November 1826, aged over 80. He was buried in Islington parish churchyard but, sadly, his tombstone has vanished. John's enthusiasm for the study of antiquities and local history was communicated to his son, John Bowyer Nichols, who was an eminent Victorian antiquarian.

Author: Hugh Beavin

Written for: Hinckley-on-line