Papers from the Norman Nicholson Book Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The John Rylands University Library holds around 700 books from the personal library of Norman Nicholson. The collection is particularly rich in twentieth-century poetry; it includes numerous first editions, many of which are signed by the author and annotated by Nicholson. Many of Nicholson's books contained loose inserts, ranging from publishers' catalogues and publicity leaflets, to cuttings, letters and other papers stored in the volumes by Nicholson himself. These papers were removed from the volumes after the book collection had been catalogued. They have not, however, been added to Nicholson's own archive (also held at the Library) because the archive is held on different terms from the book collection.

The most common insert encountered in the collection is the review slip: publishers' slips were placed in review copies of books which were sent to journals or magazines; books would then be forwarded to a potential reviewer, and the journal often inserted their own additional review slip addressed to Nicholson. Spanning a period from the early 1940s through to 1986, the year before his death, these slips can shed light on the extent of Nicholson's reviewing work, which formed an important element of his writing career from the outset. They also indicate which journals he contributed to regularly; particularly numerous here are review slips from the Church Times, for whom he was a long-standing poetry reviewer.

The papers also include a large quantity of press cuttings, collected by Nicholson and inserted in appropriate volumes. There are numerous cuttings of book reviews (often unattributed) inserted inside the volume to which they relate. Many of the unattributed reviews are from unidentified publications, but the typeface suggests that a significant number of these are from the Times Literary Supplement, where Nicholson started his career as an anonymous reviewer in the 1930s. The main part of Nicholson's archive does not contain a large quantity of his own published reviews, so many of the reviews included here may in fact be by Nicholson himself. He also frequently collected reviews by other writers - either as background for his own reviewing or for general interest. Further cuttings found in his books include: reviews of other works by the same author; articles, interviews and obituaries relating to the author; articles relating to the subject of the book; and poems by the relevant author taken from newspapers and magazines. In some cases, there are a number of cuttings in the same volume which must have accumulated over a long period, suggesting that Nicholson used some of his books as files to store material of interest; for example, Hugh MacDiarmid's festschrift volume of 1962 (NBK/75) contains cuttings relating to MacDiarmid which span the period 1962-1984. In addition to review slips and cuttings, there are a small number of Nicholson's own rough notes and outlines of planned reviews, and in one case (at NBK/132) a galley proof of one of his reviews.

Probably the most significant inserts are letters to Nicholson, of which there are over 50. Some of these are covering letters from writers sent to accompany copies of their new books; a number of writers offered their books as tributes to Nicholson and the inspiration or influence he provided, and in some cases they sought his comments or advice on their work; there are a few letters of thanks to Nicholson for reviews he has written; and other letters simply relate in some way to the book in which they were inserted. Nicholson would also sometimes use a single book by a particular author to file away a letter or letters received from that author, even when the letters do not relate specifically to that work. Some of the correspondents represented in the collection include: George Mackay Brown; Charles Causley; Phoebe Hesketh; Louis MacNeice; W. Moelwyn Merchant; Willa Muir; Richard Murphy; Rodney Pybus; Anne Ridler; Colin Simms; Robin Skelton; R.S. Thomas; David Wright; and Andrew Young. There are some letters of particular interest or significance. There is, for example, an undated letter (NBK/81) from George Every (poet, lecturer and lay brother in the Anglican Society of the Sacred Mission), who discusses Nicholson's poetry, and the early encouragement of his writing by Every himself, T.S. Eliot and Michael Roberts. He also refers to early work of Nicholson's he has in typescript which he intends to dispose of, apparently thinking of Nicholsons' long-term reputation and the possibility that his work may be the subject of literary criticism and scholarship in future. Alan Rook's letter (NBK/203) relates to Nicholson's first volume publication as a poet, in Selected poems by Nicholson, John Hall and Keith Douglas, published in 1943; it appears that Nicholson took the place of Rook, whose work was originally to appear in the volume. Geoffrey Hill (at NBK/120) remarks that he still retains the letters of advice that Nicholson wrote to him when he was at school, and John Masefield (in a letter written to Canon Young, presumably forwarded to Nicholson), states his intention to acquire and read Nicholson's books. A letter from Roberto Sanesi (NBK/205) relates to the translation of Nicholson's works; Sanesi responds to specific comments from Nicholson on readings given in Sanesi's Italian translations of his poems. There are three letters from John Heath-Stubbs (NBK/115), two of which include lengthy discussions of Wordsworth, Charles Williams and Romanticism. Douglas Dunn's letter (NBK/72) refers (in the context of Yvonne Nicholson's death) to the death of his own wife, and the Elegies he wrote in response to this; he goes on to praise the "rootedness in place" of Nicholson's work, which he also associates with other writers like George Mackay Brown and Seamus Heaney. As well as letters, there are some typescript poems - often signed - sent to Nicholson by other writers, including Roger Garfitt, Philip Gardner, Glyn Hughes, Anne Ridler and John Heath-Stubbs.

Other material found in Nicholson's books consists of the kind of ephemera and scraps which inevitably accumulate over a lifetime, including: two programmes for performances of Eliot's Murder in the cathedral in Cumbria, presumably attended by Nicholson; a number of picture postcards; leaflets; a scrap of nineteenth-century manuscript found in an old volume; and fragments of Christmas cards.

As a whole, the papers can tell us something of how Nicholson's own personal library was built up. A significant proportion of his collection - largely twentieth-century poetry - was amassed as a result of his work as a reviewer; numerous books came to him as presentation copies from their authors; and others were received through his agents (whose compliments slips are included) in the form of permissions or contributors' copies.

Administrative / Biographical History

1. Norman Nicholson, Wednesday early closing (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 17

2. 'Norman Nicholson in Conversation with David Wright' in P.N. Review 46, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1985), pp. 41-4; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/3/7/8.

3. Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/3/7/8.

4. From an autobiographical typescript; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN4/1/4/2.

5. 'Memories of the W.E.A.' typescript; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN4/1/4/3.

6. Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN3/7/3/8.

7. From an autobiographical typescript fragment; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN4/1/4/4.

8. 'At Home with Norman Nicholson', in Cumbria, Lakeland and the Borders (April 1968), pp. 12-17; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/3/3/5.

9. Norman Nicholson, 'Millom Delivered', in The Listener, Vol. 47 (24 January 1952), pp. 138-9, 150; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/1/4/4.

Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson, the long-awaited only son of Joseph and Edith (née Cornthwaite), was born on 8 January 1914, at 14 St George's Terrace in the small mining town of Millom in Cumbria. He was born behind the gentleman's outfitters shop run by his father, and this was to be Nicholson's home for the rest of his life; he later commented 'I feel that I have lived at this address since even before I was born' 1. His paternal grandparents had settled in Millom in the 1860s when the town was undergoing rapid growth following the discovery of a rich vein of haematite iron ore. The lead mining industry provided the town with its economic life blood, and during the course of his life Nicholson witnessed the slow decline of this industry until the mines were finally closed down in 1968, an event which deeply affected the community and which Nicholson commemorated in his poem, 'On the Closing of Millom Ironworks'.

Nicholson's childhood in Millom is memorably documented in his autobiography, Wednesday early closing (1975). His mother Edith died of 'Spanish 'flu' in 1919, when Nicholson was five. For a time he was cared for by his maternal grandmother and an aunt, but in 1922 his father married Rosetta Sobey, a local woman who worked in the music shop next door to the Nicholsons in St George's Terrace. Rose moved into Nicholson's home and life, becoming his beloved 'mother' from that time forward. Under her guidance, Nicholson, christened into the Church of England, became a Methodist, and their social lives revolved around the busy Wesleyan Chapel.

Nicholson was educated at Holborn Hill School and Millom Secondary School. He was a hard working and successful scholar but in 1930, when at the age of 16 his sights were set on the Higher School Certificate and university, he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. He was sent to a private sanatorium at Linford in Hampshire, where he spent two years under a strict regime of bed rest, and was only permitted to communicate in whispers. Living alone in a chalet apart from the main sanatorium building, he looked down over the New Forest, and devoured around ten or twenty books a week. This was when the seeds of his poetic vocation were planted.

On returning to Millom in 1932, he initially hated the drabness of the town which had been badly affected by industrial depression. Nicholson's poor health prevented him from working, and he continued the sanatorium regime of regular rest and exercise for around twelve years. At first, during his daily walks he tried to escape the town he disliked and headed for the countryside or the marshes of Duddon Estuary and the Cumberland coast, developing a love of native wild flowers and birds. He soon came to realize, however, that some of the rarest flowers and the best locations for watching waterfowl were around the old mines and ironworks. He began to turn back towards the town, and over time came to see that the iron industry was as fundamental to the lives of the local people as farming the land. He was able to reconcile the drab industrial Millom with its rural surroundings, as two sides of a landscape which grew from the same rock.

The ideas he developed at this time formed the basis of Nicholson's philosophy and much of the poetry and prose writing he produced during his life. He later claimed that had he gone to university he would probably never have written poetry; his work grew out of 'this long, long period of waiting, reading, thinking, resting, sleeping, dreaming, wandering and walking about.'2 By staying in Millom he also benefited from having 'a much closer contact with the sort of people whom many poets never come in contact with at all', 3 and for him the town became lit up 'with human meaning because of its associations with people'. 4 This, combined with an enduring Christian faith, led to his conviction, most famously expressed in the poem 'The Pot Geranium', that complete fulfilment in life can be found in the most circumscribed situations, in the 'small radius of rock' of one's home town.

In the 1930s, whilst undergoing his poetic apprenticeship and evolving some of his most important ideas, at around the age of 30 Nicholson started to publish reviews, mostly anonymous, for the Times Literary Supplement. More significantly, from 1938 he began to lecture on modern literature to the local W.E.A., both in Millom and later also in Whitehaven and St Bees. He found the enthusiasm of the audiences and their animated discussions immensely stimulating after his long years of intellectual isolation, and he looked back on the W.E.A. lectures as 'one of the turning-points in my life' 5 They also resulted in the publication of his volume of lectures Man and literature (1943). This appeared in the same year that some of Nicholson's own poems were published in a volume of Selected poems along with work by fellow poets John Hall and Keith Douglas. Just a year later his own first collection, Five rivers, was published by Faber and Faber where T.S. Eliot was a director. Eliot, whom Nicholson first met at the Faber offices in 1938, had had a great influence on the formation of Nicholson's poetic style; he later commented that 'Eliot, to me, was not just the beginning of modern poetry, he was the beginning of poetry.' 6Five rivers, containing poems in varied styles on themes such as Cumbria, the War, and religion, won the first Heinemann Prize for Poetry. Similar themes run through Nicholson's second collection, Rock face, published by Faber in 1948.

Nicholson had returned to the Church of England when he was around 15 years old, and although not a particularly religious child, he became a committed Christian as an adult. His Christian convictions, evident in his first two poetry collections, form the basis of his verse drama which he began to write during the same period. At a time when verse drama on a religious theme was experiencing a revival, Nicholson wrote his first play, The old man of the mountains. E. Martin Browne (well-known for his production of Eliot's Murder in the cathedral) had encouraged Nicholson to write a biblical verse drama, and he first produced this play with the Pilgrim Players at London's Mercury Theatre in 1945. With Robert Speaight in the leading role, the play transports the story of Elijah to modern Cumberland, and also carries a warning against the exploitation of the earth's resources and consequent damage to the environment. The old man of the mountains was the first of Nicholson's four verse dramas produced and published during the ensuing two decades; it was followed by Prophesy to the wind (his post-atomic play, commissioned by the Little Theatre Guild in 1947 and published in 1950), A match for the devil (published in 1955) and Birth by drowning (published in 1960).

It was Nicholson's verse drama which brought about his first meeting with his wife, Yvonne Gardner (1921-1982). A teacher at Millom Secondary School, she consulted Nicholson about a school production of The old man of the mountains. The couple married at St George's Church on 7 June 1956, and the marriage transformed Nicholson's life in many ways. Yvonne moved into St George's Terrace with Nicholson and his stepmother, who had been living there together since the death of Norman's father in 1954. Despite continuing to teach, Yvonne devoted much of her life to caring for Nicholson, whose uncertain health meant up to this time he had led a very restricted life, avoiding contact with people for fear of infection. Yvonne, however, purchased a car, and this enormously extended the range of Nicholson's travels. They explored Cumberland and Westmorland, and began to take annual holidays to other parts of England, to Scotland, and a number of times to Norway. For Nicholson, these travels to Scotland, the Shetlands and Scandinavia all told him more about his own home; they showed him more mountain flowers, sea-birds, and 'above all, told me more about the Viking ancestry of the Nicholsons and Cornthwaites that I sprang from'. 7 Yvonne also played an important role in helping to organize Nicholson's numerous poetry readings, and she acted as a chauffeur, enabling him to give readings beyond Cumbria.

His next major collection of poems, The pot geranium (1954), was seen as a great advance on his first two collections, and marked the end of the first phase of his career as a poet. Eighteen years would elapse before his next collection, in which he turned to new themes. Although not writing poetry during this period, Nicholson was busy with other work. In the late 1940s, he had published two novels, The fire of the Lord (1946) and The green shore (1947), but in the 1950s his prose work moved away from fiction to literary criticism and topography. His account of H.G. Wells's life and work (H.G. Wells) was published in 1951, as was his book on William Cowper; Nicholson wrote perceptively about Cowper, a favourite writer and another gifted provincial poet who spent much of his life in the small town of Olney. He also wrote extensively on Wordsworth, a fellow Cumbrian poet whose work he admired.

In addition, he produced various works on the history and topography of his beloved native region, such as Cumberland and Westmorland (1949), The lakers: the adventures of the first tourists (1964), Portrait of the lakes (1965), and The Lake District: an anthology (1978). Publications like these brought Nicholson a whole new audience who did not necessarily know his poetry. He also gained more admirers through his numerous radio broadcasts and a number of television appearances.

The year 1972 saw Nicholson's return to poetry with the publication of A local habitation, a collection which marked a notable change of direction in his work. Looking back, he explained that his work up to The pot geranium had been based around a single underlying theme, that of 'the relationship of one man to his physical environment, his basic dependence on the rock and the soil whether he lived among field and fells or among streets and slagbanks.' By 1955, he felt he had made this point as well as he could, and also felt the change in literary climate which had occurred since he first began publishing in the 1940s. Perhaps surprisingly, the change in direction in his own poetry owed something to Robert Lowell's Life studies (1959), which Nicholson read and admired during his 'fallow' period. Although not a fan of confessional poetry, Nicholson found that Lowell's poems helped to focus some of his own ideas about his family and childhood. He began to take memories of his own early life and family members as the starting-point for poems, and A local habitation marked a change in emphasis from the town of Millom itself to the inhabitants of the town, themes which were further developed in his final major collection, Sea to the west (1981).

The year after his final collection appeared, on 31 August 1982 Yvonne Nicholson died of cancer after a long illness. With the loss of his wife, Nicholson's life once again became more circumscribed, yet he continued to participate in the world of poetry, undertaking some readings, and even appearing on the South Bank Show in 1984. This programme (edited by fellow Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg) brought Nicholson's work to a much wider audience, and elicited many enthusiastic responses. Although Nicholson said he would never write again after Yvonne's death, he managed to produce at least two major poems: 'Epithalamium for a Niece' on the marriage of his sister-in-law's daughter; and 'Comet Come', written to mark the 1985/6 visit of Halley's Comet, which his father had seen in 1910 from Nicholson's own attic window in St George's Terrace. Nicholson remained at St George's Terrace until his death on 30 May 1987.

His distinguished career brought him many honours, including the Heinemann Prize for Poetry in 1945, the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry in 1967, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, honorary degrees from various universities and in 1981 the Order of the British Empire. A poet, dramatist, novelist, critic, biographer, and topographer, Nicholson was a writer in the broadest sense. He was also a provincial writer in the most positive sense of the term, 'someone who had shared from childhood the culture of his native region', 8 and a sense of the physical and human environment of Cumbria permeates his work. He was the seventeenth Nicholson to make Millom his home, and he called the town 'a place that seems to belong to me like an outer layer of clothing, so that anywhere else I feel not properly dressed.'9 The plaque marking his house in St George's Terrace fittingly commemorates him as 'Norman Nicholson, Man of Millom'.


The papers described in this catalogue are all loose inserts which have been removed from volumes in Norman Nicholson's book collection. Each item is comprised of the inserts from a single volume, and the item-level catalogue entries record: the author and title of the book; the accession number assigned to the volume by the Library; the date of creation of the inserted material (rather than the date of the book's publication) in the date field; a brief description of the papers; and their point of insertion within the volume. It is unlikely that the arrangement of the books within the collection reflects the way they were organized on Nicholson's shelves. An alphabetical approach has therefore been taken, based on the name of the author or editor; in the case of joint authorship, arrangement is based on the name of the first author listed in the bibliographical entry on the Library's catalogue; books with no author information are slotted into the alphabetical sequence according to title; journals (of which there are a small number) are also arranged by title. Where more than one book by the same author is included, that author's books are listed alphabetically by title. This catalogue does not reflect Nicholson's book collection in its entirety, as it only represents volumes which contained loose material; the whole of the book collection is, however, recorded on the Library's electronic book catalogue.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader, although a small number of items are closed under the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998; closed records are identified at item level in the catalogue. Please consult archivist for furthur details.

This finding aid contains personal data about living individuals. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The John Rylands University Library (JRUL) holds the right to process such personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the JRUL to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the JRUL has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately.

Acquisition Information

Nicholson left his book collection to the John Rylands University Library in his will, and the bulk of his books came to the Library in 1987. Nicholson's sister-in-law, Rosemary Joyce (the legatee of Nicholson's personal chattels), augmented the collection by giving the Library some further volumes discovered during the course of sorting Nicholson's possessions after his death. The papers extracted from Nicholson's books are therefore owned by the Library, whereas Nicholson's main archive is deposited on permanent loan.


1. Norman Nicholson, Wednesday early closing (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 17

2. 'Norman Nicholson in Conversation with David Wright' in P.N. Review 46, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1985), pp. 41-4; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/3/7/8.

3. Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/3/7/8.

4. From an autobiographical typescript; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN4/1/4/2.

5. 'Memories of the W.E.A.' typescript; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN4/1/4/3.

6. Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN3/7/3/8.

7. From an autobiographical typescript fragment; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN4/1/4/4.

8. 'At Home with Norman Nicholson', in Cumbria, Lakeland and the Borders (April 1968), pp. 12-17; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/3/3/5.

9. Norman Nicholson, 'Millom Delivered', in The Listener, Vol. 47 (24 January 1952), pp. 138-9, 150; Papers of Norman Nicholson, NCN7/1/4/4.

Other Finding Aids


Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

All items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

Some of the papers came with the books when they were sent to, given to, or purchased by, Nicholson; others were added by Nicholson himself. They remained in his possession until his death in 1987.

Related Material

The John Rylands University Library holds much Nicholson-related material. Most significant is Nicholson's own archive (NCN) which is comprised of papers generated throughout his lifetime, reflecting every aspect of his work. There are also a number of smaller collections, including separate accumulations of correspondence between Norman Nicholson and David Wright, Tom Kelly and Matt Simpson. There are papers relating to the editing of his 1994 Collected poems by Neil Curry, and letters written by Nicholson also appear in the Archive of Critical Quarterly, the Papers of Brian Cox, and the Archive of Carcanet Press. In addition, there are three cassette recordings of Nicholson in the Library's possession, namely recordings of: Nicholson's acceptance of the Honorary Freedom of Copeland Borough on 18 September 1984; Nicholson interviewed by David Wright, recorded in Millom in 1985 (a version of this interview was published in P.N. Review and appears in Nicholson's archive at NCN7/3/7/8); and Nicholson reading from his poetry collection Sea to the west at the Poetry Book Society in London on 11 June 1981. All of these collections are managed as part of the Modern Literary Archives Programme. Nicholson's book collection - from which the papers listed here were removed - came to the Library at the same time as his archive.

Further papers of Norman Nicholson are held by numerous other institutions. Millom Folk Museum houses artefacts as well as photographs, cuttings, magazines and programmes. Correspondence and literary manuscripts are held by: the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle Upon Tyne; the University of Hull Brynmor Jones Library; the British Library Department of Manuscripts in London; the BBC Written Archives Centre in Reading; the University of Bristol Library; the University of Durham Library; the John Bate Collection in Edinburgh; the University of Leeds Brotherton Library; the National Library of Wales Department of Manuscripts and Records in Aberystwyth; the University of Reading Department of Archives and Manuscripts; and University College London Library. The British Library National Sound Archive houses recordings of interviews and poetry readings given by Nicholson.