Nicholson Papers

Scope and Content

A collection of letters and papers relating to the family of Nicholson of Liverpool and Manchester, and the Hatfield family of Yorkshire. The collection is a significant source for studies of international trade and commerce, and of the economic activities and social structures of the mercantile classes.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Nicholsons were a merchant family based in Liverpool and Manchester during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their business interests were initially in linen, later branching into other general merchandise. The family were active in the social and cultural life of Liverpool and were one of its leading Unitarian families.

Robert Nicholson (1727-1779) was apprenticed to Edward Copper, linen draper, in 1742, and in 1748 he joined his brother James in the family business. On the death of James in 1773, he went into partnership with his nephew, Mathew Nicholson. Their principal business was in linen yarn. However they also traded in tallow, wool, hides, ashes, kelp, molasses, wheat, cotton, tobacco and the copperas and alum made at their Hurlett and Wigan works. Robert was an original subscriber to the Liverpool Library (Lyceum) in 1758 and was a promoter and governor of the Warrington Academy. James Nicholson (1796-1850), the last of the merchant Nicholsons, wound up the business in Liverpool in 1828, becoming a wine merchant in Bordeaux.

Francis Nicholson (1843-1925) was a senior partner in the firm of W. Delany and Sons of Manchester, packers. He was vice-president of the Unitarian Historical Society from its formation in 1915 and was a contributor to its transactions. He was a keen sportsman, a fellow of the Zoological Society and a member of the British Ornithologists Club.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Donated to the John Rylands Library by the Reverend Herbert McLachlan, MA, DD, in June 1946.


Description compiled by Jo Humpleby, project archivist, with reference to:

  • Ernest Axon (ed.), Memorials of the Family of Nicholson... collected by Francis Nicholson (Kendal: printed for private circulation, 1928);
  • Francis Nicholson and Ernest Axon, 'The Hatfield family of Manchester', TLCAS, vol. 28 (1910), pp. 82-114.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951 (English MSS 1041-1053).

Custodial History

The Hatfield family papers were formerly in the possession of Francis Nicholson, son of Robert Nicholson of Manchester. The latter was the executor and a legatee of the last Jonathan Hatfield. Francis stated: 'from him and our cousin, Miss Dorothy Nicholson, of Wootton, we have inherited many Hatfield letters, pictures and personal belongings.' (Francis Nicholson and Ernest Axon, 'The Hatfield family, of Manchester, and the food riots of 1757 and 1812', Transaction of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, vol. 28 (1910), p. 82.)

Related Material

Liverpool Record Office also holds Nicholson family papers and correspondence, 1666-1921 (ref.: GB 0138 920 NIC ); see


See  Ernest Axon (ed.), Memorials of the family of Nicholson of Blackshaw, Dumfriesshire, Liverpool and Manchester: collected by F. Nicholson (Kendal: printed for private circulation, 1928) , where extracts from items in this collection may be found.

The Nicholson family were related by marriage to the Thornely family, whose papers are also held at the JRUL (ref.: GB 133 English MSS 1173-1178 ).