Papers of Doreen Cornthwaite relating to Norman Nicholson

Scope and Content

The core of the archive is a series of over 130 letters sent by Norman Nicholson (and sometimes his wife Yvonne) to Doreen Cornthwaite over a 20-year period. These are written in an informal - often affectionate, light-hearted and humorous - voice reserved for his young cousin, and they form an interesting contrast to Nicholson's more 'literary' correspondence with other writers, discussing friends and family matters, holidays and interests; they also reflect the value Nicholson placed on his friendship with Cornthwaite, and his gratitude for her help and support during the final illness of Yvonne Nicholson, and the period after her death. However, literary matters also figure highly in Nicholson's letters to his cousin, including the reception and review of his work, his busy schedule of reading engagements, media appearances, receipt of honours and prizes, and his acquaintance with and thoughts on the work of other writers. The archive also reflects Doreen Cornthwaite's ongoing concern with Nicholson's literary legacy and reputation, and includes: a large series of press cuttings and printed ephemera relating to Nicholson and his work - collected both during his lifetime and after his death; correspondence with family, friends and acquaintances of Nicholson; official correspondence relating to his estate; and correspondence with students, editors, writers, poets, researchers and others interested in or concerned with Nicholson's work (including the publication of posthumous editions) and biography. Other poets and writers represented as correspondents in the archive include Matt Simpson, Craig Raine, Irvine Hunt and Alan Hankinson.

Administrative / Biographical History

Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson 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 remain Nicholson's home for the rest of his life. His childhood in Millom is memorably documented in his autobiography, Wednesday early closing (1975). His mother Edith died in 1919, and in 1922 his father married Rosetta Sobey, who worked in the music shop next door to the Nicholsons' shop; she moved in with the family, becoming Nicholson's much-loved stepmother.

Nicholson did well at school, but in 1930, when 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.

On returning to Millom in 1932, 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 and headed for the countryside or 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.

In the 1930s, whilst undergoing his poetic apprenticeship and evolving some of his most important ideas, Nicholson started to publish reviews, mostly anonymous, for the Times Literary Supplement. He also 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 his W.E.A. lectures were ultimately published as Man and literature in 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 early formation of Nicholson's poetic style. Five 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's Christian convictions, evident in his first two poetry collections, formed the basis of the 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. This drama, first produced by E. Martin Browne and performed by the Pilgrim Players at London's Mercury Theatre in 1945, 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 (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 in Millom 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 that up to this time he had led a very restricted life. 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. 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.

In addition, he produced various works on the history and topography of his 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 was also aware of 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 an admirer 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, which brought his work to a much wider audience. 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, and a sense of the physical and human environment of Cumbria permeates his work.

Doreen Cornthwaite first made the acquaintance of Nicholson in 1968. They were second cousins on the maternal side of Nicholson's family: Cornthwaite's grandfather was the brother of Nicholson's maternal grandfather. Her parents moved from Cumbria to South Africa, which is where Cornthwaite was born. The family returned to Cumbria in the 1960s, and Doreen Cornthwaite took up a post at Border Television in Carlisle, where she became a film librarian. She also became a close friend of Norman and Yvonne Nicholson - exchanging visits and news, attending literary events with which Nicholson was involved, and providing valued support during Yvonne's final illness and after her death. Her friendship with Norman Nicholson spanned 20 years, until his death, and she has continued to take an active interest in his literary legacy and reputation to the present day.


The papers are divided into six series, which broadly reflect Doreen Cornthwaite's arrangement of the material. These are as follows:

  • DCN/1 Letters from Norman Nicholson
  • DCN/2 Cards and jottings from Norman and Yvonne Nicholson
  • DCN/3 Cards from family and friends associated with Norman Nicholson
  • DCN/4 Cuttings, publications and printed ephemera
  • DCN/5 Papers relating to Nicholson-associated events
  • DCN/6 Papers relating to Norman Nicholson's death, estate and literary legacy

Norman Nicholson is referred to as NCN throughout the body of this catalogue, except within section headings and titles of books or poems, where his name is given in full.

Access Information

The majority of the papers in the archive are open to any accredited reader, although closures have been placed on some records for Data Protection and confidentiality reasons.

The open part of the collection contains personal data about living individuals, and readers are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 in their use of the material.

This finding aid also 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

The papers came to The John Rylands University Library on deposit from Doreen Cornthwaite in December 2006.

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 Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

Most of the letters and papers were accumulated by Doreen Cornthwaite during her 20-year friendship with Norman Nicholson, and the rest of the material was collected or accumulated by Cornthwaite after Nicholson's death in 1987.

Related Material

The John Rylands University Library holds much Nicholson-related archive material. Most significant is Nicholson's own large archive (NCN) which is comprised of papers generated throughout the course of his life, 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 (DPW), Tom Kelly KEL and Matt Simpson (MSN). There is a separate collection of 'Papers from the Norman Nicholson Book Collection' (NBK) comprised of nearly 300 loose inserts (including over 50 in-letters from a number of other significant writers) which were removed from the books in Nicholson's personal library. 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. These are 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, containing around 700 books from his personal library, 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.