Story by Gregory Clark
FROM THE ARCHIVES OF THE VARSITY GRADUATE, VOLUME 8, NUMBER 1, SEPTEMBER 1959
Published by the Department of Information, Simcoe Hall, University of Toronto
What must be the feelings of a lady of reserved and modest disposition to find herself standing all, all alone between a million dollars and a great university full of high emprise?
I asked Mrs. James Nicholson this question, and she said:
“When I met Marsh Jeanneret, the head of the University of Toronto Press, I said to him ‘I am the person about whose health you must be so concerned.’”
And thus, whimsically, began the negotiations between trustees, trust companies, lawyers, fellow legatees and the University of Toronto whereby the will of the late James Nicholson was reconstrued so as to allow the more than a million dollar bequest to become operative not after the departure of Mrs. Nicholson from the scene, but during her life time. She is to have the supreme happiness of witnessing her husband’s dream coming true. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography is already launched. Its editor has been appointed. The work is in hand. And when I had two cups of tea with Mrs. Nicholson in her home, I got the distinct impression that she is going to be among those present when the first volumes of this most important and sorely needed historical document, conceived by her husband, come off the press. Mrs. Nicholson is full of vigour, good humour, compassion and dry wit, which are the components of a long and good life.
Her husband died at the age of 91, in 1951, leaving the above will. There will be few more intriguing biographies in the new Dictionary than that of James Nicholson, himself.
Born in Liverpool in 1861, James was orphaned at the age of eight. With two younger brothers he was sent to a boarding school in Cheshire. But formal schooling did not last long: he was apprenticed to a firm of architects, while still in his teens.
In 1891, James was 30 and a junior partner in the firm. He decided to pull up stakes and come to Canada. After a year on a farm and three years in the office of a London, Ontario, grain company, he came to Toronto where, with W. J. Brock, he established the Brocks Bird Seed Company. He became sole proprietor in 1907 when Mr. Brock retired.
Mrs. Nicholson recalls that he was a devoted sort of man with a compulsive sense of duty. He was very British. His first social contacts in Toronto were in the Anglican church. He was superintendent of St. Peter’s Sunday School for seven years; 13 years superintendent of All Saints’ Sunday School, Sherbourne and Dundas; and treasurer, from its inception in 1909, of the Sunday School Commission, now the General Board of Religious Education of the Church of England in Canada. As early as 1899, after only four years in Toronto, he was first elected to the Toronto Diocesan Synod, of which he remained a member for half a century, holding many offices both active and honorary. He was a trustee and on the council of Wycliffe College. How poignant, then, that closing phrase in his will ‘that since I left school at an early age’!
From 1903, he was a member of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association and the Board of Trade. He belonged to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, Ontario Club, Granite Club, Empire Club. He was ten years honorary secretary of the curling section of the Granite Club, and was a notable bowler. Needless to say, he was a lifelong member and a past president of the St. George’s Society.
“He never knew what a home was,” says Mrs. Nicholson, “until he was in his fifties and we were married. He lived, all through those busy years, in rooms.”
The memory of his mother was an intense influence on the boy who had been sent to a boarding school for his permanent childhood home at the age of eight. She had inspired in him a rocklike respect for authority and the British tradition. Thus, his reading, throughout his life, was biography. He steeped himself in the story of men of action. As part of his educational work in the church he lectured frequently, with a collection of illustrated slides, on patriotic subjects such as “The Flag”, “Lord Nelson’’, “Disraeli”, “Lord Chatham”. He was an authority on the British peerage. Yes, he was a quiet Briton, living in rooms, serving his immediate community, remembering a small to a great thing, investing wisely, building a fortune.
Because of his activities in the synod, he joined St. Paul’s Anglican Church where his association with Dr. Cody put him in touch with the colleges. Long before he died, his mind was made up as to what to do with the fortune he had built so quietly, unostentatiously, thankfully.
Mrs. Nicholson was many years his junior when they were married, and the quiet man got a home of his own, at last, for almost another half century of happy life. They had no children. Mrs. Nicholson’s interests were identical with his own. She enjoyed the clubs, the church work, the reading, the lectures, the almost secret planning of this last great gift not to the little community, nor to the larger community, but to the whole of Canada.
A national dictionary of biography has been talked about, desired, hoped for, dreamed of by Canadian scholars for a good many years past. It has come as a gift from a proper quarter: from a man who, starting with nothing, found in this country all that a man needs for a life of true nobility.
See? He gives to the University of Toronto not only a million dollars, but also a complete set of the bound volumes of “Punch”. Not only ten thousand pounds sterling to the British national debt redemption fund, but a hundred pounds sterling each to the care of his mother’s and his father’s graves in the Old Country. Read the will again and see if we can say this about James Nicholson: he was a man of dreams who, with all quiet tenderness, made them come true.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gregory Clark (1892-1977) was associate editor of Weekend Magazine at the time he wrote this article. After twice failing his first-year studies at the University of Toronto, in 1911, he joined the editorial staff of The Toronto Star, where he would become one of the paper’s best known reporters and columnists. In 1967, he was made one of the initial Officers of the Order of Canada “for the humour which he has brought to his profession as a newspaper writer and radio commentator.” The University of Toronto awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1975.