The Nicholsons: Quakers, Bleachers, and Soldiers

Vol. 8 No. 1 - 2001

The Nicholsons

Quakers, bleachers, and soldiers

by Eric McElroy

The Mayor of London, Mr Ken Livingston, has recently proposed that two of the statues in Trafalgar Square should be moved, because in his own words, "I haven't a clue who they are." The two statues of General Sir Charles Napier and Major General Sir Henry Havelock commemorate soldiers who made their reputations in the days of the Empire and so, in these days of political correctness, it is not surprising that their stories are not so well known. Given that even a greater hero of the Empire was a member of a family long rooted in our locality it may be timely to look again at the life of Brigadier-General John Nicholson in the context of the family from which he sprang. It may be of interest to see how attitudes to race have changed over a period of one hundred and fifty years and to see how one who held such attitudes of racial superiority as John Nicholson could be venerated by so many Indian people of his time.

The Nicholson Family

The origins of the Nicholson family are well recorded by many writers but a difficulty arises for the modern historian in that no two accounts seem to agree. The best solution to this problem seems to be to state the various accounts and to let the reader make up his or her own mind.

Charles Allen tells that the Rev. William Nicholson came to Cranagill in 1622 as the rector of the Parish of Derrybrochus. This ancient parish - mentioned in the Annals of Ulster in 668AD as Daire Bruchaise - lies between the Bann and the Blackwater before they enter Lough Neagh. (N.B. the old church on the hill was later to give the Verner estate its name of Churchill) He built for himself in Cranagill a house at Tallbridge or Taulbridge (the spellings vary) and remained there until 1641 when he and his house were swept away by the cataclysm of the rebellion of that year.

Allen records that the house was burned and the whole family murdered with the exception of the Rev. William's daughter-in-law and an infant grandson. These two survived the massacre because they had been hidden under a pile of brushwood by a servant. When the surviving grandson reached maturity he rebuilt the house at Cranagill.

William the Quaker

He had by this time experienced a religious conversion which led him to membership of the Society of Friends and because of this he became known as William the Quaker. These were, however, unsettled times and violence was to disturb the area again during the Williamite wars. In 1688 the advancing Jacobite forces burnt Tallbridge House and the Nicholson family fled to Londonderry for sanctuary. William the Quaker had three sons, two of whom died or were killed during the siege. The family later returned to Tallbridge and successive generations spread to the Gilford area where they were very influential in the development of linen bleaching in the Bann Valley.

A slightly different version of these events is given in A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Quakers by Richard S. Harrison. This states:

"According to tradition this family derives from William Nicholson, a clergyman who came to Ireland in 1588/9. His son, John Nicholson of Cranagill, was killed in the disturbances of 1641 at Tallbridge. John Nicholson's wife heard a noise when the rebels came to kill him and lay on the floor of an empty room with her child under her. The rebels supposed she was dead but gave her a wound that was not mortal anyway.

She then fled the house but an officer of the English army took pity on her and wrapped her in his cloak, bringing her to Newry where she departed for England. The son's name was William (1632-1715) and when he grew up he came to Ireland and succeeded in regaining part of his father's land. William Nicholson was the first Quaker Nicholson and was convinced after hearing Thomas Loe preach."

In the biography "James Nicholson Richardson of Bessbrook", the biographer, Charlotte Fell Smith, when telling the story of the Richardson family writes, "Nicholson was a name to which the entire family became greatly attached, not least for their cherished story of their common ancestor Captain Nicholson who was a soldier in Cromwell's army." She tells how this Capt. Nicholson was quartered in Alnwick in Northumberland during the Civil Wars and that he had met, fallen in love with and married Lady Betty Percy, daughter of the Duke of Northumberland. When the Cromwellian army came to Ireland Capt. Nicholson brought his wife with him. During the fighting there he was killed and his wife later found wandering with a baby in her arms over the battlefield searching for her husband's body. When Oliver Cromwell heard the sad story he was touched by her plight and gave her a grant of lands in Ireland.

It is rather difficult to accommodate this version of the family story with that given by Allen and Harrison but if it is true one can surely see the emergence of the Percy (or Hotspurs as they were known in the North of England) traits in the personality of Brigadier-General John Nicholson.

Whatever is the exact story of the family origins in Ulster it is absolutely clear that a close connection existed between the Nicholson and Richardson families from an early date. The Richardsons had settled near to Loughgall in 1602. By the early 1700s three members of the Richardsons had married Nicholsons and this close web of Quaker families was to bring some members of the family to the Gilford area. In the townland of Moyallen the Christy family (also Quakers) had become extensive landowners and John Nicholson came into ownership of Stramore House through his marriage to Isabella Wakefield, a Christy connection

A Nicholson family tree
  • John Nicholson of Derrycaw
  • John Nicholson of Nicholson's Hill, Hall's Mill, Gilford
  • Thos. Nicholson m. Christina Jaffray
  • John Nicholson of Upper Stramore, Gilford m. Isabella Wakefield
  • Dr. Alexander Nicholson
  • Brig. Gen. John Nicholson

Towards the end of the 18th century the Nicholsons were substantial landowners on either side of the village of Gilford. On the Banbridge side were the bleachers of Hall's Mill and Springvale who resided in Banford House (now the home of Mr David Cook) and on the Portadown side the Nicholsons of Stramore living in Stramore House (now the home of the Watson family).

It is surprising to discover that both these families were much involved in the Yeomanry which would seem to be at variance with the pacifist tenets of the Quaker faith. It may be that some had moved to other denominations though this seems unlikely. James Nicholson Richardson was aware of this duality between militarism and pacifism when he wrote, "the pioneers were men of war, embracing in large numbers the Friendly principles of peace. Distinguished soldiers - Roberts, Nicholson and others sprang from the ranks of the Quakers". (The Roberts referred to here is Field Marshal Lord Roberts V.C. of Kandahar, Pretoria and Waterford otherwise known as Bobs Bahadur or Heroic Bobs.)

Both Nicholson families built towers for the Yeomanry close to their houses. The one beside Stramore House still stands but the other, the Black Tower at Banford, was demolished some years ago. Local legend has it that it was possible to signal from the top of one of these towers to the other and although this looks improbable because of the hills between, both towers had been significantly reduced in height before the destruction of the Black Tower so it would be unwise to dismiss this oral history too readily.

Bann Infantry

As well as building the tower at Banford, Robert Nicholson, a close relative of John of Stramore, set aside a large field on the Gilford side of Banford House to be used as a parade ground by the Yeomanry. (In a return presented to the House of Commons in August 1803 we find :- Bann Infantry (Capt. R. J. Nicholson,) 1 Subaltern, 2 Sergeants, 1 Drummer and 50 Infantry). This parade ground was the site of a notorious mutiny on Sept. 11th 1810 caused by sectarian differences within the force. The mutiny occurred during a parade of various units; these being the Waringstown Cavalry under the command of John L. Reilly (Scarva House ), the Bann Infantry commanded by the above Robert Jaffray of Banford and the Scarva Infantry commanded by another Reilly, William E. Reilly of Colenacran.

The causes of the mutiny arose out of petty bigotry but the affair caused considerable comment at the time and accounts can be found in the Dublin Evening Herald and the Belfast Monthly Magazine for October 1810. Although it was very much a storm in a teacup local legend magnified its importance and the sword of one of those involved, a Sergeant Arlow, acquired something of the status of an icon. The sword was within living memory in the possession of the distinguished historian, Dean E. A. Myles of Tullylish. When the Yeomanry disbanded the Nicholsons erected a large, black, stone obelisk on the top of a slight ascent in the parade ground field. This could be clearly seen from the Banbridge - Gilford road until relatively recently. It blew down one night in a storm and the stones are still lying on the site.

Brigadier-General John Nicholson

John of Stramore had a son named Alexander who became a doctor of medicine. Charles Allen states that he shocked the family by marrying out of the Quaker connection. His bride was Miss Clara Hogg, a Presbyterian, and Allen claims that because of the family opposition Alexander decided to move to Dublin. ( Allen may have overstated this family opposition because James N. Richardson records an earlier marriage of a Hogg to a Richardson and also writes amusingly, "I used often to be taken to pay two other visits, which I greatly disliked, to two stately old ladies alluded to as Cousin Nicholson and Cousin Hogg who also resided at Castle Street, Lisburn. The former was mother of him who afterwards became General John Nicholson and the latter of Sir James Weir Hogg - both of Indian fame."

In Dublin Alexander gained an excellent reputation at the lying-in hospital but unfortunately in 1831 he caught a fever from one of his patients and died. By this time Clara had borne him five sons (one of whom died in boyhood) and two daughters. The early death of her husband left her in poor circumstances from which she was rescued by the return from India of her uncle, James W. Hogg, who had made a large fortune there. He brought her to Lisburn and saw to the education of the children.

John, the oldest boy, now aged eight, first attended Benjamin Neely's school at Castle Street, Lisburn and was then sent to a day school at Delgany Co. Wicklow managed by the Rector, Dr. Louis Delamere. At this school there was, on the staff, an ex-army drill sergeant who fired John's enthusiasm for a military life with his vivid reminiscences. It was this man who was to set the course of John Nicholson's future life. His mother was so displeased at this martial enthusiasm that in 1835 at the age of twelve he was transferred to the Royal School Dungannon.

He boarded at Dungannon for four years under the headmastership of Dr. Jarley but the records of his school career there have been lost. However, an article in the Royal School Dungannon magazine of 1917 quoted Dr Jarley as calling him: "the very soul of honour," while Major-General Lowry C.B., a school chum of Nicholson, referred to him as: "a fine manly fellow, but open, generous disposition."

Another unattributed quotation from the article has the ring of truth about it when it describes him as "working, idling, joining in every game and fighting any boy who tried to bully him."

Once when on holiday from the Royal School Dungannon John tried experimenting with gunpowder, some of which blew up in his face and half blinded him. For ten days it was feared that he would lose his sight but fortunately he recovered.

After his death many biographies portrayed the schoolboy Nicholson as something of a saint but his elder sister, Mary, showing a sibling's candour said, "He was just a great big bully."

It would be impossible in a short article to describe John Nicholson's subsequent meteoric career with the Honourable East India Company where he rose from the rank of Ensign to Brigadier-General in seventeen years and the story is available in many biographies and histories. All that is possible is to note a number of significant events that are of relevance to this article.

When he was in India he came under the influence of another Ulsterman, Henry Lawrence. Nicholson and his friends became known as Lawrence's young men. The group contained a surprising number of Ulstermen, two of whom were Lawrence's brothers George and John, and were largely responsible for the suppression of the Indian Mutiny.

Alexander and Clara Nicholson had four sons who survived into early manhood. All four went to India and all four died there:

Alexander Junior - Shortly after his arrival in India he met with John.

"On Nov 1st he met his brother Alexander at Dhaka: both were delighted but their joy was short-lived. Alexander went ahead with his regiment and two days later, Nov 3rd John, while riding through the Khyber Pass, saw a naked body lying some distance off the line of march. Against orders he left the column with a friend and galloped off to inspect it, to find, stripped of clothing and mutilated in distinctive Afghan fashion, the corpse of his brother Alexander. John was at least able to assure his mother that Alexander had been buried by a Church of England clergyman, a privilege enjoyed by very few who died in the course of duty in those desolate parts." - The Irish Sword

William - William Nicholson arrived in India in 1847. On 1st June 1849 he did not appear on parade and was found in bed with two ribs broken, bruised from head to foot. It was thought that he had been sleep walking, had fallen down a cliff from the veranda and had somehow crawled back to bed, but after his death the bungalow remained unoccupied for many years and was referred to by the natives as 'Murder House.'

Charles - Charles Nicholson attained the rank of Major and fought alongside John at Delhi. He was seriously wounded there and died sometime after. His wife only survived him by five months, dying of a decline in Cheltenham. The inscription on their memorial says:

"Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided." - 2nd Samuel 1 v 23

Life for the soldier of the Empire was something of a lottery. John Nicholson won everlasting fame and death. Alexander won nothing but death after a few months in India. Of him Charles Allen uses the Kipling quotation:

A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten rupee jezail
The Crammer's boast, The Squadron's pride
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

John Nicholson's attitude to the native inhabitants of the Punjab was typical of the attitudes of his time. Racialism had not then become the word of abuse that it is today. Thus we find on the monument which his mother had erected in his memory in Lisburn Cathedral, "he was a tower of strength, the type of the conquering race." Even more revealing is Sir Henry Newbolt's poem, "The Ballad of John Nicholson", which tells how he single handedly faced down the captains of the Rajah of Jalandhar.

But there within John Nicholson
Turned him on Mehab Singh
"So long as the soul is in my body
You shall not do this thing

"Have ye served us for a hundred years
And yet ye know not why?
We brook no doubt of our mastery
We rule until we die."

This amazing self-confidence perhaps explains how a relatively small number of British soldiers could hold a whole sub-continent for the Empire.

A reincarnation of Brahma

The paradox is that despite these attitudes of superiority John Nicholson was given tremendous admiration and respect in the Punjab. This was taken to extremes by one group who decided that he was a reincarnation of Brahma and deified him as "Nikal Seyn".

The sect grew rapidly despite his having them whipped each time they came to worship him which only proved to them that he was a just God and that they were unworthy. He was plagued by their attention for the rest of his life and when they received news of his death two of their leaders committed suicide by cutting their own throats while the rest of the brotherhood were baptised as Christians to a man, declaring: Nikal Seyn always said that he was a man such as we are, and that he worshipped a God we could not see but who was always near us. Let us then learn to worship Nikal Seyn's God." - The Irish Sword.

John Nicholson showed very considerable administrative as well as military gifts when he was placed in charge of Bannu which is in the northwest of the Punjab not far from the Afghan border. He administered swift, stern, justice there and soon won the respect of the inhabitants. On one occasion a man came to kill him and on breaking into the house demanded of the servants, "Where is Nicholson?" The orderly refused to identify him and indicating that anyone in the house would take the bullet said, "We are all Nikal Seyn here"

Charles Allen reports that when in Bannu in 1999 he found the following expression of irritation common - "Te zan ta Nikal Seyn wayat?"- "Who do you think you are - Nicholson?"

Part of Nicholson's ability to command respect and obedience seems to have come from his physical appearance. The Dictionary of National Biography wrote:

"With a tall commanding figure, a handsome face and a bold manly bearing Nicholson looked every inch a soldier. He had an iron constitution, was fearless in danger and quick in action."

The events of the Indian Mutiny seem very far removed from our present time and the attitudes of the protagonists even more so. Yet it is possible to trace at least one connection in our district. Many older people in Waringstown can remember the impressive military funeral of William Pinion. He was an old soldier who lived alone with his dog, but a military band led his funeral and a firing party gave a final farewell over his grave because he was the last survivor of Earl Roberts famous 'March to Kandahar.' Earl Roberts as a young soldier had fallen under John Nicholson's spell at the siege of Delhi. It was he who unveiled the statue of John Nicholson in the centre of Lisburn.

Not all information given on statues can be relied on. The inscription on the Lisburn statue states that John Nicholson was born in Lisburn. In reality he was born on 11th December 1822 in the parish of St. Thomas in Dublin. (see Lisburn Cathedral - Very Rev W.P. Carmody M.A.)

When India became independent in 1947 many statues, which had connections with the Raj, were removed. The statue of John Nicholson, which had stood at the Kashmir Gate in Delhi at the spot where he had been buried, suffered the same fate but it found a home at the Royal School Dungannon. It was erected there and unveiled by the late Earl Mountbatten (who had been the last Viceroy in India) in 1960.

Lord Mountbatten told the boys that he well remembered the statue standing in Delhi and on a personal note added that he had become engaged to his late wife there. He said that Nicholson had every quality necessary for a brilliant commander. In closing he hoped that the statue would remind coming generations of the British connection with India and that relations between the two countries would go from strength to strength.


Many people alive today have seen the British Empire shrink from the pink that covered a large part of the maps of the world in their school days to a tiny handful of minute dependencies today. With this physical collapse has also come a massive change in attitudes and values. As a result of this the men of Empire have become an object of embarrassment to those who hold the new light of political correctness. Men such as Nicholson, however, were men of their time and all we can do is look back in amazement at the confidence, energy and courage that enabled a relative handful of men to hold a whole sub-continent for such a long time. It may also be salutary to remember that while India may have seemed a golden opportunity, its riches came at a cost. James Weir Hogg came home with his purses bulging with Indian wealth. Clara Nicholson sent four sons to seize this opportunity: none came back.


  • Soldier Sahibs - Charles Allen - John Murray 2000 AD
  • The Irish Sword. Vol. 8 Winter 1968 No. 33
  • James Nicholson Richardson of Bessbrook - Charlotte Fell Smith
  • Historical Notes on the Parish of Tullylish - Dean E.A. Myles M.A.
  • Gilford and its Locality - Dean W.R.M. Orr M.A., L.L.D
  • Magazine of the Royal School Dungannon 1917 and 1960
  • A Yeomanry Mutiny - Irish News 18. 03. 1948
  • Ulster 1641 - Brian Mac Cuarta S.J.