Nicholls, John Ashton (DNB00)

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NICHOLLS, JOHN ASHTON (1823–1859), philanthropist, only child of Benjamin Nicholls (d. 1 March 1877), cotton manufacturer, afterwards mayor of Manchester (1853–1855), by his wife Sarah (Ashton), was born in Grosvenor Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, on 25 March 1823. He was educated by John Relly Beard, D.D. [q. v.], and as a lay-student (1840–4) at Manchester New College (now Manchester College, Oxford). His bent was towards physical science; he became a life member of the British Association in June 1842, was admitted into the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1848, and elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in June 1849. On leaving college he had entered his father's business, but gave much of his time to efforts for improving the education and condition of the working class. As secretary to the Ancoats Lyceum, he organised classes and delivered courses of lectures on chemistry, physiology, and literary topics, transferring his work, on the failure of the Lyceum, to the temperance hall, Mather Street, where he established a model half-time school. In pursuit of his astronomical studies he built a small observatory. He made several journeys to the continent, studying the economic condition of the people; his longest tour was to Constantinople in 1851. In 1854 he took part in the formation of the unitarian home missionary board, of which he was one of the first secretaries. In 1855 he was placed on the committee of the Manchester and Salford sanitary association, and gave the introductory lecture (25 Jan. 1855) of a public course on hygienics. Early in 1856 he was made chairman of the directors of the Manchester Athenæum. In the same year, at a period of considerable conflict between employers and employed, he lectured (5 March) on ‘strikes;’ the published lecture led to a correspondence with Charles Kingsley, who was surprised to find that the author was a Manchester manufacturer. He was a warm advocate of the Sunday opening of libraries and museums, and succeeded, in the summer of 1856, in providing Sunday bands in the public parks of Manchester; but the city council, under strong religious pressure, forbade the continuance of the experiment. In the question of national education he was strongly interested, and had much to do with the amalgamation of two distinct Manchester associations in a ‘general committee on education,’ inaugurated at the Free Trade Hall on 6 Feb. 1857. On 22 Aug. 1857 he set out on an American tour, returning in March 1858. On his return he declined, for business reasons, an invitation to stand for Nottingham. His last public appearance was at the Free Trade Hall on 24 May 1859, when he spoke at a meeting to protest against English interference in the Italian revolt against Austria. He died of low fever at Eagley House, Manchester, on 18 Sept. 1859; his funeral sermon was preached by William Gaskell [q. v.] There is a tablet to his memory in Cross Street Chapel, Manchester; a granite obelisk in Great Ancoats Street was erected (July 1860) in his honour ‘by the working men’ of Manchester. His parents devoted over 100,000l. to the erection and endowment of an orphanage, the ‘Nicholls Hospital,’ in Hyde Road, as a memorial of their son.

He published several separate lectures, which have not been collected, and a volume of his correspondence (1844–58), edited by his mother, was privately printed with the title ‘In Memoriam. A Selection from the Letters,’ &c., 1862, 8vo. His letters deal with his travels, and show descriptive power and some humour.

[Gaskell's Sketch, appended to funeral sermon, 1859; Christian Reformer, 1859, pp. 639 seq.; Nicholls's Letters, 1862; Wade's Rise of Nonconformity in Manchester, 1880, pp. 64 seq.; Baker's Mem. of a Dissenting Chapel, 1884, p. 130; information from the Rev. S. A. Steinthal.]

A. G.