Nicholson, Renton (DNB00)

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NICHOLSON, RENTON (1809–1861), known as the Lord Chief Baron, was born in a house opposite to the Old Nag's Head tavern in the Hackney Road, London, 4 April 1809, and educated under Henry Butter, the author of the ‘Etymological Spelling Book.’ At the age of twelve he was apprenticed to a pawnbroker, and was employed until 1830 by various pawnbrokers. About March 1830 he started in business as a jeweller at 99 Quadrant, Regent Street, but on 1 Dec. 1831 he became insolvent, and paid the first of many visits to the King's Bench and Whitecross Street prisons. On one occasion, after being released from the latter prison, he was in so destitute a condition that for several nights he slept on the doorstep of the Bishop of London's house in St. James's Square. He afterwards picked up a living by frequenting gambling-rooms or billiard-rooms, and in the summer months went speeling, i.e., playing roulette in a tent on racecourses. He afterwards kept a cigar shop, and subsequently became a wine merchant. Finally, a printer named Joseph Last of Edward Street, Hampstead Road, employed him to edit ‘The Town,’ a weekly paper, the first number of which appeared on Saturday, 3 June 1837. It was a society journal, dealing with flash life. The last issue, numbered 156, appeared on Saturday, 23 May 1840. In the meantime, in conjunction with Last and Charles Pitcher, a sporting character, he had started ‘The Crown,’ a weekly paper supporting the beer-sellers, which came to an untimely end with No. 42, 14 April 1839.

In partnership with Thomas Bartlett Simpson, in 1841 he opened the Garrick's Head and Town Hotel, 27 Bow Street, Covent Garden, and in a large room in this house, on Monday, 8 March 1841, established the well-known Judge and Jury Society, where he himself soon presided, under the title of ‘The Lord Chief Baron.’ Members of both houses of parliament, statesmen, poets, actors, and others visited the Garrick's Head, and it was not an uncommon occurrence to see the jury composed of peers and members of the lower house. The trials were humorous, and gave occasion for much real eloquence, brilliant repartee, fluent satire, and not unfrequently for indecent witticism. Nicholson's position as a mock judge was one of the sternest realities of eccentric history. Attorneys when suing him addressed him as ‘my lord.’ Sheriffs' officers, when executing a writ, apologised for the disagreeable duty they were compelled to perform ‘on the court.’ On 31 July and 1 and 2 Aug. 1843 he gave a three days' fête at Cremorne Gardens.

In 1844 the Judge and Jury Society was removed to the Coal Hole, Fountain Court, 103 Strand, and the entertainment was varied by the introduction of mock elections and mock parliamentary debates. At various times Nicholson ‘went circuit,’ and held his court in provincial towns. During the summer months he attended Epsom, Ascot, Hampton, and other racecourses, with a large tent, in which he dispensed refreshments. He was also a caterer at Camberwell and other fairs, where he had dancing booths.

In 1846 he was back at the Garrick's Head, where he added to his usual attractions poses plastiques and tableaux vivants. His wife died at Boulogne, 15 Sept. 1849, and shortly afterwards he rented the Justice Tavern in Bow Street. Again in difficulties, he accepted an annual salary to preside at the Garrick's Head, till July 1851, when he became landlord of the Coal Hole, and held his court three times a night. His last remove was to the Cider Cellar, 20 Maiden Lane, on 16 Jan. 1858, opening his court and his exhibition of poses plastiques on 22 Jan.

He died at the house of his daughter, Miss Eliza Nicholson, proprietress of the Gordon Tavern, 3 Piazza, Covent Garden, on 18 May 1861. He wrote: 1. ‘Boxing, with a Chronology of the Ring, and a Memoir of Owen Swift,’ 1837. 2. ‘Cockney Adventures,’ 1838. 3. ‘Owen Swift's Handbook of Boxing,’ 1840, anon. 4. ‘Miscellaneous Writings of the Lord Chief Justice,’ pt. i. May 1849, with portrait; came out in monthly numbers. 5. ‘Nicholson's Noctes, or Nights and Sights in London,’ 1852, eleven numbers. 6. ‘Dombey and Daughter: a Moral Picture,’ 1858. He was also proprietor and editor of ‘Illustrated London Life,’ 1843, which ran to twenty-five numbers.

[The Lord Chief Baron Nicholson, an Autobiography, 1860; Notes and Queries, 1870 4th ser. vi. 477, 1871 vii. 18, 286, 327, and 7 Jan. 1893, pp. 3–5; Ross's Painted Faces On and Off, 1892, pp. 103–8, with portrait; Miles's Pugilistica, 1880, vol. i. p. xii; Vizetelly's Glances Back, 1893, i. 168–70, &c. In the Bachelor's Guide to Life in London, p. 8, and in the Illustrated Sporting News, 21 May 1864, pp. 129, 133, are views of the Judge and Jury Club. In Illustr. London Life, 28 May 1843, p. 126, is a view of the Garrick's Head booth at Epsom, and in 11 June, p. 161, a view of Nicholson's parlour in the Garrick's Head.]

G. C. B.