(Many thanks to Julian Pooley (University of Leicester) for this fascinating account of the paper that he gave in the opening session of the ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop: ‘”Dry, thorny and barbarous paths?”: The Nicholses, their Press and the Society of Antiquaries, 1777-1873’.)

I’m preparing an analytical guide to the vast, scattered archive of three generations of the Nichols family.  John Nichols (1745-1826), John Bowyer Nichols (1779-1863) and John Gough Nichols (1806-1873) were all printers, antiquaries and biographers, in contact through their printing business, editorship of the Gentleman’s Magazine and research interests with members of learned societies, fellow members of the book trade and private scholars across a wide range of disciplines.  The database that I am using to manage detailed calendars of their letters, transcripts of their diaries and travel journals and descriptions of other papers allows us to map their contacts, trace the development of their friendships and assess the ways in which they were able to link together people of like mind and disseminate ideas and the results of research.  Although I have often described the Nicholses as being at the ‘heart of the antiquarian network’ this workshop helped me to see them more as a focal point through which antiquaries, natural scientists and their many clients within the book trade, and learned institutions could communicate both to the wider community through the Gentleman’s Magazine or separate publication of their own research, and with each other, using the Nichols’s London printing office as a clearing house for news, information, and loans of books and manuscripts.

My paper explored the relationship of the Nicholses with the Society of Antiquaries.  Each generation of the Nicholses was appointed as printer to the Society, but their relationship with it changed over the century between 1777, when John Nichols inherited the contract from his former master and partner William Bowyer (1699-1777), and the 1870s, when his grandson, John Gough Nichols, was a major figure in the Society, contributing papers and taking the lead in significant areas of their research.

I focussed particularly on John Nichols, whose relationship with the Society was often strained.  The firm had been involved with the Society since 1736, when it appointed William Bowyer as its printer.  As Bowyer’s partner, Nichols worked closely with the Director, Richard Gough (1735-1809) in producing the Society’s Archaeologia, but their friendship deepened during their completion of John Hutchins’s History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset, after Hutchins’s death in 1773.  Though Nichols had initially aspired to be a literary scholar, by working with Gough, his interests moved away from literature and fell into what he later called ‘the dry, thorny and barbarous paths of National and Local Antiquities.’

These paths led in three directions.  Immediately after Bowyer’s death, Nichols began a memoir of him which grew from an initial pamphlet of just fifty-two pages into the seventeen volumes of the Literary Anecdotes and Literary History of the Eighteenth Century (1812-1858) which provide an encyclopaedic insight into literary and antiquarian culture across the long-eighteenth century. As Bowyer had been a Fellow of the Antiquaries and as his press had printed many genealogical, antiquarian and topographical works, the Literary Anecdotes and Literary History are crucial for any study of the work of the Society of Antiquaries and the lives and achievements of its members throughout the Georgian period.

Secondly, as the Society’s printer, Nichols could also provide Fellows with off-prints of their papers and undertake private commissions from them for longer works.  My paper showed how Nichols printed off-prints for antiquaries such as Thomas Astle and Samuel Denne, but also how they employed his press to print their books, inspired some of his early antiquarian research and contributed to his own publications.  These were reciprocal relationships: by printing their papers Nichols enabled Fellows to reach a wider audience than simply other Fellows, while in return, Gough and his fellow antiquaries provided Nichols with easier access to a ready market for his antiquarian publications and new clients for his press.

The third path was through the Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly periodical established in 1731 by Edward Cave which, by the 1770s, had a monthly print run of nearly 5,000 copies.  It had a huge readership of individuals, families, book-clubs, debating societies, and circulating library subscribers across the country as well as in America and Europe.  Nichols bought a share in it shortly after inheriting Bowyer’s business in 1777 and by 1782 he was sole printer and editor, known to world as ‘Sylvanus Urban’.  The magazine remained at the heart of the Nichols family’s business and personal life until 1856.  It had always reported archaeological discoveries and covered the Anniversary Meetings and elections of the Society of Antiquaries, but under Nichols it became the leading means of communicating antiquarian research to a national audience as he and Gough (who became reviews editor in 1786) used each number to review the latest county histories, report discoveries and discuss the transactions of the Society.  In 1783 Nichols doubled the size of each monthly issue, allowing more space for antiquities.  This pathway proved particularly thorny for the Society of Antiquaries.

In 1780 Gough and Nichols established a separate serial publication to collect and make accessible rare topographical manuscripts and printed books that were in danger of being lost but which were too long for inclusion in the magazine.  The Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica appeared in fifty-two numbers between 1780 and 1790, continuing as the Miscellaneous Antiquities in ten numbers between 1791 and 1800. Gough and Nichols used these studies to raise topographical standards and publish the results of exemplary antiquarian research.  Tensions between this series and the publications of the Society of Antiquaries were immediately clear.  Reviews of each number in the Gentleman’s Magazine (probably written by Gough) praised ‘the printer of the Society of Antiquaries’ for publishing so many British topographical articles at a time when the Society of Antiquaries confined themselves to smaller essays in the occasional volumes of Archaeologia. Nichols was praised for ‘moving faster’ and being more proactive and energetic than the Society in printing antiquarian research.  The magazine’s review of the sixth volume of Archaeologia in 1783 noted that, as three years had passed since volume five, there was a risk that half the monuments of antiquity would decay or be destroyed before the next volume appeared.  In 1784 a contributor observed that since enlarging the Gentleman’s Magazine and giving more space to antiquities, it was fast becoming ‘something much wanted in this country, A REPOSITORY to which may be sent, and in which may be collected, for public reference and use, all the scattered accounts of facts respecting the History and Antiquities of our country’.  In contrast the Society was accused of ‘Indolence, not to be disturbed in its quiet way of going on to nothingness, pride, not to be interrupted or interfered with; and an oligarchy incommunicable and not to be controlled.’

It is likely that the Society was further antagonised by Nichols’s magazine coverage of the debates over insensitive conservation work on England’s medieval buildings that raged in the 1780s and 1790s.  Concern focussed on the heavy-handed ‘restoration’ work of James Wyatt at Salisbury in 1785, Hereford in 1786, Lichfield in 1795 and Durham in 1797.  The magazine printed strong criticisms of Wyatt’s work by both Richard Gough and the antiquarian draughtsman, John Carter.  Their public letters coincided with Wyatt’s candidacy for Fellowship of the Society and in printing them, Nichols materially assisted in heightening awareness of the distinctive qualities of Gothic architecture.  The contributions made by Richard Gough and John Carter to the magazine throughout these years encouraged a new generation of antiquaries who had a greater understanding of ancient buildings as monuments to be preserved rather than raw materials to be adapted to contemporary tastes.

In 1797 Wyatt was elected a Fellow of the Antiquaries. Gough resigned in disgust, but continued to champion the need for sensitive preservation through the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine.  Nichols lost his contract as printer the following year.  Undeterred, he consolidated the magazine’s role as a voice in support of national antiquities, by printing a series of over two hundred campaigning essays by John Carter called ‘The Pursuits of Architectural Innovation’ which ran between 1798 and 1817.  Roey Sweet accurately likens these to a war correspondent’s report from the front of architectural damage and destruction.  They chronicled the destruction of buildings by insensitive repair or unchecked decay and increasingly focussed on Wyatt’s proposed work at Westminster, where St Stephen’s Chapel and its newly uncovered painted chamber had been earmarked for alterations.  Carter’s journalism, printed by Nichols, succeeded in establishing in the public’s mind the importance of Westminster Abbey as the embodiment of national history and glory. The concept of national heritage was not developed by the Society of Antiquaries but by Carter, almost single-handedly – through the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Though ‘printer to the Society of Antiquaries’ between 1777 and 1798 and responsible for making the Gentleman’s Magazine the main point of contact between the Society and the reading public – as well as printing most of the great Georgian county histories and being himself the county historian of Leicestershire – Nichols was not elected a Fellow of the Society until March 1810.  Gough had put his name forward as early as 1777 when he inherited the contract from Bowyer, who had himself been a Fellow – but that was too early in Nichols’s career.  He had not undertaken any antiquarian research of his own and, as the Society’s printer, would have been regarded by many of its gentlemen members as being simply a tradesman.  Despite his promotion of the Society’s work and meteoric rise through the antiquarian community, his election was delayed for over thirty years.  His readiness to criticise the Society in the magazine and close association with Gough made him slightly toxic and it was only after Gough’s death in 1809 that his sponsorship by a new generation of leading antiquaries – including William Bray, Henry Ellis and Francis Douce – was successful.

The relationship between Nichols’s successors and the Society of Antiquaries was much easier.  John Bowyer Nichols was elected a Fellow in 1818 and regained the printing contract in 1821.  The firm continued as the Society’s printers until 1909.  John Gough Nichols began attending meetings of the Society as early as 1818 when he was just twelve and was elected a Fellow in 1835.  John Bowyer Nichols was as genial a man as his father, and took an active part in a convivial dining club of Antiquaries called the Noviomagian Society, of which he was a co-founder in 1828.  Though all thirteen members were Fellows of the Society, rules were in comic opposition to it, with election depending on a preponderance of black balls and toasts and speeches at their meetings deliberately the opposite of what was intended.  Guests were welcomed with scathing ridicule and in learned papers read after the alcoholic dinners, speakers deliberately said what they did not mean – creating an enormous amount of raucous fun.  Though printed minutes and proceedings of the Noviomagians survive at the Wellcome Library and at the University of California, it is through the personal correspondence of these very witty men that survives in the papers of the Nichols family that we can join their merriment and share in their friendship.

Though John Gough Nichols inherited the antiquarian interests and collections of his father and grandfather, the world of topographical printing was changing by the time he joined the firm in 1826.  The subscription county histories so familiar to earlier generations were now being replaced by specialised printing societies whose members received academic editions of historic documents in return for their annual subscriptions.  The first of these was the Surtees Society, of which Gough Nichols was a founder member in 1834.  Inspired by its success, in 1838 Gough Nichols, Thomas Wright and John Bruce established the Camden Society to publish manuscripts and new editions of rare printed books.  Gough Nichols edited eighteen texts for the Camden Society and the Nichols press produced each volume.  Gough Nichols was also instrumental in founding the Archæological Institute (1844) and the London and Middlesex Archæological Society (1855).  Unlike the informal associations of John Nichols, the extent of his grandson’s correspondence and practical involvement with national and local societies embedded him within the institutional networks of his day.  He became convinced that a national ‘Topographical Society’ with county branches would be the best means of promoting local historical research. Though he did not live to see the establishment of the Victoria County History in 1899, Gough Nichols’ devotion to rigorous scholarly editing and the assistance he gave to the formation of county societies where local people could meet, share ideas and study the material survivals of the past, ensured that the antiquarian ideals of his grandfather, John Nichols and godfather, Richard Gough were embedded in the increasing professionalization of historical research in Victorian Britain.

Further information on the Nichols Archive Project can be found in this leaflet.