David Nicoll is one of the enigmatic figures from anarchism's history in Britain. He suffered like so many because of the way his actions mirrored his beliefs. More information on him can be found in:
George Cores: Personal Recollections of the Anarchist Past KSL, 1993
John Quail: The Slow Burning Fuse Paladin, 1978
Hermia Oliver: The International Anarchist Movement in Late Victorian London Croom Helm, 1983.
A particularly sad description of Nicoll in his later years is contained in both Pioneers of Anti-Parliamentarism and Dogmas Discarded (part two) by Guy Aldred (1940). Nicoll's Life in English Prisons and The Walsall Anarchists were among the first pamphlets republished by the Kate Sharpley Library. Any other information or sources on Nicoll gratefully received.
We meet to honour David Nicoll's name.
While yet, of those who worked with him, some few
Still labouring for our great cause, remain
To pay his memory loyal homage due.
His brilliant genius would have won him fame
Had he sought limelight and the world's applause;
But his life's labours owned only one claim:-
To give his work, health, life - All for the cause.
He was a poet - a true pioneer,
A powerful pen he wielded long and well;
He was a Comrade, daring and sincere,
And seeking Freedom gained - a prison cell!
the prison horrors wrecked his hopes and health;
When freed, sore tried, he fought to life's sad end -
With fervent love he served the Commonwealth,
A fearless Comrade and a faithful Friend.
A meeting in memory of David Nicoll, the Poet, Author of many pamphlets, Editor of the Anarchist and for some time of the Commonweal was held at 163, Park Lane, Tottenham, on 14th April. It opened with an address by Doris Wess on Nicoll's life of work for the Cause, followed by interesting reminiscences by William Wess, Rose Ruderman and A. G. Barker. George Cores, who unfortunately was unable to be present, sent the following appreciation which was read to the meeting.
I first saw David Nicoll in the eighties of the last century - in 1886. I had left the S.D.F. and joined the Socialist League, David Nicoll was already a public speaker and propagandist in the Socialist League. He had a modest but attractive and persuasive style of address, and always "held" his crowd at an open air meeting. He was already writing his Socialist and Revolutionary songs and a group of young men and women, of whom I was one, used to sing them in Hyde Park at our meetings, there - which used to continue for six or seven hours- and afterwards march in procession along Oxford Street headed by a splendid (real) red flag to Clerkenwell Green or to the Socialist League Hall in Farringdon Road. Sometimes Nicoll was with us, all the time as enthusiastic as the rest.
1887 was Queen Victoria's Jubilee year and David Nicoll's song "The Year of Jubilee" to the 'Boulanger March' air was very often sung.
It ran:- (part of it and chorus)
T'was in that lovely time
We wretched men did dare,
Who hadn't got a dime
To meet in that 'ere Square.
Our loud complain t'was heard,
It spoilt the rich man's glee -
But Warren's* heart was hard
To the people's misery.
Oh we'll not forget
The year of jubilee
When Warren broke the people's heads
To soothe their misery!
*Warren the S. African butcher.
Those were exciting times, but Nicoll kept steadily on speaking, and also writing a very characteristic and stimulating page of "Labour News" in the Commonweal.
After Wm. Morris retired, Nicoll became Editor of the Commonweal. Then, early in 1892 came the Walsall Anarchists case. After their arrest Nicoll and Mowbray wrote to me (I was then working and living in Leeds) and asked me to go to Walsall, which I did.
Then the trial - a thorough scandal - ended at Stafford with savage sentences on Fred Charles and others. The infamous sentences inflamed the sensitive mind and feelings of David Nicoll and he wrote a suitable leading article which appeared in the Commonweal of 9th April, 1892. I read first that the publisher C. W. Mowbray was arrested. I immediately wrote to Nicoll saying "put my name on the imprint,* and say what you like."
But, alas, David Nicoll was also arrested and sent to gaol - 18 months hard labour - so he could say no more till he came out from the mental torture house. The worst blow of all, I am indeed sorry to say, awaited him.
Another man had seized on the Editorship of the Commonweal and could not be dislodged at once. Nicoll claimed his right to resume his position as Editor, immediately. He would have no compromise about it. In my opinion he was entirely in the right.
In the concluding years of his life I often met him and I am gratified with the firm conviction that he regarded me as a true friend and comrade till his death, though he was suspicious of so many about him.
The restoration of the Editorship would have saved him from very much mental, moral and physical suffering.
He was truly a martyr. The wretched, petty, greedy vanity of a man was a greater blow to Nicoll than anything the enemy could do, and made the concluding phase of his life a tragedy. No man ever lived who was more idealist, more concerned with the freedom and welfare of humanity than David J. Nicoll.
*The imprint on three following Commonweals (23rd April, 30th April and 7th May,) is: "Printed and published by Geo. Cores, at 145 City Rd., E.C." -E.T.
From: Freedom, May 1931..
In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 16, September 1998