Login Register

Tribute to Wolverhampton historian honoured by the Pope

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 17, 2014

Comments (0)

ANTHONY Nicholls, known more familiarly as Tony, who died on November 26, was born in Wolverhampton in 1923 and educated there at Ss. Mary's and John's School and at St Chad's College.

His education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and he did wartime service as one of the Bevin Boys, working with the pit ponies in Hilton Main Colliery. Here he came to know many wonderful Black Country characters and learned a great deal about their variety of dialects and accents. He always delighted in trying to identify where in the Black Country a particular word or pronunciation might come from.

Some of the men called any of their mates who stayed out late at night "Bobowlers", which some readers will recognise as the name given locally to a big nocturnal moth! He loved hearing a group of Cradley men at a local football match eagerly urging on their mates to: "Ommer 'em, Crairdly!" From his father, also born in Wolverhampton with strong Black Country connections, he had also learned some remarkable sayings. For instance, his father would unflatteringly describe any harsh female voice as sounding "like a gleed under a door"! All this went hand in hand with being an avid regular reader of The Bugle.

After he had finished his duty down the mine, Tony continued his education at Birmingham University where he gained a degree in Classics in 1950.

He was the first member of his family to go to university and like many others at that time he continued to live at home and commuted each day to the old university buildings in Edmund Street, near the Town Hall.

His love for the Latin and Greek languages and writers gave him a great love for precision in grammar and expression of ideas, yet he was no pedant. Nor did he only know the ancient languages, he had a most remarkable memory for English literature, especially Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, and was often able to bring out some appropriate passage for particular occasions. After graduation Tony studied librarianship. His first job after gaining his qualification was at Incandescent Heat in Smethwick, which later became part of the Wellman group.

There he was not only a technical librarian, but also became involved in advertising, and was given the responsibility for overseeing the firm's publicity in France because he knew French well. After ten years in industry, he returned to academic life in his old university in 1961 as Assistant Librarian and finally won promotion to the post of Chief Librarian in 1981. Many of his former colleagues and staff still recall him with great affection.

Not only was he a fair and kindly boss, he was also responsible for introducing computerised systems to the work of the library. He was gifted both academically and practically. In his spare time as a young student he showed how versatile a Black Country man he was when he single-handedly wired his family home for electricity! Later on, as University Librarian, he was often seen wielding a screwdriver and making a few quick (and lasting) repairs around the library.

Although he always worked in Birmingham, Tony Nicholls lived his whole life in Wolverhampton. He was particularly interested in local Catholic history. His love for the Latin tradition enabled him to recognise the Catholic references in the Charter by which Lady Wulfrun, a granddaughter of King Alfred the Great, endowed the minster church of Wolverhampton in the 10th century.

In 1955, the parish where he had been baptised and brought up, Ss. Mary's and John's, Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, celebrated its centenary. The then Parish Priest, Fr Cleary (who later was to become a Bishop) commissioned Tony to write the parish history. It was a labour of love. In the book which he wrote, he explored the long history of Catholicism in Wolverhampton, from Lady Wulfrun to the present day. As a result of his historical work, Tony was invited by the Archbishop of Birmingham to join the Diocesan Historical Committee.

For the work that he did in this role and generally for the local Catholic Church he was made a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope John Paul II in 1985.

He went on to play a major part in the rescue and restoration of the Church of Ss Peter and Paul in North Street, Wolverhampton, the oldest post-Reformation Catholic Church in the Midlands.

By the 1980s it had fallen into serious disrepair and was considered by many to be fit only for demolition, but fortunately it is now possible to visit it as one of the most beautiful architectural gems of Wolverhampton City Centre.

But it was for the church of his baptism that he reserved his greatest love.

He saw Ss. Mary's and John's as a magnificent example of 19th century Catholic architecture. He was not only baptised and married there, but he was a familiar and reassuring presence as an Altar server for more than 80 years! And not only on the Sanctuary, but also behind the scenes, he was often hard at work long before and after any great celebration.

Successive parish priests relied greatly on his extraordinary range of abilities, both intellectual and practical, and on his willingness to give freely of his time and expertise. For many years he served as the Chairman of Governors of the Parish School and as a Governor of one of the town's Catholic secondary schools. In his retirement, which began in 1987, right until his last illness he continued to prepare the weekly Newsletter.

He arranged readers for Sundays and Feast Days, and carefully selected the hymns to be sung at Mass. He also even regularly acted as cantor, leading the singing especially when there might be no organist available.

He was very happily married for more than 63 years to Patricia, nee Bowyer, who came from the same parish and who survives him.

They had two sons; one of whom predeceased him and the other is a priest of the Birmingham Oratory. He died peacefully at home on November 26 with his wife and son beside him.

If you would like to write a tribute to Tony or any other loved one who has just died email editor@blackcountry bugle.co.uk or log on to www.black countrybugle.co.uk

Read more from Black Country Bugle

Do you have something to say? Leave your comment here...

max 4000 characters