JOHN NICHOLS HISTORY & ANTIQUITIES

OF THE COUNTY OF LEICESTER

 

John Nichols's History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester is the largest of the English county histories of the eighteenth century. It runs to a total of 4,500 folio pages, excluding the huge indexes, (almost 5,600 total). Nowadays we think a book of 200,000 words is long. In this book there are five million. Not only that: the plates that illustrate it so liberally depict a multitude of objects of historical interest churches with their monuments and furniture, houses, shields of arms, in a quantity never approached in a work of this kind before, and rarely since.

This is indeed a mammoth enterprise, the vast scale of which is its vital essence; no less than an attempt at once to describe the history and antiquities of the county and to Jay out the evidence, in the written word and by means of pictures, at the same time. Description, narrative, documents, plates looking at the work as a whole, all these four elements rank equally in importance.

The execution of this enormous task was imperfect. The book has serious faults. But the first thing to grasp is its unprecedented size, and the good reason for that. The size becomes even more striking when one reflects that Leicestershire is a small county (it stood twenty-seventh among the forty counties of England in 1801), without an ancient cathedral or surviving abbey and with only one country house of the first rank. Imagination staggers at the thought of a history, on the plan established here, devoted to Lincolnshire or Kent.

But quantity may have nothing to do with quality. Though Nichols's book is demonstrably bigger than any of its peers, it would be wrong to say that it is better. Looking only at the neighbouring counties, it is less finely-wrought than its seventeenth-century forebears, Dugdale's Warwickshire and Thornton's Nottinghamshire. In accuracy Nichols's work is much inferior to that which Bridges lavished on Northamptonshire. As a county history his book opens badly with a disconcerting miscellany of documents, from Domesday Book onwards, standing in no demonstrated relationship to one another. Even the pagination goes astray. The reader who begins the book at the beginning may well feel he has plunged into a jungle.

Things improve before long, however. The majestic amplitude of the whole design becomes apparent, and it exercises its own fascination. It found no imitators. The book has remained, not only in scale but in conception and method, unique: the product of the man whose name stands on the title-pages, whose genial portrait irradiates Volume I, part 2. We cannot rightly call John Nichols the author. He was part-author, he was editor, organiser, paymaster, pub-fisher, and printer. To understand the book, we must begin with the man himself.

He was a thorough Londoner. He was not, indeed, a Cockney, for he was born at Islington, which was then a detached suburb though economically and socially part of the capital; but he spent all his working life in and around Fleet Street; for fifteen years he was a Common Councillor, he was Master of the Stationers' Company; and when he retired, it was back to Islington, where he died.