Sir GeorgeNicholls was a poor-law reformer and administrator. He was the eldest child of Solomon Nicholls of St. Kevern, Cornwall, by his second cousin Jane, daughter of George Millett of Helston. George Nicholls was born on 31 December 1781 at St. Kevern. His father — who died in 1793 — was of an old Cornish family. Nicholls was educated first at the parish school of St. Kevern Churchtown, under his uncle, William Nicholls; later he was educated at Helston grammar school, under Dr. Otter (afterwards bishop of Chichester); and finally, for less than a year, at Newton Abbot, Devon, under Mr. Weatherdon.

In the winter of 1796-7 a berth was obtained for him by his uncle, Captain George Millett, as midshipman on board the East India Company's ship the Abergavenny, commanded by Captain John Wordsworth, uncle of the poet William Wordsworth. In 1809 at the age of 27, after his sixth voyage, having served as fifth, third, and first mate successively,he obtained command of a ship, the Lady Lushington. On 18 January 1815 the ship then under his command, the Bengal, was burnt in harbour at Point de Galle. He was honourably and completely acquitted from blame in the subsequent inquiry and command of another ship was offered to him but he left the service, having lost about £30,000 through the disaster.

In 1816, after living at Highgate for a year he took up residence at Farndon near Newark; he moved to Southwell early in 1819. His time, at first devoted to domestic matters, soon became increasingly occupied with parochial and public affairs. At Farndon he started the first savings bank and showed much interest in the schools and in agricultural concerns. At Southwell he took an active part as overseer, waywarden, and churchwarden; he was also appointed a Justice of the Peace, but never acted in that capacity.

Before he left Farndon, Nicholls' attention had been drawn to the question of the poor laws and their administration, which called urgently for reform. In 1820-1 the amount of relief actually disbursed to the poor of Southwell (exclusive of church and county rates) was £2,069. In 1821 Nicholls accepted the office of overseer of the poor in that parish. In 1821-2 the amount of relief had fallen to £1,311, and in 1822-3 to £515, the saving being effected moreover without injury to the poor. The labourers acknowledged his friendly interest in them; he had, they said, compelled them to take care of themselves. The principles adopted had a year or two previously been tried, without Nicholls's knowledge, by Robert Lowe, the rector, in the parish of Bingham, Nottinghamshire, who subsequently became one of Nicholls's intimate friends, and they had been advocated by Nicholls himself in the well-known series of eight 'Letters by an Overseer' written by him in 1821 to the Nottingham Journal, and afterwards reprinted as a pamphlet.

Nicholls's leading idea was to abolish outdoor relief, and to rely on the ‘workhouse test’ as a means of raising the condition of the poor. The principle was accepted in the subsequent poor-law legislation and administration. The system of denying parish relief to the poor except as a last and unpleasant resort was suggested to Nicholls by his observation of the great difference at Farndon between the condition of non-settled labourers, who were obliged to shift for themselves, and that of those belonging to and therefore having a claim upon the parish; the condition of the latter being much the worse of the two. At Southwell, too, he instituted a ‘workhouse school,’ to which children of labourers with large families and applying for relief were admitted and kept during the day, returning to their parents at night.

Early in 1823, having been consulted by George Barrow as to the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal (at that time languishing for want of funds), he moved at the request and cost of the company to Gloucester, taking up his residence at Longford House. For three years he practically controlled the concern, his only remuneration being the payment by the company of his household expenses. During this period he engaged in other commercial and quasi-nautical enterprises, acting in most of them in concert with Telford the engineer, between whom and himself there existed thenceforward a warm friendship. Telford eventually appointed him one of his residuary legatees. Among their joint schemes was the famous plan of the English and Bristol Channels Ship Canal, in favour of which in December 1824 he and Telford reported, he on the nautical and financial questions, Telford on the engineering difficulties. The reports were adopted, and an act of parliament obtained. The crisis of 1825-6, however, effectually hindered the raising of the necessary funds; and the introduction of locomotion by steam soon removed the need for the work. About the same time he was asked by Alexander Baring, afterwards Lord Ashburton, to go out and report on the feasibility of a Panama Ship Canal, but declined on account of the climate. In the autumn of 1825 he was called upon to report on a scheme for making a harbour at Lowestoft, with a ship canal thence to Norwich.

In November 1826 Nicholls accepted the appointment of superintendent of the branch of the Bank of England which was then first established at Birmingham. He had previously declined a similar appointment at Gloucester, where the branch had been established, through his exertions, to replace the bank of Turner, Morris & Turner, which had recently failed, and in the winding-up of the affairs of which he had taken a leading part. He moved to Birmingham in December 1826, and — except for three or four years, during which he lived at the Friary, Handsworth — he resided with his family on the bank premises. His life at Birmingham was a very active one. He found time for many things besides his official duties. He established the Birmingham Savings Bank. He was an active town's commissioner. He was a working member of the committee of the Birmingham General Hospital. He originated and organised a system under which taxes were paid through the Bank of England branch, a system which was afterwards extended to other branches throughout the country. He was a member of the Society of Arts, and was concerned in the provision of the building for the exhibition of pictures and statuary in New Street. He became a director of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, and remained at the board until his death, being chairman during the last twelve years. In 1829 he was consulted by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, on the general condition of Birmingham, and the friendly intercourse thus begun was never afterwards broken. During this period he refused an offer of a partnership in Moilliett's bank; and also an invitation by John (afterwards Sir John) Gladstone to join a proposed firm for the purpose of establishing a system of commercial agencies connecting England and the East. It was proposed that Nicholls should go out to organise branches at Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Singapore, and Canton, and that a post should be reserved for him at Liverpool or London on his return.

In the meantime the first poor-law commissioners, appointed in February 1832, had drawn up their report. Nicholls had been especially applied to by them (through Mr. Cowell, one of the assistant commissioners) in the course of their inquiries, and the report, published in February 1834, contains frequent favourable references to the system in work at Bingham and Southwell, the principles ultimately recommended as the basis of legislation being those which had been advocated in Nicholls's ‘Letters by an Overseer.’ The Poor-law Amendment Act (4 and 5 Will. IV, c. 76) was passed the same year, and in August Nicholls was appointed one of the three commissioners entrusted with its administration, the other two being Sir T. Frankland Lewis (afterwards succeeded by his son, Sir George Cornewall Lewis) and Mr. J. G. Shaw-Lefevre (afterwards succeeded by Sir Edmund Head); Edwin Chadwick was appointed secretary.

Thenceforth Nicholls lived in London. The bank was very anxious to retain him at Birmingham, and he accepted his new office only under strong pressure from Lord Melbourne, and at some pecuniary loss to himself. He remained a member of the poor-law commission until its reconstitution in 1847. The question of the Irish poor law in the meantime became urgent; no feasible scheme was forthcoming till 1836, when Nicholls submitted to Lord John Russell, by request, certain ‘suggestions’ on the subject. In June 1836, and again in the autumn of 1837, Nicholls was sent over to Ireland to inquire as to the best form of legislation. His two reports (dated respectively 15 November 1836 and 3 November 1837) were approved, and were to a great extent the foundation of the provisions of the Irish Poor-law Act, 1838 (1 and 2 Vict. c. 56). He was also, early in 1838, sent by the government to Holland and Belgium to make examination of the mode of administering relief and the condition of the poorer classes in those countries. His report is dated 5 May 1838. Upon the passing of the Irish act he was requested by government to superintend the early stages of its introduction, and he accordingly proceeded in September 1838 to Ireland, residing, with his wife and children, at Lis-an-iskea, Blackrock, Dublin. He did not return to London till November 1842. The task of directing the working of the measure proved very difficult, and his efforts were hampered by party opposition. The Irish poor law and its administration were subjected to violent criticism, both in and out of parliament; but the bitterest opponents bore testimony to Nicholls's character and ability.

On the reorganisation of the poor-law board in 1847, Nicholls became its ‘permanent’ secretary, Lord Ebrington being appointed its ‘parliamentary’ secretary. In April 1848 he was made a C.B., the appointment being one of the first batch following the extension of the order of civilians. In January 1851 he retired from office through ill-health, with a pension and the title of K.C.B. (March 1851). The remainder of his life he chiefly devoted to writing on the poor and the poor laws. Between 1848 and 1857 he was consulted three times by persons making inquiries on behalf of the French government, and once by Professor Kries of Breslau, the object in all four cases being to obtain materials for proposed poor law legislation on the continent. He continued to take an active part in the affairs of the Birmingham Canal, and he was also a working member of the committee of the Rock Life Assurance Company. On 24 March 1865 he died at his house, No. 17 (afterwards No. 1) Hyde Park Street, London.

On 6 July 1813 he had married Harriet, daughter of Brough Maltby of Southwell, Nottinghamshire. She survived her husband till May 1869. They had issue one son, the Rev. Henry George Nicholls, who married Caroline Maria, daughter of his uncle Solomon Nicholls, and seven daughters: Georgiana Elizabeth, Charlotte (who married W. F. Wingfield), Emily, Jane (who married Rev. P. T. Ouvry), Mary Grace, Harriet (who died in infancy), and Catharine Harriet (who married W. W. Willink). Nicholls was author of:

  1. ‘Eight Letters on the Management of our Poor and the General Administration of the Poor Laws. By an Overseer,’ 1823.
  2. Three Reports by George Nicholls, esq., to H. M. Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department,’ 1838.
  3. ‘The Farmer's Guide,’ Dublin, 1841.
  4. ‘The Farmer,’ London, 1844.
  5. ‘On the Condition of the Agricultural Labourer,’ 1847.
  6. ‘The Flax-Grower,’ 1848 (reprinted, with additions, from vol. viii. of Royal Agricultural Society's ‘Journal’).
  7. ‘A History of the English Poor Law,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1854.
  8. ‘A History of the Scotch Poor Law,’ 8vo, 1856.
  9. ‘A History of the Irish Poor Law,’ 8vo, 1856.


Stephen, Sir Lesley, and Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900. London, Oxford University Press, 1949.

Last modified 1 November 2002