Leek industrialist Joshua Nicholson was a self-made man.
Born on October 26th, 1812 at Luddensfoot, a village near Halifax, he was the youngest son of builder Joshua Nicholson senior and his wife Rachel.
Apprenticed to a textile merchant in Bradford, young Joshua studied theology and politics in his spare time. He supported the free trade movement and campaigned for the abolition of the Corn Laws.
In January, 1837, Joshua left Yorkshire and came to Leek when he became a sales consultant for silk manufacturers J. & J. Brough.
A few months later, on September 13th, he married Ellen Oldfield, whose father was a saddler in Wakefield. The couple had four children, a daughter Mary and three sons Joshua junior, Arthur and Harry.
Hardworking and conscientious, Joshua became a partner in the firm. The company changed its name to Brough, Nicholson & Co. and he was made senior partner when the Broughs retired.
The Nicholsons were devout Christians who worshipped at the Congregational Church in Derby Street. Proud of his achievements, Joshua believed that workingmen should be given an education and the opportunity to better themselves. Helped by the Brough brothers, he established the Mechanics Institute in Russell Street where evening classes in art and science were held.
By the 1880s, Leek had 12 schools, including a boys’ grammar school established in 1723 and a ragged school opened in 1870. The Mechanics Institute was too small to meet the growing demand for further education and Joshua decided to build the Nicholson Institute in Stockwell Street. Two architects, William Sugden and his son Larner, were employed to design the building whose foundation stone was laid by Joshua’s wife Ellen on September 11th, 1882.
A three storey Renaissance style brick building, the Institute cost £20,000. Its front elevation facing Stockwell Street contained stone relief effigies of William Shakespeare, Joshua Reynolds, Isaac Newton and Lord Tennyson carved by sculptor Stephen Webb. The main entrance at the east end was at the base of a tower 100 feet high which had a domed roof covered with copper.
Opened by Staffordshire’s Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wrottesley, on October 16th, 1884, the Institute housed a museum and art gallery, an art school and a library. William Hall was the librarian. His salary was £125 a year. The library contained 6,000 books and had a reading room containing newspapers and magazines. An exhibition of paintings by leading artists including Landseer, Rubens and Canaletto was held to celebrate the opening. The North Staffordshire Railway Company supported the exhibition and issued special cheap day return tickets for visitors from the Potteries.
Joshua died aged 72 on August 24th, 1885 and was buried in Leek cemetery.
(Betty Cooper – The Phoenix Trust)
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