Emeritus Professor John Nicholson

Born 1922, died 2015. Former chair in Econometrics and Pro Vice-Chancellor.

The University is grateful to Mrs Helen Perry for sending this obituary to us and for setting up a fund to remember Prof Nicholson. Over £1,000 has been raised and will provide an Economics student with a Prof John Nicholson Scholarship.

Emeritus Professor John Nicholson, who came to Sheffield in 1971 as the first incumbent of a new chair in Econometrics and was a Pro Vice-Chancellor from 1983 to 1987, died on 23 January 2015, aged 92, after a brief illness.

John was born in Waterlooville, Hampshire on 6 December 1922. The son of a Baptist minister, his father’s job took the family to several different parts of the country and John lived in Cornwall, East Anglia and Essex during his childhood.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1942 as an Ordinary Seaman and served on one of the most important and bloody Arctic Convoys - PQ18. According to the history books, the convoy was under continuous attack by submarines and aircraft and of the 39 merchant ships which set out, only 27 reached Russia. John’s ship reached Murmansk and delivered its cargo, but on the return voyage he was nearly washed overboard by a wave, which instead impaled him onto the ship. He survived this near fatal injury, but that was the end of his war service. He rarely spoke of his war time experiences, but was very pleased with the belated award of the Arctic Convoy Star by the British Government. In the weeks before his death the Russian Government announced that he was to receive the Admiral Ushakov medal, but sadly he died before he could receive the medal in person. However, a few days after his death, the Russian Military Attaché presented the medal to his wife Beryl at a ceremony at the University of Sheffield.

After his war service in the Royal Navy (1942-43), John went to King’s College, Cambridge (1943-1946) on the programme for ex-service men. He read Economics, winning the Adam Smith prize, but also found time to travel the country with the aim of seeing performances of each of Shakespeare’s plays. On graduating, he briefly worked for the Board of Trade – Scientific Division, and was then recommended for a post as Research Assistant at Queen’s University Belfast where he worked from 1947 to 1950. After Belfast he went to Hull as a Lecturer and was promoted to Senior Lecturer and then Reader. During this period he worked in the vitally important housing area. There was a desperate housing shortage and paying for it during the austerity period after the war was a nightmare. Harold Macmillan, in 1951 as housing minister, had promised 400,000 homes a year and John was crucially involved in the economic modelling and statistics to ensure the funding. He very much enjoyed his time at Hull, where he was a drinking companion of Philip Larkin, and it was while there that he published, in 1961, his detective novel “The White Shroud.”

He came to Sheffield in 1971 as the first incumbent of a new chair in Econometrics in the Department of Economic Studies. Econometrics essentially deals with measurement in Economics. In his Inaugural lecture (Bulletin of Economic Research 25 (1973) 3-21) he outlined his philosophy: “I see economic theory and measurement in economics as part of the same subject, each part gaining from work done in the other, and with the same purpose in mind: to increase our understanding of the development and growth of the society in which we live”. During the time in Belfast and Hull, as well as Sheffield, his experience in housing finance, combined with his grasp of the underlying theory, was used in several developing countries (funded by UN and UK government programmes).

In 1974 he was Chairman of the department and then from 1983 to 1987 he became a Pro Vice-Chancellor. The PVC election process required the nomination by a significant number of staff and was indicative of the respect in which he was held by staff in general. During his period of PVC, there was a cut back in University funding. All Universities had to reduce staff numbers and a national early retirement scheme was introduced. John volunteered to implement the contentious and difficult task. He was the ideal man as he was widely respected and a man of the highest integrity. Despite his reserved personality he completed, in a sensitive manner, the immense task of interviewing staff to whom early retirement had been suggested, or those who came forward whom the University could ill afford to lose; seeing all who needed advice, or general counselling.

When he retired in 1988, the Registrar and Secretary sent him a letter, part of which read “Only those close to the events of the last two years will know that without the Council Committee and without you as its Chairman, this University would quite literally not have survived. When the story comes to be written, your place in the history and life of this institution will be guaranteed, and quite rightly so”.

In 1989 John was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus in recognition of his distinguished professional service.

John was an enthusiastic traveller, visiting Korea and Mauritius, among various other places, on behalf of the University, but it was not until he retired that he felt able to fulfil his childhood dream of seeing South America. He was a pioneer of the Gringo trail and was often the oldest walker in a group of backpackers exploring the salt flats of Bolivia, the ruins of Macchu Pichu, and the Chilean Atacama Desert. Closer to home he enjoyed many European walking holidays in the company of his wife Beryl, whom he met and married relatively late in life. On his marriage John acquired an instant family of three daughters and three grandchildren to whom he was a kind and loving father and grandfather. In his retirement he was able to indulge his love of theatre and music, particularly opera, and he pursued a new found interest in Bridge with zeal and enthusiasm, playing twice a week until shortly before his death. John was a generous host and he and Beryl took pleasure in seeing others enjoy themselves at the parties they gave. Colleagues and friends remember him as a good man: well liked, respected and trusted. Having suffered some pain and privation in his early years, he very much appreciated the full and successful life that came after and savoured, along with Shakespeare and Sibelius, a glass of good Shiraz.