Skip to main content

Norton Nicholls papers

Call Number: Osborn c467

Scope and Contents

The Norton Nicholls Papers consist of 848 letters and a small number of miscellaneous papers documenting the life of the Reverend Norton Nicholls. The papers span the dates 1750-1811, with the bulk of the material dating from between 1770 and 1790.

The correspondence is arranged chronologically in eight bound volumes. The letters are numbered both in a single chronological sequence and separately within each volume. Only the former are used in the register. The miscellaneous personal papers are found at the end of volume 8.

The correspondence of Norton Nicholls provides a detailed picture of the daily life of a rural minister with literary interests during the last half of the eighteenth century. Somewhat over half of the letters in the collection are from Norton Nicholls to his mother Jane Floyer Nicholls; the remainder are nearly all to Norton Nicholls from a variety of friends and relatives. A few are copies of letters by Nicholls to others. (It should be noted that the Gray letters presently in the collection are copies of originals now at Eton.)

Nicholls's letters to his mother provide excellent documentation of his daily activities, financial affairs, and cultural interests. Early letters contain news about both the Nicholls and the Floyer families; much information about the Nichollses' income; descriptions of Nicholls's life and studies at Eton and Cambridge; and comments concerning his friendship with Thomas Gray. Several letters discuss Nicholls's interests in music and literature. For example, a 1760 note informs his mother that "The Nouvelle Heloise is scarcely worth your reading--and positively improper for my cousin Fanny."

There are approximately forty letters from Nicholls to his mother written during his Grand Tour, and these provide detailed descriptions of places and scenery, travel arrangements, and Nicholls's persistent financial problems. Those written from Italy contain much information about the daily lives of his friends and traveling companions, and on the social and political activities of the Milanese court, including a misunderstanding Nicholls had with a "Madame Balbi" while he was there.

The last letters from this period detail Nicholls's reluctance to return to Suffolk; in a December 1772 letter he exclaimed, "I am absolutely incapable of living forever at Blundeston! It appears dismal to me at this distance!" He did return early in the following year, however, and the remainder of his letters to his mother concern his daily life as rector of two parishes in Suffolk. Topics include financial matters, family members, parish business, farming, ornamental gardening, Nicholls's health, and social life in Suffolk. Letters written during his extended stay in Scotland comment on Scottish social life and customs, his cousin Fanny Floyer Erskine, and the Earl of Findlater. Nicholls's many visits to London are documented in letters describing operas, plays, amateur musicales, and dinners.

Letters from relatives in both the Floyer and Nicholls families are largely concerned with family news and finances. Most of the information concerning the elder Nicholls comes from these letters, including the report that "he died at Manilha sometime after the capture of that place" (25 Sep 1767). As the Nichollses were financially assisted by their relatives, many of the letters they received contained financial advice. A letter of 1771, for example, from George Nicholls discusses Norton's proposed journey to Italy and questions "How far it may be proper in Norton's state in life."

Nicholls's correspondence from his friends is concerned with other subjects. The letters of Thomas Gray discuss literature, Nicholls's studies, and Gray's health, and offer advice to Nicholls concerning his clerical career. Through Gray, Nicholls became a friend of Charles de Bonstetten, whose letters contain news of Gray, descriptions of Bonstetten's own travels, and political gossip. Also during his years at school, Nicholls met John Wheler, who like him was ordained in the late 1760s, and began a friendship which continued until Wheler's death. Wheler's letters discuss family news, London social events, sermons, politics, and literature.

Nicholls first became acquainted with many of his lifelong correspondents while on his Grand Tour, including Count Charles Firmian; James Ogilvy, later earl of Findlater; Count Wilseck; and Captain John Minifie, "an Englishman in the Empress's service." There are almost four dozen letters by Minifie in the collection, detailing his travels and his political observations on subjects ranging from the American Revolution to the attempted reforms of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor. Other Continental correspondents include Leopoldina Stahremberg, the duchess di Castelpagano, and Ipolito Salviati Caprara. Their letters usually contain news of acquaintances, social gossip, and descriptions of cultural events.

Other correspondents include Thomas David Boswell, with whom he was an executor of William Johnson Temple's estate; Octavius Temple; Dawson Turner; and John Casamajor. A group of letters written in 1799 and 1800 document a serious quarrel among Nicholls and several people concerning a insulting comment Nicholls had supposedly made about the mistress of the duke of Queensbury. The letters of Robert Reeve, Thomas Thurtell, and other farmers comment on such matters as the 1802 Enclosure Act riots in Suffolk, "the Hydra of the French Revolution," and the increasing difficulty Nicholls and other ministers had in collecting tithes. Nicholls's continuing interest in music and literature is apparent in the correspondence of Miss S. A. Glover, Mrs. Anderson, and Mary Gurdon.

The last volume of the correspondence also contains a variety of personal papers. These include Nicholls's will, its probate, and a final account of the estate; stray notes on his Italian tour; several elaborate epitaphs on relatives; and law notes in the hand of John Wheler. There are also lists of songs, pictures, and sculptures "exhibited at Richmond this season" and about fifteen copies of miscellaneous poems, including "Verses to Clarinda on Fortune-Telling, by Lord Hervey," "Advice from an Aunt to a Niece," and "On Marriage with an Old Woman."


  • 1750-1811


Language of Materials

In English, French, Italian, and German.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Norton Nicholls Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Norton Nicholls Papers were purchased in 1983 on the Osborn Gift Fund.


2 Linear Feet (8 volumes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers document aspects of the life and career of Norton Nicholls, especially his Grand Tour (1770-1773), his friendships, and his family relationships. Major correspondents include Jane Floyer Nicholls, Karl von Bonstetten, Thomas Gray, John Minifie, and Thomas David Boswell.


Norton Nicholls was born in Lisbon on February 24, 1742, the only surviving child of Jane Floyer Nicholls and Norton Nicholls. The family returned to London by 1745, but the elder Nicholls became bankrupt and abandoned his family, leaving only a small annuity for his wife. With the assistance of Charles Floyer, an East India merchant, Nicholls was educated at Enfield School, Eton, and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, receiving his LL.B in 1766. The death of Charles Floyer in that year severely reduced his income, and in the following year Nicholls was presented to the livings of Lound and Bradwell in Suffolk, which he retained until his death.

While at Cambridge, Nicholls was befriended by Thomas Gray, who advised him in his studies and encouraged him to pursue a career in the church. In 1770 he and Gray traveled through the Midlands together, and Nicholls kept a journal of that excursion. Gray encouraged him to make the Grand Tour, and in June 1771 Nicholls set out for what was intended to be a year in France, Switzerland, and Italy.

Nicholls remained abroad for two years, returning home in financial difficulties that were not resolved for many years. While traveling, he made several lifelong friendships, particularly with Count Charles Firmian, the Austrian minister at Milan; Charles de Bonstetten; James Ogilvy, earl of Findlater; and John Minifie.

He returned to Suffolk in the late spring of 1773 and settled with his mother at Blundeston, as there was no rectory in either of his parishes. He farmed his land, laid out ornamental gardens, pursued his interests in music and literature, and entertained often. While he never revisited the Continent, he made an extended visit to Scotland in 1779-80, possibly in the hopes of some employment with Lord Findlater. In 1786 he traveled to Ireland in the company of Lord Fitzwilliam, but again returned to Suffolk. Nicholls visited London for about two months in every year, attending operas, plays, and literary gatherings.

Jane Floyer Nicholls died in 1800. Nicholls's last years were spent quietly at Blundeston, where he attended to family matters, received a few friends, and corresponded with many more. Norton Nicholls died "from the sudden bursting of a blood-vessel" on November 22, 1809.

Processing Information

Former call number: OSB MSS c467

Guide to the Norton Nicholls Correspondence
Under Revision
by Joel Graham and Diane J. Ducharme
February 1989
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977


121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours

Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.