Frank Nicholls - Obituary

H F E Nicholls  1917 - 2012

Borden Grammar School 1946 to 1980

The psalm which was recited at Frank Nicholls’ funeral speaks of the years of our life as ‘three score and ten’, going on to speak of those who manage ‘four score’ as having to endure ‘labour and sorrow’. What then can we say of one who managed not three score and ten, nor yet four score, but four score and fifteen?

Frank Nicholls was even able till the very last to avoid the psalmist’s ‘labour and sorrow’, remaining in reasonably good health almost until the end. Surviving a major cancer operation at the time of his ninetieth birthday, even though somewhat restricted in his activities, he was able to live quietly in the home he had owned for nearly sixty years, enjoying visits from friends and relations, with his books, his radio, and latterly his television.

Frank (he never used his first name, Henley, except when signing cheques) was born during WW1. He profited from a scholarship to Beck School Tooting which led him on to King’s College London where as well as taking a degree in English he gained the AKC diploma, a qualification in Divinity to gain which one had only, he recalled, to be able to list the names of the Kings of Israel.

War service with the Pioneer Corps was endured and encouraged by his correspondence with a certain Mary Evans whom he had come to know in the Kings College Christian Union of which he was Secretary before the war.

This Mary Evans, much courted by others while at Kings, including a young man who was later to become the Bishop of Carlisle (whom she only encouraged because, as she later confessed, he had a sports car), eventually became Mary Nicholls soon after the war, when Frank, after two years teaching in London, joined the staff of a small provincial Grammar School in Sittingbourne where he served until his retirement in 1980, first as an assistant master of English, and quite soon as Head of English. It was there in 1969 that I first met Frank, and we soon became good friends, later to be cemented by our involvement in the Borden-Highsted Choir where in the heady days of the 1980s we delivered full length oratorios by Handel, Haydn, Brahms, Elgar and Mendelssohn.

Frank for many years had been in charge of the annual school play; his memorable production of The Real Inspector Hound being the first I saw. He encouraged my first essay in play-directing in Molière’s Miser. He later handed the play on to Gillian Grinham, and then to the late Jon Adams. His final contribution to school drama was an atmospheric production of The Long and the Short and the Tall which evoked his own experiences in the British Army.

Frank would have denied that he had made any real contribution to education. His philosophy was ‘They know nothing about English Language or Literature; I know a little, so they had better listen to me, and they might learn something’. He held all educational theorists, especially pontificating politicians, in total disdain.

For Frank (usually known to the pupils as ‘Nick’) was an exacting teacher, unsympathetic to the idle. He insisted firmly on correct grammar and spelling, having little time for new ideas. He was scathing about visiting inspectors who criticised his style as pedantic and outmoded, and often said so to their face. One inspector who suggested that the class might have an initial ‘discussion’ about Macbeth was told that no serious discussion of the play could take place until the class had read the play and learnt something of its context.

He instilled in a whole generation of pupils the art of clear sentence construction, principally through the medium of Clause Analysis. He rued the day that ‘progressive’ examiners deleted it from the syllabus and set in stone the sloppy prose style found in today’s journalists and in the speech of politicians. His greatest delight was in poetry for which his memory was formidable. Until the very end he could quote at length from Tennyson, Shelley, and most of their 19th c. contemporaries. His memory extended widely into popular verse including the patriotic songs learnt at primary school, and the choruses he had learnt in the Baptist Chapel where his father was an Elder.

Good health accompanied Frank and his wife for a decade and a half into their years of retirement, allowing them to travel all over the world: many times to Australia and New Zealand, as well as the USA, South America including Cape Horn and the Galapagos, as well as China and India. Long-distance travel eventually became too demanding, and after the death of his wife Mary in 2003 he was content to stay at home.

Frank’s earlier evangelical beliefs suffered some disillusionment during and after WW2, and he would latterly express himself as an unconvinced agnostic.

His long life, well beyond the psalmist’s three score and ten or four score, speaks to us of what we may call the unremarkable ordinariness of extraordinary lives, outwardly causing few waves, yet redolent of those of whom the novelist George Eliot speaks at the close of Middlemarch, writing “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”.


Richard Carter

Head of Languages at BGS 1969 -1996


Comment received from Nicholas Vincent: 

To Richard Carter's tribute to Frank Nicholls might I add the following?  Like others who went through the Nicholls mill, I owe Frank an enormous debt of gratitude.  He taught us a precision and a sensitivity to prose style that abides, even forty years on.  His contempt for the pompous and the slapdash knew few bounds.  But then nor did his rich sense of the ridiculous.   He abhorred cant.  In doing so, he earned not just our admiration but our trust.

Nicholas Vincent (1975-80)