Anyone who knew the Nicholson family would probably not have been surprised by Wilfred’s sinister costume choice. Mephistopheles was a devil who oversaw the scholar Faustus’ study of magic in exchange for his eternal soul. He is associated with hell and the dark potential of science. The costume choice was likely a humorous reference to the Nicholson family’s business: in 1804 Wilfred’s grandfather had founded a sulphuric acid manufacturing company in Hunslet (John Nicholson & Sons).
Born in Hunslet to John and Mary in 1876, Wilfred Ernest Nicholson had two sisters, Jeannie and Hilda, who are not present in the album but may well have attended anyway (at least 200 children who went to the Ball were not photographed). Very little is known about Wilfred’s mother or his sisters. By 1901 at the age of twenty-five, Wilfred had joined his father’s business: he was listed as a ‘sulphuric acid manufacturer’ in a 1901 census. However, it is likely he started work slightly earlier than this. By 1911, he had been married to his wife, Annie Amelia, for two years and was living in Doncaster. At some point, he moved to Devon; it is possible he retired there. It is not known if Wilfred and Annie had any children, but this seems unlikely because at the time of his death in 1946, aged seventy, he left his sizeable fortune of £166, 390 – close to £5 million in today’s money – to his housekeeper. The Western Times, an Exeter paper, reported on Wilfred’s death in an 18/10/1946 edition: it stated that Wilfred had requested that his death not be reported, that no mourners should attend his funeral, and that his ashes should be scattered. From this it is possible to suggest that Wilfred may have been an intensely private man.
In April 1903, when Wilfred was twenty-seven years old, he accidentally ran down a forty-two-year-old man in Woodhouse Lane. The Yorkshire Post reported that the victim, John Alderson, had been standing in the road looking at the sky, seemingly oblivious to Wilfred’s horn, and had stepped into the path of the car as Wilfred had moved to avoid him. John sustained a fractured skull and was taken to hospital, but it appears he died from his injuries as his death is listed in the Civil Death Registration Index for April-May-June 1903. Witnesses of the event testified that Wilfred had tried to avoid the man, and had immediately gone back to help him after the incident. Although police were involved it was classified as ‘an unfortunate accident’ and Wilfred was not charged.
1903 was not a good year for Wilfred: it was at this time that the family business, John Nicholson and Sons, was taken to court by Baystock & Co. Ltd, a sugar refinery company. John Nicholson and Sons supplied sulphuric acid to Baystock & Co Ltd., who used it to process sugar for beer and supplied to local breweries. Unfortunately, at some stage in the process the sugar was contaminated with arsenic; this was only discovered after more than twenty-five people died from drinking poisoned beer across the Yorkshire area in 1901. The case received national attention: it was variously referred to as the “Beer Poisoning Trial” and the “Beer Scare” and impacted significantly on the businesses of John Nicholson and Sons and Baystock & Co Ltd., both of whom temporarily had to suspend operations. Baystock & Co Ltd. claimed that that they had been unaware that John Nicholson and Sons used a method called pyrite roasting (which can produce arsenic as a bi-product) as a cheaper alternative to sulphur burning in their sulphuric acid manufacturing process; they claimed £300, 000 in damages, a massive amount of money at the time. Wilfred’s father, John Nicholson, represented his company at the trial and insisted that John Nicholson & Sons were unaware the acid they supplied to Baystock & Co Ltd. was being used in food production. The Judge decided that fault lay with both parties and did not award damages in favour of Baystock & Co. Ltd.
After the trial, which was finally resolved in 1904, the company recovered and continued to do very well. Upon Wilfred’s death in 1946, John Nicholson and Sons was acquired by B. Laporte (Laporte Chemicals).
By Joshua King, WRoCAH funded researcher.
Read the first in Joshua’s blog series on the children of the 1891 ball, about the Scarborough Loe children, here.
For more information on our Social History collection, visit our website.