John Nicholson was born in Attercliffe in the east end of Sheffield in 1864. His first calling was in the legal profession as he trained as a chief clerk for a firm of Sheffield solicitors. In his spare time he was secretary of Attercliffe Football Club, later becoming assistant secretary of the Sheffield and Hallamshire Football Association and serving on the committee of the Midland League, occupying several positions

When Sheffield United Football Club became a limited company in 1899 Nicholson was invited by directors Sir Charles Clegg and Arthur Neal to become secretary of the club, reporting to its committee. He proved to be the ideal choice as he held the position for more than three decades and oversaw some of the most successful years in the club’s history, when United won the FA Cup three times.
Nicholson is often put forward as United’s most successful manager ever, his position sometimes being described as secretary/manager, but his job could not be compared with that of a modern-day football manager. It was the responsibility of the committee to buy and sell players and pick the team, whilst the trainer (George Waller at United) was in charge of the physical condition of the players. The secretary/manager role was more of an administrative task, an intermediary between the committee and the football staff. However, it was Nicholson who undertook the formalities of signing
players, and went to some lengths to do so. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, ‘one of his cleverest moves was when he delayed the start of an express train while he signed Bert Lipsham’, and another time ‘before he fixed up Bob Benson he had to travel to London, then on to Southampton, back to Newcastle, and finished an eventful journey with a ride to an outlandish village’.

He was an all-rounder too, on one occasion standing in for a linesman at a United match when the official missed his train. He continued as a member of the council of the Sheffield and Hallamshire Football Association for a total of 41 years and was noted for his extensive knowledge of football rules and regulations. At the end of the 1914/15 season when organised professional football was abandoned due to the war, Nicholson virtually took charge of the Football League annual general meeting in Blackpool at which reorganisation on a regional basis was discussed. The industrious and meticulous Nicholson rounded up his counterparts at other clubs and had the Yorkshire section finalised in no time, such that when Football League secretary John McKenna returned to the meeting room he seemed very
pleased, and remarked: ‘This is some business.’ If Nicholson had a weakness, it was looking after money. In their book ‘Sheffield United Football Club Who’s Who’, authors Denis Clarebrough and
Andrew Kirkham wrote that ‘auditors dreaded opening the door in a huge rolltop desk where bills, receipts and so forth were stored and queries as to “perhaps missing” petty cash were stopped in their tracks by money from Nicholson’s wallet,’ although, on the plus side, he was known to be strong in standing up to players’ pay demands.

Nicholson served Sheffield United until his untimely death on April 23, 1932, which was reported in the Manchester Guardian two days later:





Mr John Nicholson, secretary of the Sheffield United Football Club, was knocked down by a lorry and killed as he was about to set off from Sheffield with the team for their match on Saturday with Aston Villa at Birmingham. The players were waiting at the railway station for Mr Nicholson to join them with their tickets, and they saw him killed. He was seen to alight from a tram-car, and as he came from behind the car to cross the road he failed to see an approaching coal lorry and was knocked down. He suffered severe head injuries, and was carried to the pavement, where he died while receiving first-aid from a railway clerk.

Mr Nicholson had been secretary of the United club for 33 years, and he was for many years a member of the Sheffield and Hallamshire County Football Association. He was also keenly interested in cricket.He was a past president of Yorkshire Council. Before becoming secretary of the United club Mr Nicholson was chief clerk to the late Mr Benjamin Bagshawe, solicitor, who was deputy coroner for
Sheffield. At Hillsborough, Sheffield, before the Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland match the players and officials together with the crowd stood to attention while the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ was played by the band. Just before the start of the Aston Villa v Sheffield United match at Birmingham the players lined up in the centre of the field while the crowd stood bareheaded and the band played ‘Abide with Me’.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph report contradicted that of the Guardian by stating that the players did not witness the incident ‘but they soon heard of it, though it was not until they got to Birmingham that they learned of the full extent of the tragedy’. The report continued: ‘If it were possible the match at Birmingham would have been cancelled, but in the Football League there is no alternative but to fulfill fixtures,’ a policy that seems rather insensitive today. Nicholson, at 68, was the oldest club secretary in professional football, and left a widow and a married daughter.
Sir Charles Clegg, at the time president of the Football Association, said: ‘I was greatly shocked when I heard the news of Mr Nicholson’s death in London yesterday. He was an old friend, and I have always had the greatest respect for him. He was wonderfully efficient and accurate in everything he undertook. His passing leaves a big gap in football, and we in Sheffield will miss him particularly, because he was such a rare worker in the cause of junior football.’

Mr John McKenna, president of the Football League, added his own words of tribute: ‘Mr Nicholson was one of the oldest and nicest secretaries a club ever had, and the League management committee members were dumbfounded to  hear of the tragedy. It is terrible, and I wish to convey to all Mr Nicholson’s relatives, and to the Sheffield United club, and the Sheffield people also, the regret of myself and my colleagues. I have known Mr Nicholson for well over thirty years, and always found him one of the most honest and straightforward of friends.’ There was sympathy too from across the city. Sheffield Wednesday chairman Mr G. W. Turner said: ‘It is a football tragedy. His death has cast a gloom across everything. Football has suffered a great loss.’ Expressions of condolence flooded in from throughout the football world, and also from Lord Hawke, the venerable president and former captain of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, who wrote:
I am more than sorry to hear of the sad death of Mr John Nicholson. I have known him for years. He was a good, kind soul, and always very obliging. I should say he has given excellent service to Bramall Lane and United football. I would like to convey to the United Board the sincere sympathy of our Cricket Committee in their great and sudden loss of a very valuable secretary. 

The inquest into Nicholson’s death was opened a few days later, and was reported in the Manchester Guardian on April 27:



As a result of the fatal accident to Mr John Nicholson, secretary of Sheffield United Football Club, in the square in front of L.M.S. station in Sheffield, representations are to be made to the police to place signs diverting traffic in certain directions so as to make the square safer for pedestrians. At the inquest on Mr Nicholson yesterday the Deputy Coroner, Colonel Connell, referred to the square as a death-trap, and the jury expressed the opinion that some signals should be placed in the square to control traffic. The Deputy Coroner said he had already asked the police to adopt some method which would avoid a recurrence of such accidents. A verdict of accidental death was returned, and the lorry driver was exonerated from blame.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported the inquest in more detail:




Returning a verdict of ‘Accidental death’ yesterday at the inquest on Mr John Nicholson, secretary of Sheffield United Football Club, who was killed by a motor lorry outside the London Midland and Scottish railway station on Saturday, while on his way to join the United team who were entraining for Birmingham, the jury exonerated the lorry driver, and expressed the view that warning signals should be placed at the ‘death trap’ spot to ensure the future safety of the public. Stating that he agreed with the verdict, the Deputy Coroner (Colonel A. M.Connell) said he had already asked the police inspector present to inform the Chief Constable of the strong feeling of the Court for the adoption of some safety methods. 

Mr F. W. Scorah represented the relatives; Mr Irwin Mitchell the lorry driver; Mr C. B. Dingle the Sheffield Corporation; and Inspector Moore the Sheffield Police Force. Mr William Nicholson, who identified the body, said his brother’s hearing was slightly impaired. A description of the accident was given by Frederick Hall, 107, Olive Grove Road. He stated that he was standing on the footpath just above the café facing the L.M.S. station, when he saw a ‘to City’ tramcar pull up opposite him. A man alighted from the car and went round the back of it as though to cross the road to the station. ‘He appeared to be in a hurry, and did not make any attempt to see if any traffic was coming from the city,’ said witness. ‘Through the window of the tramcar I saw  a lorry travelling at what I thought was a moderate speed along the “from City” track, past the stationary tramcar. I shouted to the man, but he did not appear to hear me, and walked in front of the oncoming lorry. I heard the lorry driver sound his hooter. The man was struck by the front of the lorry on his left shoulder and head, but I did not see the wheels pass over him. I believe it was a pure accident.’ Witness expressed the view that the road is a ‘death trap’ and he agreed with Mr Scorah that of motor traffic went on the station side of a safety island it would leave pedestrians more room.
Mr Mitchell: ‘There are no direction signals indicating which way traffic is to go?’
Witness: ‘There are no signals.’
‘If a tramcar had been passing another car, the same thing would have happened?’
The Deputy Coroner intimated that he intended to see the Chief Constable about the diversion of the traffic. ‘You cannot get away from human nature,’ he said. ‘A man or woman who has a train to catch rushes from behind the tramcar without showing very much care. I do feel we could avoid these things by asking the Chief Constable to divert the traffic so that a person passing from the back of a tram has the width of the “from city” tram track to reach the island.’
Another witness, Eva Sykes (17), 117, Nidd Road, said that Mr Nicholson had his head bent and appeared to be in a hurry. The lorry driver sounded the hooter twice. He pulled up very quickly after the accident. The driver had no chance of avoiding Mr Nicholson. The lorry driver, Frederick Carter (24), 227 Petre Street, Sheffield, employed by Joseph Bishop, haulage contractor, 319 St Philip’s Road,
said he had five years’ driving experience. He did not see Mr Nicholson until he was practically in front of the lorry. Mr Nicholson seemed to be in a hurry. Witness had no opportunity of swerving to avoid Mr Nicholson. He travelled less than the length of the lorry before pulling up. Mr Nicholson was found between the front and rear wheels of the lorry. Questioned by the Deputy Coroner, he said he had a slight recollection that Mr Nicholson turned towards the lorry, paused slightly, and tried to run back again. Witness said he did everything to avoid the accident and always took special precautions when passing stationary tramcars. Witness estimated his speed at 12 miles an hour.In his summing up the Deputy Coroner said that Mr Nicholson was preoccupied at the time. Arousing himself from the pre-occupation he turned round and tried to avoid the lorry. That was unquestionably true by the description of the head wounds. Expressing sympathy with the relatives, Colonel Connell said that Mr Nicholson was an English gentlemen, a prominent figure in local sporting life, and a man of the greatest courtesy and geniality. Similar sentiments were voiced by Mr Mitchell (on behalf of the lorry driver), and by the jury.

Nicholson’s funeral was held on the afternoon of April 28, 1932 at Darnall Cemetery, preceded by a service at Ebenezer Wesleyan Chapel, Bramall Lane. Such was the demand for attendance at the service, admission was to be by ticket only, and limited to two hundred. This did not deter a far greater number of people than this from turning up, as was reported the next day in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph:



The funeral yesterday of Mr John Nicholson, for 33 years secretary of the Sheffield United Football Club, who was killed by a motor lorry last Saturday was one of the largest which has taken place in Sheffield in recent years. The interment at Darnall cemetery was preceded by a service at the Ebenezer Wesleyan Reform Church with which Mr Nicholson was associated, and which is within a stone’s throw of his labour for so many years.

Representatives were present from all parts of the country and over the border, and the coaches were piled with magnificent floral emblems, in which red and white, the colours of the club, were prominent. Although rain fell steadily while the mourners were assembling in the church, a great crowd of unofficial mourners, people who knew and admired Mr Nicholson, waited for the cortege to arrive. So great was the press that mounted police had to clear a way for the coaches. The same wonderful tributes were paid at the cemetery, where 6,000 people gathered. Here the cemetery gates had to be closed. The remains were enclosed in a coffin borne by eight Sheffield United players. Lining the forecourt of the church was a guard of honour, consisting of other Sheffield United players, and when the family mourners arrived from Mr Nicholson’s home in St Ronan’s Road, the edifice was crowded to overflowing with local and national figures in the sporting world. Several of the leading coaches were laden with magnificent floral emblems, Mr Nicholson’s old club colours, red and white, predominating. Suspended from the rear of one heavily stacked coach was a football worked in flowers of these colours. 

The large body of mourners included the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Alderman and Mrs T. H. Watkins) and the Master Cutler (Joseph Ward). The service was conducted by Dr D. Fowler, president of the church. Mr E. Beeley, at the organ, played ‘I know that My Redeemer liveth,’ and, at the close of the service, Chopin’s Marche 1Funebre. Mr Fowler said they were gathered to show their love and affection for one who had always been a true and constant friend. They were met from professional trade circles, from the realm of sport, from
churches, and from their homes, and they all thanked God for the life of a good man. Following the terrible tragedy of last Saturday, said Mr Fowler, the Press of Sheffield and of the country contributed wonderful expressions of their friend’s sterling life and character, and all of them were true and merited. ‘Many of you knew our friend by the name of John,’ said Mr Fowler, ‘Some of you knew him by the name of “Honest John” and some by “John Nicholson”. Everyone has known there has been some sacred cause for the great life that has given its contribution to almost every cause in this city.’ Mr Fowler paid tribute to the assistance given to Mr Nicholson by his wife and daughter, and added, ‘I want to say of him, as we said of the knight of old, “His strength was as the strength of ten because his heart was pure”.’ It had been written of Mr Nicholson that duty was a sacred thing, and those who came into contact with him found in him a true man. Quiet, considerate, consistent and unassuming, he was a man who was a strenuous worker, and one who was ever ready to help the smallest club
as well as the larger organisations. He was a man who always gave of his best and gave it without stint and without measure. Gatemen, players, staff, officials, directors, and men of every activity of life all felt alike that it was a privilege and an honour to be in the circle of the friendship of John Nicholson. He always had the best interests of everyone at heart. ‘Every activity of life that he touched was dignified by the power of his personality and by his honest character,’ said Mr Fowler. ‘It could be said of him as I believe his Maker will have said to
him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”’

The largest crowd ever seen at the Darnall Cemetery began to assemble as early as one o’clock, the cortege not being due to arrive until 2.45. Shortly after two o’clock, every available inch of available space in the precincts of the cemetery entrance and the approach to the grave was packed with people, whilst the roads outside were a solid mass of people all the way to Staniforth Road. The crowd inside and in the neighbourhood of the cemetery numbered at least 6,000. Police, mounted and on foot, had a busy time keeping the waiting crowd within
the prescribed limits. When the cortege arrived the waiting crowd stood in silence, their vigil of up to two hours’ duration in heavy drizzle being a remarkable tribute to the esteem in which Mr Nicholson was held among the humblest supporters of the game in that part of the city. As well as all the players and officials of Sheffield United, and thousands of members of the general public, the mourners included the entire Sheffield Wednesday team, a large number of officials of the Football League, the Football Association and the Sheffield and Hallamshire Football Association, and representatives of many professional clubs – Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Liverpool, Arsenal, West Bromwich Albion, Huddersfield Town, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Doncaster Rovers, Rotherham United, Bradford City, Mansfield Town, Notts County and Glasgow Celtic. Many other amateur football clubs and leagues, as well as several other sports and organisations, were also represented, as were churches, newspapers and local businesses 

The bearers of the coffin were current and former Sheffield United players Billy Gillespie, Jack Kendall, Fred Cheesmur, Harry Gooney, Jesse Bennett, Jimmy Holmes, Bert Oswald and Tommy Sampy. The floral tributes included emblems in the shape of a football, a cricket bat, a music stand and a harp with a broken string. The football tribute carried a sign indicating that it was from ‘His Lads’ – the players and the trainer, Tom Ratcliff. 

Some six weeks after Nicholson’s death, the former Chesterfield manager  Teddy Davison was appointed to replace him. Davison later became United’s first proper ‘manager’ as football in general modernised the structures that had been in place since the game’s inception in the 1850s. Davison remained at the club until 1952, meaning that United had just two ‘managers’ in more than five decades. How the game has changed!


In June 2016 I received this information from a descendent of John

"I have been on your website which may I say I am really impressed about. I am a ancestor of John Nicholson who was the Sheffield United secretary, I am currently doing a family tree my mum has all the birth certificates for family up to John Nicholson daughter and I believe he had a son that died in infancy but I'm just learning about this bit so it's a little shady. I was wondering if you are related to John has you have hell of a lot of information on you're site about him. Thank you has you have give me more of an insight into him"

I posted the article on John as I could only find the basic details in the SUFC reference books, and there was nothing about him on-line. Attached is John's full burial record which should help you and your mum with the family history

NICHOLSON, Harriet (Widow, age 74).
Died at Nursing Home; Buried on May 3, 1938 in Unconsecrated ground; 
Grave Number 188, Section B of Darnall Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: ~. Remarks: Sister Ibbotson 47 Bents Greenfrom Sheffield Parish Officiating Minister J W Swarbrick.

NICHOLSON, John (Secretary - Sheffield United F.C, age 67).
Died at 28 St. Rowans Road; Buried on April 28, 1932 in Unconsecrated ground; 
Grave Number 188, Section B of Darnall Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: ~. Remarks: from Sheffield Parish Officiating Minister Edmund Bromage.

NICHOLSON, Mary Elizabeth (Wife of John Nicholson, age 55).
Died at 28 St. Ronans Road; Buried on February 25, 1919 in Unconsecrated ground; 
Grave Number 188, Section B of Darnall Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: ~. Remarks: from Sheffield Parish: Officiating Minister D. Fowler.

NICHOLSON, Percy (Infant, age 1).
Died at 97 Pinfold Lane; Buried on April 18, 1895 in Unconsecrated ground; 
Grave Number 188, Section B of Darnall Cemetery, Sheffield.
Parent or Next of Kin if Available: ~. Remarks: Purchased. John Nicholson: from Attercliffe Parish: Officiating Minister J.H. Stimpson.

I believe John was living in Attercliffe at the time on Percy's death hence the grave purchase in Darnall Cemetery. 

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This page was last updated on 12/06/16 17:40