Mary Nicholson                       11 Jan 1908 - 17 Feb 1995

To describe Mary and paint a word picture of her in ten minutes is obviously quite impossible. There are those here to-day who have known her for well over 80 years and others who know her as a colleague at work, as members of her family, as friend, neighbour or employee. We each will have our own memory and all that can be done to-day is draw together some random thoughts about her so we can give thanks for the life of a special and unusual person. more....

Mary Nicholson (portrait by Colette Llewellyn-Smith, Athens, 1966)


As a child she enlivened bedtime for her older sister and herself by inventing dramatic situations from which they would escape; these were the forerunner of the present role-play situation. As a school girl, undergraduate and young woman she was, to her much younger sister, a glamorous, unconventional, original and exciting person who must live a glorious unfettered life but who had an endless store of bedtime stories to tell, to say nothing of patent methods of getting to sleep when this seemed impossible.

Her talents seem to have been confined while at school but when she reached Oxford she was able to develop them and give full range to her dramatic and literary skills; even writing her first novel when there.

After leaving Oxford she trained and worked briefly as a Property Manager and for some time was based in Cheltenham. In 1932 she and Max were married; at first they lived in Westminster then moved to Upper Cheyne Row in order to make a home for their sons, Piers and Tom. During this period she undertook part time work helping in scientific research, and working both in commerce and industry while continuing with her writing.

Over the years she developed other talents becoming an excellent and original cook, a competent seamstress, milliner and upholsterer as well as putting her innate dexterity to a wide range of DIY tasks. When her marriage was dissolved in 1964 she left her Chelsea home and expanded her interests. She found a use for the scraps she had gathered over the years and had pleasure in making a number of delightful collages. This interest led her to explore the joys of painting in oils. A number of her paintings have been given to friends and members of the family

She has written novels, parables, poetry, collaborated in biography, written a training manual and she had started on her ‘reminisences’ shortly before her death. She was a voracious reader and even when I saw her the day before her death she asked me, in an almost inaudible whisper, to find her books and when I produced them her face lit up. I left the books near her although I doubt that she had the strength to hold up even the lighter one. Normally she would consume books at the rate of about one each day; it could be quite difficult to satisfy her needs.

She enjoyed ‘teaching school’ as she termed her periods at the Elliott, Putney and Streatham Hill and Clapham High Schools. Through this work she discovered a genius for class teaching, particularly of disaffected and less able pupils, and preparing the older students for the General Paper of the Oxbridge entrance exam. She was a perceptive critic of style and could bring out the full impact of a student’s piece by her sensitive analysis. I quote from a colleague “She was self-critical and expected of her students the same high standards she imposed upon herself. She would often adopt an unortodox approach and her lessons full of the unexpected would be both stimulating and exciting. She would cut through cant and demand that the opinions expressed be based upon genuine analysis not just a faithful rehearsing of received wisdom.” She could lead them to think for themselves, to think in depth and to realise the benefits of a fresh and imaginative approach. She had no time for sloppy thinking and would demand an exact and proper use of words.

During her regular protracted visits to Wales she had time to devote to both landscapes and portraits. She leaves a number of her paintinq which are vivid reminders of happy times spent on holiday both there and in Frnce.

Her trips to Wales gave her great joy. There was room at the cottage for her to garden; she could plant, tend and prune, she might even be able to harvest — perhaps blackberries and damsons - she could cycle for miles to buy mushrooms, renew old friendships and enjoy the sun and have countless games of Scrabble with her mother while still keeping time to paint.

Through her teaching she established a number of lasting and valued friendships and she greatly enjoyed the visits from those she had taught as well as those of her members of her family, friends and one-time colleagues. As her days became increasingly circumscribed visitors were her main source of stimulus and enjoyment. She could listen appreciatively albeit critically to accounts of the latest LEA or DFE ‘idiocy’. She had an extremely wide idiosyncratic vocabulary and by this could confuse, even intimidate those who could not interpret her style readily, She enjoyed a good argument; while it was hard to shake her original premise. She could be irritated with those who had a less academic while more pragmatic approach.

She established warm relationships with her core team of carers who have done so much to make her latter months more relaxed, rewarding and comfortable. She did not really enjoy her recent spells in Hospital or at St Teresa’s but she certainly made her mark. The Staff at St Teresa’s were proud of her and the way she had managed to establish a channel of communication with a long term patient would had long ago lost contact with reality. Since she broke her Femur she has found life become an increasing burden and as her breathing became more and more laboured she began to lose her will to live. Despite the increasing limitations of her fragility the support and understanding of her Doctor, her friends, her relations and carers enabled her to live her life until its peaceful close able to maintain her space, dignity and and even some small measure of independence.

She had no formal religion but had a deep awareness of the need for high moral standards and a shining integrity of mind which was a beacon to those who knew her. Had her long time friend Stefan Hopkinson been able to be here to day I am sure he woukd have been able to speak of Mary with clear insight and understanding. As it is I can quote from the dust cover of her life of Christ “Who is This”, which she dedicated to Stefan. Mary said “The traditions of this country are generous to unorthodox Christians and I have been fortunate in the understanding shown me by my friends who hold a strict denominational faith.” This tribute to Mary was given at her funeral by her sister, Anne Piper