Donald Nicholl: [Heath 1934–1941]

Donald Nicholl, historian and theologian, died on , aged 73. His obituaries covered many column inches in the papers; that in the Roman Catholic weekly, The Tablet (to which he was a regular contributor), which was kindly sent to us by another Old Heathen, Revd David Sharpe, ran to nearly two full pages! David commented in sending the obituary that ‘in his field he was one of the most distinguished Old Heathens.’

He was proud to be from Halifax. He was born to a working class Church of England family and it is said that, when he was at Heath, he was outstanding physically (he was almost 6ft 6ins tall) and academically and so intellectually gifted that the masters fought among themselves as to what subject he should specialise in! The history master won and he promptly won a Brackenbury Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford.

After a year there, he was called up and served in the Army in India, Ceylon and finally, after its recapture from the Japanese, in Hong Kong. On returning to Oxford in 1946 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After four years teaching at Edinburgh, he became a lecturer at Keele, staying in Staffordshire for twenty years and receiving a personal chair in 1972. His real gifts as a teacher were never in doubt.

He was initially a mediaeval historian and he learnt Irish and Welsh to complement his Latin to better understand the Britain of those days. When he extended his interests to the twentieth century, and to Russia in particular, he learnt Russian.

In the 1950s he travelled widely in France and Germany making contacts with many of the leading Catholic thinkers of the day. In1974 he was appointed by the University of California to be Professor of History and Religious Studies at Santa Cruz. His stay in California was a fruitful one but in 1980 he returned to Britain and in 1981 was chosen to be director of the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, near Jerusalem, an international centre for theological research.

He was well known as a writer. Holiness (1981) was a classic and Testing of Hearts (1989) was a diary of his time at Tantur. The Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia (1997) published a week before his death was a result of his studies of nineteenth century Russia. A collection of his essays, The Beatitude of Truth, was published by his literary executor, Professor Adrian Hastings, in the second part of 1997.

Donald Nicholl married, as he described her, ‘a Pennine village lass,’ Dorothy Tordoff in 1947. She survives him together with a son and four daughters. The Heath Old Boys Association extends to them all our deepest sympathy on the loss of this most distinguished son of Heath.

First appeared in the Newsletter dated .