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Papers of Edward Max Nicholson


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The eleven series in the NCUACS catalogue (see Arrangement note) have been preserved, and consist of:



  • Creation: 1913-2009


15.4 Linear metres (1810 physical shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

  • English

Conditions Governing Access

Some material is closed.

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark, e.g. MS. 15041/1].

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Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. 15041/1-1810

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 15041


Papers and correspondence of Edward Max Nicholson CB CVO (1904-2003), ornithologist and environmentalist, 1913-2009.

Biographical / Historical

Nicholson was born in Kilternan, near Dublin, in 1904, of English parents. His father, a photographer, was working temporarily in Ireland at the time and the family soon returned to England. Nicholson as a boy became used to the family regularly moving around the south of England. After short stays in London, Portsmouth and various parts of Sussex, they eventually settled at Worthing when Nicholson was twelve years old. His interest in birds had started in London with a visit to the Natural History Museum in 1911 and he began recording sightings of new birds before he was nine. About this time he also started reading Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, a book that always remained close to his heart and profoundly influenced his development as an ornithologist. He attended Fairholme Preparatory School, Worthing, before going to Sedbergh School, Cumbria, in September 1919.

Nicholson's years at Sedbergh were against a background of the end of the First World War and a difficult family life, as his father was absent for long periods and had trouble supporting the family financially. While there his love of birdwatching, in his own words, 'became much deeper and more intense, so much so that it at times became my dominant and focal interest'. Unable to complete his schooling because of his father's insufficient income, Nicholson left Sedbergh before he was eighteen, and went to stay with his parents in Cologne, Germany. While he was there his first scientific article, on the Icterine warbler, was published by British Birds (1922). On returning to England, with apparently little prospect of going to university, he continued to publish articles on birds and began to examine ecological and population aspects of ornithology. Some articles on current affairs that he submitted to The Times enabled him to make the acquaintance of Geoffery Dawson, the Editor, who advised him to sit for an Oxford scholarship. Nicholson succeeded in winning a history scholarship to Hertford College in New Year 1926, going up the following October at the age of 22. In the same year he published his first book, Birds in England, which was followed by How Birds Live in 1927.

Nicholson's arrival at Oxford coincided with a revival of interest in ornithology, centred on the work of the Oxford Ornithological Society which had been founded a few years earlier. He started the Oxford Bird Census in 1927 and was involved in a ringing project using a trapping station in Christ Church Meadow. In 1928 his pioneering census of rooks was followed by one of heronries. The latter was the first ever national bird census in Britain and, taken together, these surveys effectively founded modern British field ornithology. B.W. Tucker was Nicholson's principal collaborator in this work through which he was also able to meet scientists such as J.S. Huxley, A.G. Tansley and C.S. Elton. Nicholson's mentor at this time was H.F. Witherby, founder and editor of British Birds, who supported the heron census and published the resulting report. Having founded the Oxford University Exploration Club, Nicholson took part in its expeditions, as ornithologist, to Greenland (1928) and British Guiana (1929).

The late 1920s were a watershed in ornithology, with the advance of a new, scientific approach: bird studies now focussed on population and behaviour, with a new emphasis on ecology. Nicholson was instrumental in this development and he followed up his Oxford projects with the launch of a national Great Crested Grebe inquiry in 1931 which attracted the attention of The Times. With the growing need to provide an institutional basis for these large-scale surveys involving many volunteers, Nicholson, with Tucker and other leading ornithologists, established the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in 1933. Principally with funding from the BTO, the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology was founded at Oxford in 1938.

After graduating from Oxford, Nicholson became assistant editor on the Weekend Review and in 1931 drafted a supplement entitled 'A National Plan for Britain'. This stimulated much debate and led to the formation of the socio-economic 'think-tank', Political and Economic Planning (PEP), in 1933. Nicholson became Secretary of PEP in 1935, remaining there until the outbreak of the Second World War and later serving as its Chairman. At the beginning of the war Nicholson was given the post of Controller of Literature at the Ministry of Information but resigned after less than two months. In March 1940, at the instigation of Lord Hurcomb, he was drafted into the Ministry of Shipping (re-named Ministry of War Transport) where he served initially as head of the Economic and Inter-Allied Branch, and from 1942 as Head of the Allocation of Tonnage Division. He made numerous transatlantic crossings in this capacity, which also provided opportunities for bird-watching, and also attended the conferences in Cairo, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam.

Following the election of the Attlee government in 1945, Nicholson was appointed Head of the Office of the Lord President of the Council, Herbert Morrison, a position he held until 1952. In the feverish activity of the post-war years he guided through legislation such as the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. The latter Act completed the establishment of the Nature Conservancy, an idea that emerged from Julian Huxley's Committee on Wildlife Conservation of which Nicholson was a member. Nicholson also served on the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy and chaired the committee which organised the 1951 Festival of Britain. In 1952 he left central government to become Chairman of the fledgling and poorly-funded Nature Conservancy whose very survival was in jeopardy. He quickly grasped the need for the Conservancy to encourage and coordinate the disparate voluntary bodies devoted to nature conservation, reversing the policy of his predecessor, Cyril Diver. Despite the opposition of a variety of government departments and vested interest groups in the countryside, the Conservancy greatly expanded its activities and influence, establishing over 100 National Nature Reserves and around 2000 Sites of Special Scientific Interest in its first fifteen years. It also established, in 1963, the Monks Wood Experimental Station, the first research laboratory to investigate the effect of toxic chemicals on wildlife.

Nicholson retired from the Nature Conservancy in 1966 but during the next four years he authored two important books which gave voice to his ideas and concerns in the fields of government and the environment. The System: The Misgovernment of Modern Britain (1967) was a sustained attack on the inefficiency and inward-looking attitudes of the civil service; it also offered some radical remedies such as the abolition of the Treasury. In 1970 he published The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth which called on governments to demonstrate new approaches to the natural environment in response to greater public awareness of conservation issues.

In what may be termed the second half of his career, Nicholson founded, or was heavily involved in, a great many organisations concerned with protection of the environment and wildlife and furthering ecological research, increasingly in an international context from the 1960s. In 1961, with Peter Scott, Julian Huxley and others, he founded the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and served as Vice-President of WWF-UK. He was founder member of the Council for Nature, 1958; Convenor of the Terrestrial Communities Section of the International Biological Programme, 1963-1974; Joint Secretary of the 'Countryside in 1970' series of conferences; founder of Land Use Consultants, the UK's first environmental consultancy, 1966; founder of the Trust for Urban Ecology, 1972; President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 1980-1985; Chairman of the Committee responsible for the UK's response to the World Conservation Strategy, 1981-1983; founder of Earthwatch Europe, 1985; Vice-President of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust; and, in his nineties, founder of the New Renaissance Group. The mission of latter organisation, described by Nicholson as a 'New Humanist Group', was the formation of an environmental strategy to take into the 21st century. He also had significant involvement in organisations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the International Council for Bird Preservation. His participation was instrumental to the success of two major European conservation programmes at Coto Donana, Spain, and S'Albufera, Mallorca, Spain, the latter principally through Earthwatch Europe. Outside conservation he played a key role in organising the celebrations for the Queen's Silver Jubilee and was responsible for the creation of the Silver Jubilee Walkway in London.

He was colleague and friend to a great many of the individuals who played prominent roles in the progress of the conservation movement in the UK and overseas. Sir Peter Scott, Guy Mountfort, Phil Hollom, Sir Martin Holdgate, Luc Hoffmann, R.E. Boote, Sir Julian Huxley, Aubrey Buxton and Richard Fitter are just a small group of those who shared his vision and philosophy. Despite his career branching out into public administration, and then into increasingly diverse conservation and ecological projects, Nicholson never lost touch with his roots in ornithology. He regularly gave talks to regional societies and was involved, in various capacities, in a multitude of organisations, such as the 1937 Bird Club, the Royal Naval Birdwatching Society and the Gilbert White Museum. Nicholson also made enduring contributions to ornithology in an editorial capacity. He was Senior Editor of British Birds, 1951-1964, and served continuously on the editorial board of Birds of the Western Palearctic which was produced in nine volumes between 1977 and 1996.

Nicholson was awarded a CB in 1948 and CVO in 1971. His other awards include Premio Europeo Cortina-Ulisse, 1971, Europa Preis für Landespflege, 1972, World Wildlife Fund Gold Medal, 1982, and the Busk Medal, Royal Geographical Society, 1991. He received Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Aberdeen and Birmingham and from the Royal College of Art.

Nicholson married Eleanor Mary Crawford in 1932 (divorced 1964); they had two sons. He married Marie Antoinette Mauerhofer in 1965; they had one son. Nicholson died on 26 April 2003.


The papers were catalogued by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS), with the catalogue reference NCUACS 177/8/09. Their reference numbers have been retained as 'Former reference' but Bodleian shelfmarks have been added as the main reference number and the latter should be used to order the papers and to quote from them.

Custodial History

The papers were received by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS) from the Edward Grey Institute of Ornithology, Oxford, during summer 2008.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Transferred from the Alexander Library of Ornithology, the library of the Edward Grey Institute, 2018.

Related Materials

A large quantity of Nicholson's archives relating to the British Trust for Ornithology (43 archive boxes) were deposited by him at the Trust's Library, Thetford, Norfolk, in 1987 and 1990. This material includes papers, c.1930-1937, relating to the establishment and early years of the BTO, as well as its 'prehistory' which goes back to the Oxford Bird Census. There are also bird census and survey papers 1928-1940s, including the Greenland expedition, 1928; Nicholson's correspondence with individuals such as B.W. Tucker (1927-1940, 1950), R. Moreau (1927-1960) and H.F. Witherby (1929-1940, 1968); and publications material and papers concerning other organisations with which Nicholson was involved.

The Linnean Society holds papers relating to Nicholson's role in Earthwatch Europe, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy Council. There is also material appertaining to various conferences and the Geogram, as well as miscellaneous correspondence c.1952-1995.

The Royal Geographical Society holds 21 boxes of Nicholson's papers consisting of Oxford University Exploration Club material, 1928-1929, and correspondence and papers relating to work for the International Biological Programme, 1952-1980s.

The archives of Political and Economic Planning are held by the London School of Economics and these include papers covering Nicholson's involvement.

For lists of some of this material and details of locations of other groups of Nicholson papers see MS. 15041/138.

Catalogue of the papers of Edward Max Nicholson
Original catalogue by Simon Coleman and Timothy E. Powell, 2009. EAD version by Jen Patterson, 2019
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom