Extracts from a collection of letters from John Jeffrey Nicholls - Edited by Tricia Whiteaway


On 27th March 1914 a twenty-two-year-old Dawlish farmer’s son left Liverpool on the Cunard Line SS Ardania to start a new life, arriving ten days later at Halifax, Nova Scotia enroute to Montreal.  He probably decided on this action as his elder sister Margaret had twice been to the New World, eventually marrying in 1911 to an American, Sydney Booth who trained to be a preacher at Meadville College in Pennsylvania.  They moved between Meadville and Toronto in Canada over the next couple of years before returning home to England on a three or four year sojourn. 

The young man was John Jeffrey Nicholls born in October 1891 in East Allington, near Kingsbridge, Devon, but three years later his family had moved to Dawlish where his father Jeffrey John Nicholls leased Eastdon Farm and further land in Kenton from Lord Courtenay at Powderham Castle from Ladyday 1895 for £292 per annum.  Census returns show that Grandpa Nicholls farmed in Cornworthy where he had six children, his eldest son Jeffrey John Nicholls farmed at Harberton and Slapton where a daughter Violet Ann and a son William Hudson were born.  Family records show that he farmed Raddicombe Farm, Brixham with his other son William Henry Peeke Nicholls, then in October 1913 Grandfather Nicholls died.

In Montreal in April 1914 young Johnnie wrote regularly to his family in Dawlish (who faithfully kept all his letters) of the trials and tribulations of this economic difficult period not only over there but also in the United Kingdom.  Luckily he had friends in Canada, a married friend Tommy Johnston and Fred Beaumont who already had a job and who showed him the ropes.  John lived in small hotel rooms at $2 a week, which he thought expensive and bought 21 meal tickets for $3.25 to eat at set restaurants and he trudged the streets looking for work.  He describes in detail his first trip to a self-service Cafeteria, (later similar establishments appeared in London).  He applied for work to Canadian Pacific Railways, the Sanitary and Water Engineers at City Hall,  St. George’s Society, employment bureau and other places only to be told “there won’t be much in the town for a good while”.  Finding nothing in Montreal after a week or so, he travelled to Toronto in the hope of better luck.  Searching the papers for jobs, he often arrived too late to get any job, reporting that when the newspapers left their offices a crowd of 200 men would be waiting outside and scrambling in order to be first at the prospective employer.  He wrote that he would be happy to do waitering, coachman, or do any farm work – which was “£75 (p.a.?) and all ones grub but only if you could put up with the loneliness!, but not to be laughed at”.  

He moved rooms frequently for as the weather warmed up, so did the bed-bugs!  He said that every bed he slept in had them.  At his fourth address in Toronto, he thought it to be a better class, but when he arrived early he found the landlady fumigating the room with sulphur.  Later writing to his sister Vi about this at the end of the letter he noted “Oh Gee What a lot of beg beds here too”.  He woke next morning so badly bitten on his arms, neck and side of face that he had great swellings so at work he hid his face by sitting next to the wall and kept his shirt sleeves rolled down.  As the year continued letters to his mother at Eastdon Farm, were tinged with concern of the impending war with Germany.  His sisters kept him informed of who and what was going on in Dawlish and he mentions various Dawlish people in return, and of Mr Atwill’s nephew who got land in Calgary, Alberta.

By the end of May he had got a job with Prack & Perrine, Architects and Engineers so was pleased he did not have to go farming.  In June his sister Grace married and the next sister Violet had her twentieth birthday.  He had asked his father to purchase a set of draughtsman’s instruments from Stanley’s of London for £5 and was pleased in August when he received them but was not totally happy with his job and was already looking for another but he had to be careful “as there is no week’s notice to give when leaving, you simply quit when you like and similarly they do the same.  I expect Dr Mapleton was disappointed at my not getting with the C.P.R. but it is the just the same here as at home ‘influence’ but English influence not much use. I think if there had been any chance at all that Mr Whitehead would have got me in as he was well acquainted with the engineer.”   (Dr Mapleton (of Dawlish) was the district Medical Officer).

Although he was away, he still asked after the potato harvest, whether there were a lot of rabbits and pheasants at the hamlet of Week.  His friend bought a motor cycle and took him around to a park where the mosquitoes bit him.  He played croquet with some English girls, and from his office he would “look at the island from where I work, it looks exactly like looking from home across the railway to the Warren, the only difference being that there are houses between.  Fruit is in season now, plums 15 cents a dozen, oranges 2 cents each, green apples a cent, in fact all fruit except bananas are about twice as dear.”  The envelopes to his letters home were also saved and on the one to this letter was handwritten “Via New York” per Lusitania July 14th 6 pm, and was  stamped “Aug 29th to Sept 14th  Canadian National Exhibition PEACE YEAR.  Little did they know!

A few days later he wrote “I should just like to pop back again for a day or two and see all the going’s on in “little England”, no doubt there are troops around our neighbourhood!  Tell Jimmy (Lucas) I should like to be home to rub it into him for he is sure to be a pro-German now as he was a pro-Boer...  . Has Grace volunteered or was it a case of options choice with her?  I went up one day last week to enlist but they had received no orders for volunteers. Before war was declared it was stated that seven German and two British ships had been sunk while yesterday 19 German ships had been sunk and 17 captured and the British lost two, all a pack of lies.  Last Wednesday on my way home from business I ran into a girl from Dawlish called May Shapley.  Willie will know her, she used to run about with Kettle who was in Churchward’s office with Harry Hartwill, the world is very small you see.”

In July and August he again asks after the crops at Eastdon – the hay which was thick when he left, the potatoes in ‘Brimley’ field, the rabbits at Week, and which 500 trees he was told were being cut down.  Also it seems his sister Grace got married and he assumed his mother would miss her (as she probably made the butter) and spoke of the very probable war.  On August 1st he said the newspaper are producing five to six extra editions, and he hopes England will go to war and “wipe Germany of the face of the earth and if occasion calls I think I shall join too....”  Even when having a picnic he noticed “lots of cornfields mostly oats with a little barley and only one field of wheat. In some fields corn and hay were both being cut but the majority of the corn was in ear and just turning yellow from the green”.

His last letter was in November after the War was declared.  He wrote that 15,000 are required for the 2nd contingent and that he would have to wait for his turn and how he would like to be back in England.  He was staying on Mr Wood’s farm in Kilbridge, Ontario where he helped pull mangolds "in the way that Smale back at Eastdon taught him" which produced fifty tons.  He then turned to apple picking and had a tummy ache from eating too many.  He milked two cows to Mr Wood’s three but said that Mrs Wood could milk three to her husband’s one!.  But as an excuse he says “I am a horseman”.     

On the 21st November 1914 he signed up to join the army, his Attestation Paper gave his age as 23 years 1 month, his height as 5ft 6in and that he had a fair complexion, brown eyes and hair.  His trade was given as Sanitary Inspector.  He was assigned to the 5th Canadian Army Medical Corps, Number 1703 as an ambulance driver.  On November 30th from the Mobilization camp at Exhibition Park, Toronto, he wrote to Vi “I have my uniform now and look Oh La La!  Quite a golden boy now. ....and have been provided with very warm underclothes...all wool and very thick.   There is no fear about feeling cold.  We have got a fresh cook now and we are getting some dandy meals, too much in fact, I usually leave half of my plate (although a few days later 240 out of 250 men suffered food poisoning.  The cook got the sack).   “We have a moving picture shows every evening, free (dry) canteen with all the last fiction books and magazines.  I am feeling fine and hope it finds you the same, with love to Father Mother, Margi, Grace, Syd and everybody else being too numerous to mention.  Your ever loving brother Jono.”

None of his letters survived during the war but his army record shows that he arrived back in England on route to France in April 1915.

Meanwhile at home in Dawlish in January 1912 the family’s other son, William Hudson Nicholls applied for assisted passage to New South Wales, as the testimonials given by various people in the area such as E C Callender, secretary of the Starcross section of Devon County Agricultural Association and the vicar of Cofton, show.  He was 25 years old,  5’10” tall, single and his weight is given as for animals - 8 score.  He stated that “he had been farming all my life doing all kinds. That he could milk, plough and that he had no family in Australia or New Zealand”.   

On the 2nd January 1917 the London Times reported under the caption “Honours and Rewards”  “We are proud to read that Capt. W F Nicholson, who was one of our original officers recently reposted to No.2 Canadians C C S, had been awarded the Military Cross and that the King had been pleased to award the Meritorious Service Medal to No. 1703 Pte. J J Nicholls for their splendid achievements during our tour of the Somme in September of last year”.

Sadly on 21 Oct 1918  the family at Eastdon  Farm received the news that every family dreaded to receive  ......”It is my painful duty.....

The War Diary reported “On October 12th 1918, Sauchy-Lestree, Dull weather. An attack was launched in early morning from 2000 yards in front of IWUY which met with practically no opposition, and very few casualties passed through this ambulance.  Albeit, it was a disastrous day as far as this unit was concerned.  The Office Commanding, Major J F Burgess, Capt F Clark, with two motor ambulances, was making a round of the posts.  At the 6th Field Ambulance post they stopped and were conversing with Capt. MacNeil and Parker when a shell came over, landing between the two cars.  Eleven casualties resulted, Capt. MacNeil being killed, Capt. A A Parker severely wounded in the head (since died of wounds),  Lt Col. D P Kappele DSO was wounded in thigh and arm.  Major J F Burgess in left arm, Capt. Clark in left forearm.  The two drivers were also hit, Lyne in the right arm, and Murphy between the thighs.  Pts. Stanley, car orderly, was severely wounded in abdomen and left foot, (since died of wounds) Pts. Nicholls, one of the guides, was wounded in the pelvis and died on the way to the Corps Main Dressing Station.   Of the original officers who came to France with the unit, only major Elliott is left.”

Signed  Major Harold Donmessiel


John Jeffery Nicholas was 9 days short of his 27th birthday, and one month from the end of the war.