From The Times, 12th August 2016
Nicholson: Always persistent
Legendary crime reporter known in Fleet Street as the Prince of Darkness
Jimmy Nicholson was as firm a fixture at the Old Bailey as the statue of Lady Justice on the roof. If you believed him, he had been a crime reporter longer than the courts had stood.
Nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness” because of his subfusc appearance in a black suit topped by a black cape, Nicholson personified the vivacity, hyperbole and cheerful indifference to authority of Fleet Street’s tabloid press in postwar Britain.
One of the last crime reporters from the era of capital punishment, he covered the Moors Murders, hobnobbed with the powerful, flamboyant London gangsters of the 1960s and was on the press bench for the trial of Rose West.
Noted for Runyanesque one-liners, Nicholson boasted that he had covered “every siege since Troy” and would tell young reporters: “I have been at every execution since the Crucifixion. And I’ll tell you something. That guy was innocent.”
He built up an impressive range. He could also claim to have been the only reporter ever to have had his photograph on the front of every newspaper in the country.
At the end of the trial of Donald Neilson, the kidnapper and murderer dubbed the “Black Panther” in 1976, press photographers needed someone to model Neilson’s outfit. A detective suggested Nicholson was roughly the same height and build. Reluctantly persuaded to don the killer’s kit, Nicholson posed in a balaclava brandishing a shotgun — but only on conditions of strict anonymity.
James Nicholson was born in 1927 to a dry-stone wall builder in Batley, West Yorkshire. The family were poor. When Nicholson won a scholarship to the local grammar school his parents could not even afford the uniform. Instead he went to the local technical college where one of the teachers encouraged him to write.
At the age of 16 he entered journalism by the traditional route, first as a tea boy and then as a junior reporter on the Batley News. He covered local funerals, which he relished because — at a time of wartime rationing — he could enjoy the ham teas provided by grieving relatives, and learnt to cultivate both police and criminals.
After National Service in the Fleet Air Arm, he moved to Blackpool, where he covered crime and wrote a column. In 1952 he married his girlfriend, Mavis. The couple had three children: Jeremy, who is professor of biological chemistry at Imperial College London; Justine, who is director of a major office supplies company; and Melanie, who is a publicity consultant.
His first big criminal case was the trial of Louisa Merrifield, who was accused of administering rat poison to her landlady, in 1953. During her trial Mrs Merrifield held court each day in a hotel, selling autographs and plying Nicholson and other reporters with tea. She was executed by Albert Pierrepoint, the legendary hangman, with whom Nicholson became friends.
His entrée to Fleet Street was through showbusiness not crime. He got a scoop on the will of George Formby, the Lancashire ukelele player, revealing that Formby’s fortune was going to his young fiancée rather than his family. The story got him a job on the Daily Sketch, which is now defunct, and in the years that followed he worked for a succession of tabloid titles. No respecter of status, Nicholson addressed senior police officers as “Big Noise” and was a dogged, persistent questioner.
The press pack was highly competitive. Covering the Moors Murders in the 1960s Nicholson claimed that he gulled his rivals into believing that detectives had gone undercover as sheep. Ian Brady, who had committed the murders with Myra Hindley, complained to the then Press Council about Nicholson’s coverage. Brady failed to follow up the complaint but sent Nicholson a Christmas card from prison with the message, “Wish you were here”.
Jimmy Nicholson, crime reporter, was born on January 16, 1927. He died on June 12, 2016, aged 89