James Nicholson, crime reporter — obituary
22 JUNE 2016 • 6:10PM
James Nicholson, who has died aged 89, was the last of the old-school crime reporters and at the height of his Fleet Street fame became celebrated – on account of his black cape – as the “Prince of Darkness”.
Lined with scarlet silk, the cape became his signature garment, and marked Nicholson out at many of the notorious cases and trials of the post-war era. At one point – especially if he thought he was likely to be photographed – he dressed from head to toe in black, and wore tinted glasses. Even his favourite tipple, a half pint of Guinness, was black, as was his gallows humour.
I’ve been at every siege since Troy
There are multiple versions of how Nicholson got his Prince of Darkness nickname, one crediting the BBC Television reporter Keith Graves during the Spaghetti House siege in Knightsbridge in 1975. Nicholson himself thought the famous black cape originated when he was covering a story about witches on the Isle of Man and he wore one for effect. By the time of another 1975 siege when a fugitive IRA gang holed up at Balcombe Street in Marylebone – “I’ve been at every siege since Troy,” he would joke – the label had stuck.
Uniquely Nicholson could claim to have been the only reporter to have had his photograph on the front of every daily and evening newspaper in the country. It happened at the end of the Black Panther murder trial at Oxford in 1976. When some of the exhibits were produced – masks, clothing, cartridges and a sawn-off shotgun – press photographers urged detectives to find someone to model them.
One officer identified Nicholson as being roughly the same height and build as the murderer Donald Neilson. Having been reluctantly persuaded to don the killer’s accoutrements, Nicholson posed for the Daily Mirror photographer Eddy Rawlinson but only on conditions of strict anonymity, worried that his bosses at the Daily Express would find out.
Throughout the 1960s he hobnobbed with London gangsters including the Richardsons and the Krays, and was on Reggie Kray’s Christmas card list
Nicholson once explained the basics of reporting a murder to Duncan Campbell, veteran crime correspondent of The Guardian: “Day one is the body. Day two, hopefully, they’ve identified her. Day three, it’s The Village Under Suspicion. Day four, it’s The Finger of Suspicion Points At Me.” A veteran of many a stakeout, watching and waiting for something to happen, he also became adept at the art of what reporters call “doorstepping”, making unsolicited calls on people at home. “I’ve stood on so many doorsteps I feel like a milk bottle,” was another famous Nicholson quote.
He set considerable store by the cathartic value of stricken relatives in murder cases talking to crime reporters, but admitted that in many circumstances “you have to put a foot in the door”.
James Nicholson was born in Batley, Yorkshire, on January 16 1927, the son of a dry stone waller. At 16 he left Batley technical college to join the Batley News as a general dogsbody, shortly thereafter being promoted to cemetery reporter. For 18 months he collected the names of the mourners at local funerals, evading wartime rationing by attending every “ham tea” traditionally laid on at wakes when bereaved families were granted special dispensation by the Ministry of Food.
Vexed by a quibble over an expenses claim for his bus fare to Huddersfield, Nicholson joined the Evening Gazette at Blackpool, covering local courts every weekday except one, when he collected paragraphs from up and down the Fylde coast for his weekly column “Round the Villages with James Nicholson”.
In Coronation year, when a local Salvationist called Louisa Merrifield was suspected of murdering her elderly landlady with rat poison, she held court every day at a backstreet hotel, signing autographs at half-a-crown a time and dispensing afternoon tea to Nicholson and visiting reporters from Fleet Street. He got to know Mrs Merrifield as well as he knew Albert Pierrepoint, who hanged her at Strangeways Jail, Manchester, in September 1953.
After eight years covering crime and courts in Blackpool, he reported George Formby’s funeral in Liverpool in 1961, revealing that the ukulele-strumming Lancashire comedian had left his fortune to the 29-year-old schoolteacher he had been planning to marry before his death. Nicholson’s scoop earned him a job as crime reporter on the old Daily Sketch.
His first big story for the Sketch was the A6 murder case, in which James Hanratty was hanged for the murder of Michael Gregsten and the shooting and rape of his girlfriend Valerie Storie. He covered the Great Train Robbery in 1963 and the Moors Murders trial in 1966. Ian Brady later threatened to take him to the Press Council.
Throughout the 1960s he hobnobbed with London gangsters including the Richardsons and the Krays, and was on Reggie Kray’s Christmas card list. Over the years, as well as for the Sketch, Nicholson worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Express, the newly-launched Daily Star and The People.
Nicholson was a past president of the Crime Reporters’ Association and wore its tie and its insignia of crossed handcuffs and quill pen.
He is survived by his wife, Mavis, whom he married in 1952, and by their daughter and two sons.
James Nicholson, born January 16 1927, died June 12 2016