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Basic Biographical Details

Name: Peter Nicholson
Designation: Architect
Born: 20 July 1765
Died: 18 June 1844
Bio Notes: Peter Nicholson was born on 20 July 1765 at Prestonkirk, East Lothian, the third of the nine children of George Nicholson, stonemason, and his wife Margaret Hastie. He showed a particular aptitude for mathematics at school. At the age of twelve he assisted his father but did not like the work so he was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in Linton, East Lothian. During this period he expanded his knowledge of maths through his own reading. He worked for a time as a journeyman cabinet-maker in Edinburgh after completing his articles but moved to London about 1788 where he taught practical geometry in a school for mechanics in Berwick Street, Soho as well as continuing to work as a cabinet-maker.

By 1792 he had gathered sufficient funds to enable him to publish his first work, The Carpenter’s New Guide’ for which he engraved his own plates. Further works in architecture and carpentry followed in the later 1790s (see full list below). However he had overstretched his finances and was imprisoned for debt. It was in return for the repayment of these debts that he wrote ‘The Carpenter’s Assistant’ for the publisher Taylor.

Nicholson married Mary Perry in 1791. They had one son, Michael Angelo and a second child but Mary died in 1799. In 1800 he returned to Scotland with two young children. He returned to Scotland at the request of James Laurie and for the next eight years worked in Glasgow as an architect, designing a number of buildings and bridges. The years 1802 to 1805 were busy. In 1804 he married Jane Jamieson in Anderston Church, Glasgow. They had a son and a daughter.

While in the north Nicholson seems to have designed Castletown house in conjunction with the Glasgow architect William Reid. Nicholson also laid out the village of Ardrossan on a grid plan for the 12th Earl of Eglinton. The village developed slowly over the next 50 years. It may have been here where Nicholson met Thomas Telford who was engaged in the harbour construction and through whose recommendation Nicholson obtained the post of Surveyor to the County of Cumberland in 1808 on the death of John Chisholme. Nicholson supervised the construction of the Courts of Justice in Carlisle which was built to the designs of Telford.

In 1810 he returned to London to recommence teaching and writing in a school he had established in Oxford Street. It is not clear why he returned to London but it may have been to pursue his writing. He was commissioned to draw some plates for Rees’s ‘Cyclopedia’ and to prepare a manuscript for a proposed architectural dictionary.

Nicholson’s most important work was the ‘The Architectural Dictionary’ published in 1819. Along with other books it established his reputation as an authority on building technology. It coincided with the building industry becoming more scientific in its approach. In 1827 he began a work entitled ‘The School of Architecture and Engineering’ which was to appear in twelve parts but it had to be abandoned after the fifth part because the publisher went bankrupt. This was a financial set-back for Nicholson and in 1829 in order to economise he moved to Morpeth to a property bequeathed to him by a relative.

In 1832 he opened a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This was not a success in financial terms but he gained a considerable reputation locally. His hardship was alleviated by a fund gathered for his benefit. The following year, 1833, he was elected president of the Newcastle Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts. During his last years he was supported financially by Thomas Jamieson of Newton, Northumberland.

Nicholson’s importance lies in his understanding of and dissemination of information about 19th century building technology. He was also a pioneer in the education of workmen in technical subjects and his schools anticipated the Mechanics Institutes in the 1820s and later. His writings were both scientific and practical. In 1814 he was awarded the gold medal of the Society of Arts in recognition of his contributions towards improvements in the manufacture of staircases and the shaping of handrails. He also received an award for his invention the ‘centrolinead’ which was an instrument for drawing lines which are required to converge at an inaccessible point which was described in his book entitled ‘Treatise on the Construction of Staircases and Handrails’ . His work made possible the elegant curving staircases of the late Georgian period. In the same year he published a treatise entitled ‘Involution and Evolution’ which dealt with abstruse geometrical matters. This too won him an award, on this occasion from the French Academy of Sciences. He was interested in advances in technology and not in the permutations of fashionable styles. As an architect he was an early exponent of the Greek Revival style. The mathematical precision of the Greek orders appealed to him and he analysed Grecian mouldings in mathematical terms.

Nicholson died at Carlisle on 18 June 1844 and was buried in Christ Church graveyard. A monument to his memory designed by R W Billings in 1856 is in Carlisle Cemetery. Nicholson married twice and had two sons and a daughter.

A portrait by James Green is in the National Portrait Gallery.

‘The Carpenter’s New Guide’, 1792
‘The Principles of Architecture’ , 1795-8 (2nd edition 1809)

‘The Student’s Instructor in drawing and working the Five Orders of Architecture’ 1795
The Carpenter’s and Joiner’s Assistant’, 1797
‘Mechanical Exercises, or the Elements and Practice of Carpentry, Joinery, etc., 1811
‘A Treatise on Practical Perspective’, 1815
‘An Introduction to the Methods of Increments’, 1817
‘Essays on the Combinatorial Analysis’, 1818
‘The Architectural Dictionary’, 2v., 1819 (2nd edition largely re-written, 1852-7)
‘The Rudiments of Algebra’, 1819
‘Essay on Involution and Evolution’, 1820
‘A Treatise on the Construction of Staircases and Handrails’, 1820
‘Analytical and Arithmetical Essays’, 1820
‘Popular Course of Pure and Mixed Mathematics’, 1822
‘The Rudiments of Practical Perspective’, 1822
‘The New Practical Builder and Workman’s Companion’, 1823
‘The Builder and Workman’s New Directory’, 1824
‘The Carpenter and Builder’s Complete Measurer’, 1827
‘Popular and Practical Treatise on Masonry and Stone-Cutting’, 1827
‘Practical Masonry, Bricklaying, and Plastering’, 1830
‘A Treatise on Dialling’, Newcastle, 1833
‘A Treatise on Projection, with a Complete System of Isometrical Drawing’, Newcastle, 1837
‘The Guide to Railway Masonry, containing a Complete Treatise on the Oblique Arch’, Newcastle, 1839
‘The Carpenter, Joiner and Builder’s Companion, 1846
Ashpitel, (ed.) ‘Carpentry’, 1849
‘Carpentry, Joining and Building’, 1851
‘A Practical System of Algebra’, 1824 (with John Rowbotham Nicholson)
‘The Practical Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer, and Complete Decorator, 1826 (with Michael Angelo Nicholson)

Further editions of many books were published.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 9East Lothian, ScotlandBusiness1765c. 1785 
Item 2 of 9Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivatec. 1785c. 1788 
Item 3 of 9London, EnglandBusinessc. 17881800 
Item 4 of 9Glasgow, ScotlandBusiness18001808 
Item 5 of 9Carlisle, Cumberland, EnglandBusiness18081810 
Item 6 of 9London, EnglandBusiness18101829 
Item 7 of 9Morpeth, Northumberland, EnglandBusiness18291832 
Item 8 of 9Newcastle upon Tyne, EnglandBusiness1832  
Item 9 of 9Carlisle, Cumberland, EnglandPrivate1844 *  

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 111802Terraced houses, Carlton Place  GlasgowScotlandBegan terraces - completed by John Baird I
Item 2 of 111803Wooden bridge over the River Clyde at end of Saltmarket  GlasgowScotland 
Item 3 of 11c. 1805Coffee HousePaisley RenfrewshireScotlandProposed but perhaps not executed
Item 4 of 11c. 1805Cottage, Cruxton  Glasgow (near)Scotland 
Item 5 of 11c. 1805House for Mr Grey, jeweller  GlasgowScotland 
Item 6 of 11c. 1805Timber bridge over the River Clyde  GlasgowScotland 
Item 7 of 111806Eglinton ArmsArdrossan AyrshireScotland 
Item 8 of 111806Street layoutArdrossan AyrshireScotland 
Item 9 of 111806Yorkhill HousePartick GlasgowScotland 
Item 10 of 111811Castletown HouseRockcliffe CumberlandEnglandIn conjunction with William Reid.
Item 11 of 11Before 1811The Hamilton Building, The Old College of Glasgow  GlasgowScotlandOriginal design


Currently, there are no references for this architect. The information has been derived from: the British Architectural Library / RIBA Directory of British Architects 1834-1914; Post Office Directories; and/or any sources listed under this individual's works.


© All rights reserved. From  

© All rights reserved. From 'Mr Peter Nicholson, the Practical Builder and Mathematician', London: T Kelly, 1825 (Courtesy of Iain Paterson)