NICKINSON, JOHN, soldier, actor, and theatre manager; b. 2 Jan. 1808 in London, England, son of a Chelsea pensioner; d. 9 Feb. 1864 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He married first Ann Talbot, and was survived by a second wife, four daughters (Charlotte*, who married journalist Daniel Morrison; Eliza, who married comedian Charles Peters; Virginia, who married actor Owen Marlowe; and Isabella, who married actor Charles M. Walcot Jr), and one son.
John Nickinson enlisted at the age of 15 as a drummer boy in the 24th Regiment of Infantry and became a sergeant in 1825. He was probably with the regiment when it arrived in Montreal in October 1829. He joined the 24th’s theatre group, the Garrison Amateurs, formed in 1830 when the regiment was stationed in Quebec City, and in April 1833 interpreted “Karl” in The miller and his men and “Caleb Quotem” in The review. Such theatre groups were common in the British army; if there was little entertainment in the country in which they were stationed they promptly supplied it. The regiment returned to Montreal in 1833 and on 9 April 1835 Nickinson was again one of the principals in a production of The miller and his men; he also played in The Irishman in London. Both plays were put on in the Theatre Royal, provided for the occasion by John Molson*, for the benefit of the “theatrical fund.” On 21 April Nickinson was producer-director of a benefit at the theatre.
The stage now started to dominate Nickinson’s life. In 1836 he left the army to devote his full time to acting. He became a member of the company of Thomas Ward, the lessee of the Theatre Royal in Montreal, but on 7 Sept. 1836 was given a farewell benefit. Soon after he made his début in Albany, N.Y., and he became a member of the South Pearl Street Theatre. He returned to Montreal in 1841 to become part of the company playing at the Theatre Royal, and returned again for the 1843 season when he was lessee and manager of the theatre. However, he once more left for the United States, probably because of financial difficulties, and may have gone first to the Utica, N.Y., Museum. In 1848 he was the original “Dombey” in John Brougham’s dramatization of Dombey and son at Burton’s Theatre in New York. He became the stage manager of the Albany Museum in 1849. He subsequently played at the Franklin and Park theatres in New York City and was part of William Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre. When the latter company closed in 1850 Nickinson began touring the United States, often performing his well-known interpretation of “Haversack” in Napoleon’s old guard.
In 1852 Nickinson formed his own company which included W. J. Florence (who later became one of the leading comedians in the United States), C. M. Walcot Jr, and Charles Peters. The company was invited to tour Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto by T. P. Besnard. Nickinson became Besnard’s partner in 1852 in the management of their theatres at Toronto and Quebec, and in 1853 became sole lessee of the Royal Lyceum in Toronto. His opening play was probably The rough diamond, first presented on 28 March 1853. During Nickinson’s management, which lasted until 1858, many popular actors of the day were persuaded to come to the Lyceum, including James William Wallack, Jr and Sr. Nickinson’s daughters Charlotte (who had earlier appeared briefly with her father in New York City) and Isabella began their stage careers there. Nickinson was seen by Toronto audiences in such character roles as “Midas” in the play of that name, “Aminadab Sleek” in Serious family, and “Haversack.” By 1857 Nickinson was also the proprietor and manager of the Theatre Royal in Brantford. His company appeared regularly at Montreal, Quebec, Kingston, and Hamilton. He raised a militia company of rifles during his stay in Toronto.
In 1858 Nickinson left for the United States, although he remained owner of the Toronto Lyceum, and Owen Marlowe became its manager. However, he was again manager in 1860 when it changed its name to the Prince of Wales Theatre. He returned to the United States soon after, and was manager of Pike’s Opera House in Cincinnati when he died in 1864.
Molson Archives (Montreal), “Early theatre in Montreal.” Cincinnati Commercial (Cincinnati, Ohio), 11 Feb. 1864. Boase, Modern English biog., I, 1445–46. T. A. Brown, History of the American stage . . . (New York, 1870), 265–66. Types of Canadian women and of women who have been connected with Canada, ed. H. J. Morgan (Toronto, 1903). J. E. Middleton, “Music and the theatre in Canada,” Can. and its provinces (Shortt and Doughty), XII, 651–61. M. D. Edwards, A stage in our past, English-language theatre in eastern Canada from the 1790s to 1914 ([Toronto], 1968). Franklin Graham, Histrionic Montreal; annals of the Montreal stage with biographical and critical notices of the plays and players of a century (2nd ed., New York and London, 1902; repr. New York, 1969), 83. H. P. Phelps, Players of a century: a record of the Albany stage, including notices of prominent actors who have appeared in America (2nd ed., Albany, N.Y., 1880; repr. New York, 1972). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, I, 486–91. F. N. Walker, Four whistles to wood-up: stories of the Northern Railway of Canada (Toronto, 1953).