The passing of Edward Nichols signals the end of an era in the City of London as he was the last of the 'old' town clerks; the primus inter pares of the past before local government changes led to the town clerk's being designated as the head of the paid service or as chief executive.
Born in 1911, Edward Nichols grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He was educated there, at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, and read law at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He chose local government for his career and was articled to the Town Clerk of Mansfield in 1933. He was appointed a solicitor of the Supreme Court and moved to Derby as Assistant Town Clerk, becoming Deputy Town Clerk in 1940.
He served with distinction in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and continued his service after the war in the Territorial Army, being awarded the Territorial Decoration. He resumed his career serving as Deputy Town Clerk of Leicester until 1949 and then as Town Clerk of Derby until the end of 1953.
When the office of Town Clerk of the City of London fell vacant it attracted many outstanding candidates and Nichols was appointed at what, in those days, was the relatively young age of 42. He was immediately faced with the huge task of co-ordinating the authority's rebuilding of the war-ravaged Square Mile. Whilst some of the architecture of that time is the present subject of criticism, this was outside the City's power to control. What is not criticised is the drive and pace of redevelopment which enabled the City's businesses to be housed and thus to achieve the dominant position they attained in financial services in Europe.
Perhaps Nichols's greatest single service to the Corporation of London came when the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London (the Herbert Commission) was set up to consider and recommend changes to the structure of local government in the metropolis. Immediately the old cry of 'abolish the City' went up and the continuance of a thousand years of service and history came under threat. Nichols prepared a memorandum of evidence to the commission on the origins, constitution and functions of the Corporation which was both historically erudite and persuasive of the current importance of the role of that body to London and to the nation. The commission recommended that the City should be retained as a local authority with widened powers.
Nichols's meticulous attention to detail of corporation hospitality, to visiting monarchs and heads of state, led to his being honoured by many of them. Being a convivial person with a questing interest in many subjects, not least philately, he enjoyed the opportunity that this aspect of his duties gave for meeting and talking with so many important international figures.
He was knighted in 1972 and the City University awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 1974.
Edward Nichols served as Town Clerk of the City of London for 20 years but decided to retire when, in his own words, 'Problems now being raised are those that I have advised upon and we have dealt with twice before. It is time for fresh thinking.' His unfailing courtesy and quiet dignity will be missed by many 'old hands' of the civic and financial City and among past senior figures in departments of state and local government. That the latter years of his retirement were marred by ever worsening ill-health was a sadness to his friends as well as to his devoted family.