The Nicholls of Gillistown, Co. Antrim


Little is known about the early life of my great-grandfather John Charters Nicholl: he died in 1910, long before his four grandchildren were born in the 1920s, and my Aunt Margaret told me recently (2016) that he also had dementia. Margaret also wondered if he had met his future wife Mary Holland on the emigrant ship to New Zealand. As for his wife, Aunt Margaret thought that Mary, an orphan, may have arrived in New Zealand as a nanny, perhaps for a family called Griggs. In fact, Mary Holland seems to have arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand on the ship Waitangi in 1876, while no record has yet been found of John Charters Nicholl’s arrival in New Zealand. But intriguingly, there is a record that seems to place John in Ireland as at January 1883, when he registered the death of his sister-in-law Esther, whose husband James had apparently decamped to the United States. This is the only one of my great-grandparents for whom I have found an Irish record of their adult life. In March 1883, John’s mother Nancy died. By October 1883, John Nicholl was marrying Mary Holland at the registry office in Invercargill.

This seems like a pretty quick courtship, given that the voyage from the UK would have taken nearly three months. Which makes me wonder whether John Nicholl had returned from New Zealand to Ireland before 1883, and then came back to New Zealand to marry. In preparing this website in 2016, I was drawn to look again at some family history notes that Dad had made about 1967, just before my grandfather Bunny Nicholl died. These notes state that John Nicholl “lost money Waihi gold mines”. Now, the world-famous Waihi gold mine was prospected in 1879 by a William Nicholl, who named the Martha Mine (Wikipedia) after a family member. William Nicholl came from the same district in Co. Antrim as John Nicholl, and though I have found no direct link as yet, it is quite likely that there is one, and quite possible also that John Nicholl was at Waihi, lost his investment, and returned to Ireland for his mother’s final illness before coming back to New Zealand to marry. Further research required.

At any rate, the links between the Nicholls in Southland and Ireland were maintained until about 1940 by Lizzie Nicholl and her Irish cousin Nathaniel Jenkins. Was it the Second World War that broke the connection, or did the Ulster side learn that all the Nicholls in New Zealand had become Catholics…?

The Nicholl home at Laurel Hill, Gillistown, Co. Antrim, 1966

The Nicholl home at Laurel Hill, Gillistown, Co. Antrim, 1966

The links were reforged in the mid-1960s by my mother, who must have read the 1930s letters after her Aunt Lizzie’s death. Mum made contact with Lily Nicholl, and then in 1984 my sisters visited Olive Nicholl in Antrim, as did my parents and I at different times in the next few years. Olive Nicholl told us that the first Nicholl in the family to live in Ireland was her husband’s grandfather Nathaniel Nicholl (1801-1878):

Now for the Nicholl news. On Thursday afternoon we went in to the house in Ballymena where Nathaniel Nicholl’s widow lives. It is quite a big house with a garden with lots of trees. As soon as she came to the door, we just said that Nathaniel Nicholl in NZ was our grandfather and she asked us in straight away. Olive is her name and she is a lovely lady: 80 years old but looks less than 70, and very interested in the family history. She said the Nicholls never talked much of the history, but she herself is interested. So we looked at photos and she told us that the Nicholls originally came from Scotland. They were a crofting family, McLeod clan, put off their land when the crofters were put out to make sheep farms. Old Mr Nat Nicholl was a wheelwright and he went to Glasgow first and then to Ireland. He would be the father of John Charters and Nathaniel. Then Nathaniel lived at Laurel Hill and had six children: Nathaniel (1890), Anna (1892), William (1894), Matthew Boyd (1898), Lily (1900)—really Elizabeth; May (1903)—called Martha after her mother Martha Boyd but everyone called her May. Anna, William and May were all born on 5 May, and the father, Nathaniel Nicholl, brother of John Charters, died 5 May 1924.

So then Mrs Nicholl drove us out to Laurel Hill where the house is being renovated, after Lily died last year. She said Anna was a great gardener, and if she would a stick in the ground it would grow—they had lots of lovely old trees there too. There was a blacksmith’s forge—for the wheelwright, so we took a photo of the chimney and all the old tools and stuff lying about. And at the gate of Laurel Hill there used to be a mill to scutch the flax for making linen. Olive said the flax used to soak first and gave a terrible smell. They used to grind corn there too. She said the Nicholls got so used to the flax smell they didn’t mind it, and Nat her husband had no sense of smell at all. The day we called, 23 Aug, was Olive and Nat’s 46th wedding anniversary. There are 2 Nicholl Bros shops in Ballymena but they were sold to nephews the Raineys. And all those years it was only the one Nicholl Brother there because just 2 months after they opened the shop, Boyd was killed in a motorbike accident, avoiding a child and he went into a wall. Hw was engaged to be married and it was very sad for them all and esp Nat because he was a quiet one and had to run the shop—but Lily came to help him.
—Mary O’Neill, letter to family in Dunedin, 25 August 1984.

I have been sceptical of the timing of the emigration from Scotland to Ireland since finding evidence of a Charters Nicholl in the neighbourhood in the 1780s. In the last few years, I have done quite a bit of research into Nicholls from the Gillistown/Taylorstown [Google Maps] area of Co. Antrim emigrating to the USA and Canada, but in several cases I have not yet proven the links with my own branch. It is pretty clear that the name Nicholl is well-entrenched in Co. Antrim, but still the possibility remains that our branch of the Nicholls emigrated from Scotland some time after 1800.

It’s also worth noting here that the first name Charters occurs only 29 times in Irish birth/death/marriage records (FamilySearch), all of them in the Ballymena district, and the listed surnames Nicholl, Rainey and Dickey all occur also in my research.


Location of the Nicholl home at Laurel Hill, Grange Road, Toomebridge, Co. Antrim

  3 Responses to “The Nicholls of Gillistown, Co. Antrim”

  1. The McCullochs are also related to the Raineys.

  2. My 4th Great Grandfather is James Nicholl (1798-1866) born and died in Gillistown. My 3rd Great is Hugh Nicholl (1825-1892) born and died in Gillistown. My 2nd Great is David Logan Nicholl (1852-1920) born in Gillistown and died in St. Charles, Iowa, USA.

    My wife and I are going to Ireland in September and plan to renew our vows near Gillistown. Would love any insight to relatives still in the area.

    Any info is greatly appreciated.

    • James Nicholl 1798/99 in Gillstown,Antrim,
      Married Mar Wilson
      Is My 4th Great Grandfather.
      I live in England
      family tree Ancestry Bilcliff

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