John Nicholas Size (1866-1953)

John Nicholas Size

Written by Rebecca Moreton

Occupations: Hotelier and Novelist

John Nicholas Size was born and baptised in Liverpool on 6 September 1866. He was the eldest child of Henry John [1840 – 1935] and Ann Nickson [c.1833 – 1907], who were married in Liverpool on 16 November 1865. Nicholas had four younger sisters, Anne Henrietta [b. 1868], Julia Frances [b 1869], Annie Beatrice [b 1870], and Ellen Margaret [b 1872]. They all became teachers, apart from Julia who worked as a railway clerk. His paternal grandfather, also John [b. 1816] was a bookkeeper for a steam packet company living in Liverpool and later Tranmere. His maternal grandfather Nicholas Nickson [1803 – 1877] was a shipwright working on the wooden hulls being built on Merseyside.  Educated in Liverpool, Nicholas began his career working as a railway agent, following his father, who had been a railway supervisor. During his career much of Nicholas’ time was spent at Bradford Exchange Station as the goods manager there earning £240 per annum in 1906. He left that employment in 1927 having worked at Shaw Skye Station, Halifax and seen an increase in his annual earnings to £470 per year. He also worked for the London and Midland and Scottish railway. Ann’s brother John worked as a railway clerk and it is interesting to ponder whether this led to Ann and Henry meeting, with the railway and transport seemingly playing a key role throughout the lives of the family. 

Nicholas married Reneé Adèle neé Labrousse [1871 – 1957], a French national, in Vincennes, Paris in 1985. They had a son, Henry Nicholas [1896 – 1977], and a daughter Reneé Leontine Anne [1899 – 1967]. Both children were born in Whitley Bay, Northumberland and the family lived in North Bierley, a few miles South of Bradford, and later Ilkley where Reneé Adèle worked as a French Teacher. She died in Leeds in a nursing home in 1957 leaving an estate of £9669.

Nicholas’ daughter married John Harris Fulford [1897 – 1940] in Marylebone, London in 1920. John’s father Frank Harris Fulford [1868 – 1943] was the managing director of a Canadian medicine manufacturer (CE Fulford Ltd) and John was born in Ontario and worked for the firm as a director and manufacturing chemist, travelling with Reneé to Canada, Chile and Argentina, most likely for work during the 1920s and 1930s. They lived at Moor House, Adel, Leeds where all members of the family were buried. Reneé died at Wharefdale Hospital, Otley with an estate worth £152, 910. Nicholas also travelled to New York in 1893. His son Henry spent his life in Leeds. He married Grace Dowson [1913 – 1969] there in 1951 and lived at 41 Langbar Grange, dying in 1977 with an estate worth £12,526. It’s interesting to consider what seemingly different lives the two siblings led despite residing in the same city. 

Nicholas’ interest in the Lake District led him to become the proprietor of the Victoria Hotel in Buttermere, now known as the Bridge Hotel, which he found in a derelict state around 1920 and lived in from 1927. He subsequently married Florence Emily Gatfield [1904 – 1984] in Cockermouth, Cumberland in July 1937, and in 1939 they were joint proprietors of The Buttermere Hotel which is now the youth hostel.

A growing fascination with the history of the area was reflected in Nicholas’ membership to the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS), which he joined in 1927. He is listed as a member up until 1952, prior to his death the following year and his article, Click Mill at Buttermere and Buttermere Notes was published in series 2, volume 36 of their Transactions with reference to it being read at Carlisle on 2nd July 1935. It gives interesting detail of evidence for a click mill in Buttermere along with descriptions and a pictorial guide to the workings of a mill of that type, named after the sound it makes while running.  The Society’s 1952 In Memoriam entry for him highlights his contribution as an author and particularly his fictional novels of the area, The Secret Valley (1929), originally published as a booklet The Epic of Buttermere and Shelagh of Eskdale, or the Stone of Shame (1939) which he derived from Charles Arundel Parker’s The Story of Shelagh, Olaf Cuaran’s Daughter (1909). Both embraced romantic imaginings of Buttermere and Eskdale, including the area around the hotel. Nicholas also wrote one unpublished work, The Vindication of Canute.  

As someone who moved between professions, Nicholas also combined them at times, continuing to work on the railways for seven years after purchasing the Victoria hotel, and writing The Secret Valley while stationed at Halifax. As an ambitious businessman, he had ultimately unfulfilled dreams of developing the Victoria Hotel as a tourist attraction to include a chair lift to High Crag summit at the south end of Buttermere, along with beer garden, brass band and service station. Consequently, his novels can be seen in part as a means promoting not only the Lake District but also his hotel as a major tourist attraction.  Though much of what they contain is not historically accurate, such as the  locals’ victorious battle against a Norman invasion in The Secret Valley,  it is true to say that his depictions contributed to the way the area is referred to and imagined to this day. Rannerdale Knotts, one of the small fells in the Buttermere Valley, became synonymous with the site of the battle in the story and is still ingrained in the imaginations of many who refer to it as the ‘Secret Valley’. Perhaps as the quotation on the title page of the book states; ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ and this, coupled with the power of the imagination, has led to the blurring of the two and has changed how we think of the place forever. Such shifts of perception are demonstrably the power of Size’s work. He also advertised the hotel directly in his third book, The Haunted Moor, which was not set in the Lake District but on Ilkley Moor, familiar from his younger days. Perhaps one could argue that such imaginative depictions of the area are a much more memorable and effective means of advertisement than conventional guides and posters, if they succeed in sticking in the mind of the reader. 

Size’s determination to develop the area for tourists, further exemplified in the development of a 9 hole golf course for residents of his hotel, meant, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he did not always see eye to eye with farmers and local landowners, with one local resident describing how ‘he’d do anything to make money’. That said, his enthusiasm for the area and promotion of access to and enjoyment of the countryside led to him being held in wide affection, being described as a ‘much loved character of Buttermere’ and referred to as ‘auld Nick’.

He died at Whitehaven Hospital aged 86 on 14 April 1953, leaving a modest estate of £825, which suggests that he and Florence had been leaseholders rather than owners of the Buttermere Hotel. He is buried in an area of woodland above the ‘Fairy Glen’ described in The Secret Valley. His application and eventual approval to be buried there at a location of his own choosing seems to have been a last victory over the local authorities. However, even his burial was not straightforward, as the nature of the land meant that the ground had to be blasted out to allow a deep enough grave to be dug.  At the interment, following incredibly heavy rain, rocks had to be placed on top of his coffin once it was lowered into the ground to stop it from rising. True to what seems his colourful character, Nicholas also wrote his own epitaph, which reads:

No tombstone virtues will ornament my grave, 
No over confidence about my Salvation, 
Write me down one that loved his fellow men,
And was a credit to his generation.  

Florence died on 18th February 1984 at the age of 80, at Ings Cottage, Threlkeld, Keswick, leaving a sizeable estate of £129,534. The Victoria Hotel had moved into new hands the same year as Nicholas’ death, their business seeing in the next decades the fulfilment of more of Nicholas’ aspirations and the arrival of this new family heralding a new era.


  • Angus J L Winchester, The Language of the Landscape: A Journey into Lake District History, Handstand Press, Sedbergh, Cumbria, 2019. 
  • Nicholas Size, The Secret Valley: The real romance of Lakeland, and Shelagh of Eskdale: The Stone of Shame, Nicholas Size, Scholar Press, Ilkley, Beckermet Beckermet Bookshop, Beckermet, Cumbria: Michael Moon, 1977.
  • nicholas-size.pdf (                                                                                                                 
  • Click Mill, Dounby (HS) - Historic Sites & Monuments - Orkney Islands - Dounby (
  • cwaas/002/1936/vol36/tcwaas_002_1936_vol36_0022.pdf
  • cwaas/002/1952/vol52/tcwaas_002_1952_vol52_0021.pdf
  • Halifax Evening Courier, 15 April 1953, page 3, ‘Lakeland novelist chose own epitaph’. 
  • Halifax Evening Courier 10 February 1951 p.4, ‘A lover of Lakeland’.
  • England Marriages 1583 – 1973
  • 1937, England & Wales marriages, 1837-2005
  • England and Wales births 1837 – 2006 
  • School record, National school Admission registers and logbooks 1870 – 1924, Liverpool, Jan 18 1875.
  • 1841 England, Wales and Scotland Census, Liverpool
  • 1851 England, Wales and Scotland Census, Tranmere
  • 1871 England, Wales and Scotland Census, Liverpool
  • 1881, England, Wales and Scotland Census, Liverpool 
  • 1891 England, Wales and Scotland Census, Heaton Norris
  • 1901, England, Wales and Scotland Census, Clayton, North Bierley, Yorkshire 
  • 1911 England & Wales Census, Ilkley, Wharfedale, Yorkshire 
  • 1891 Canada Census
  • 1911 Canada Census
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