Nicholson, John (1821–57), army officer and administrator in India, was born 11 December 1821 in Dublin, eldest son among five sons and two daughters of Dr Alexander Nicholson, physician, of Stramore House, Gilford, Co. Down, and his wife Clara (née Hogg). His father had studied medicine at TCD and had a medical practice in Dublin, but died (1830) after contracting a fever from a patient. His mother took the children to live with her mother in Lisburn. In 1831 they moved to Delgany, Co. Wicklow, where he attended the school of the Rev. Dr Louis Delamere. He later attended (1834–8) the Royal School, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, and in December 1838 travelled to London, where his uncle, James Weir Hogg (1790–1876), obtained a cadetship for him in the Bengal Infantry. Following a brief period of training at the East India Company's military college at Addiscombe, he was commissioned as an ensign on 24 February 1839 and departed for India, arriving in July 1839.
Initially posted to the 41st Native Infantry at Benares, he later served with the 27th Native Infantry in the Punjab and Afghanistan. In December 1841 his regiment was serving as the garrison of Ghanzi, Afghanistan, and he took a prominent part in the town's defence when it was attacked by Afghan tribesmen. Captured by the Afghans on 9 April 1842, he remained a prisoner till September when, after bribing their gaolers, Nicholson and his fellow officers escaped and met a relief force from Jalalabad. In November 1842 he met his younger brother, Alexander Nicholson, who had also been commissioned in the Indian army, at Dhaka in India. On 3 November, however, he found the mutilated body of his brother while on patrol in the Khyber Pass. The time he spent as a prisoner of the Afghans and the killing of his brother affected him deeply, colouring his view of the native peoples throughout his later career.
Made adjutant of the 27th Native Infantry in May 1843, he passed the interpreter's examination in 1845 and was posted to the commissariat, serving under Gen. Sir Hugh Gough (qv) during the first Sikh war (1845–6). He took part in the Sutlej expedition and was present at the battle of Ferozeshah. After the end of the war he occupied administrative posts in Kashmir and Lahore, and in July 1847 took charge of the Sind Sgar district; he was promoted to captain in March 1848. An associate of Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806–57), he was one of a group of junior officers, known as ‘Henry Lawrence's young men’, who held important administrative posts in India. In August 1848 he secured the fort at Arrak, denying it to Sikh rebels, and then put down unrest in the surrounding countryside. He served throughout the second Sikh war (1848–9), again under Gough, and was present at the battles of Chillianwallah and Gujerat, finishing the war as a brevet major. Following the annexation of the Punjab, he was appointed as deputy-commissioner of the Lahore district.
After the mysterious death (June 1849) of another brother, William Nicholson, John took a year's leave, visiting several European cities on his way home. He returned to Lahore in the spring of 1852 and was appointed deputy-commissioner of Bannu, immediately setting out to subdue the Waziri border raiders. In November 1854 he was promoted to brevet lieutenant-colonel. When the Indian rebellion broke out (May 1857) he was serving as deputy- commissioner at Peshawar. Having dispersed rebellious troops at Swat (June 1857), he was promoted to brigadier-general and put in command of the Punjab moveable column. The arrival of the column in an area usually heralded a reversal in the fortunes of the mutineers, and Nicholson was prominent in the suppression of the rebellion, frequently using brutal methods. At Mardan fort he had forty mutineers executed, tying them to the muzzles of cannons and then ordering the cannons to be fired. As Dr James Graham, an Irish doctor based at Sialkot, remarked: ‘Mercy is a word not to be found in his vocabulary’ (Jeffrey (ed.), An Irish empire, 83).
On 25 August 1857 at Najafgarh he attacked and routed a rebel force that had sallied out of Delhi to attack the British siege train. Selected to lead the main storming party on Delhi, he was mortally wounded during the assault of 14 September 1857 near the Kashmir Gate. He died 23 September 1857 and was buried within the city walls near Ludlow Castle. An obelisk was erected on the spot where he was wounded and a statue was also erected in Lisburn, Co. Antrim. Another statue was erected at the Royal School, Dungannon, where he had been educated. Queen Victoria later announced that if he had not died he would have been awarded a KCB. He never married.
John Nicholson was later portrayed as the ideal Victorian soldier and gentleman, and accounts of his deeds influenced generations of boys, preparing them for the life of a soldier or administrator in India. Young officers who served with him, including Lord Roberts (qv), later acknowledged how his personality had affected them. It is without doubt that he had a fine tactical sense and could rapidly assess military situations. His stern and forceful personality even caused some tribesmen to worship him as a godlike figure. More recently, however, his reputation has suffered considerably, and in India he remains a hated figure owing to the severity of his punishments during the rebellion.