Photo credit Elisabeth Nichols
Ralph Cyril Fulford Nichols was born on 12th August 1910 in Islington, north London, the youngest of four children. He attended Owens school in Islington, travelling up to Whetstone (7 – 8 miles), by tram, for outdoor sports. He was in both the football and cricket teams.
He played tennis and won the Singles Championship of his club at 14 years of age. At 16, he reached the semi-finals of the Evening News Competition out of a total of some 2,000 entries. In 1927, playing with R.J. Ritchie, he won the Middlesex Junior Championships.
When he left school, with good results, he joined the Ocean Insurance Company and became an Insurance Inspector working in North London – he retired after 40 years service. He played tennis for the Insurance Offices against the Insurance Brokers, for the annual Riseley Cup. He also played tennis at Wimbledon in the Men’s Doubles after the War and got through at least one round – he had the chance to play on the centre court, but lost in the previous round!
Living in North London, and being a keen Arsenal fan, he often visited Highbury to watch their matches, and in later years, took his sons.
He began playing Badminton seriously in 1927 and joined the Alexandra Palace Club with his elder brother Leslie. They won their first ‘family’ Championship in 1931, at Southend in Essex, and went on to win this doubles event three years running. It would appear that neither received formal tuition, or coaching as we would now know it, and were primarily self taught.
Ralph won his first handicap event in 1928 at the Alexandra Palace and his first Open Championship at Reading in 1930 when he won the Berkshire Singles beating J.F. Devlin in the final. He was unable to take part in the All England that year owing to examinations.
Ralph was selected to tour Canada in 1930 under the captaincy of Sir George Thomas, with J.F. Devlin, H.S. Uber, D.C. Hume and R.M White. He was just 20 years old. In the one Test Match versus Eastern Canada, ending in victory for Britain by 7 – 2, Ralph won his two matches.
By the end of the 1939-40 season, Ralph had won 179 titles – many of them with his brother Leslie. These wins included the All England Singles in 1932, 1934, 1936, 1937 and 1938 – entitling him to keep the trophy. He and Leslie won the Men’s doubles in 1936, 1937 and 1938 and won the trophy outright which was presented by Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace Badminton Club. He finally won the Mixed Doubles event in 1939, playing with Miss B. Staples. As an amateur sport the cup and title were the rewards for success although it is understood a £5 voucher was also given to the winner(s) to spend in The Army and Navy Store in London.
There was no All England Championships held in 1940 – 46 owing to the War.
Ralph joined the Army and was stationed at Aldershot. Due to his eyesight he was enlisted to the R.A.P.C. and posted to Nairobi, East Africa for 2 years, until he was demobilised and returned to England in January 1946.
The first Badminton tournament post war was held at Littlehampton in March 1946, where he won the doubles title with Leslie. He won several titles in 1946 – 47. The All England was played for the first time at Harringay under appalling conditions in icy weather. He had partial success in reaching the semi-finals of the mixed, losing in 3 sets to the Danes, Madsen and Miss Thorndahl. The Danes were fortunate to be able to continue playing badminton throughout the war years.
In 1947 Ralph announced his decision to retire, and did so, which was unfortunate, as in August 1948 a team was sent to South Africa.
He decided to play again the following season, when he was chosen to play in International matches. In 1950 he won his 50th International match, preceded by Sir George Thomas, who accomplished the feat on his last appearance in 1929, and by Mrs Uber in 1948.
In 1951 he met Elisabeth O’Beirne – a Sussex County player – who had been selected to play for England against Ireland. They met on the flight to Belfast. They played in tournaments together and paired up to play in the All England in 1951 and 1952. Ralph played in his last All England in 1953.
He married Elisabeth in 1954 and they made their home in Totteridge, north London. He continued to play golf at Old Fold Manor in Barnet – at one time he achieved a single figure handicap. He and Elisabeth enjoyed playing Bridge with friends. They had 2 sons and Ralph took a great interest in all their activities, encouraging and getting involved with their sport. They were all keen on cricket and the visits to Lords or the Oval was something they all looked forward to in the summer. In their family games together he had the unusual art of bowling either right or left handed.
Elisabeth has 2 framed tributes on the wall at home. Back in the 1930’s, Lyons Cornerhouse, the then prestigious Tea rooms, would select a sports personality each week, who had achieved something special, and they were given a ‘cake’. This tribute says – “Presented and signed by the Editor of the Lyons Sports Sheet, for Ralph’s outstanding achievement in winning the All England Men’s Singles for the third year in succession....TAKES THE CAKE, for the week Feb 28 – March 6. 1938. Elisabeth also has an old photograph of Ralph, aged 27, holding the said ‘cake’.
The second tribute came in 1997 when the international Badminton Federation honoured him in becoming a member of the Hall of Fame.
Another recognition of his influence in his sport during his career came from Ogdens, a branch of Imperial Tobacco, who included him in a 1936 series of 50 cigarette cards ( he was No.7) of famous sports people of the era. He was described as belonging “to the school which employs delicacy of strokes allied to tactics. Drop shots from the back of the court and quick recoveries are the main features of his game.”
If England’s yearning for sporting champions has amplified in the current professional era to the point of obsession we should not forget we had a true champion of the world in the 1930’s and that he is the last Englishman to win the All England, akin to Fred Perry of tennis, 73 years ago.
He is greatly missed by Elisabeth, James and Richard, and she still takes pride in cleaning his All England Trophies!
Ralph Nichols died in 2001, and the National Badminton Museum are very grateful to his widow Elisabeth and son Richard for this profile and picture.