Who Was the Infamous William Nicol?

If you live anywhere in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, you’ll be familiar with William Nicol Drive. From the moment we moved to South Africa – heck, even during our look-see trip – we bitterly complained about William Nicol Drive and all the congestion on it. It was our lifeline to Bryanston and Sandton and pretty much anywhere NOT Dainfern, and we were perpetually stuck in some kind of traffic jam on it. If the robots were out at the N1 intersection, you could add at least an extra 20 minutes to your already hour-long commute to wherever it was you were trying to get – plenty of time to buy a handful of bootleg DVDs from a street vendor and later that night curse yourself because your movie was playing out of sequence, without sound, and with Chinese subtitles.

But I digress. What I wanted to write about was William Nicol. You know, the guy after whom the street is named. I might not normally have been so interested – after all, there are tons of street names in the world named after people you’ve never heard about – but it’s just that I spent so much damn TIME on William Nicol! I needed to know who he was.

traffic on William Nicol
There is always traffic, and there is always something going on on William Nicol Drive

It was surprisingly difficult to pinpoint.

First, I had to wade through all the William Nicol’s on Facebook. It’s amazing how many people of that name there are. Then again, over one BILLION people just signed in with Facebook last month, I read somewhere. If a few of those are William Nicols, it’s no surprise. (Although I’m happy to say I haven’t found another Melusine yet – here is THAT story).

The first William Nicol I came across on Wikipedia was the Scottish geologist and physicist William Nicol (1770-1851) who invented the Nicol Prism, which is a type of light-polarizing device that was once widely used in microscopy. At the time, it was quite revolutionary that one could now conveniently polarize light, and it paved the way to many new discoveries in the optical field. He also came up with a method for preparing samples to be studied under the microscope by slicing them into very thin disks and somehow glueing them together. I admit I didn’t try to understand any of this.

William Nicol the Scotsman is definitely someone worth remembering.

There was a strong case to be made for this particular William Nicol as the hero of our road-rage inducing stretch of pavement. When you drive down William Nicol Drive from the Dainfern area towards Sandton, you cross another road named Robert Bruce. And of course we history buffs all know what a stellar Scottish hero Robert Bruce was. Or, rather, we know this more because we are movie buffs and we have never forgotten Mel Gibson dripping blood and riding into battle in Braveheart.

So since William Nicol was a Scotsman and Robert Bruce was a Scotsman, and the two roads intersect, it must naturally follow that there was some kind of historical design behind those street names.

Rainbow over William Nicol
A lovely rainbow over William Nicol. I believe this is close to the Robert Bruce intersection.

But it turned out the Scottish connection was wearing a bit thin when I came across another William Nicol, this one with a South African connection. The Reverend Dr. William Nicol (1887-1967) was a Dutch-Reformed minister, educator, and administrator of the Transvaal Province. You know, back in the Apartheid era when there was still such a thing as the Transvaal. (I love that word, just as much as I love the word “Voortrekker” – to learn all about the Transvaal and the Voortrekkers read my blog post about Pretoria and Paul Kruger).

Interesting guy, this second William Nicol. Even though he was of Afrikaner descent, he was a champion of English language education and church services. (Actually, I am only ASSUMING he was of Dutch/Afrikaans descent, because of two telltale signs: He was in the Dutch Reformed Church where most self-respecting Englishmen did not venture, and he studied at Stellenbosch, the hotbed of Afrikaans education if there ever was one. But like I said, I could be wrong.)

The Reverend Nicol was a strong proponent of teaching Africans in their mother tongue, with English as a second language to help everyone communicate. For this reason he opposed the National Party’s bantu education policy and its push towards Afrikaans language education, which of course was what sparked the Soweto uprising in 1976.

What do you think? Does South Africa trump Scotland in the naming of one of Joburg’s biggest North/South thoroughfares, and the site of many an unwanted street vendor purchase?

If you diligently read the information in all the links I’ve provided, you might get your answer.

street vendors on William Nicol
I made friends with many street vendors back in the day, and I bought many things from them.
street vendors on William Nicol
The Soccer World Cup was a particularly wonderful time to interact with Joburg street vendors.
traffic on William Nicol
Live entertainment in the middle of the intersection somewhere on William Nicol Drive.

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