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John Allen Cowell Kennedy Nivison

Epithet: MHK, MLC, CP, veteran Manx Labour politician (1910-2003)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Jack Nivison, as he was always known, was a leading Labour member of the Manx legislature for 40 years (1948-1988), deeply attached to his life-long local roots in Onchan, and one of the most effective and widely-respected politicians of his generation.

The Nivison family came to the Isle of Man from Scotland during the later nineteenth century. Jack's paternal grandparents hailed from Kirkcudbright, and his grandfather took up a job as farm manager at The White House, Kirk Michael. His father built several houses in Onchan; his paternal uncle Alec, a butcher, was active in public life as an Onchan Village Commissioner, first elected in 1923; his maternal uncle, William Frederick Cowell was MHK for Middle (1913-19 and 1924-33).

Jack's reminiscences of his early life appeared in 1992 as the introduction to Gordon Kniveton's The Onchan Story. His lifelong membership of St Peter's Church was very important to him; he recalled joining the Sunday School in 1915, and remembered seeing Lord Raglan, as well as most subsequent Governors, at Sunday morning service. Later he was to become a Sunday School superintendent, a Church Commissioner, and a member of the Onchan Parochial Church Council from 1937 to 1951 (excluding war service).

He attended Onchan School, and then the Eastern District Secondary School, Park Road, Douglas. On leaving school in his early teens,
he became a grocer's assistant with the firm of Edwin Creer, at Port Jack. Little is now known of his life as a young man pre-war, but it seems that, like many others, appalled by poverty and unemployment, he probably gravitated towards the Manx Labour Party during the 1930s. He also joined the Onchan Silver Band in 1937, as a founder member and a trombonist. He served in the RAF from 1940-45, as a fitter on the ground staff, initially at Jurby; when first married he was able to ride home to Onchan on his bike. He married Audrey Quine in August 1940 and their first child, John, was born the following year. Later in the war Jack was stationed in Nigeria, which was the beginning of a life-long interest in Africa and enjoyment of the company of Africans. He also served in Lincolnshire with 627 Squadron, part of the Pathfinder force of Bomber Command.

Back in the Island as a mature married man after the war, he started a new career as an insurance agent for the Royal London Mutual. Promoted to superintendent in 1958, he continued to work in insurance until his retirement in 1975. The profession ensured financial security and was also more compatible than most with his political and public commitments.

In 1946 Jack Nivison first stood for the Keys, unsuccessfully. Harvey Briggs recalls how he was unable to get a hall for his Labour eve-of-poll meeting, so stood on a soapbox outside the Onchan Village Hall and addressed the crowd coming out of the meeting organised by the non-socialist candidates. A month later he was again unsuccessful in a by-election.

But in 1947 Jack was elected as an Onchan Village Commissioner. For him, this was not merely a springboard for higher office. He was very deeply involved in his local community, remained a commissioner until 1971 (when a change in the law prohibited simultaneous membership of the legislature and a local body), and was Captain of the Parish from 1972 to1996. He was very largely responsible for the opening of the Onchan Park and Stadium in 1951 when he was chairman of the commissioners (as he was again in 1967-8), and he took an especial pleasure in presiding year after year over carnivals and sporting events in the park. Indeed such was his enthusiasm that he advertised these events by loud-speaker from a car on Douglas promenade, until the Douglas Town Council objected and prevented him from continuing to do so. In July 2004 the Onchan Stadium was renamed the Nivison Stadium in his honour.

At the Middle by-election in October 1948 he succeeded at last in entering the Keys, defeating his nearest opponent by 1332 votes to 1227. At 38, he was the second youngest MHK, the youngest being (later Sir) Henry Charles Kerruish. He soon established himself as one of the leading members who dominated Keys' debates, and as a manwhose abilities inspired the confidence of his colleagues. In 1951, after being returned top of the poll in Middle, he was appointed as a member of the Governor's Executive Council (a position he held from 1951-60 and again, as an MLC, from 1970-76). He was chairman of the Social Services (later Social Security) Board for 25 years from 1951-76. Here was a job ideally suited to his natural inclination to support the underdog, and he took particular pleasure in opening a number of old people's homes and in securing a level of non-contributory social benefit payment higher than that obtaining in the UK.

He also took a great interest in tourism and transport. He proposed, and became a member of, the Visiting Industry Commission of 1955, and also the Tourist Industry Commission of 1970, and was a member of the Tourist Board from 1962-81. Thus he was in the forefront of those who realised from the 1950s on that, with the decline of the traditional Manx seaside holiday and mass tourism, it was necessary for the government to play a much larger role in promoting the industry.

In February 1962 Nivison was elected Acting Speaker of the Keys, but refused nomination as Speaker and withdrew in favour of Charles Kerruish, a man with whom, despite political disagreements, his personal relations were good. Instead of standing for Speaker he was elected to the Legislative Council, of which he continued to be a member until his retirement from the legislature. As an MLC, he was chairman of the Airports Board from 1976-1988, a position which appealed to a former member of the RAF. In the 1980s he was also very active in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as secretary, then joint chairman (with Charles Kerruish) of the Isle of Man branch, and attended several conferences in different parts of the world.

He was president of the Manx Labour Party in 1954. In 1979 he was awarded the CBE as a tribute to his years of public service. From 1980-88 he was the first Manx President (as opposed to the Lieutenant Governor, who had previously presided) of the Legislative Council.

A list of positions held, of which there were many more, cannot in itself do justice to Jack Nivison's character. A beaming, good- humoured man, invariably benign if a sometimes repetitive raconteur, he was almost universally popular. Even his consistent and eloquent opposition to birching could not dent this popularity. His interests included gardening, the breeding of birds with the Onchan Fur & Feather Society, music, football, and acting with the Legion Players in his youth. He enjoyed his role as Captain of the Parish of Onchan until increasing old age brought about his final retirement from public life.

Unpretentious and quietly dedicated, his life showed an exemplary commitment to public service, both to the community of Onchan and to the Isle of Man as a whole. His children all became teachers, his son John in England and Africa, his daughters in the Island. He died at home on 5th December 2003, and was buried in St Peter's Churchyard after a funeral attended by a very large congregation.

Biography written by Robert Fyson.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.343-5.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 22 March 1910

Date of death: 5 December 2003

Name Variant: Nivison, John Allen Cowell Kennedy ('Jack')


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