By RICHARD PENDLEBURY
UK DAILY MAIL – April 22, 1987
As a lottery winner vows to “Spend, Spend,Spend,” the Mail tracks down the woman who coined that phrase – pools winner Viv Nicholson. Five husbands later, she was a Jehovah’s Witness living on £87 a week…
Two weeks after her 71st birthday, Vivian Nicholson was looking for a job.
“I’ve sent out 25 resumes and haven’t got a single reply,” she complaines, as her solitary companion – a rather timid canary – scratches in a cage on the dresser behind us.
“The thing is, I need the money. I mean, how can you live properly without a little to spend on the finer things in life?”
How indeed, when you were once able to travel the world in luxury rather than just sit and dream about it in your dead-end street in a Yorkshire coalfield town.
No doubt, some imagine that Viv Nicholson is long-dead.* Others may not even know who she was.
But to those old enough to remember, any mention of her ill-starred intention to “spend, spend, spend” – trumpeted to the world almost half a century ago – will probably bring to mind an extrovert working-class girl who won a fortune on the football pools, only to blow the lot.
Within just a few years, Viv’s fame and fortune had morphed into tragedy and then penury. Even so, she remains a hubristic symbol of the consumer culture that exploded in the Sixties and has now reached almost every corner of British society.
And she hasn’t actually changed that much. She still likes what she calls “spiffing clothes” and the £70 bottles of the perfume that she splashes on her neck after her de rigeur two baths a day (“My father used to say I would wash myself away.”)
She happily admits to having 14 outfits from this season’s fashion ranges. And upstairs, there are five wardrobes full of more historic couture.
A green tweed number in a dry-cleaner’s polyethene wrapper hangs from the mantelpiece in the kitchen of her red-brick two-up, two-down, end-of-terrace home – just around the corner from where she was born.
But, apart from the glad-rags, there is little else to suggest that she once enjoyed the high life.
Viv has lived here in Castleford since the mid-Seventies when Lady Luck finally kissed her goodbye and Fate began administering savage uppercuts to the jutting Nicholson chin.
Today, her only regular income is a £87-a-week pension. The obvious gap between her income and her undiminished consumer desires is an overdraft problem for Barclays bank, she says.
“They’ve said they’re going to invite me to a do to celebrate half a century since I won,” she says, tittering infectiously. “After all, it was their giant cheque which I held up for the photographs at the time.”
Since Viv’s eight score-draws came up in 1961, she has gone through widowhood, a third, fourth and fifth marriage, and a religious conversion.
In the past decade alone, she has had a successful West End musical based on her life, a brother killed, a stroke and – as she reveals to me over the kitchen table – she has finally managed to conquer her alcoholism.
Until now, her addiction has been kept secret.
“I didn’t go to rehab because I didn’t want people to find out and say: ‘We always knew she would end up like that’,” she says, aping the shrill-voiced doomsayers. “I haven’t touched a drop for a year now, but it has been a very, very difficult time.”
To cheer herself up, Viv recently had her grey, curly hair cut short and dyed blonde. “I constantly need to reinvent myself. I have never been what you would call normal,” she concedes, somewhat unnecessarily.
“People still stop me in the street and ask: ‘Are you Spend, Spend, Spend?’ – and I usually reply: ‘Yes, what’s left of her’.”
She cackles at the thought that while fame still lingers, most can remember only her idiotic catchphrase rather than her real name.
When I arrive at her home, Viv has only just been rescued by a neighbour’s husband after being locked out. The front door still won’t open, so she gestures through the window, indicating that I need to go round the back of the house.
She invites me in “because you’re a nice-looking lad and, unlike most of the blokes I meet these days, you appear to still have your own hair and teeth. Watch out, or you could be Number Six.”
As we sit at her kitchen table by the mantelpiece with its matching china dogs and Renoir print, we begin by talking about Jennifer Southall, a working-class mother, who this week won £8.4million on the National Lottery and vowed to do “a Viv Nicholson”.
Flush with her winnings, divorcee Mrs. Southall wants to buy a “pretty red car,” a big home with a swimming pool and a villa in Spain.
Like Viv 46 years before, she had never tasted champagne before winning the jackpot, nor travelled on an aeroplane.
Viv is fascinated by the story and exhilarated on behalf of her fellow winner.
“It says here she earns £5.85 an hour,” she says, as she pours over the newspaper that I’ve brought along. “I was earning £7 a week at the sweet factory when I won.”
She reads on. “Look, she’s already made a shopping list of what she’s going to spend it on. I do that now still, and I’ve got nothing. Do you think she might need some advice on how to spend it? She ought to drop me a line.”
Given Viv Nicholson’s background, it’s perhaps understandable that she would have a skewed relationship with money.
Her father drank, and neither of her parents worked regularly because of long-term illnesses – so “everything that came into our house, like food or clothing, was paid for by the State,” she tells me.
“I was the eldest of five and working to make ends meet by the time I was 12.”
Even then, she wanted more.
“I took free elocution lessons at school and came top of my class,” she recalls. “I won two and six-pence and I was very proud. I have always made an effort with how the world sees me. I was always a snob.”
Forced to grow up fast, she was married and a mother before she was out of her teens. The marriage foundered after a few months, and before she was 20, she was married again – this time to a trainee miner called Keith Nicholson, whom she describes as “the love of my life.”
“If I had met Keith first, I would only ever have got married once,” she says.
They had three more children by the time she was 25. Times were very hard and there wasn’t always enough food.
But then came the pools win.
She recalls: “We found out on Saturday evening that we’d won the pools, but we couldn’t find the coupon. We weren’t sure if we’d sent it off or not, but then the winning ticket turned up in Keith’s trousers.
“It’s unbelievable that I remember the exact amount we won so clearly – it was £152,300, 18 shillings and eight pence. Back then, even the eight pence meant something.”
She adds: “I walked half a mile to the Post Office to send the telegram to the pools company. Within a couple of days, we were in London and famous.”
The couple found themselves being mobbed by reporters at Kings Cross station.
Then the cheque – worth about £3 million in today’s money – was presented to them by Bruce Forsyth.
Asked what she planned to do with it, Viv gleefully replied: “Spend, spend, spend!”
Back then, there was no network to support or advise big winners – possibly because hardly anyone had ever won that much. Having promised to spend, not save, the naïve young couple retreated to Yorkshire and recklessly proceeded to do just that.
Sometimes, Viv still passes the large bungalow that they bought in a smart suburb a few miles down the road. She looks wistful.
“We bought it for £11,000, and now it must be worth almost a million.”
After the win, she ordered dresses from Harrods, bought a pink Chevrolet and then swapped it for a different luxury car every six months. Keith bought a racehorse and the children were sent to boarding school.
“We travelled all over the States and Europe,” Viv remembers, adding: “I haven’t had a holiday now for five years.”
She even managed to meet Hollywood star Mae West.
Of course, the Nicholsons’ life changed in other ways. For example, people used to sit outside the bungalow chanting for money.
“They said they’d go away if I gave them a tenner,” she says, laughing. “I remember one woman jumping on to my car in the middle of the street and demanding that I pay for her to go home to Italy. It was crazy.”
And head-spinning. There were problems with old friends, neighbours, and even family. Some of those who resented Viv’s good luck and “wild” behaviour resolutely shunned her.
Her fierce temper didn’t help. “Keith hated it. I used to throw things at him when I lost my rag.”
About half of the money had gone when Keith was killed at the wheel of his powder-blue Jaguar in 1965, after skidding across the A1 and crashing down an embankment.
The taxman took most of what was left – “even his watch” – and the widow was eventually reduced to singing “Big Spender” in a Manchester strip club – though she was fired when she refused to take off her underwear.
After a court battle, she recovered a few thousand pounds of her husband’s estate – and there were three more marriages in quick succession. One lasted only four violent days.
Today, she can barely remember those husbands’ names.
“I got married again because I had money and time on my hands – nothing else. It was something to do. I didn’t love them.”
Like an aging former boxing champion, she has spent much of the past three decades repeatedly picking herself off the floor.
Her lowest ebb came after she was deported from Malta, where she’d tried to start a new life, after a punch-up with a policeman.
There was a suicide attempt and a short spell in a mental institution. As a functioning human being, Viv Nicholson was utterly spent.
And so, back she came to Castleford and the little house – in which we’re now sitting – that belongs to her sons. Even then, many of her old friends continued to snub her – and she, proud as ever, ignored them.
She was not a recluse, though.
Thirty years ago, the Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking on her door and Viv invited them in.
She has been a member of the church ever since, attending three prayer meetings a week and going “knocking” most evenings.
Her faith has curbed her violent tendencies, though she admits she can still be “a little verbal” when riled.
Viv’s place in popular history was secured by her autobiography, inevitably titled “Spend, Spend, Spend.”
This, in turn, inspired a well-received BBC play and then a stage musical, which debuted in Leeds in 1998 before transferring to London and earning her £100,000 in royalties (all spent).
Barbara Dickson played Viv in the West End production.
“I wasn’t happy with it,” says the original Mrs. Nicholson. “She was dressed in a pinny, like I was some grandmother. I never dressed in a pinny.”
There have been more serious troubles in her recent life. In 1998, she says, her brother died after being involved in a fight. Then, a couple of years ago, she had a stroke.
But her greatest test has been an addiction to drink, which for a while estranged her from her family.
“I was falling down stairs, screaming at people, throwing bottles. It was dreadful. It cost me money I had not got. I might struggle to meet household bills, but when it came to booze I always found the money.
“Eventually, my weight was down to four stone and I could hardly walk. I had a serious fall and instead of taking it as a warning, I simply drank more to mask the pain.
“I was a total mess. It was horrible and, most of the time, I didn’t know what day it was. I got to like the whisky too much and I needed a bottle of wine to get me to sleep. Then I would get up at 2am and drink another one.”
She says she started drinking heavily because she felt she needed “a kick out of life.”
She stopped only when her daughter rushed her to hospital, where Viv remained unconscious for two weeks, hovering between life and death.
“I was very ill,” she admits. “Now I have stopped boozing, I have got my children back. They want me now because I am sober.”
Perhaps the alcohol helped her to escape the past, though she says she has never been one to run away.
It did, however, help her to reach some kind of epiphany with the hometown that she felt still hated her.
“I got so much stick when I won the money from people round here that I distanced myself from them, even after I lost the money,” she says, with tears in her eyes.
“When I got out of hospital after the drink almost killed me, a woman I used to know said: ‘Viv, you look awful’ – and I replied: ‘I’m glad someone’s noticed.’
“But she said to me: ‘Viv, there are lots and lots of people in Castleford who love you’.”
“I went home and cried because it was the first time anyone had said something like that to me. I didn’t think Castleford liked me because I have always done things my own way, and my way only.”
When Viv turned 71 at the start of this month, she did not celebrate her birthday – chiefly because her religion forbids it.
“But I haven’t really done so since Keith died. What is there to celebrate? Another year older on your own?”
Next week, “Spend, Spend, Spend,” the musical, will be performed once again – this time, by an amateur company in Loughborough Town Hall, Leicestershire.
Viv says that she probably sees about half a dozen productions of it every year.
“People say I should be ashamed of what I spent my money on, and that I could have done so much more.
“But when I lost my last 20 grand on the stock market, I did not cry about it. I had a good whack and enjoyed what I did.
“It may have served me right – maybe I was wild and crazy. But it is my life and I won’t be told how to live it.”
For now, she is more concerned about a grandson who is behind bars – she won’t say why – and, of course, with sending more letters to local businesses, asking for work. Her last job was in a perfume shop in Wakefield, where she worked for 11 years before retiring.
What kind of work is she looking for?
“Ideally, I would like to model clothes for old women,” she replies. “I mean, most of them go about the place looking like dead cats, don’t they? Me, I’m going to be wearing mini-skirts, if I live, till I’m 102.”
As we reflect on the sartorial failings of Castleford grandmothers, the canary tweets and pecks at a piece of malt loaf on the floor of its cage.
Poor bird – it must be hard to get a cheep in edgeways. Viv Nicholson may be older and not much wiser, but against the odds, she is still a powerful life force.
Updated information found on Wikipedia: LINK.