Marjory Lydia Nicholls was born at Wellington, New Zealand, on 29 July 1890, the daughter of Susan Sampson and her husband, Harry Edgar Nicholls, accountant and cashier to the Wellington Harbour Board. Harry Nicholls was widely read and a talented amateur actor, and Marjory grew up in a world of literature and theatre.
After attending Clyde Quay School and the Terrace School, Marjory Nicholls went in 1905 to Wellington Girls' College, where she was a prefect in 1908 and the editor of the school magazine. Her gift for friendship and a warm, generous character which made her widely loved were present in her school-days. At Victoria College, which Marjory Nicholls entered in 1909, she was prominent in student affairs, although she never completed her degree. She was vice president of the students' association in 1912 and 1913, started a play-reading group and was a member of the reading circle. She also produced two plays and wrote for the student magazine, the Spike, which she edited in 1912.
Debating became a particular interest and Nicholls was active in the Women's Debating Society, of which she was chairwoman in 1912 and 1913. In the latter year she became the first woman to enter the oratory contest for the Plunket Medal and won with a speech on Joan of Arc, against several male competitors who in later life were prominent lawyers. It is said that men students 'experienced a curious feeling when, in 1913, Marjory Nicholls, the gifted and radiant one, carried off the Plunket Medal'.
Because of eye-strain and ill health Marjory Nicholls gave up her studies in 1914 and travelled overseas for a time, visiting Australia, South Africa, England and the Continent. After returning to Wellington in 1915, she resumed her activities at Victoria. In 1916 she became the chairwoman of the newly founded Women's Social Investigation League and was editor of the Spike in the following year.
In 1918 she spent a year in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where she met John Hannah, a Scot who was a partner in a hardware firm in Ceylon. The couple were married at Colombo, probably on 3 February 1920. However, John Hannah died soon after the wedding from enteric fever and Marjory returned to Wellington. There were no children of the marriage.
Marjory Hannah's interest in Victoria University College continued throughout her life: she served for years on the committee of the Graduates' and Past Students' Association and regularly helped with student activities. She gave drama lessons at Chilton St James School, Lower Hutt, where her enthusiasm and skill inspired her pupils. She studied elocution and stage production in England under Edith Craig, daughter of the celebrated Ellen Terry, and at the Pasadena Theatre in California and the Greenleaf Theatre in New York. She was a member of the National Repertory Theatre Society in Wellington and of the British Drama League. She produced plays and, an excellent speaker, she lectured on drama as well as on literature for the Workers' Educational Association.
From her school-days onwards, Marjory wrote poetry and published three volumes of poems, which received good reviews. A venture in verse was published in 1917, Gathered leaves in 1922 and Thirdly in 1930, very shortly before her death. Painting was another interest, which she pursued through lessons from the artist D. K. Richmond. Nicholls belonged to the League of Nations Union of New Zealand and to the International Council of Women. She was also a 'zealous member' of the Wellington Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Marjory Hannah died after being run over by a bus when she was walking home from a concert on the night of 1 October 1930. Vital, witty, with a powerful, memorable laugh, she was greatly missed. Her short life had been devoted to the arts. However, her varied interests and overflowing kindness seem to have prevented her from focusing her talents properly. As her friend the poet Eileen Duggan observed, 'too many fairies came to her cradle,' and 'her time was eaten away by strangers'.
After her death, the Marjory Nicholls Speech Contest was established at Wellington Girls' College in her memory. From the money she bequeathed for the purchase of pictures for the women's common room at Victoria University College, her executors commissioned Mary E. R. Tripe to paint a portrait of Marjory. In 1988 this was hung at Victoria University of Wellington in Kate Edger House (formerly Women's Studies House), a fitting place for the portrait of someone strongly interested in matters concerning women and who had spent much time working with students.