Douglas Nicholls

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Sir Douglas Nicholls
Douglas nicholls.jpg
28th Governor of South Australia
In office
1 December 1976 – 30 April 1977
Monarch Queen Elizabeth II
Preceded by Sir Mark Oliphant
Succeeded by Sir Keith Seaman
Personal details
Born (1906-12-09)9 December 1906
Cummeragunja Reserve, New South Wales
Died 4 June 1988(1988-06-04) (aged 81)
Nationality Australia Australian
Profession Athlete and Pastor
Religion Church of Christ

Sir Douglas Ralph "Doug" Nicholls, KCVO, OBE (9 December 1906 – 4 June 1988)[1] was a prominent Aboriginal Australian from the Yorta Yorta people. He was a professional athlete, Churches of Christ pastor and church planter, ceremonial officer and a pioneering campaigner for reconciliation.

Nicholls was the first Aboriginal person to be knighted and also the first appointed to vice-regal office, serving as Governor of South Australia from 1 December 1976 until his resignation on 30 April 1977 due to poor health.

Early life[edit]

Douglas Nicholls was born in 1906 on the Cummeragunja Reserve in New South Wales.[2] Schooling at the mission was provided to Grade 3 standard and strict religious principles were emphasised. When he was eight, he saw his 16-year-old sister Hilda forcibly taken from his family by the police and taken to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls.


At 13 he worked with his uncle as a tar boy and general hand on sheep stations, and he lived with the shearers. He worked hard and had a cheerful disposition. This annoyed one of the shearers so much that he challenged Nicholls to a fight, with the loser to hand over one week's pay (30 shillings$3). After six rounds the shearer who challenged him conceded defeat.


Northcote Football Club's 1929 premiership side. Doug Nicholls is second from right, front row.

Nicholls played Australian rules football. He was recruited by the Carlton Football Club in the VFL but did not play because of the racist attitude of the other players.[3] From there he played for the struggling Northcote Football Club for five years and was a member of their 1929 premiership team.

Like his close relative Lynch Cooper, Nicholls was a very capable sprinter, winning the Warracknabeal Gift in 1928.[4]

In 1932 Nicholls joined the Fitzroy Football Club. Anticipating a reprise of the racism he had experienced at Carlton, he sat by himself in the change rooms at Brunswick Street but was welcomed and befriended by Haydn Bunton, snr. In 1934 he was third in the Brownlow Medal count. In 1935, he was the first Aboriginal player to be selected to play for the Victorian interstate team. Knee injuries forced him to retire in 1939 and he was back at Northcote as a non-playing coach in 1940.

Playing football provided employment during the winter. To earn a living during the rest of the year, he boxed with Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Troupe, a travelling sideshow in which Sharman offered his fighters for challenge against all comers.

He also made money in running races and in 1928 won the Warracknabeal Gift. Following this, the race organisers paid him an appearance fee, board and expenses to enter races. He was the inaugural chairman of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation.

During World War II, Nicholls was an adept boomerang thrower, teaching that skill to some members of the United States military. There is a photograph depicting this on the Australian War Memorial archives.[5]

Community work and Christian ministry[edit]

Nicholls was a minister and social worker with Aboriginal people. Following his mother's death he took a renewed interest in Christianity and was baptised at Northcote Church of Christ (now Northern Community Church of Christ) in 1935. He officiated at church and hymn services as a lay preacher at the Gore Street Mission Centre in Fitzroy.

In 1941 Nicholls received his call-up notice and he joined the 29th Battalion but, in 1942, at the request of the Fitzroy police, he was released from his unit to work as a social worker in the Fitzroy Aboriginal community. He cared for those trapped in alcohol abuse, gambling and other social problems. He helped those who were in trouble with the police.

Indigenous people gathered to him and eventually the group was so large that he became the pastor of the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in Australia. In recognition of the ministry he was already expressing he was ordained as a minister.

In a letter to the editor, in 1953, it was noted that Opposition Leader, H. V. Evatt, had asked the Prime Minister Robert Menzies, on 26 February, in Federal Parliament, 'for an invitation to be extended to Capt. Reg Saunders or some other outstanding representative of the aborigines' to included in the official Australian contingent to the coronation of Elizabeth II. The author suggested Nicholls, as an ordained Minister, and for his community work in the areas of Fitzroy and Mooroopna.[6]

In 1957 he became a field officer for the Aborigines Advancement League. He edited their magazine, Smoke Signals, and helped draw Aboriginal issues to the attention of Government officials and the general public. He pleaded for dignity for Aboriginal people as human beings. Support for the AAL grew rapidly.

He helped set up hostels for Aboriginal children, holiday homes for Aboriginal people at Queenscliff and was a founding member and Victorian Secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).

Nicholls was an active Freemason.[7]

In 1976, Nicholls was made Governor of South Australia, becoming the first Indigenous person to hold vice-regal office.[8]


Douglas Ralph Nicholls was the youngest of five children to Herbert Nicholls and Florence Atkinson.[9] His maternal grandfather was Aaron Atkinson, who was the brother of William Cooper.

In December 1942 Nicholls married Gladys Nicholls, the widow of his brother Howard Nicholls (1905–1942); Howard (who had married Gladys in 1927) had died in April 1942 as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident. Gladys already had three children. Douglas Nicholls and Gladys were married for 39 years and raised their combined six children; two sons, Bevan and Ralph, and four daughters, Beryl, Nora, Lilian and Pamela.[7] Lady Gladys Nicholls died in 1981.


Statue in Parliament Gardens, Fitzroy, Victoria
  • 1957 – appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
  • 1962 – chosen by the Father's Day Council of Australia as Victoria's Father of the Year for "outstanding leadership in youth and welfare work and for the inspired example he set the community in his unfailing efforts to further the cause of the Australian Aborigine".
  • 1968 – promoted to Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
  • 1968 – met Pope Paul VI at the Ecumenical Conference held in Melbourne.
  • 1970 – among Victorians invited guests to greet Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Australia.
  • 1972 – became the first Aboriginal person to be knighted (Knight Bachelor[10]) and he and his wife Gladys travelled to London to receive that honour.
  • 1973 – appointed King of Moomba.[11]
  • 1976 - appointed the 28th Governor of South Australia, the first Aboriginal person appointed to vice-regal office.
  • 1977 – appointed a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO)[12]
  • 1991 – the Canberra suburb of Nicholls was named after him
  • the new chapel of Northern Community Church of Christ in Preston is named after him.
  • 2006 – to commemorate the centenary of his birth, a statue of Nicholls, one-and-a-half times life size, was approved for the Parliament Gardens, beside the Parliament of Victoria;[13] it was officially opened in December 2007[14] and was the first statue of an Aboriginal erected in Victoria.
Grave of Douglas and Gladys Nicholls at Cummeragunja Cemetery
Headstone of grave of Doug Nicholls and his wife


He died in 1988 after a stroke. A State Funeral was held for him and he was buried in the cemetery at Cummeragunja.



  1. ^ Howstuffworks "Nicholls, Sir Douglas – Encyclopedia Entry"
  2. ^ Clark, Mavis Thorpe (1956). Pastor Doug: The Story of Sir Douglas Nicholls Aboriginal Leader (Rev. ed.). Melbourne: Lansdowne Press. SBN 8018-0017-8.
  3. ^ Mansell, Ken (17 June 2003). "Haydn Bunton – legend and myth". Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2008. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Australian War Memorial website
  6. ^ "ABORIGINE FOR CORONATION?.". Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 - 1953) (Vic.: National Library of Australia). 16 April 1953. p. 4 Edition: MIDDAY. Retrieved 27 September 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Biographies of Doug and Gladys Nicholls, Council of Melbourne (accessed 14 January 2008)
  8. ^ Corowa, Miriam (19 September 2010). "Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family". Message Stick (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 3 May 2014. 
  9. ^ "Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family". 
  10. ^ It's an Honour: Knight Bachelor
  11. ^ Craig Bellamy, Gordon Chisholm, Hilary Eriksen (17 Feb 2006) Moomba: A festival for the people.: PDF pp 17–22 also p 8 for photo
  12. ^ .It's an Honour: KCVO
  13. ^ Memorial for Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls, submission by Assets and Services Division, Council of Melbourne, 16 May 2006 (accessed 14 January 2008)
  14. ^ City of Melbourne – Walks and tours – Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls Memorial, City of Melbourne (accessed 14 January 2008)

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Mark Oliphant, AC, KBE
Governor of South Australia
Succeeded by
Sir Keith Seaman, KCVO, OBE