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 where she was trained to becoming a domestic servant.


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. After playing in the Goulburn Valley for Tongala, Nicholls tried out for VFL clubs North Melbourne and Carlton before the 1927 season;[3] Nicholls played some seconds matches for Carlton but did not play a senior game.[4] He subsequently joined the Northcote Football Club in the VFA, and became a regular in the Northcote team by 1929. He made his name as an energetic and speedy wingman, capable of spectacular feats, and came to be regarded as the best wingman in the VFA at the time. At 5'2", he was one of the shortest players in the game.[5] He was a member of Northcote's 1929 premiership team, and finished third in the Recorder Cup voting in 1931, his final season with Northcote.[6]

In 1932, Nicholls joined the VFL's Fitzroy Football Club. In 1934, he was third in the Brownlow Medal count; and in 1935, he was the first Aboriginal player to be selected to play for the Victorian interstate team, ultimately playing four interstate games. He played a total of six seasons for Fitzroy, before returned to Northcote in 1938.[7] Knee injuries forced him to retire in 1939. He returned to Northcote as non-playing coach in 1947.[8]

During his career, particularly in the early years, Nicholls was subjected to onfield taunts or ostracised by his team-mates due to his colour. Nevertheless, he became a popular player among spectators; and, upon joining Fitzroy, when he was initially sitting by himself in the change rooms as a consequence of his previous ostracision, he was welcomed and befriended by Haydn Bunton, Sr. who ensured he was made welcome within the team.[9][10]

Like his close relative Lynch Cooper, Nicholls was also a very capable sprinter. He competed in gift races around Victoria during the athletics seasons, and in 1928 he won both the Nyah and Warracknabeal Gifts.[5] 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.

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.

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.[11] He also organised and captained aboriginal teams in football matches used for patriotic fundraisers during the war, many of which were played against Northcote.[12]

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.[13]

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). In response to protests in the 1950s and 60s for an independent, Aboriginal run farming cooperative at Lake Tyers Mission he campaigned on their behalf, but when the Board moved to close Lake Tyers, Nichols resigned his position in protest.[14]

Nicholls was an active Freemason.[15]

In 1976, Nicholls was made Governor of South Australia, becoming the first Indigenous person to hold vice-regal office.[16]


Douglas Ralph Nicholls was the youngest of five children to Herbert Nicholls and Florence Atkinson.[17] 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.[15] 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[18]) and he and his wife Gladys travelled to London to receive that honour.
  • 1973 – appointed King of Moomba.[19]
  • 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)[20]
  • 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;[21] it was officially opened in December 2007[22] 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. ^ "Association's best centre man". The Sporting Globe (Melbourne, VIC). 27 August 1930. p. 9. 
  4. ^ "Nicholls under ban". The Sporting Globe (Melbourne, VIC). 10 June 1931. p. 9. 
  5. ^ a b "Victor" (18 May 1929). "Black ball of muscle". The Sporting Globe (Melbourne, VIC). p. 6. 
  6. ^ Onlooker (7 September 1931). "Association – first semi-final". The Argus (Melbourne, VIC). p. 12. 
  7. ^ ""Duggie" cheers Northcote". The Sporting Globe (Melbourne, VIC). 4 May 1938. p. 3. 
  8. ^ "Rev. Doug. Nicholls to coach Northcote". The Sporting Globe (Melbourne, VIC). 25 January 1947. p. 4. 
  9. ^ "A legend in his time.". The Canberra Times (ACT: National Library of Australia). 25 September 1971. p. 12. Retrieved 24 August 2015. 
  10. ^ Mansell, Ken (17 June 2003). "Haydn Bunton – legend and myth". Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2008. 
  11. ^ Australian War Memorial website
  12. ^ "Northcote to play against Aborigines". The Argus (Melbourne, VIC). 14 June 1946. p. 18. 
  13. ^ "ABORIGINE FOR CORONATION?.". Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 - 1953) (Vic.: National Library of Australia). 16 April 1953. p. 4 Edition: MIDDAY. Retrieved 27 September 2013. 
  14. ^ A brief history of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal community, By Jeff Waters, ABC Radio, 21 Dec 2013
  15. ^ a b Biographies of Doug and Gladys Nicholls, Council of Melbourne (accessed 14 January 2008)
  16. ^ Corowa, Miriam (19 September 2010). "Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family". Message Stick (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 3 May 2014. 
  17. ^ "Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family". 
  18. ^ It's an Honour: Knight Bachelor
  19. ^ Craig Bellamy, Gordon Chisholm, Hilary Eriksen (17 Feb 2006) Moomba: A festival for the people.: PDF pp 17–22 also p 8 for photo
  20. ^ .It's an Honour: KCVO
  21. ^ Memorial for Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls, submission by Assets and Services Division, Council of Melbourne, 16 May 2006 (accessed 14 January 2008)
  22. ^ 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