Douglas Nicholls

Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls, KCVO, OBE (9 December 1906 – 4 June 1988) 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.

Douglas Nicholls
28th Governor of South Australia
In office
1 December 1976  30 April 1977
MonarchElizabeth II
PremierDon Dunstan
Preceded byMark Oliphant
Succeeded byKeith Seaman
Personal details
Born(1906-12-09)9 December 1906
Cummeragunja Reserve, New South Wales
Died4 June 1988(1988-06-04) (aged 81)
Mooroopna, Victoria
SpouseGladys Nicholls

Nicholls was the first Aboriginal Australian to be knighted when he was appointed Knight Bachelor in 1972 (he was subsequently appointed a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1977).[1][2] He was also the first — and to date the only[3] — Indigenous Australian to be 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

Nicholls was born on 9 December 1906 on the Cummeragunja Reserve in New South Wales.[4][5] He was the youngest of five children born to Herbert Nicholls and Florence Atkinson.[6] His paternal grandfather was Aaron Atkinson, who was the brother of William Cooper.

Schooling at Nicholls's 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 become a domestic servant.

At 13 Nicholls 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.

Sporting career

Northcote Football Club's 1929 premiership side. Doug Nicholls is second from right, front row.
Football career
Personal information
Original team(s) Tongala
Height 157 cm (5 ft 2 in)
Weight 65 kg (143 lb)
Playing career
Years Club Games (Goals)
1927–1931 Northcote
1932–1937 Fitzroy 54 (2)
1937–1938 Northcote
Representative team honours
Years Team Games (Goals)
1935 Victoria 04 00(0)
Coaching career
Years Club Games (W–L–D)
1947 Northcote 20 (4–16–0)
Career highlights
  • VFA premiership player: 1929
Sources: AFL Tables,

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.[7] He played some seconds matches for Carlton but did not play a senior game.[8] Nicholls 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.[9] 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.[10]

In 1932, Nicholls joined the VFL's Fitzroy Football Club and in 1935, he was the first Aboriginal player to be selected to play for the Victorian interstate team,[11][12] ultimately playing four interstate games. He played a total of six seasons for Fitzroy, before returning to Northcote in 1938.[13] Knee injuries forced him to retire in 1939. He returned to Northcote as non-playing coach in 1947.[14] Nicholls won Fitzroy's Reserves best and fairest award in 1937.[15]

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 (due to this ostracism), he was befriended by Haydn Bunton, Sr. who ensured he was made welcome within the team.[16][17]

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.[9] 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 in the Australian War Memorial archives.[18] He also organised and captained Aboriginal teams in football matches used for patriotic fundraisers during the war, many of which were played against Northcote.[19]

Road to the 1967 referendum

Tom Foster, Jack Kinchela (obscured), Nicholls, William Cooper and Jack Patten reading the resolution of the Aborigines Progressive Association at the All Australian Aboriginal Conference and Day of Mourning at Australian Hall, Sydney on 26 January 1938

William Cooper, an uncle to Nicholls, mentored him in leadership, eventually placing him as the secretary of the Australian Aborigines' League.[20] It was a founding principle of the League that Aboriginal Affairs was made a Federal matter, which would require a change in the Constitution of Australia, which could only be effected by a referendum. As early as February 1935 Cooper, Nicholls and others were lobbying Members of Parliament, such as Thomas Paterson, the Commonwealth minister for the interior on this issue. It gained national attention when Nicholls, leveraging his profile as a nationally famous athlete, participated in the Day of Mourning protest for Aborigines held in Sydney on 26 January 1938, where Indigenous leaders from across the country made the demand to change the Constitution. The proposed resolution was:

WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman's seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.[21]

Doug Nicholls rose to support the resolution on behalf of the Victorian Aborigines League that day, saying:

On behalf of Victorian Aborigines I want to say that we support this resolution in every way. The public does not realise what our people have suffered for 150 years. Aboriginal girls have been sent to Aboriginal Reserves and have not been given any opportunity to improve themselves. Their treatment has been disgusting. The white people have done nothing for us whatever. Put on Reserves, with no proper education, how can Aborigines take their place as equals with whites? Now is our chance to have things altered. We must fight our very hardest in this cause. After 150 years our people are still bossed and influenced by white people. I know that we could proudly hold our own with others if given the chance. Do not let us forget, also, those of our own people who are still in a primitive state. It is for them that we should try to do something. We should all work in co-operation for the progress of Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth.[22]

Nicholls was one of the founders of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders

The movement took 30 years to coalesce and achieve anything like its stated goal, but it soon made its focus the Constitution of Australia which, in its original form, prevented the Commonwealth from making any law that would benefit the Aboriginal people. In 1949, a letter written by Nicholls prompted a Labor MP, Kim Beazley Sr., to write to the prime minister, Ben Chifley, asking him to explore how the Constitution could be amended.[23] In 1957, Jessie Street approached Nicholls about bringing in the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League to form a federal council to campaign for Aboriginal affairs to become a federal matter — this would become the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Its early work involved drafting and collecting petitions, from suburbs and town centres from across the country. By 1962 they had achieved 100,000 signatures[24] with the stated goal of 250,000 signatures.[25] The movement supporting a change to the constitution, which removed the block on the federal government making a laws regarding Aboriginal people, soon became known as the "yes" campaign.

Nicholls in a meeting with Prime Minister Harold Holt, three months before the 1967 referendum. With him are several members of (FCAATSI) – from left to right: Gordon Bryant, Faith Bandler, Harold Holt, Nicholls, Burnum Burnum, Winnie Branson and Bill Wentworth.

FCAATSI would later become the central lobby group who were able to interface with the Federal Government. During this time Nicholls was known to have met and negotiated with prime ministers Robert Menzies[24] and Harold Holt. However, creating the political momentum involved substantial grass roots action. Nicholls' daughter, Pam, recalls her father winning support from white Australians at football games:

“With his friend Alick Jackomos, they used to have a card table and go and sit outside the football giving out papers, giving speeches, beckoning people to come sign the petitions for the ‘yes’ vote."[26]

Nicholls interacted with the media frequently. Drawing on his abilities as a preacher, he was able to deliver pithy, persuasive messages which were effective in winning over the Australian public. One common line of argument he made was for the "Yes" vote was:

“I think it’s a matter of democratic right. And we will form a part of the British commonwealth of nations and there should be no legislation setup to discriminate us.[27]

The 1967 Australian referendum was an emphatic success for Nicholls and the FCAATSI leadership, with an average of 90% of Australians[28] supporting the change they had asked for. Following the successful outcome of the referendum, Pastor Doug argued that much more than a legal change had been made, rather, it was:

… evidence that Australians recognise Aborigines are part of the nation.[29]

Community work and Christian ministry

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, and 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 be 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.[30]

In 1957 Nicholls 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.

Nicholls 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.[31]

Nicholls was an active Freemason.[32]

Governor of South Australia

Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls is sworn in as Governor of South Australia, in front of Premier Don Dunstan and other dignitaries 1977

Nicholls became Governor of South Australia on 1 December 1976, after being announced on May 25 [33] on the nomination of Premier Don Dunstan.[34] He was the first non-white person to serve as the governor of an Australian state, and is the only Aboriginal person to have held viceregal office. Because of his race, his nomination proved controversial and attracted more attention than most viceregal appointments. A poll by ABC's This Day Tonight found that 70 percent of respondents opposed Nicholls becoming governor. The Canberra Times expressed concern that members of his family might set up camp on the grounds of Government House. However, Adelaide's main daily newspaper The Advertiser was more positive, welcoming the news "without reservation".[35] News of the appointment was leaked in May 1976, after which he agreed to appear on A Current Affair. Nicholls took exception to a question directed at his wife, calling the interviewer a racist and requiring him to leave his house.[36] GTV-9 aired the footage without his permission, and subsequently apologised for doing so.[37]

Nicholls' predecessor as governor, nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant, confidentially wrote to the state government expressing concerns about the appointment. He said there were "grave dangers" involved, as "there is something inherent in the personality of the Aborigine which makes it difficult for him to adapt fully to the ways of the white man".[38]

On 25 January 1977, Nicholls suffered a stroke and was admitted to the cardiac ward at Royal Adelaide Hospital.[39] He had a history of high blood pressure and had suffered a mild heart attack some years earlier.[40] He was not discharged until three weeks later,[41] with Lieutenant-Governor Walter Crocker serving as Administrator of the Government in his place.[40] Nicholls attended only one further official engagement after his stroke, hosting Queen Elizabeth II at Government House on 20 March.[42] She subsequently awarded him a second knighthood, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO).[43] Nicholls' retirement due to ill health was announced on 22 April, with effect from 30 April.[44] He held office for only 150 days, making him the shortest-serving governor in South Australian history and the only governor to serve for less than a year.


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.[32] Lady Nicholls died in 1981.

Nicholls' great-grandson Nathan Lovett-Murray also played Australian Rules Football, playing 145 games for Essendon.[45]

Recognition and legacy

Statue in Parliament Gardens, East Melbourne, 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".[46]
  • 1968 – promoted to Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
  • 1970 – among Victorians invited guests to greet Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Australia
  • 1972 – first Aboriginal to be knighted when he was appointed Knight Bachelor;[47] he and his wife Gladys travelled to London to receive that honour.[2]
  • 1973 – appointed King of Moomba[48]
  • 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)[49]
  • 1980s - the Sir Douglas Nicholls Sporting Complex in Thornbury named after him
  • 1991 – the Canberra suburb of Nicholls named after him
  • 2001 – a new chapel in Preston of the Northern Community Church of Christ, the church in which he was baptised, named after him
  • 2002 – Establishment of the Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership, renamed Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership in 2007[50]
  • 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;[51] it was officially opened in December 2007[52] and was the first statue of an Aboriginal person erected in Victoria.
  • 2011 – inducted to Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll[53]
  • 2016 – The AFL named their "Indigenous round" after him, and continue to do so.[54][55] Each year, all 18 teams wear specially-commissioned artworks by Indigenous artists on their guernseys.[56]
  • 2018 – The federal electoral division of Murray is renamed Nicholls in honour of Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls.[57]
  • 2018 – a Google Doodle was created to celebrate his 112th birthday.[58]
Grave of Douglas and Gladys Nicholls at Cummeragunja Cemetery
Headstone of grave of Doug Nicholls and his wife
  • 2022 – portrait on an Australia Post stamp, released on 7 July 2022, on the anniversary of Nicholl's first knighting, and also during NAIDOC Week; the eventual result of a request from Bev Murray, grandchild of Nicholls, and created in collaboration with Nicholls' daughter Aunty Pam Pederson[59]


Nicholls died on 4 June 1988 at Mooroopna. A state funeral was held for him and he was buried in the cemetery at Cummeragunja.[5]


  • Clark, M. (1972) Pastor Doug, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne. ISBN 0-7018-0017-8


  1. "Biographies" (PDF).
  2. "A Magnificent Life Journey". 27 May 2016.
  3. Sexton, Mike (25 May 2016). "Pioneering Sir Doug Nicholls remembered in AFL tribute". ABC News. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  4. Clark, Mavis Thorpe (1956). Pastor Doug: The Story of Sir Douglas Nicholls Aboriginal Leader (Rev. ed.). Melbourne: Lansdowne Press. SBN 8018-0017-8.
  5. Richard Broome, Sir Douglas Ralph (Doug) (1906–1988), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, , published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 December 2015.
  6. Corowa, Miriam (19 September 2010). "Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family". Message Stick. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 12 January 2016. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  7. "Association's best centre man". The Sporting Globe. Melbourne, VIC. 27 August 1930. p. 9.
  8. "Nicholls under ban". The Sporting Globe. Melbourne, VIC. 10 June 1931. p. 9.
  9. Victor (18 May 1929). "Black ball of muscle". The Sporting Globe. Melbourne, VIC. p. 6.
  10. Onlooker (7 September 1931). "Association – first semi-final". The Argus. Melbourne, VIC. p. 12.
  11. "Is Popular Choice". The Argus (Melbourne). No. 27, 701. Victoria, Australia. 1 June 1935. p. 27. Retrieved 14 November 2021 via National Library of Australia.
  12. Witnessing for Christ: Aboriginal Footballer's Sermon, The West Australian, (Tuesday, 25 June 1935), p.19.
  13. ""Duggie" cheers Northcote". The Sporting Globe. Melbourne, VIC. 4 May 1938. p. 3.
  14. "Rev. Doug. Nicholls to coach Northcote". The Sporting Globe. Melbourne, VIC. 25 January 1947. p. 4.
  15. "1937 - D Nicholls wins trophy". The Age. 6 September 1937. p. 16. Retrieved 26 July 2021.
  16. "A legend in his time". The Canberra Times. ACT: National Library of Australia. 25 September 1971. p. 12. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  17. Mansell, Ken (17 June 2003). "Haydn Bunton – legend and myth". Archived from the original on 26 July 2008. Retrieved 9 December 2008.
  18. Australian War Memorial website. |1944-09-04 Doug Nicholls, an Australian Aborigine and ex-Fitzroy footballer, demonstrating the art of throwing a boomerang to Lieutenant Colonel Forrest M.Carhartt of the United States Army.
  19. "Northcote to play against Aborigines". The Argus. Melbourne, VIC. 14 June 1946. p. 18.
  20. "Biography - Sir Douglas Ralph (Doug) Nicholls - Indigenous Australia". Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  21. "Day of Mourning - 26th January 1938". Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. 8 January 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  22. NSW, Board of Studies. "- Board of Studies NSW". Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  23. "Doug Nicholls". Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  24. "Indigenous activists, 1963". NSW Department of Education and Training.
  25. "250,000 Signatures to be sought on Native-Rights Petition" (PDF). National Museum of Australia. 2 October 1962.
  26. Riordan, Primrose (25 May 2017). "1967 indigenous referendum: citizenship, one footy fan at a time". The Australian. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  27. Aikman, Amos (27 May 2017). "How the 1967 referendum unfolded". The Australian. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  28. McGregor, Russell. "'Right wrongs, write Yes': what was the 1967 referendum all about?". The Conversation. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  29. McGregor, Russell. "'Right wrongs, write Yes': what was the 1967 referendum all about?". The Conversation. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  30. "ABORIGINE FOR CORONATION?". Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 - 1953). Vic.: National Library of Australia. 16 April 1953. p. 4 Edition: MIDDAY. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  31. A brief history of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal community, By Jeff Waters, ABC Radio, 21 Dec 2013
  32. Biographies of Doug and Gladys Nicholls Archived 30 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Council of Melbourne (accessed 14 January 2008)
  33. "Australian State Gets Aborigine as Governor", The New York Times, May 26, 1976, p. 8
  34. "Historic, says Sir Douglas". The Canberra Times. 2 December 1976.
  35. "Next Governor may test community's racial tolerance". The Canberra Times. 25 May 1976.
  36. "Sir Douglas angered". The Canberra Times. 26 May 1976.
  37. "Apology". The Canberra Times. 27 May 1976.
  38. "Oliphant did not want Black". The Age. 20 August 1981. Archived from the original on 11 May 2017. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  39. "Sir Douglas Nicholls in hospital". The Canberra Times. 26 January 1977.
  40. "Nicholls to resign as SA Governor". The Canberra Times. 19 April 1977.
  41. "Discharged". The Canberra Times. 16 February 1977.
  42. The Canberra Times, 21 March 1977.
  43. The Canberra Times, 24 March 1977
  44. "Governor officially resigns". The Canberra Times. 23 April 1977.
  45. "Nathan Lovett-Murray".
  46. "Past winners". Father's Day Council of Victoria Inc. 8 May 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  47. Knight Bachelor
  48. Bellamy, Craig; Chisholm, Gordon; Eriksen, Hilary (17 February 2006). "Moomba: A festival for the people" (PDF). pp. 17–22. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 October 2009. Retrieved 25 March 2011.
  49. KCVO
  50. "History". Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership. Retrieved 2 August 2022.
  51. "Memorial for Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls" (PDF). Assets and Services Division, Council of Melbourne. 16 May 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 April 2012.
  52. City of Melbourne – Walks and tours – Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls Memorial Archived 13 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine, City of Melbourne (accessed 14 January 2008)
  53. "2011 Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll". Retrieved 8 November 2018.
  54. AFL to honour Sir Doug Nicholls in 2016 Indigenous round, The Guardian, 28 October 2015
  55. "AFL to honour Sir Doug Nicholls in 2016 Indigenous round". The Guardian. 28 October 2016. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  56. Grieve, Charlotte (22 May 2019). "AFL Indigenous guernseys revealed, and the stories behind them". The Age. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  57. Peterson, Myles (30 June 2018). "Yorta Yorta recognition".
  58. "Sir Douglas Nicholls' 112th Birthday". Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  59. Knowles, Rachael (6 July 2022). "First Aboriginal knight Sir Doug Nicholls celebrated on new stamp". NITV. Retrieved 8 July 2022.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.