Sunday 1st December 2013
Today is the 36th Anniversary of the term of Sir Douglas Nicholls as Australia’s First Aboriginal Governor
Sir Douglas Nicholls (Pastor)
“Aboriginal People are the skeleton in the cupboard of Australia’s national life …. outcasts in our own land.”
… Doug Nicholls, National Day of Mourning speech, 1938.
“All we want is to be able to think and do the same things as white people, while still retaining our identity as a people.” … … Doug Nicholls
Sir Douglas Nicholls (Pastor) was born on December 9, 1906 on the Cumeroogunja mission in NSW. His mother worked as a domestic helper and his father as a farm hand. However, unemployment was a regular occurrence. Schooling was provided to grade 3 standard and strict religious principles were emphasised. As a supplement to government rations, Doug and the other mission children would collect tiger, brown and copperhead snakes for sideshows organisers, who would pay them 1 shilling (10 cents) per snake.
When he was eight, he saw his 16 year old sister Hilda forcibly taken from his family by the police. The Government had decided she would be sent to the Cootamundra Training Home for Girls. His mother, Florence, threw herself into the car and refused to get out. The police drove her 20 kms from the mission and dumped her on the roadway, making her walk back to the mission, heartbroken. This brutal invasion of his family by the authorities left Doug with a deep fear of the police.
At 13 he worked with his uncle as a tar boy and general hand on sheepstations, 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 Doug to a fight, with the loser to hand over one weeks pay (30 shillings – $3). After six rounds the shearer who challenged him conceded defeat.
He was a natural athlete and played Aussie rules football. During one match, a Carlton football talent scout encouraged Doug to shift to Melbourne and try out for the Victorian Football League to play for Carlton. Club officials allowed him to train but the players didn’t want an Aboriginal playing on the team. He overheard some of the players saying he smelled. He left Carlton and joined the struggling Northcote team. Players were given 10 to 15 shillings per game. In 1927 he played before a crowd of 9000 people and was a huge success. The club paid him a 2 pound ($4) bonus for the match. He played for the club for 5 years and was a member of their 1929 premiership team. In 1932 Doug joined Fitzroy where he remained until on-going problems with a knee injury forced him to retire in 1939. In 1940 he was back at Northcote as a non-playing coach. In 1935 he was the first Aboriginal player to be selected to play for the Victorian Inter-state Team.
Playing football provided Doug with employment during the winter months but during summer he had to find an alternative income. This is he did by joining Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe, a travelling sideshow in which Sharman offered his fighters for challenge against all comers. Boxers were paid up to one hundred pounds a day ($200) and challengers were offered five pounds ($10) if they could last four rounds with one of his fighters. He also made money in running races and in 1928 won the Waracknabeal Gift netting him a sash, cutlery valued at 21 pounds ($42) and a 100 pound cheque. Following this race organisers paid him a 10 pounds appearance fee, board and expenses just for entering races, such was his popularity with the fans.
His mother died and Doug’s interest in religion was rekindled. In 1935 he was conducting church and hymn services as a lay preacher at the Gore St. Mission Centre in Fitzroy. In 1941 he received his call-up notice and he joined the 29th Battalion. In 1942, at the request of the Fitzroy police, Doug was released from his unit to assist with problems in the Fitzroy Aboriginal community. This commenced his career as a social worker. He cared for those who were trapped in their 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. He was only paid one pound per week and so he had to do other work to support himself.
People began to approach him about the plight of his people throughout the country. In 1957 he became a field officer for the Aboriginal Advancement League. He edited the AAL’s journal 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 rapidily. In this same year he was awarded a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.). He helped set up hostels for Aboriginal children, holiday homes for his 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 1962 he was chosen by the Father’s day Council of Australia as Victoria’s Father of the Year. The award was given 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”. In 1968 he received an Order of the British Empire award (O.B.E.) and in the same year became a member of the new Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs in Victoria. He was inaugural chairman of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation. He met the Pope at the Ecumenical Conference held in Melbourne and was among Victoria’s invited guests to greet the Queen on her 1970 visit to Australia.
In 1972 he became the first Aboriginal person to be knighted and he and his wife Gladys travelled to London to receive that honour. Then on December 1, 1976, Sir Doug Nicholls was appointed as the 28th Governor of South Australia.
In 1977 he suffered a severe stroke and he was forced to retire. He did not regain good health and was often in and out of hospitals. He died in 1988 after another stroke. A State Funeral was held for him and he was buried in the cemetery at Cumeroogunja, the place were he was born.
- 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) and he and his wife Gladys travelled to London to receive that honour.
- 1973 – appointed King of Moomba.
- 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)
- 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; it was officially opened in December 2007 and was the first statue of an Aboriginal erected in Victoria.
- Howstuffworks “Nicholls, Sir Douglas – Encyclopedia Entry”
- Clark, Mavis Thorpe (1956). Pastor Doug: The Story of Sir Douglas Nicholls Aboriginal Leader (Rev. ed.). Melbourne: Lansdowne Press. SBN 8018-0017-8.
- Mansell, Ken (17 June 2003). “Haydn Bunton – legend and myth”. Archived from the original on 26 July 2008.
- Australian War Memorial website
- “ABORIGINE FOR CORONATION?.”. Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 – 1953) (Vic.: National Library of Australia). 16 April 1953. p. 4 Edition: MIDDAY.
- Biographies of Doug and Gladys Nicholls, Council of Melbourne
- “Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family”.
- It’s an Honour: Knight Bachelor
- Craig Bellamy, Gordon Chisholm, Hilary Eriksen (17 Feb 2006) Moomba: A festival for the people.:http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/rsrc/PDFs/Moomba/History%20of%20Moomba.pdf
- It’s an Honour: KCVO
- Memorial for Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls, submission by Assets and Services Division, Council of Melbourne, 16 May 2006
- City of Melbourne – Walks and tours – Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls Memorial, City of Melbourne