Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Doug Nicholls
1906 - 1988

Sir Douglas Ralph (Doug) Nicholls
(1906 - 1988)

by Richard Broome

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls (1906-1988), footballer, pastor, activist and governor, was born on 9 December 1906 at Cummeragunja Aboriginal mission, New South Wales, fifth child of Herbert Nicholls, seasonal worker, and his wife Florence, née Atkinson. Doug grew up at Cummeragunja, on the Murray River near Barmah, in its golden years of Aboriginal autonomy. Thomas Shadrach James gave him and other Yorta Yorta children a sound primary education, reinforcing the pride and self-assurance gained from their parents. As Doug grew, so too did the powers of the State’s Aboriginal Protection Board. Doug’s elder sister Hilda was removed about 1915. When Doug reached 14, he was moved off under the Aborigines Protection Act (1909) to find work. He took a job with dredging teams constructing levees on the Murray.

Like other youths in the region Nicholls played Australian rules football, emulating kinsmen who had won local premierships since the 1890s. Doug and his brother Herbert (‘Dowie’) played with Tongala in the mid-1920s. Melbourne football beckoned, Doug trying out unsuccessfully for Carlton in 1927. He signed with the Northcote Victorian Football Association team, despite his nervousness about his Aboriginality, and was given a job with Northcote City Council. ‘Dowie’ joined him for a season.

Doug was short at 5 ft 2 ins (158 cm), but muscular and lightning fast. He competed regularly during a boom in professional running, winning many heat and place prizes. In 1929 he won the Nyah and Warracknabeal gifts, earning a sash and £100 in each, together with a case of cutlery in the latter. Using his speed on the wing for Northcote, he produced great spring and agility from his compact body. The Sporting Globe reported in 1929 that ‘he flashes through packs of big men, whisks around small men . . . and attempts marks at the back of any six-footer’. In front-on clashes he was flattened only to rise again. The sole Aborigine in the VFA, he was known affectionately as the ‘flying Abo’ but called worse by his opponents’ barrackers. He competed for five seasons, being named ‘best and fairest’ twice, appearing in three association grand finals and winning in 1929.

Keen to earn more than a seasonal wage, in 1931 Nicholls accepted a three-year contract with Jimmy Sharman’s travelling boxing show. The bouts matched opposites, local against tent boxer, white against black, and sometimes men of different sizes. He faced stiff competition from those who wanted to best the noted Melbourne black footballer, the crowd adding racial abuse. A far better footballer than boxer, he copped some punishment. Fighting in the Melbourne Stadium in December 1931, he was described by Truth as ‘slow and awkward’, but packing a ‘good wallop’. In 1932 Sharman, who treated his boxers fairly, released Nicholls to join the Fitzroy Victorian Football League team, which agreed to employ him as its groundsman. He played fifty-four games for Fitzroy over six seasons until knee trouble forced him out in 1937. Winning cups in 1934 and 1935, he played alongside Haydn Bunton and Wilfred (‘Chicken’) Smallhorn. Grand finals eluded him but he represented Victoria twice.

Following his mother’s death, Nicholls revisited the Church of Christ chapel in Northcote, where they had worshipped together. On 17 July 1932 he experienced a conversion. He was soon baptised and witnessed openly, leading his fellow footballers to occasional church parades.

Nicholls exhibited leadership qualities. William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines’ League and Nicholls’ Yorta Yorta kinsman and fellow Christian, encouraged the young footballer. In February 1935 Cooper, Nicholls and others lobbied Thomas Paterson, the Commonwealth minister for the interior, over the need for Federal control of Aboriginal affairs. Nicholls attended the Day of Mourning protest for Aborigines held in Sydney on 26 January 1938, declaring: ‘after 150 years our people are still influenced and bossed by white people. I know we can proudly hold our own with others if given the chance’. When Cooper retired in November 1940 Nicholls became secretary of the AAL.

On 2 June 1941 Nicholls enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces. He trained at Seymour and Bonegilla before being posted to the 29th Battalion. As Major Frank Corr’s batman, he was popular with other soldiers who tolerated his preaching and Bible reading. His army service was brief, however, and he was discharged in Melbourne on compassionate grounds on 22 January 1942. His biographer claimed that the Fitzroy police requested his return to mediate in the racial tensions developing between servicemen and the mostly respectable Aboriginal families living in crowded and dilapidated Fitzroy housing; Aboriginal people maintain that they requested his release.

Nicholls began welfare work and religious services from an Aboriginal home in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. In April 1942, ‘Dowie’ died of road accident trauma, leaving his wife, Gladys, née Bux, and three children. On 26 December 1942 at Moama Methodist Church, New South Wales, Nicholls married her, a caring gesture which developed into a loving partnership. In January 1943 he initiated ‘Aboriginal Sunday’, featuring a gum leaf orchestra and choir. By 1955 this service had moved to July and later evolved into National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week.

Ordained a Churches of Christ pastor in 1945, Nicholls conducted a vigorous ministry from a chapel in Gore Street, Fitzroy. His work survived on donations, a small honorarium, and his employment as team coach (1947) and curator at the Northcote Football Ground. In the 1950s Gladys established grocery and opportunity shops to earn income and provide services. Their house soon overflowed with people in need or visitors to Melbourne. Nicholls also hosted inspiring African American visitors such as the pianist Winifred Attwell and the singer Harry Belafonte. His ministry extended to Aboriginal country communities. Gladys taught Sunday school, undertook endless fund-raising and welfare work beside her husband, and became his greatest supporter and financial manager. They formed an Aboriginal Girls’ Hostel in 1956, for which they acted as house parents, and bought holiday units for Aborigines at Queenscliff.

Persistently advocating Aboriginal rights, Nicholls protested about the impact of the Woomera rocket range on the people of the Warburton Ranges, co-ordinated the production of a concert, Out of the Dark, scripted by Jean Campbell, to rectify the omission of Aborigines from Victoria’s Commonwealth jubilee celebrations, and criticised the Victorian Aboriginal Protection Board. In 1957 when the board was transformed into the Aborigines’ Welfare Board, he and Harold Blair were appointed as Aboriginal representatives. Maintaining the stance of a political moderate, he did not bear grudges and sought to build bridges between black and white. He co-operated with any group that aided the cause, including the Council of Aboriginal Rights, whose executive were members of the Communist Party of Australia. This association attracted the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, which in 1957 began to keep a file on Nicholls.

In May 1957 Nicholls formed the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League with Doris Blackburn and Gordon Bryant, a Federal parliamentarian. As its paid field officer and spokesman, Nicholls contested assimilation policies and used film to raise awareness of issues. When the Welfare Board attempted to close Lake Tyers reserve, Gippsland, he resigned in disgust and led a protest march on parliament in May 1963. The AAL also petitioned the United Nations on land rights in June, perhaps the first indigenous body to do so. He argued for new premises at 58 Cunningham Street, Northcote, opened in 1966 as the ‘Doug Nicholls Centre’.

In 1958 Nicholls was a foundation member of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders after 1964), which he served as national field officer (1961) and Victorian secretary (1962-63). While an innovator in tactics, he was alarmed by the influence of confrontational ‘black power’ politics in the AAL and resigned as a director amid turmoil on this issue in 1969, claiming the concept was a ‘bitter word’, not needed in Australia. Similar tensions in FCAATSI led him to join with Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal) in establishing the short-lived National Tribal Council as an alternative forum. As the AAL leadership moderated their stance, he returned as president (1969-74) of the new all-Aboriginal organisation. He was also a keen patron of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation, founded in 1969.

Many honours were conferred on Nicholls: he was appointed MBE (1957) and OBE (1968) and knighted (1972). In 1962 he was named Victorian ‘Father of the Year’ and the State’s second Aboriginal justice of the peace. Crowned Melbourne’s 1973 King of Moomba, he was declared Bapu Mamus (a Torres Strait term for ‘headman’) by the NTC. On 1 December 1976 Sir Douglas was appointed Governor of South Australia, but his health deteriorated within weeks, making it difficult for him to perform his official duties. In March 1977 he hosted Queen Elizabeth during her royal tour and was appointed KCVO. He relinquished his governorship on 30 April 1977 following a stroke. Ill health continued to dog him during retirement, but he played his Nelson Eddy records, enjoyed his expanding family, and when able, ministered to the Aboriginal Church at the League’s premises.

Sir Douglas Nicholls died on 4 June 1988 at Mooroopna, predeceased (1981) by his wife and survived by his five children. He was given a state funeral and buried in tribal ground at Cummeragunja cemetery. Among the many tributes to him are an oval at Northcote, handed to the AAL in 1982, a Canberra suburb gazetted in 1991, and a fellowship for Indigenous leadership established in 2003, all in his name, and a statue of Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls by Louis Laumen, unveiled in 2007 in Parliament Gardens, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography
M. T. Clark, Pastor Doug (1972)
Victims or Victors? (1985)
R. Broome, Aboriginal Victorians (2005)
J. Ramsland & C. Mooney, Remembering Aboriginal Heroes (2006)
Truth (Melbourne), 26 December 1931, p 4
Abo Call, April 1938, p 2
Age (Melbourne), 3 October 1969, p 1
A6119, item 1091 (National Archives of Australia).