Sir Doug Nicholls

By: Victoria Yates

Douglas Ralph Nicholls was born on the 9th of December 1906 on the Cummeragunja mission, New South Wales, a member of the Yorta Yorta tribe.  His mother worked as a domestic helper while his father was a contractual farmer; as a result he grew up in economically difficult conditions. The mission provided education until Grade 3 level, and put an emphasis on religious principles and values. At eight years old, Nicholls saw the traumatic removal, by force, of his 16-year-old sister by police who took her to the Cootamundra Training Home for Girls.

In order to help his family he took a job as a tar boy under the supervision of his uncle at thirteen.  In his spare time Nicholls played football, and, proving talented, he was recruited by the Carlton Football Club before being moved to Melbourne. However in his early days he was subject to the racist attitudes of his teammates. Regardless, Nicholls continued to play for two further clubs, both for a number of years, before having to retire in 1939 following a knee injury.

It was this athletic career that enabled Nicholls to find employment after his retirement, returning to football as a non-playing coach for the Northcote Club. His success in sports combined with his sense of advocacy for the Aboriginal community led him to become associated with the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation.

The religious ideas instilled in Nicholls by his early education became a new focus for his life when his work with the church began to grow. And by 1935 it formed an integral part of his time and marked the beginning of his active career in social work.

In 1941 he was called up to join the Army in the 29th Battalion, but a year later he was released from duty to return to social work in the community. He focused his efforts on alcohol abuse, gambling, and further social problems including aiding those in legal difficulties. His good faith with the aboriginal community and the church led to him becoming the pastor of the Aboriginal Church of Christ.

In 1957 Nicholls took on a job as field officer in the Aborigines Advancement League where he edited their magazine, bringing the issues to the attention of both the government and the wider public. He utilized the platform to rally for maintaining dignity for the aboriginal community.

His work earned him an Order of the British Empire in 1957, before being Knighted, the first Aboriginal individual to receive the honor. This was in 1972 for his work in social service work. These were not the only accolades Nicholls received, being chosen in 1962 by the Father’s Day Council of Australia as Victoria’s Father of Year. The award was the result of his leadership in youth and welfare work and his continued support for the Aboriginal cause.

Nicholls also became the first elected Aboriginal official when he became the Governor of South Australia in 1976. He was however unable to hold the position very long after he suffered a stroke and retired. Nicholls died in 1988 following a further stroke.

Sir Doug Nicholls was an inspirational leader whose achievements spanned sports, politics, and humanitarian work. Few have done more for the Aboriginal cause in Australia, and his legacy continues to be greatly respected to this day.