On 9 December 1906, Pastor “Doug” Nicholls, of the Yorta Yorta people, and Governor of South Australia, was born.
Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls, KCVO, OBE 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 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).
He was also the first — and to date the only — 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.
Nicholls was born on 9 December 1906 on the Cummeragunja Reserve in New South Wales. He was the youngest of five children born to Herbert Nicholls and Florence Atkinson. 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.
Governor of South Australia
Nicholls became Governor of South Australia on 1 December 1976, after being announced on May 25 on the nomination of Premier Don Dunstan. 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”.
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. GTV-9 aired the footage without his permission, and subsequently apologised for doing so.
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”.
On 25 January 1977, Nicholls suffered a stroke and was admitted to the cardiac ward at Royal Adelaide Hospital. He had a history of high blood pressure and had suffered a mild heart attack some years earlier.
He was not discharged until three weeks later, with Lieutenant-Governor Walter Crocker serving as Administrator of the Government in his place. Nicholls attended only one further official engagement after his stroke, hosting Queen Elizabeth II at Government House on 20 March.
She subsequently awarded him a second knighthood, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO).
Nicholls’ retirement due to ill health was announced on 22 April, with effect from 30 April. 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. Lady Gladys Nicholls died in 1981.
Nicholls’ great-grandson Nathan Lovett-Murray also played Australian Rules Football, playing 145 games for Essendon.
- 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).
- 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; 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)
- 1980s – the Sir Douglas Nicholls Sporting Complex in Thornbury was named after him
- 1991 – the Canberra suburb of Nicholls was named after him
- 2001 – a new chapel in Preston of the Northern Community Church of Christ, the church in which he was baptised, 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.
- 2011 – inducted to Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll
- 2016 – The AFL named their “Indigenous round” after him, and continue to do so. Each year, all 18 teams wear specially-commissioned artworks by Indigenous artists on their guernseys.
- 2018 – The federal electoral division of Murray is renamed Nicholls in honour of Sir Doug and Lady Nicholls.
- 2018 – a Google Doodle was created to celebrate his 112th birthday.
Nicholls died on 4 June 1988 at Mooroopna. A state funeral was held for him and he was buried in the cemetery at Cummeragunja.