Pastor Doug Nicholls was born in Cumeroogunga NSW in 1906. His elder sister Hilda was taken from the family when he was only eight and she was sixteen. Doug Nicholls never forgot the trauma created by the incident.
Nicholls came to Melbourne in 1927 seeking a football career after success with country club Tongala. Carlton rejected him, amid racial resentment from teammates, so he turned to Northcote Football Club; the family boarding him were supporters of the ‘Brickfielders’. Nicholls debuted for Northcote in 1927 and was paid £2 for the game. To supplement the income provided by football, Nicholls, like many teammates, was given work with the Northcote Council’s outdoor staff during the season. In the off-season, Nicholls travelled the country with Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe. Members of the public could challenge a member of the troupe to a bout. Nicholls had discovered his boxing ability after a fight on a sheep ranch he was working on prior to coming to Melbourne.
Nicholls soon established himself as a star player, and as the only Aborigine playing senior football in the state; he was Northcote’s number one drawcard. He had outstanding speed, having also competed in professional sprint races, and was lauded as one of the game’s outstanding wingmen. He played in the club’s first Premiership in 1929 before the lure of League football could no longer be resisted. Northcote had withstood the advances of Carlton and Collingwood for Nicholls’ services, but following the 1931 season, he transferred to Fitzroy. In five seasons he played 54 games, finishing third in the club’s best and fairest count in 1934 and representing Victoria in 1935. With failing eyesight, Nicholls left Fitzroy and returned to Northcote in 1938, before retiring in 1939.
A visit in the early 1930s to the Northcote Church of Christ would be a life-changing event for Doug Nicholls. Struggling to deal with the death of his mother as well as suffering from a knee injury, the church was an inspiration to Nicholls. He soon converted to the church, becoming a pastor in 1939. Football had opened doors for Nicholls that were closed to so many of his people, and he used his position to advance their cause. In 1939 he was a key speaker at an Aboriginal Night where he called for social justice and equality for Aborigines. He was also involved in the newly created Australian Aborigines’ League.
His association with football continued and in 1944, with the VFA in recess, Nicholls arranged for an Aboriginal Football Team to play an exhibition match against Northcote. Several thousand football starved supporters came to the match, with proceeds going to the Aboriginal welfare funds. The success of the match saw the exhibition repeated in later years. Nicholls also coached Northcote in 1947, although the club had a poor season, finishing last. In the same year he was appointed curator of Northcote Park. He stayed in that position until 1956, living in the house provided at the park and dividing his time between the curator’s responsibilities and working for Aboriginal causes.
To combat the problem of Aboriginal homelessness, Nicholls led an effort to purchase the All Saints Church vicarage in Cunningham St, Northcote. Nicholls formed a committee, which became the Aborigines’ Advancement League to help raise funds for the purchase. The large home was converted into a hostel for Aboriginal girls, opening in 1958. In 1957 Nicholls was appointed the field officer for the Aborigines’ Advancement League. In 1962 a similar hostel for boys was opened across the road and then in 1967 the ‘Douglas Nicholls Centre’ was opened adjoining the original hostel. The centre contained recreational and meeting facilities.
Throughout his career as a crusader for Aboriginal rights, the Doug Nicholls approach was for acceptance and reconciliation. He asked white people: “…is there a reason why we should not march beside you? Do you extend to us the hand of friendship?” He was prepared to be involved in events like the Batman Treaty re-enactments, which some considered demeaning to Aborigines. Nicholls felt that they brought attention to the nation’s history and of the Aboriginals place as the original owners of the land. He co-founded the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, helped develop more housing alternatives for Aboriginal children and was part of the creation of a national day of remembrance.
Nicholls approach worked. He was awarded an M.B.E. in 1957, made a Justice of the Peace in 1962, named Father of the Year and given an O.B.E. In 1972 he was the first Aboriginal to be knighted. By the 1970s some Aborigines, encouraged by the Black Power Movement, were promoting a more aggressive stance in their campaign for equality. While such an approach would not have been possible without the efforts of Nicholls, it signalled an end to his style of campaign.
In keeping with his intention to always demonstrate that Aborigines were capable of holding any post, Sir Douglas Nicholls accepted the appointment of Governor of South Australia in 1976. He was the first Aboriginal to hold such a position. Unfortunately he was forced to retire after just one year in office after suffering a severe stroke. Nicholls and his wife returned to live in Northcote following his period as South Australian Governor. He died in 1988 and was given a state funeral before being buried at Cumeroogunga.
When the headquarters of the Aboriginal Advancement League began to fall into disrepair in the late 1970s, the League was able to secure land from the Victoria Government on the site of the old Glen Iris Brick Company. This was the first freehold land granted to Aboriginals in Victoria, fittingly it was in Northcote. Through the state and federal governments, along with the Aboriginal Development Commission and the League itself, $750,000 was raised for the construction of a new centre. Alongside, the centre, a playing oval was built: The Sir Douglas Nicholls Reserve. Northcote has remained a centre for Aboriginal people in Melbourne with over 1,000 calling the city of Darebin home, making it one of the largest Indigenous communities in Melbourne. Doug Nicholls played an instrumental role in making Northcote, and Darebin, a home for Aboriginal Australians.
“Douglas Ralph Nicholls.” Biography Resource Center Online. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Holmesby, Russell & Main, Jim (2002). The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers: Every AFL/VFL player since 1897, Melbourne: Crown Content.
Fiddian, Marc (2004). The VFA: A history of the Victorian Football Association (1877-1995). Melbourne: The Author.