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Nicholls, Elizabeth Webb (1850–1943)

by Marie Mune

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (1850-1943), by Bartletto Studio, 1895

Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (1850-1943), by Bartletto Studio, 1895

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B58002

Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (1850-1943), social reformer, was born on 21 February 1850 at Rundle Street, Adelaide, eldest daughter of Samuel Bakewell, grocer, and his first wife Mary Ann, née Pye. When Elizabeth was 3 her mother died and she spent several years in England with relatives. Her father married his sister-in-law Eliza Hannah Pye in 1854 and the family settled in Adelaide. Prone to chafe quietly at 'unreasonable restraint', Elizabeth longed for 'the will and power to be useful'. Both her father and uncle William Bakewell became members of the House of Assembly. She married fellow Methodist Alfred Richard Nicholls, warehouseman, on 2 August 1870; they had a daughter and four sons and raised two orphaned relatives.

Elizabeth Nicholls was active in teaching Sunday school and distributing tracts. She made her public-speaking début at a Methodist women's conference in 1885. Next year she was a founding member of Adelaide's Woman's Christian Temperance Union and in 1891 was one of the first women admitted to the South Australian Temperance Alliance.

She was inspired by the American temperance worker Frances E. Willard and in 1889 became the W.C.T.U.'s South Australian president. Nicholls held this post until she resigned in 1897 because of the demands of her position as Australasian president (1894-1903), being State president again in 1906-27. She founded the W.C.T.U.'s journal, Our Federation, and edited it from 1898 to 1904 when it ceased. In it she reported her interstate journeys. She attended conferences in Paris, London and Edinburgh in 1906, and in 1920 the tenth world convention of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance at Geneva.

A councillor of the Women's Suffrage League, through the W.C.T.U. Nicholls helped to gather 8268 of the 11,600 signatures for the 1894 suffrage petition to parliament. Before the first election in which women voted (1896), she prepared a 'Platform of Principles': 'They were not like women who lived in a Turkish harem, but they were going to decide for themselves and not follow any one party blindfoldedly'. Nicholls was a member from 1909 of the Women's Non-Party Political Association founded by Lucy Morice; she was its president in 1911 when she led a deputation to Premier John Verran stressing the need for women jurors, justices of the peace and 'police matrons', and for sex instruction for young people. Later Mrs Nicholls was a life vice-president of the League of Women Voters.

There was opposition to her 'crank notions', particularly in Quiz, which abhorred 'gimlet eyed women'; the paper had claimed in 1898 that several years earlier it had received a deputation of W.C.T.U. ladies leading a faction 'against the high-handed rule of Elizabeth Nicholls'. When she entered conventions, everyone stood. She seems to have relished conflict, managing it with humour and tact. She was a 'lucid and forcible speaker', one of those who led women in South Australian government appointments: in 1895-1922 as a member of the strife-torn Adelaide Hospital Board; in 1906 as a member of the royal commission on the treatment of inebriates. As a justice of the peace she often sat at the Children's Court. Mrs Nicholls advocated similar female appointments for other States and argued for prison reform and juvenile courts. She sought improvement of conditions and wages for working women and was a shareholder in the women's South Australian Co-operative Clothing Co.

Her major concern remained the W.C.T.U.; in 1915 it won a victory when its six o'clock closing platform succeeded in the State's referendum on hotel hours. Nicholls justified all reforms on the grounds of temperance and social purity.

Her husband died in 1920; for years before her death she lived at Willard House, W.C.T.U. headquarters and residence, and continued to apply her 'stimulating optimism' as vice-president of the Australian National Prohibition League. She died at North Adelaide on 3 August 1943 and was buried in Payneham cemetery. Her portrait at W.C.T.U. headquarters, Adelaide, shows a benignly smiling Elizabeth Nicholls with firm square jaw, white hair and rosy cheeks.

Select Bibliography

  • I. McCorkindale (ed), Torch-Bearers (Adel, 1949)
  • Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Australia, Centenary Diary (Adel, 1982)
  • H. Jones, Nothing Seemed Impossible (Brisb, 1985)
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 15 Dec 1898
  • Honorary Magistrate, 16 Aug 1943
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 Sept 1895, 3 June 1922, 30 Jan 1926, 17 Sept 1927
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Feb 1940, 4 Aug 1943
  • D. Wiles, As High as Heaven: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in South Australia 1886-1915 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1978)
  • WCTU correspondence, 1875-1900, and minutes, 1889-96 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Marie Mune, 'Nicholls, Elizabeth Webb (1850–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholls-elizabeth-webb-7839/text13613, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (1850-1943), by Bartletto Studio, 1895

Elizabeth Webb Nicholls (1850-1943), by Bartletto Studio, 1895

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B58002