Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nicholls, Sir Herbert (1868–1940)

by David L. Mulcahy

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

Sir Herbert Nicholls (1868-1940), politician, judge and lieutenant-governor, was born on 11 August 1868 at Ballarat West, Victoria, son of Henry Richard Nicholls, journalist, and his Irish-born wife Ellen, née Minchin. Educated at Ballarat and Grenville colleges, he accompanied his parents to Hobart in 1883. After working as a mail clerk, he was articled to (A. I.) Clark & (M. W.) Simmons in 1887 and admitted to the Bar in 1892. He graduated LL.B. from the University of Tasmania in 1896 and soon became a leading barrister. With W. J. T. Stops, his partner from 1894, he founded the official Tasmanian Law Reports in 1905.

Outspoken in the Tasmanian Federation League, Nicholls was elected to the House of Assembly in a 1900 by-election as an Independent for Hobart. He was attorney-general and minister administering the Education Act in the Propsting government of 1903-04 and leader of the Opposition from 1906 (when he was lampooned as 'Shifty Nick') until appointed to the Supreme Court as puisne judge on 1 January 1909.

A member of the Australian Natives' Association, the Hobart Shakespeare Society and the Tasmanian Club (from 1909), he took part in bushwalking expeditions and excelled in rowing, athletics, golf and rifle-shooting: he later invented the 'Riflesight' golf putter. On 3 January 1905 at St George's Church, Hobart, he married Helen, daughter of the surveyor-general, Charles Percy Sprent, and granddaughter of James Sprent: she became a prominent worker for charitable causes.

Within parliament Nicholls tended to liberal idealism, favouring reform of the Upper House, extension of employers' liability and, himself a legal tutor, widening of educational opportunity. As a judge, however, he was conservative, generally interpreting the law to maintain the status quo. He succeeded Sir John Dodds as chief justice on 1 July 1914 and was knighted in June 1916.

The inquiry into the foundering of the S.S. Huon in 1914 was the first of many royal commissions on which Nicholls sat. He was also active in the recruiting campaigns of World War I and as a pamphleteer on quasi-legal subjects. With an uncomplicated literary style, akin to his propensity 'to speechify in a brief, definite way, with his hands thrust down in his pockets', he was capable of the depth shown in his article, 'Damage by the combined negligence of plaintiff and defendant', in the Australian Law Journal (1928) and by his contribution to B. R. Wise's The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1927, Nicholls was administrator of Tasmania in March-July 1917, February-April 1920 and 1922-24 before holding office as lieutenant-governor from 23 December 1930 to 4 August 1933. Creditably, during these Depression years he accepted reductions of 83 per cent in the governor's and 25 per cent in the chief justice's salaries and organized and chaired the Citizens' Relief Committee.

Nicholls had become more interested in law reform and, although his judicial decisions remained conservative, he corresponded with reformers A. P. Herbert and the English lord chancellor, Lord Sankey. An amendment to the Jury Act (1899) initiated by Nicholls in 1936 allowed majority verdicts in criminal cases.

Nicholls retired from the bench on 1 November 1937. He died in Hobart on 11 November 1940 and was cremated after a state funeral. His wife, three daughters and two sons survived him. Lake Nicholls in the Western Highlands is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal, 15 July 1928
  • Daily Post (Hobart), 1 Dec 1908
  • Ballarat Courier, 22 Sept 1915
  • Mercury (Hobart), 12, 13 Nov 1940
  • Saturday Evening Mercury, 18 Oct 1975
  • Chief Secretary's Dept correspondence (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

David L. Mulcahy, 'Nicholls, Sir Herbert (1868–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholls-sir-herbert-7840/text13615, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 November 2014.

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

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