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Nicholls, Sydney Wentworth (Syd) (1896–1977)

by Lindsay Foyle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sydney Wentworth (Syd) Nicholls (1896-1977), cartoonist, was born on 20 December 1896 at Devonport, Tasmania, son of Hubert George Jordan, watchmaker, and his wife Arabella Cluidunning, née Bartsche. After his parents were divorced, his mother remarried in 1907 and he adopted his stepfather's surname, Nicholls. The family moved to New Zealand. Syd attended schools in New Zealand and New South Wales. He studied in Sydney under Norman Carter and Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, and at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales.

The first drawing that Nicholls published appeared in the International Socialist in 1912. Soon his work was appearing in the Bulletin, Australian Worker and Australasian Seamen's Journal. His cartoon attacking war-profiteering (March 1916) appeared in the Industrial Workers of the World's Direct Action and led to the prosecution of its editor Tom Barker. Nicholls's art titles for Raymond Longford's film, The Sentimental Bloke (1919), brought him work for other films. In 1920 he visited the United States of America. Back in Sydney, he joined the staff of the Evening News in 1923 as senior artist. (Sir) Errol Knox, the editor, asked him to create a comic in colour for the Sunday News supplement to compete with 'Us Fellers' ('Ginger Meggs' from 1939) drawn by J. C. Bancks for the rival Sunday Sun.

Nicholls produced 'Fat and His Friends', first published on 16 September 1923. 'Initially presented as a Billy Bunterish comedy figure, complete with straw boater, Fatty Finn evolved . . . into a knockabout schoolboy innocently living out his days in a never-never urban world'. Within a year the strip had been renamed 'Fatty Finn'. It came to be recognized as one of the best-drawn comics in Australia and vied with 'Ginger Meggs' in popularity. Nicholls and Bancks remained rivals and rarely spoke to each other.

Tal Ordell produced a film in 1927 based on Fatty Finn and his goat Hector; Nicholls made an appearance seated at his drawing-board. Shot at Woolloomooloo and titled The Kid Stakes, the film became a box-office success. In 1928-30 Nicholls produced three volumes of Fatty Finn annuals. The strip survived the absorptions of the Sunday News into the Sunday Guardian (1930) and of the latter by the Sunday Sun (1931). Nicholls had thrice tried, in 1928 and 1929, to introduce a dream sequence into 'Fatty Finn', involving pirates, cannibals and highwaymen, but was forced by Knox to return to his original comic style. Believing that there was public interest, Nicholls drew one of the world's first adventure strips, 'Middy Malone', but could find no publisher. In 1931 he went to New York, seeking an outlet for 'Middy Malone'. He recalled in an interview in 1973 that, 'Trying to place my new adventure series I found that any time I tried to compete with the local boys . . . it was a closed shop'.

Back in Sydney, Nicholls again unavailingly offered 'Middy Malone' to a number of newspapers. Sacked without explanation in May 1933, he decided to publish his own comic books. Middy Malone in the Lost World appeared in the late 1930s; other Middy Malone adventures and the Fatty Finn Weekly, tabloid-sized, sold well. Comic books by other artists quickly followed. Unable to compete with increasing paper costs and cheap, imported American comics, Nicholls's publishing company was put out of business in 1950. Nicholls and Fatty Finn returned to newspapers, in the Sunday Herald in December 1951. Following the merger (1953) of the Sunday Herald and Sunday Sun and Guardian, they continued in the new Sun-Herald. The rivalry with Ginger Meggs was rekindled.

At the district registrar's office, Paddington, on 29 August 1942 Nicholls had married Roberta Clarice Vickery, a 25-year-old commercial artist. After being involved in having the Sydney Press Club stripped of its licence, Nicholls was a founder (1939), president (1942-44) and vice-president (1947-49 and 1957-59) of the Journalists' Club. He also chaired the New South Wales authors' and artists' section of the Australian Journalists' Association. From the late 1940s his artwork aided the New South Wales Teachers' Federation in many of its campaigns.

While in a state of mental depression, Syd Nicholls jumped to his death from the balcony next door to his tenth-floor Potts Point apartment on 3 June 1977. His wife and two daughters survived him. Within a few weeks 'Fatty Finn' vanished from the Sun-Herald.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Turner, Sydney's Burning (Melb, 1967)
  • V. Lindesay, The Inked-in Image (Melb, 1970)
  • J. Ryan, Panel by Panel (Syd, 1979)
  • D. Angel, The Journalists' Club, Sydney (Syd, 1985)
  • Education, 6 July 1977, p 237
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 29 June 1946
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Jan 1973, 4 June 1977
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lindsay Foyle, 'Nicholls, Sydney Wentworth (Syd) (1896–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholls-sydney-wentworth-syd-11235/text20035, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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