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Nicholls, Worthy Worthington George (1808–1849)

by R. M. Gibbs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Worthy Worthington George Nicholls (c.1808-1849), workman, carrier and socialist, claimed to have been born in a London slum. After a training 'under the fear of the Lord and a broomstick', George later avowed that he was bundled into a workhouse when aged 3, was taken out at 5, and at 7 was sold by his mother, a drinker and card player, for £10. He also claimed that he started work in a factory, had eight years service in a sweep's cellar and was imprisoned when struggling for a free press. Through radical politics he became known to Robert Gouger, whom he followed to Adelaide. Nicholls was described as a bricklayer when he arrived in the Navarino with his wife Maria and three children in December 1837. 'Complete with black beard, red shirt and immoral habits', he quickly became notorious locally as a self-avowed socialist with atheistic views.

The press chronicled Nicholls's progress, beginning as a builder and earning the nickname 'Pisé' for his improved method of pisé building. He offered to work for goods or labour in kind and undertook to supply freehold plots and cottages to those with few means, but refused to meet his wife's debts. Tribulations followed. Turning to water carting, Nicholls suffered abuse from fellow carters, and only by compromising his religious views could he swear the oath and bind other carters to keep the peace. He proclaimed himself the most ill-used person ever in a British colony; when a drunken mob invaded his house he escaped in his shirt through the roof. Forced to carry arms, he attributed his misfortune to 'a mere report, that I am what I am not, namely an infidel'. In 1843 he opened a boarding house in Hindley Street for 'sober and orderly' guests, while offering other property for sale, including his water cart and horse, Old Windsor Castle, 'warranted to draw 2 tons' weight, and anything else in reason, except an inference'.

Despite announcing his return to England, Nicholls remained in Adelaide as a carrier, water carter and advocate of reform. He recommended a refuge for destitutes; he warned about polluting the Torrens River but equivocated about letting conditionally pardoned convicts pollute South Australia. At a meeting in 1842 he condemned Governor (Sir) George Grey and the biased press. Editors often pilloried him as an ignorant socialist, though his replies, supporting the universal rights of man, were not those of an ignorant man. His public performances, when he attacked land jobbery, mining magnates and workers' disadvantages, were usually denounced. In 1846 he won praise for introducing a fast passenger cart from his boarding house to Burra, but by 1848 his life had become frenzied. He proclaimed his Owenite views more fervently in advertisements, which he often embellished with verse, and in public meetings, where few took him seriously.

Nicholls's home was a refuge for the downtrodden and his charitable acts were recognized, but first his wife and then a widow–companion left him. He suicided by taking drink and an overdose of laudanum on 13 December 1849 at Black Forest, leaving his wife and seven children unprovided for. His vision of a better society for small capitalists and workers had not been unreasoned, yet gained few adherents in a colony that championed outward rectitude and personal gain.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 8, 1980, p 84
  • South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 21 July 1838, p 3, 18 Aug 1838, p 2, 9 Mar 1839, p 5, 13 Sept 1845, p 4
  • South Australian Register, 11 Mar 1843, p 3, 4 Mar 1848, p 2, 11 Mar 1848, p 1, 24 June 1848, p 2, 22 July 1848, pp 2 & 3, 29 Nov 1848, p 4, 16 Dec 1848, p 2, 15 Dec 1849, p 2
  • Southern Australian, 28 Mar 1843, p 2, 14 Dec 1849, p 2, 18 Dec 1849, p 2, 21 Dec 1849, p 3
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2 Dec 1843, p 1, 9 Dec 1843, p 1, 16 Dec 1843, p 2, 23 Dec 1843, p 1, 25 May 1844, p 5, 21 Dec 1844, p 5, 12 Apr 1845, p 5, 28 Mar 1846, p 5, 19 Sept 1846, p 1
  • News (Adelaide), 21 Oct 1957, pp 18 & 19.

Citation details

R. M. Gibbs, 'Nicholls, Worthy Worthington George (1808–1849)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholls-worthy-worthington-george-13128/text23757, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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