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Nichols, George Robert (Bob) (1809–1857)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

George Robert Nichols (1809-1857), by unknown photographer

George Robert Nichols (1809-1857), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

George Robert (Bob) Nichols (1809-1857), lawyer and politician, was born on 27 September 1809 in Sydney, second son of Isaac Nichols and his second wife Rosanna Abrahams, daughter of Esther Johnston. Educated in England in 1819-23, he returned in the Thalia in May 1823 and was articled to W. H. Moore. His duties included forming special juries and taxing costs and in 1831 Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling alleged he was inefficient. At St James's Church on 23 March 1831 he married Eliza Boggs (d.1835) and on 16 December 1837 he married Susannah Eliza Barnes. On 1 July 1833 he was the first native-born Australian admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales. Nichols opposed the division of the legal profession effected in November 1834. The Bar disputed his right to appear as an advocate at Quarter Sessions but the court made an exemption in his favour, although he could not appear in the Supreme Court. In 1857 D. H. Deniehy's bill to admit Nichols to the Bar lapsed after bitter opposition.

In 1830 Nichols strongly attacked the 'tyranny and oppression' of the colonial government and soon became active in radical politics and the 'Australian party' centred on W. C. Wentworth. After 1835 he was joint sub-secretary of the Australian Patriotic Association. William Bland was a close friend, and James Martin and Richard Driver were protégés who served their articles with him. In the late 1830s Nichols's influence with the native-born group was increased by his purchase and editing of the Australian. He consolidated his forceful oratory, advocated self-government, denounced transportation and justified his self-description as 'a radical reformer'. In July 1842 he became insolvent with debts over £10,000 and could pay only 10s. in the £. A leading Freemason, he was solicitor to the commissioners of the City of Sydney in 1854-56, a member of the Parramatta District Council and a trustee of the Sydney Grammar School.

In July 1848 Nichols was elected to the Legislative Council for Northumberland Boroughs. By 1851 he had introduced twenty-three bills with success, sat on numerous select committees and had a hand in most of the other legislation passed. Re-elected in September, he argued that relief should be given from general revenue to the poor, the blind, the lame, the old and the infirm, and advocated law reform. He sought a revision of the Constitution to obtain 'true popular representative government' and counselled vigilance to ensure that transportation should not be renewed. In 1856 he won his old seat at the first responsible government elections after espousing certain legal reforms and a land system that would compensate squatters for surrendering arable land and prevent waste lands 'from falling into the hands of companies and capitalists'. He explained that illness had prevented him taking part in the debates on the constitution bill, which on the whole he approved. In the first ministry from 6 June to 25 August he was auditor-general and secretary for lands and works. H. W. Parker considered him as solicitor-general in the third ministry but his health 'rendered it utterly impossible'.

On 12 September 1857 he died of dropsy at his residence in York Street, survived by his third wife Eliza, née Smith, whom he had married at Scots Church on 14 July 1854, and by two sons. With Archbishop Polding leading the procession he was buried in the old cemetery; his remains were transferred about 1900 to the Anglican section of Rookwood. His estate was valued at £400 and a testimonial fund was arranged for his widow. Standing 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm), 'Bob' Nichols had a striking physical appearance and great personal charm. R. J. Flanagan wrote that 'among the native-born he perhaps occupied the second position in … patriotism and ability', while the Sydney Morning Herald, noting the quality of his legislative record, described him as 'the earnest, eloquent and graceful advocate of all that was good … and the stern, determined and resolute foe of anything approaching to bigotry or oppression'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 16
  • J. Normington-Rawling, Charles Harpur: An Australian (Syd, 1962)
  • M. Roe, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851 (Melb, 1965)
  • J. M. Bennett (ed), A History of the New South Wales Bar (Syd, 1969)
  • J. N. Molony, An Architect of Freedom (Canberra, 1973)
  • A. Halloran, ‘Some early legal celebrities’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 10 (1924)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Sept 1840, 4, 22 July, 6 Aug, 21 Oct, 16 Dec 1842, 12, 13 July 1848, 20 Sept 1851, 24 Mar 1856, 14, 16 Mar, 27 Apr, 15 May 1857
  • Australian, 12 Jan 1841
  • S. A. Donaldson ministry letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • G. R. Nichols, letters from clients, 1832-48 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • catalogue under G. R. Nichols (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Nichols, George Robert (Bob) (1809–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nichols-george-robert-bob-4296/text6957, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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