Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nichols, Isaac (1770–1819)

by Arthur McMartin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Isaac Nichols (1770-1819), farmer, shipowner and public servant, was born on 29 July 1770 at Calne, Wiltshire, England, the son of Jonathan Nichols, droget maker, and his wife Sarah. Found guilty of stealing, he was sentenced to seven years transportation at the Warminster Sessions, Wiltshire, in July 1790, and arrived in New South Wales in the Admiral Barrington in October 1791. After a few years in the country his ability, diligence and sobriety so impressed Governor John Hunter and his aide-de-camp, George Johnston, that the governor appointed him chief overseer of the convict gangs labouring round Sydney. On 20 December 1797 after his sentence had expired, Hunter granted him fifty acres (20 ha) in the Concord district, where he established a successful farm on which he was assisted by two convicts whose services he was allowed instead of salary as an overseer. Next year he obtained a spirit licence, the first of several, and opened an inn in George Street.

On 12 March 1799 Nichols was brought before the Criminal Court charged with having received stolen property. After a trial lasting four days he was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years on Norfolk Island. The three naval officers on the bench, Henry Waterhouse, William Kent and Matthew Flinders, were all convinced that Nichols was innocent, but they were overborne by the judge-advocate, Richard Dore, and the three officers of the New South Wales Corps, Neil MacKellar, Lucas and Nicholas Bayly. Hunter was most dissatisfied with the trial, being convinced that the verdict was the result of perjury by the witnesses and prejudice on the part of Dore, so he suspended the sentence and referred the matter to England. There the papers remained pigeon-holed for nearly two years, but in January 1802 Governor Philip Gidley King was directed to grant Nichols a free pardon.

In the meantime Nichols, keenly alert to the economic possibilities of the young colony, continued to prosper. Between 1797 and 1815 to his original grant at Concord he added further properties in the same district, at Hunter's Hill and at Petersham until his holdings totalled some 1400 acres (567 ha). He leased half an acre (0.2 ha) in Sydney near the hospital wharf, which Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Foveaux converted to a grant. Here he built a substantial house and other buildings. He also established a shipyard, where in 1805 he built the Governor Hunter, 33 tons, which he used in the Newcastle, Hawkesbury and Bass Strait trade.

In the William Bligh rebellion Nichols took the side of the insurrectionaries. In March 1809 he was appointed superintendent of public works and assistant to the Naval Officer; next month, to stop the practice of persons fraudulently obtaining mail from incoming vessels, he was made the colony's first postmaster, a position he held until his death. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived he too was impressed with Nichols, whom he described as 'a most zealous, active and useful man'. He appointed him principal superintendent of convicts in place of Nicholas Divine, who was old and infirm. When Nichols sought leave to retire from this post in 1814 Macquarie spoke appreciatively of his great vigilance and unremitting attention to duty.

In his last ten years Nichols enjoyed the friendship and esteem of most leading people in the colony. His home was the scene of many social functions, including the Bachelors' Ball and the annual dinners to celebrate the foundation of the colony. He was a major supplier of meat to government stores and a generous subscriber to public causes. Everything he attempted was carried out with thoroughness and precision. When he died on 8 November 1819, the Sydney Gazette spoke of his devotion to his public duties, his worth as a farmer, his contributions to the improvement of colonial gardening, and of his activities as a shipowner.

On 11 September 1796 Nichols had married Mary Warren, and after her death by drowning in October 1804, he married Rosanna Abrahams, daughter of Esther Johnston on 18 February 1805. She bore him three sons, Isaac David (1804-1867), 'gentleman', George Robert (1809-1857), barrister and solicitor, and Charles Hamilton (1811-1869). Shortly before Isaac Nichols died he sent the two elder boys to England to be educated.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7, 8
  • Sydney Gazette, 17 Mar, 28 Apr 1805, 27 Aug 1809, 17 Oct, 14 Nov 1818.

Citation details

Arthur McMartin, 'Nichols, Isaac (1770–1819)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nichols-isaac-2507/text3385, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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