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Nicholson, John Henry (1838–1923)

by Philip J. Roberts

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

John Henry Nicholson (1838-1923), teacher and writer, was born on 12 June 1838 at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, eldest surviving son of John Nicholson, orientalist, theologian and linguist, and his wife Anne, née Waring. He was a nephew of Mark and William Nicholson, sponsor and friend of Leichhardt. Educated privately and at Croft House Academy, Brampton, Cumberland, he was sent at 16 on a sea voyage but left the ship on reaching New South Wales, where among various occupations he tried whaling and gold prospecting. After a brief return to England, he settled in 1859 in Queensland, opening a private school at Toowoomba. Soon afterwards he moved to Warwick where he tutored until 1863 and then started another private school. On 3 March 1860 he had married German-born Anna Wagner; they had no children but adopted a daughter. In May 1865 he joined the Board of General Education and had charge of National schools at Nundah in 1865-68, Springsure in 1870-76 and Enoggera in 1877-85.

Between 1867 and 1878 he produced three small books of miscellaneous prose and verse, the first two under the pseudonyms of 'Tadberry Gilcobs' and 'Salathiel Doles'. These books were largely facetious and of little literary merit, the best of them being The Opal Fever (Brisbane, 1878). A volume of undistinguished verse in 1879 was followed by The Adventures of Halek (London, 1882), an allegory, inspired partly by Pilgrim's Progress, of a man's development from sinful worldliness to ideal goodness. Although it attracted much praise from some critics and went through further editions in Brisbane in 1896 and 1904, Halek was never a success and its sequel, Almoni (Brisbane, 1904), fared no better. Both works had fine sentiments and a dignified harmonious style but were too remote from everyday life to have much impact.

In April 1885 Nicholson resigned from the government service and in 1886-90 had a private school at Enoggera. Always somewhat eccentric and liable to bouts of melancholia, he spent most of 1891 in the mental hospital at Goodna. Thereafter he continued teaching, mostly privately and at Brisbane, although from September 1893 to December 1894 he was with the government as head teacher at Cambooya. In February 1898 he was appointed registrar of births, marriages and deaths at Nundah. In 1901 his wife died, and on 7 July 1905 he married another German, Anna Cordes, who had been attracted to him while making a translation of Halek and had come from California to join him. Three months after the marriage Nicholson was readmitted to the Goodna mental hospital and remained there except for occasional intervals until he died on 30 June 1923; he was survived by his wife and daughter.

Nicholson's other works included two plays, a humorous mathematical booklet, various prose and verse, and some popular patriotic songs. The English composer, John Ireland (1879-1962), was his nephew. His literary achievement was small but in his time, after J. B. Stephens and Essex Evans, he was one of the leading writers in Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Palmer, Intimate Portraits and Other Pieces, H. P. Heseltine ed (Melb, 1969)
  • C. Hamer, ‘An Australian allegorist’, Biblionews, July 1966
  • P. J. Roberts, John Henry ‘Halek’ Nicholson (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1971)
  • Nicholson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Education Department records (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Philip J. Roberts, 'Nicholson, John Henry (1838–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholson-john-henry-4298/text6961, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 August 2014.

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

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