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Nicholson, Sir Charles (1808–1903)

by David S. Macmillan

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

Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), by unknown photographer

Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12494

Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), statesman, landowner, businessman, connoisseur, scholar and physician, was born on 23 November 1808 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the only son of Charles Nicholson, merchant, and of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant. Nicholson's mother died when he was 3 and his father a few years later, and he was brought up by a maiden aunt in Yorkshire. After private education by tutors, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Having obtained his medical degree with distinction, being second in his year, he became an extraordinary member of the Hunterian Medical Society of Edinburgh. Nicholson graduated as doctor of medicine in 1833, after submitting a thesis in Latin on asphyxiation, its causes and treatment.

Later that year he sailed for Sydney with his aunt, Miss Ascough, and his cousin, James Ascough, to join his uncle, Captain James Ascough, a wealthy trader and shipowner, who had extensive landed property on the Hawkesbury River and the upper Hunter. Nicholson inherited most of his uncle's property on Ascough's death by drowning, and this was the foundation of his considerable fortune. For a few years after arrival he practised as a physician, gaining a local reputation in and around Sydney as a skilful obstetrician, but by 1840 he was devoting his attention to business affairs, buying land and stock and forming sheep stations. In the 1840s he also took an interest in establishing shipping and railway companies, and by 1850 he owned a fine estate and mansion at Luddenham, near Sydney, as well as the residence, Tarmons, at Potts Point, which he bought from Sir Maurice O'Connell. In 1836 he was prominent among the founders of the Australian Gaslight Co., in 1842 he was active in the movement to encourage immigration from India and throughout the 1840s he was a member of the Medical Board. By the early 1850s he was a trustee of both the savings bank and the Australian Museum.

In 1843 he was elected a member of the new part-elective Legislative Council as a representative for Port Phillip, and was soon recognized as one of the ablest speakers and men of business in the House. He was elected Speaker in 1846, and was twice re-elected to this office, holding it until the introduction of responsible government in 1856. Nicholson's ability to make friends among men of all political opinions, and his tact and moderation fitted him admirably for the Speakership, and often he was able to reconcile the discordant factions in the council. Generally in the 1840s he tended to align himself with the group headed by William Charles Wentworth, and with the conservatives who looked to James Macarthur as their leader. In the usury question of 1843-44 and the land questions of the later 1840s he supported the policies of the Wentworth group. In 1855 he was appointed to the interim Executive Council which governed until the first administration under responsible government took over.

Nicholson was an unusual combination of man of affairs and scholar. He led a very active social life but was deeply interested in the classics, history and education, which he made one of his principal council interests. By 1845 he had already begun to collect rare books, antiquities, pictures and manuscripts, and was regarded as one of the most cultivated men in the colony. In 1849-50 he joined Wentworth in pressing for the establishment of a university, and in December 1850 was nominated a member of the original senate of the University of Sydney. As vice-provost from 1851 to 1854 and provost (later chancellor) from 1854 to 1862, he played an important part in working out the design of Australia's first university. His ideal was an institution patterned on Oxford and Cambridge but without the restrictions on entry that characterized those universities, and with the addition of new features in accordance with medical and scientific advances. Nicholson was a fellow of the senate until 1883 and until his death maintained a keen interest in the university, though he lived in England from 1862. He acted for some forty years as the university's agent in England, selecting staff and adding periodically to the library and to the museum of antiquities which he presented to the university in 1857. In 1855-58 he was in Egypt, where he visited archaeological sites and obtained a collection of early Egyptian art, then went to England, where, through his friendship with Sir James Clarke, the Queen's physician, he secured for the University of Sydney considerable publicity and a Royal Charter (1857) giving its degrees equal status with those of the old British universities.

On his return to Sydney in 1858 Nicholson was largely instrumental in securing the acceptance of Edmund Blacket's grandiose architectural plans for the completion of the university buildings. Finding that the whole political climate of the country had changed since 1856, he was reluctant to re-enter politics, but was nominated a member of the Legislative Council of the new colony of Queensland, and was prevailed upon by the governor, Sir George Bowen, to become president of the council. While in Queensland he acquired substantial land interests, especially in the Rockhampton district.

By 1862 he had decided to return again to England, where he found more scope for his cultural interests. He intended to return to Australia, but after his marriage in 1865 to Sarah Keightley, the talented and artistic daughter of a London solicitor, he settled in England, first on the country estate of Hadleigh, Essex, and from 1876 at Totteridge Grange, near Barnet, Hertfordshire. Nicholson soon became the central figure in the circle of Australian 'colonists' in London and was often consulted by the Colonial Office on Australian and other imperial problems. He became a leading member of the Royal Colonial Institute, the Royal Society of Arts, the British Association, and many other learned and cultural bodies. He pursued his archaeological interests with vigour and conducted excavations in the Channel Islands, Jutland and England in the 1860s and 1870s, and was later closely identified with the Egyptologists, Sayce and Petrie; he supported the Egyptian Exploration Fund. In the early 1880s he took up the study of Hebrew, and in 1891 he published a handsome volume entitled Ægyptiaca, Comprising a Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities … Now Deposited in the Museum of Sydney.

He published several pamphlets on Australia's resources and prospects, and was appointed to represent the interests of the Central Queensland Separation League in London in 1890. In the later part of the decade he expressed doubts as to the expediency of Federation. His business interests were considerable as chairman of the London, Liverpool and Globe Insurance Co., and a director of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Co. He was also one of the first London businessmen to have financial interests in Persia. In 1901 fire destroyed Totteridge Grange and with it Nicholson's journals and correspondence. He died on 8 November 1903.

One of the outstanding men of his time in Sydney, Nicholson had strong humanitarian, religious and political views. In later life he opposed capital punishment, and described the horror he had felt at the multiple hangings he had witnessed in his early days in Sydney. A conservative who admired Gladstone, he also admired Dean Stanley, and rejected the doctrines of the Anglo-Catholics. He was a man of impressive appearance. He travelled as far afield as Russia beyond the Urals and had a wide range of influential acquaintances and correspondents. He was knighted in 1852, created a baronet in 1859, and held honorary degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Of his three sons, Charles Archibald was a distinguished ecclesiastical architect, who became the second baronet, and Sydney a musician and composer of church music. The Nicholson Museum in the University of Sydney, and the Nicholson pictures there, including Lely's 'Lady in Blue', commemorate his name. He has aptly been described as Australia's first great collector, and he was also a generous patron of the arts and sciences. The pre-Raphaelite sculptor, Thomas Woolner, whom he befriended in 1854, cast a handsome portrait medallion of him which is held in the archives of Sydney University, and in 1844 Ludwig Leichhardt named a mountain after him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. S. Macmillan, ‘An Australian Aristocrat: The Personality and Career of Sir Charles Nicholson’, Australian Quarterly, vol 28, no 3, Sept 1956, pp 40-47
  • Nicholson papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Senate records (University of Sydney Archives)
  • manuscript catalogue under C. Nicholson (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'Nicholson, Sir Charles (1808–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholson-sir-charles-2508/text3387, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 16 April 2014.

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

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