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Nicolay, Charles Grenfell (1815–1897)

by Phillip E. Playford and I. Pridmore

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

Charles Grenfell Nicolay (1815-1897), clergyman, geographer and geologist, was born on 3 August 1815 at Cadogan Place, Chelsea, England, seventh child of Frederick Nicolay (d.1817), Treasury clerk, and his wife Maria Georgina, née Granville. In 1841 he was made deacon by the bishop of Exeter and on 28 March licensed to a curacy at Tresco in the Scilly Isles. On 7 June he married Mary Ann, daughter of Henry Baldwin Raven; they had eight children.

In 1843-58 Nicolay was librarian of King's College, London, also acting as chaplain of the hospital and in 1854-58 lecturer in geography. On 7 June 1844 he had been priested by the bishop of London, and until 1866 was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He also published many papers and books on geography, history and social matters. Perhaps his greatest achievement was in 1848 when he joined F. D. Maurice in founding Queen's College, London, the first institution for higher education of women in England. He served Queen's as dean, deputy-chairman, and professor of geography and ancient history until 1856 when he resigned because of dissension. He accepted appointment as chaplain to the British residents of Bahia, Brazil, and was elected a fellow of King's College, University of London, and an honorary fellow of Queen's.

The Church of St George in Bahia had been consecrated in 1857 by Bishop M. B. Hale on his way to take up his see in Perth; he also paid part of Nicolay's salary at Bahia. Nicolay remained in Brazil until he went on leave to England in 1867. Next year the subscribers to his church sought his resignation. Left without a charge until 1870, he was appointed chaplain at Geraldton in Western Australia.

Nicolay arrived at Fremantle in the Lady Louisa on 25 April. His immediate interest in the colony's affairs and resources impressed Governor Weld and F. P. Barlee. Soon after moving to Geraldton in June he recommended the establishment of an experimental coffee plantation as the climate seemed similar to those parts of Brazil where coffee flourished. In July Weld authorized the creation of a reserve west of the Moresby Range. There Nicolay planted coffee seed from Aden and later from Brazil but by December 1873 the experiment had failed and he recommended sale of the reserve. In July 1874 a syndicate bought the Western Australian Times and made him editor. He tried to combine his chaplaincy at Geraldton with his editorial duties in Perth but Hale made him resign from Geraldton. He was probably editor until 1875. In 1886-87 he wrote a series of editorials on European politics for the Inquirer.

For the government from December 1873 to May 1874 Nicolay had investigated the feasibility of cutting a canal between the coast and the lower reaches of the Swan River, thus making its deep part into the main harbour for Fremantle. He favoured the canal but it was rejected by a committee with other schemes. His role of editor and government adviser was scathingly criticized in the Herald. In 1875 he was commissioned to lead an expedition to investigate reports of coal in the Fitzgerald River near the south coast. Though condemned by the Inquirer for lack of qualifications, he appears to have led the expedition ably and showed that the area had no significant coal.

In 1876 Governor Robinson commissioned Nicolay to prepare a 'Handbook of Western Australia' for prospective migrants. The manuscript was completed in August 1877 but not published until 1880. He revised the work and in 1896 brought out a second edition, but it did not reach the standard of the first. In 1877 he had prepared a report for the Intelligence Branch of the War Office on the colony's defence organization. He was then acting as curate in the parish of Perth and as chaplain at the gaol. In 1878-93 he was chaplain at the Fremantle convict establishment. In 1880-82 he helped to teach divinity students at Bishop's College, Perth.

Nicolay was the founder of Western Australia's first public museum. In 1881 Robinson authorized him to begin a collection of rocks and minerals. Housed in the old guard room at the convict establishment, the collection had several names and as the Geological Museum was transferred in 1889-90 to the old gaol building in Perth as the first part of the Western Australian Museum. In the 1880s he had advised the government on minerals sent in for examination and on the geology of the Guildford-Clackline railway route. In 1886 he prepared a circular on prospecting for gold and published Some Notes on the Geology of Western Australia and Notes on the Aborigines of Western Australia for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. He also became involved in a dispute with E. T. Hardman over the incorrect labelling of some specimens deposited in the Geological Museum. Hardman was scathing in his criticism but Nicolay's reply was dignified: he had 'never assumed the character of an accomplished geologist' and his 'knowledge of geology, was, originally, such as was required for me as Professor of Physical Geography, the only one then in London'.

Nicolay was keen and sympathetic for Aboriginal welfare. His humanitarian views, ably expressed in the Handbook, were far more liberal than those of most contemporaries. In 1878 he was responsible for the governor setting aside an Aboriginal reserve of 50,000 acres (20,235 ha) in the upper Murchison area. In 1892-97 he served on the Aborigines Protection Board. Predeceased by his invalid wife on 31 January 1887, he died suddenly at Fremantle on 9 May 1897. Descendants still live in Western Australia.

Nicolay was talented but suffered through his lack of a university degree. He appears to have had no deep interest in the church but was a humanist with broad interests in science. Unhappily his quick temper antagonized some people, resulting in frequent conflicts which seriously influenced his career.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), 7 (1969)
  • P. E. Playford and I. Pridmore, Reverend C. G. Nicolay—biographical data, file PR5382 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Phillip E. Playford and I. Pridmore, 'Nicolay, Charles Grenfell (1815–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicolay-charles-grenfell-4302/text6969, 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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