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Nielsen, Niels Rasmus Wilson (1869–1930)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Niels Rasmus Wilson Nielsen (1869-1930), politician, was born on 2 March 1869 in Copenhagen, son of Danish-born Niels Peter Nielsen, cabinetmaker, and his Irish wife Susan, née Wilson. His father had migrated to Australia in 1854 and married Susan on 13 May 1858 in Hobart Town. They visited Denmark in 1869, but returned next year and settled at Young, New South Wales, where Niels went to the local public school. Apprenticed to his father at 13, he worked at his trade, but in 1887 was at Bathurst as a bushman, shearer and fencer. Back at Young, Nielsen was a carpenter and married Maria Booth at St John's Anglican Church on 8 August 1888. He joined a gold rush to West Wyalong in 1893, and lost his savings there. From 1894 the Nielsens had a small farm on the Young-Grenfell road and he worked intermittently as a carpenter.

Nielsen had joined the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia in 1887 and read widely in socialist and other progressive literature. In 1894 he was an officer of both the Shearers' and the General Labourers' unions and helped to amalgamate them into the Australian Workers' Union. Under J. M. Toomey, Young was a centre of important activity for the new Labor Party from 1891 and Nielsen co-operated enthusiastically. In 1892 he was a delegate to the party's first annual conference. At a by-election in 1899 he won Boorowa to become the twentieth Labor member in the Legislative Assembly. Following a redistribution, in 1904 he held Yass. He was on the party's executive in 1903, 1907-08 and 1910-11, and was whip in 1902 and caucus secretary in 1911-13. He lived at Dulwich Hill, Sydney, in 1902-11.

A dedicated, if verbose, parliamentarian, Nielsen became an expert in the State's labyrinthine land legislation, favouring leasehold tenure and eventual nationalization. He was congratulated by lands minister W. P. Crick for his amendments to the 1903 Land Act. Forming a close bond with Labor's deputy leader W. A. Holman, Nielsen coached him in land law. When the party won the 1910 elections he became secretary for lands.

With Holman and others Nielsen opposed the Federal Labor government's 'powers' referendum in 1911. But he quickly resumed several Sydney Harbour foreshores, including the large areas that became Taronga Park Zoo and Nielsen Park. Concentrating on the repeal of (Sir) Charles Wade's Land Conversion Act, he planned to ensure that all homestead selection tenure should be perpetual leasehold as party policy required. But W. F. Dunn and H. E. Horne had pledged themselves to their electors to retain existing rights to convert to freehold. They precipitated a crisis for Holman by resigning their seats on 26 July 1911, with a censure motion pending. Caucus decided to drop Nielsen's legislation, thus placating Dunn. After clever constitutional and political manoeuvring by Holman, the government won one of the by-elections on 16 August and retained office. But Nielsen had resigned from cabinet on 1 August. He never recovered from this traumatic disappointment.

In October 1911 the government appointed Nielsen as its representative at the National Irrigation Congress at Chicago, United States of America. He returned in June 1912, and in a party deal was made the State's permanent trade commissioner in San Francisco, after he had resigned from parliament on 4 February 1913. His work in America included liaison with the Commonwealth government, especially after World War I began in 1914. He also corresponded with Alfred Deakin. Supporting Holman's conscription policy, Nielsen kept his post when the premier formed a National government after his expulsion from the Labor Party in 1916. But his appointment was subjected to much press and parliamentary criticism and it was terminated in 1917.

Nielsen returned to Sydney from America in 1923 and became a National Party organizer; he also worked for a Sunday newspaper and as a carpenter. He had separated from his wife, and died of gastric haemorrhage in the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, on 1 July 1930, survived by her, three daughters and two sons. He was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £100. His contribution to Sydney, and Australia, is aptly commemorated by the beautiful Nielsen Park, near the south head of Sydney Harbour.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1942)
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 14 Dec 1916
  • Australian Worker, 16 July 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov 1916, 10 July 1930
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Nielsen, Niels Rasmus Wilson (1869–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nielsen-niels-rasmus-wilson-7849/text13633, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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