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Charles Frederick Nicholls (1826–1888)

by Weston Bate

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Henry Richard Nicholls

Charles Frederick Nicholls (b.1826), mining consultant and journalist, and Henry Richard Nicholls (1830-1912), newspaper editor and author, were born in London, the second and third sons of Henry Nicholls, merchant, and his wife Ann Elizabeth, née Bright. The brothers were educated at London and Binfield, Berkshire. Their father, a socialist and friend of many continental revolutionaries, contributed to the Leader, Christian Socialist and other papers, and in 1853-54 owned and edited the radical Weekly Examiner. Under his influence, Charles, who was training as an architect and civil engineer, and Henry, who was studying Latin, French and literature at the Westminster Mechanics' Institute, became ardent Chartists in 1848. Charles was prominent in such movements as the Parliamentary Reform League and Henry contributed fiery verses. Later Henry lectured and wrote articles for various papers, especially the radical Leader.

Henry migrated to Melbourne in 1853, and soon afterwards joined George Black, another Chartist, in editing the anti-government Diggers' Advocate. During the licence troubles they sent a cart to Castlemaine draped with the tricolour and the driver dressed in red. But their doctrinaire internationalism was out of touch with the inchoate local protest and the paper failed in August 1854. Charles arrived in November and joined Henry at Ballarat. Welcomed by the Eureka rebels, the brothers enrolled at the stockade but left before the attack because they were appalled by the lack of discipline. After the tragedy they joined J. B. Humffray in petitioning the governor for an amnesty for the rebels and fair dealing for the Ballarat population. Charles chaired the committee which organized the first Eureka memorial pilgrimage, was elected to the local (mining) court and initiated the People's League to campaign for legislation to allow mining on private property. While vice-president of the league, he was chiefly responsible for a united approach to parliament by the goldfields' communities. Like Henry, however, he found the miners unsympathetic to plans for co-operative company mining. He managed to sway the members of the local court into granting the first leases at Ballarat, but lost his seat at the next elections. Henry had already resigned from the court in 1855 when it refused to allow barristers to appear.

The brothers moved to Creswick where Henry mined and Charles, largely at his own risk, floated the first co-operative company. Dismayed by popular opposition, he campaigned vigorously for free enterprise and capital investment. In England he had written many articles on co-operation, but following his Creswick experience he became critical of that great hope of the working man. After prospecting at Daylesford Charles settled at Clunes, studied mining techniques and joined the committee of 'outsiders' in their struggle with the Port Phillip Co. In 1860 he was captain of a subsidized prospecting party and in 1864 explored Gippsland with another party. At that time he was combining active mining with investment and company promotion. He worked hard for legislative reform like the no-liability clause in the 1864 Mining Act and wrote many articles on the technical and financial aspects of mining. His first major mine promotion, north of Clunes, failed despite efforts to place shares on the London market. His general optimism was later justified by success at Ballarat in 1880 when he was prominent in securing Melbourne capital for the Sir Garnet Wolseley Co. of which he was chairman.

Charles was also interested in newspaper ventures. He helped to float the short-lived Leader at Ballarat in 1855 and in 1867-69 owned and edited the Evening Star at Melbourne. For about ten years he was Melbourne correspondent for his brother Henry's Ballarat Star, for which he wrote many articles on mining and electoral reform. His Democracy and Representation, a review of Thomas Hare's system of voting, was published in book form in 1871. He also wrote on general topics, especially literature, agriculture and poultry-breeding. He contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Talbot in 1856 and North Gippsland in 1864 without success but remained active in electoral affairs. In 1886 he bought land and a hotel at Little River catering for sportsmen in quest of game on the Werribee plains.

At St Kilda on 24 September 1870 Charles had married Isabella Taylor with Congregational ritual. The date and the place of his death are unknown.

Henry Nicholls acted as Creswick correspondent for the Ballarat Times before joining its staff in 1858. He became editor of the Ballarat Star, and was its sole proprietor from 1875 to 1880, when he took W. B. Withers and E. E. Campbell as partners until he sold out in 1883. The paper's policy was democratic and constitutionalist. Like many Chartists, Nicholls feared politics without principles, distrusted the voice of an uneducated population and detested men like C. E. Jones, the demagogue go-getter. Nicholls used the term 'screech' to describe their shouting down of opponents. He published An Essay in Politics in Verse in 1867. In the Victorian constitutional crises of the 1860s and 1870s he gave qualified support to the Legislative Council, but called strongly for an end to faction and party. To him the 'great cause of Australian nationality' was social and not political and he deplored George Higinbotham's campaign against the Colonial Office. His idealistic concept of the national good was centred around education, on which he justified almost any expenditure, believing that poor children should aspire even to the universities. For adult education he advocated free libraries with a practical not classical emphasis and inter-library loans. He preached co-operation and welcomed government interference in righting social wrongs despite a basic belief in free enterprise. An investor and company director, he was nevertheless among the earliest to advocate company responsibility for mining accidents. In 1880 he stood impressively but in vain against Peter Lalor for the Legislative Assembly seat of Grant.

In 1883 Nicholls became editor of the Hobart Mercury where his themes remained the same. 'The interests of society are less carefully guarded than those of the individual', he claimed, and kept calling for public men to work in a 'lofty spirit' for Federation, for trade unions free of self-interest, for equality between the colonies and the mother country and for an intellectual life transcending class and creed. His liberalism derived from the study of history and humanity, not from 'dry formulas'. 'Great things are not going to be done by men who have not great ideas', he thundered, taking equally to task Tasmanian, mainland and British legislators. In the 1890s he called with fervour for the achievement of nationhood. Outspokenness took him to the High Court in 1911 for contempt of the Arbitration Court, but the (test) case was dismissed and he was honoured with a crowded reception at the Hobart Town Hall. As 'Henricus' he had, throughout his career, written significant articles for the Argus and Australasian, thereby becoming a national figure. He had also been president of the Hobart Club. With a leading article unfinished on his desk he died of pneumonia at his home in Battery Point on 13 August 1912 and was buried in Queenborough cemetery. Predeceased by his wife Ellen, née Minchin, whom he had married at Ballarat with Anglican rites on 9 June 1863, he was survived by two daughters and six sons. One of them, Herbert (1868-1940), became chief justice of Tasmania in 1914 and was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1927.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat (Ballarat, 1887)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 14, 16 Aug 1912.

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Nicholls, Charles Frederick (1826–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


19 October, 1888 (aged ~ 62)
Litter River, Victoria, Australia

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