Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Henry (Will) Nicholls (1885–1951)

by J. H. Willis

This article was published:

William Henry (Will) Nicholls (1885-1951), orchidologist, was born on 23 July 1885 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of Charles Thomas Nicholls, Ballarat-born schoolteacher, and his Welsh wife Sarah Jane, née Kift. Educated to primary level at Macarthur Street State School, he won a prize for drawing from the School of Arts, East Ballarat. In 1908-11 he served in the militia, but was refused enlistment in 1915. Until the Depression years he worked as a bookbinder in Melbourne, then as propagator and plant classifier with the Footscray municipal gardens under the curatorship of his friend David Matthews.

In his twenties Will Nicholls bicycled through much of Victoria, incurring numerous punctures along the unsealed roads. Later he became an enthusiastic mountain walker, tramping the Otway Ranges and eastern highlands; possibly his time of 2½ days for a crossing of the rugged Barry Mountains section of the Dividing Range (Mount St Bernard to Mount Cobbler) has not been bettered. Articles describing these trips appeared in the Melbourne Herald and Australasian.

An accomplished outdoor photographer, Nicholls later concentrated on wildflower pictures, many of which were published in Wild Life and the Sun Nature Book series of the 1930s. From about 1920 he developed an obsessive interest in native orchids, stimulated no doubt by Edward Pescott and Edith Coleman, fellow members of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria. His first research paper appeared in the Victorian Naturalist (December 1925) which published almost 100 of his articles, many with excellent line-drawings, describing new species. Until a few years before his death, when several novelties began arriving from remote areas he was unable to visit, Nicholls claimed to have collected himself all but half a dozen of the 160 Victorian orchid species then known.

He had long nurtured the ambition to produce an illustrated monograph on the orchid flora of the entire Commonwealth, enhanced by his own superb paintings and analytical details of flower structure. A grant from the Maud Gibson Trust (Melbourne Botanic Gardens) enabled him to research in situ in Western Australia (1946 and 1948). Arrangements were made for a 24-part, monumental work entitled Orchids of Australia, but Nicholls died before part I was published; only four parts were issued. The entire work was later published in a single volume, under the same title, in 1969: it remains the definitive work on the orchid flora of the continent.

Nicholls was a dark, thinly built man of tremendous energy. Naturally retiring, indeed almost shy, he would evade publicity and speaking at any meeting; yet, out in the bush he became a delightful, vivacious companion with a rich fund of anecdotes about his adventures. On 22 June 1912 at Footscray he had married Evelyn Jane Davey (d.1944) of Bendigo, and on 2 June 1945 at East Malvern he married Dorothy Mary, daughter of orchidologist A. B. Braine. Nicholls died on 10 March 1951 at Footscray of hypertension and arteriosclerosis, and was buried in the Methodist section of Footscray cemetery. His wife and two sons and two daughters of his first marriage survived him. His collection of some 5000 specimens was bequeathed to the National Herbarium, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Willis, ‘Vale, William Henry Nicholls’, Victorian Naturalist, 67, 1950-51, p 241
  • private information.

Citation details

J. H. Willis, 'Nicholls, William Henry (Will) (1885–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 July, 1885
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


10 March, 1951 (aged 65)
Footscray, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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