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William Nicholson (1816–1865)

by Peter Cook

This article was published:

William Nicholson, c1865

William Nicholson, c1865

State Library of Victoria, H29555

William Nicholson (1816-1865), merchant and politician, was born on 27 February 1816 at Whitehaven, Cumberland, England, son of Miles Nicholson, farmer, and his wife Hannah, née Dalziel. He migrated to Port Phillip in 1842 and started as a retail grocer in Melbourne. The business prospered and became W. Nicholson & Co., gradually extending its investments into farming and pastoral property. A foundation member of the Benefit Building Society in 1847 and the Bank of Victoria in 1852, he served both as a director. He was also connected with the Australian Fire and Life Insurance Co. and the Melbourne Exchange Co., and in 1859-60 was chairman of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce.

In November 1848 Nicholson was elected unopposed for the La Trobe Ward in the Melbourne City Council. In 1850 he became an alderman and was mayor for a year from November. He resigned from the council in 1852, and in November was returned to the Legislative Council at a by-election for North Bourke; he held this seat until March 1856. He served on over twenty-five select committees, including that on the Constitution. Late in 1855 the council debated the electoral bills required by the Constitution and Nicholson indicated that he would move that 'any electoral act should be based upon the principle of voting by ballot'. On 18 December his motion was carried 33 to 25 against the Haines government. To the surprise of its supporters including Nicholson, Haines resigned and Nicholson, about to leave for England, was asked to form a government. His half-hearted attempts to do so were unsuccessful and on 29 December he withdrew and Haines was then reinstated. When the secret ballot came up again Nicholson agreed that it would not be a ministerial question. With strong support in matters of detail from Nicholson the provision for a secret ballot was passed by a majority of seven.

Nicholson has often been credited as 'Father of the Secret Ballot'. The claim is dubious. Vote by ballot had been one of the six points of the Charter and caused much agitation in Victoria during the 1850s; Nicholson was said to have twice opposed the ballot as then unnecessary. However, the main qualification to Nicholson's claim stems from his inability in 1855 and 1856 to go beyond a statement of principle. His ideas on the ballot were confused and devoid of any idea for making the ballot work. Haines's law officers refused to draft the clauses incorporating the ballot into the Electoral Act under the new Constitution so at a meeting of Nicholson's supporters, H. S. Chapman offered to do so; his drafting also overcame the problem of illiterates marking a ballot paper and reduced the risk of fraud while still protecting the voter's anonymity. Without Chapman's work the ballot may have been rejected by the council or if passed would have been discredited as unworkable; Chapman, therefore, must take at least equal credit with Nicholson as 'midwife to the ballot in Victoria'.

In 1853 Nicholson had been chairman of directors for the Hobson's Bay Railway Co. and as president of the Early Closing Association had some success in persuading shopkeepers to close at 7 instead of 8, but the movement withered. He left for England in March 1856 and returned to Victoria in July 1858. Fêted as a colonial reformer, he was, by his own account, invited to stand for parliament in any one of five constituencies, among them his home town. A few weeks after his return he was unsuccessful in a by-election for South Melbourne. In January 1859 at a by-election he won the seat of Murray in the Legislative Assembly; soon afterwards he transferred to the seat of Sandridge, which he held from October 1859 to August 1864. Within a year of his re-election Nicholson was premier and chief secretary, holding office from 27 October 1859 to 26 November 1860.

Rapid economic and constitutional changes in the colony had stirred aggressive individuals to covet power and to conflict with authority and among themselves. Land Conventionists had helped to put Nicholson in power but were not strong enough to capture the government. After much shuffling they persuaded other members to join the 'Corner' group which introduced such radical bills as the eight-hour day and payment of members. The land bill, introduced by James Service in November 1859, was designed to open land for free selection. This and other proposals see-sawed back and forth between the two Houses. The council returned the bill emasculated by a multitude of amendments. The assembly tried to restore the vital points but the council refused to budge. After public disturbances and two attempts by Nicholson to resign, the almost useless Act was passed in September 1860, leaving a pattern of conflict between the two Houses for the next twenty years.

Nicholson suffered a severe illness in 1863 after which he was not active in politics. A further attack in January 1864 presaged his death at St Kilda on 10 March 1865. He was survived by his wife Sarah Burkitt, née Fairclough, and four sons.

Nicholson is remembered for his association with the passing of the secret ballot in 1855-56 and, less distinctly, for the struggle to secure the Nicholson Land Act of 1860. He was 'a plain plodding fellow'; good-natured, candid and self-confident, he took pleasure in his wealth and position and the knowledge that he was self-made. In many ways he was typical of the radical merchant of his day.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • E. Scott, ‘The history of the Victorian ballot’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 8 (1920)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Mar 1865.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Cook, 'Nicholson, William (1816–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 April 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

William Nicholson, c1865

William Nicholson, c1865

State Library of Victoria, H29555

Life Summary [details]


27 February, 1816
Whitehaven, Cumberland, England


10 March, 1865 (aged 49)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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