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William Dalziel (Bill) Nicol (1907–1978)

by Maeve Vella

This article was published:

William Dalziel (Bill) Nicol (1907-1978), schoolteacher and puppeteer, was born on 28 April 1907 at Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland, son of William Dalziel Nicol, master shoemaker, and his wife Jean Fleming, née Mitchell. Educated at Dundee, young Will arrived in Melbourne with his family in 1922 and was apprenticed in the 'wood machinery trade'. On 30 April 1928 he was accepted by the Education Department as a junior teacher (on condition that he pass the Intermediate certificate) and sent to Reservoir State School. After training at Melbourne Teachers' College in 1930, he opened a new state school, Chrome Estate, in the Western District, in January 1931. At the Presbyterian Church, Footscray, on 20 April 1935 he married Emily Catherine Rankin, a 23-year-old schoolteacher.

In January 1937 Nicol was transferred to Hamilton High School where he taught woodwork. Seeking an interesting project for his students, he found plans in an education journal for a wooden marionette, or string puppet. At the next school fête his class performed what Emily described as 'an ambitious affair of pirates, underwater scenes and circus acts' to packed houses at 3d. a head. Nicol's set of charts explaining how to make and manipulate a marionette were displayed at the University of Melbourne. In January 1939 he was appointed temporary assistant (confirmed July 1940) in the art department at M.T.C.; he was to be promoted lecturer in 1951.

Nicol and his students took over a basement workshop in the college and converted it into a theatre. During World War II they formed the Teachers' College Marionette Guild and held shows to raise money for the war effort. Soon they were entertaining wounded servicemen in hospitals and teaching puppetry at army education camps. In 1943 Nicol persuaded the Education Department to accredit puppetry as an examination subject in secondary schools. One of the first students to be examined was Peter Scriven, the puppeteer who created the 'Tintookies'. By 1944 the Marionette Guild had a regular booking, performing for the National Fitness Council of Victoria's holiday play centres in a van fitted out as a mobile puppet theatre.

Early in 1945 ten professionals and enthusiasts formed the Puppet Guild of Australia, with Nicol as president. In April they held a public performance at Kelvin Hall, Collins Place; by June they were housed at the N.F.C.'s training centre in Flinders Lane. 'The Littlest Theatre', with Nicol as director, became the centre of puppetry in Melbourne, opening on Saturdays for morning classes, an afternoon children's show and an evening show for adults. Nicol edited the guild's newsletter, Australian Puppeteer, and lectured on puppetry on radio and in country areas. When the centre closed in 1950, new venues were found under the aegis of Gertrude Johnson's Australian National Theatre Movement. A group of guild members and student-teachers formed the National Theatre Puppet Company and staged seasons of plays directed by Nicol. He wrote Puppetry (1962), Terracotta (1963) and Wood (1966), all illustrated by his daughter Jennifer.

Bill and Emily had visited South Australia in 1953 to investigate Aboriginal children's art; next year he lectured on the subject in Britain. They carried out further research in the Northern Territory in 1966 and collected material for a series of shadow plays about the Dreamtime. After retiring from M.T.C. in mid-1968, Nicol spent three months at Kormilda College, Darwin. He and his wife edited Aboriginal Children's Stories (1969). While on a fishing holiday at Phillip Island, he was presumed to have drowned when his dinghy overturned in Western Port Bay on 13 June 1978. His wife and three daughters survived him. Three puppets from the N.T.P.C. production, The Story of Waltzing Matilda (1955), are held in the Performing Arts Museum, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Vella and H. Rickards, Theatre of the Impossible (Syd, 1989)
  • Melbourne Teachers' College, Trainee, 1966, 1968
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, no 11, Mar 1979, p 35
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Mar 1991
  • Education Department (Victoria) Archives, series 640, unit 1849, no 3960 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • teaching record: W. D. Nicol (Education History Unit, Department of Education, Melbourne)
  • E. Nicol, Bill Nicol, Notes on His Work, (manuscript, Performing Arts Museum Archives, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne).

Citation details

Maeve Vella, 'Nicol, William Dalziel (Bill) (1907–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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