Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Bruce Baird Nicoll (1851–1904)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Bruce Baird Nicoll (1851-1904), shipowner and politician, was born on 3 October 1851 in Sydney, second son of George Robertson Nicoll (d.1901), shipwright and shipowner, and his wife Sarah (d.1897), née Baird. At 6 he went with his parents and brother George Wallace (1848-1906) to Scotland, where he was educated at Dundee. Returning to Sydney about 1864, he worked in his father's shipping office. He and his brother then started business as commission agents and shipowners and from 1871 they ran the first regular and rapid passenger and cargo service to the northern rivers; it led to closer settlement and the growth of Lismore, Casino, Coraki and Ballina. After 1877 they began to build and import steamers at the rate of one a year. In twelve years they spent over £250,000 on about twenty steamships and wharfage and dockage facilities.

In evidence before the parliamentary standing committee on public works on 10 July 1889 Nicoll claimed that wrecks and repairs to steamers had cost him £22,500 in 1880-89. He estimated the value of the imports and exports of the Richmond River at about £1 million and the population increase from about 2000 to about 20,000. On dissolution of the partnership in the mid-1880s he concentrated on the Richmond River trade while his brother sent his ships to Coffs Harbour, Woolgoolga, Tweed River, Byron Bay and Brisbane as well as to the South Sea Islands and the New South Wales south coast. In the 1890s both brothers were absorbed by the North Coast Steam Navigation Co.

A protectionist, Nicoll was one of three representatives in 1889-94 for the Richmond in the Legislative Assembly; he favoured payment of members, an elective Upper House, the taxing of large estates, the proposed Grafton-Tweed railway and local public works. In October 1889 he represented Ballina at the first National Protection Conference in Sydney. Fluent and energetic, he concentrated on communications, land and marine matters and was a diligent local member. He was a republican, staunch federationist and president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Natives' Association. On 5 June 1890 he told the assembly that Federation on the American model was desirable for economic and defence reasons and would mean 'intercolonial free trade and protection against the outside world'. He favoured Australian-born governors and the abolition of 'flimsy' and 'shoddy' imperial titles and honours. He also saw Asian immigration as 'a racial danger to the future of the Australian people'. In March 1892 he accused Sir Henry Parkes of putting Federation into the background 'to please the labor party'. President of the Corowa Conference in August 1893, he criticized Sir George Dibbs's Federation scheme of 1894 and was vice-president of the Bathurst Convention in 1896. He was also a founder and original shareholder of the Australian Star, the protectionists' organ.

A member of the Union and Reform Clubs, Nicoll was respected, popular and generous; in 1886 he had given £500 to assist the families of those lost in the Ly-ee-moon disaster. In December 1903 when alighting from a tram he was injured and his health began to fail; he died at his residence, Hillview, Boulevarde, Dulwich Hill, on 18 September 1904 and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery, Rookwood. At the Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, he had married Jane Ann Zahel on 1 March 1873, and was survived by three sons.

George Wallace Nicoll died at his residence, Blink Bonnie, William Street, Canterbury, on 4 November 1906 and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery, Rookwood. His estate was sworn for probate at £60,114. He was survived by two sons and a daughter of his first wife, Helen McDonald, and by his second wife Janet Constance (d.1932), daughter of William Lewins, and by their five sons.

Select Bibliography

  • L. T. Daley, Men and a River (Melb, 1966)
  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1889, 5, 516
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Feb 1889, 16 June 1890, 19, 20 Sept 1904, 5 Nov 1906
  • Town and Country Journal, 30 Mar 1889
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23, 25 Jan 1890.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Nicoll, Bruce Baird (1851–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 15 July 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]


3 October, 1851
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


18 September, 1904 (aged 52)
Dulwich Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.