Sir Douglas Ralph Nicholls KCVO MBE OBE by Rod Gillett

Doug Nicholls
as a young man

The search for the Greatest NSW Team unearthed a most distinguished Australian, Sir Doug Nicholls.

Sir Doug was born on 9 December 1906 and raised on the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW side of the Murray River, near Echuca.

He began working life as a tar boy on the sheep stations in southern NSW. After moving to Melbourne to play football he became a council worker, boxer in Jimmy Sharman’s travelling boxing show, professional foot-runner, pastor, advocate for aboriginal advancement, and finally, Governor of South Australia (1976-77).

He was knighted in 1972 for “distinguished service to the advancement of aboriginal people. He had earlier been awarded an MBE (1957) and an OBE (1968). He was awarded the high honour of KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) by the Queen in Adelaide in 1977.

However, it was on the Cummeragunja mission oval that he learnt to play football according to Roy Hay, the author of the recently released ground-breaking book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century (2019).

Nicholls played his early football with the Cummeragunja mission team in the Western and Moira Riding district league based around Nathalia that was the forerunner to the Picola Football League. We are still trying to establish if he was member of the team that won the 1921 premiership.

In 1925 he joined nearby Tongala then playing in the Goulburn Valley Football League where he linked up with his brother Herbert, better known as “Dowie” (Great Goals: Goulburn Valley Football league 1894-1994).

Nicholls went to Melbourne in 1927 to try out for VFL club Carlton and played some reserve grade games. He famously left Carlton after a trainer refused to rub him down after training because of his skin colour according to his biographer Mavis Thorpe Clark, author of Pastor Doug: An Aboriginal Leader (1965).

He subsequently joined Northcote in the Victorian Football Association (VFA) where he became a regular member of the team. According to the AFL Record (27-29 May 2016), he starred in the 1929 win as well as the losing grand finals in 1930-31. He won the club’s best and fairest award in 1929-1930 and finished third in the Recorder Cup for the best and fairest in the VFA.

The Sporting Globe reported in 1929 that ‘he flashes through packs of big men, whisks around small men . . . and attempts marks at the back of any six-footer’. Nicholls was 5 ft 2 inches (158 cm) tall, but muscular and lightning fast. He was also a professional runner and won the Nyah and Warracknabeal Gifts in 1929

A further highlight of his VFA career was representing the Association in interstate matches in 1931 against NSW at the SCG and against the VFL at the MCG.

Doug Nicholls
Fitzroy Footballer

In a preview of the NSW v VFA match, The Sydney Morning Herald (15 August 1931) rated Nicholls as one of the main attractions, “He is a beautiful pass and high mark. Is very plucky, and revels in crushes, out of which he bounces like a rubber ball”. The VFA won 16.11.107 to NSW 13.17.95.

In 1932, Nicholls joined Fitzroy in the VFL and played alongside the great Hadyn Bunton, originally from Albury who was selected as first rover in the NSW Greatest Team. Bunton befriended Nicholls at Fitzroy and made him feel welcome, according to Mavis Thorpe Clark.

After Bunton was killed in a road accident in 1955, Pastor Doug officiated at his memorial service in Adelaide.

Nicholls played 54 games and kicked two goals for Fitzroy in the period 1932-36. He finished third in the club best and fairest in 1934 behind Hadyn Bunton (Brownlow medallist 1931-32 & 1935 ) and Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn (who won the Brownlow medal in 1933).

In 1934 he became the first aboriginal player to represent the VFL when they played the VFA. The following season he was selected for the tour to play against Western Australia and South Australia. He played in both Victoria’s wins over WA but missed the match against the SANFL due to injury.

Nicholls returned to Northcote in 1937 but ongoing knee injuries forced him to retire in 1939.

However, he did return to home to Cummeragunja for one last game in 1940 for a fund-raising game against Echuca at the Victoria Park Oval in Echuca.

Nicholls also returned to Northcote as non-playing coach in 1947. He is believed to be the first aboriginal person to coach a senior football club. Another example of him pushing the boundaries for his people.

Sir Doug expressed his passion for the game of football in an article in the Sporting Globe (1 June 1935):

“I get a tremendous kick out of football, because I know my people in New South Wales follow my doings and play closely by wireless and in the newspapers. This always spurs me on, and gives me added confidence”.

Shepparton Street Art
a fitting tribute

The ultimate football tribute for Sir Doug Nicholls has been the naming of the AFL’s Indigenous Round in his honour.

UNIQUE TROPHIES REPAIRED

Jimmy Stiff's Trophies original smallFirstly sorry to our readers about the stagnant situation of our website over the past few days.  It appears our hosting company has had some problems.

In the meantime, the Society has had some unique trophies from the 1930s repaired and returned to the organisation for display. (click images to enlarge)

Almost two years ago a person contacted the Society saying he had found two ‘Australian Rules’ trophies at a metal re-cycle place (image above) on the Central Coast of NSW and asked if we were interested in them.

These trophies, which were in a very poor condition, had been awarded to a former top line player in Sydney during the 1930s, of whom we have written many lines.

His name was Jimmy Stiff and he played with the South Sydney Club and in interviews before their death, three separate leading Sydney football identities said Jimmy Stiff was the best player they had seen in Sydney football, and these judges were no slouches.1931 Jimmy Stiff small

Jim lived at Mascot and attended the Gardeners Road School.  While there and under the tutelage of teacher-mentor, Rupert Browne, he, like many members of his family, began to play Australian Football.

At an early age he was selected in the NSW schoolboys team where he excelled.  Then, at 17, while playing with the South Sydney Club, he was chosen to represent NSW.  In and out of the reserves, in 1930 he came equal third in the Phelan Medal and  also runner up in the Sanders Medal (reserves B & F).  He had won the Sanders Medal in 1928.  Then in 1931, at age 20, he was named as the best player in the state’s match against Victoria on the SCG.

In 1933, again playing for NSW, Jim won the best player at the All-States Carnival held in Sydney over 10 days – against all the stars from other states, including the likes of triple Brownlow Medalist, Hayden Bunton.  At 1.6m and 64.5kg he was a dynamo but possessed an erratic attitude towards football.

He was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident in 1937.

Jimmy Stiffs Trophies smallWe found one of the trophies to be of a very significant nature. It is the 1933 best & fairest award at the All-States Carnival in Sydney – the Major Condor Trophy – now 80 years old!

When we got it, it was in bits and not in good condition.

We gave it to an antique restorer who worked tirelessly to bring this and another that Stiff had won playing for South Sydney in 1935, back to life.

They now take pride of place amongst the many former football trophies the Society has on show at the rooms in the Western Suburbs Football Club at Croydon Park, Sydney.