Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Harold Nicholls: returned serviceman and Labor Party member


252 Private Harold Nicholls, 7th Infantry Battalion, A Company, enlisted early – on 19 August 1914. He was one of the first Coburg men to enlist and took part in the march from Victoria Barracks to Broadmeadows Camp in what the local paper described as a ‘living stream of volunteers’. This was just three days after he enlisted and although the recruits seemed something of a motley crew, they marched to the cheers of a large crowd. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 21 August, 1914, 18 September 1914) You can read more about that march here.

He left Melbourne on board HMAT Hororata (A20) as part of the first contingent on 19 October 1914.



 HMAT Benalla (A24) on the right. HMAT Hororata (A20) on the left. Port Melbourne. 19 October 1914.
Image courtesy AWM. Image C02793.


Harold was a 28 year old letter carrier (a postie) when he enlisted and lived with his parents Samuel and Maria at their home in Willow Grove, Coburg. His parents married in Walkerville, South Australia but Harold and his brother Jack (who also served in the 1st AIF) were born in Castlemaine. It would appear that the family moved to Coburg some time during the Depression of the 1890s, after Samuel Nicholls’ hairdressing business went broke. Their father died before the war began, so it was their mother Maria who farewelled her two sons as they set off for the war.

Harold's war was a short one. He was shot in the right arm in May 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula and was sent to England for treatment. Unfortunately, many fragments of metal had lodged in his arm and after three months of massage treatment he was returned to Australia in November 1915. His brother Jack returned from serving in New Guinea around this time but soon made his way to the Western Front, where he served until the end of the war.

Before enlistment, both Nicholls brothers were active members of community groups. They were members of the Coburg Rifle Club and belonged to the Coburg branch of the Australian Natives Association, Jack serving as a trustee, conference delegate and metropolitan delegate. (Brunswick and Coburg Star, 8 January 1915)


Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society



On his early enforced return to Coburg, Harold Nicholls tried his hand at local politics, standing for Coburg Council in 1917 and 1918. In his 1918 campaign, he stated that his aim was to ‘break up the monopoly in the Council and put in men who really represented the people of Coburg, which was a Labor constituency, as had been demonstrated in Federal and State elections and the Conscription referendums.’ He was reacting against what he saw as the ‘state of stagnation’ in the Coburg Council. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 16 August 1918, p.3) 

His bid was unsuccessful, which is not surprising when you consider that those who owned property could vote according to the number of properties they owned, so if you owned two properties you got two votes. Three properties gave you three votes and so on. This definitely worked against the working man having a say in local politics. And Nicholls’ politics were probably too radical for what was still a fairly sparsely populated, semi-rural area in the years immediately following the war.

Harold Nicholls was an active member of the Coburg branch of the Australian Labor Party . Carolyn Rasmussen, in her Master’s thesis, ‘Labor Politics in Coburg 1919-1940’, University of Melbourne, 1978 (and available in the local history room at Coburg Library and online through the University of Melbourne’s digital repository) notes that Harold Nicholls emerged in the second half of the 1930s as a left-winger. During World War Two, he was actively involved in the Victorian Anti-Conscription League, later known as the League of Freedom. (Argus, 11 March 1949, p.6) He was a long time anti-conscription advocate and much earlier, in October 1916 just after he’d returned home wounded, he had attended a heated anti-conscription rally in Sale with Maurice Blackburn MLA as the speaker. (Gippsland Times, 23 October 1916, p.3)

By 1945 Harold was acting in the capacity of Secretary of the Blackburn and Mutton Labor Supporters’ Committee (Williamstown Chronicle, 27 April 1945, p.2) and in 1952 acted as Coburg MLA Charles Mutton’s campaign secretary (Argus, 18 December 1952, p.5) when Mutton stood as Progessive Labor. (Mutton represented Coburg in the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1940 to 1967 as an Independent Labor man.)

Harold Nicholls continued to live in the family home in Willow Grove, Coburg and remained in the employ of the Post Office. He married Ruby Fowler in 1921 when he 41 years old. Ruby died in 1963 aged 74. Harold died in 1975 aged 89. His brother Jack died in 1970.


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