NICHOLLS, Theophilus Martin (1894–1977)
Senator for South Australia, 1944–68 (Australian Labor Party)

Theophilus Martin (Theo) Nicholls, lifelong unionist and traditional Labor man with practical sense and a visionary streak, was born on 21 August 1894, at Wilmington, South Australia, the eighth child of Martin Nicholls, a miner, and Elizabeth, née Gum. When he was three, the family moved to Port Pirie. As a young man, he worked at Broken Hill for four years, from about 1908. On 18 April 1914 he married Eveline May Richards at the registry office in Moonta. Both were living at Wallaroo and the marriage certificate described him as a labourer. They moved to Adelaide where their daughter, May (Maisie), was born.

In August 1915 Nicholls enlisted in the AIF as a private in the 5th Pioneer Battalion. Between November 1915 and February 1916, having learnt that his daughter was seriously ill and that his pregnant wife was struggling to care for her, he absented himself without leave from the AIF camp at Mitcham to return to his wife and daughter at Wallaroo. On 23 February 1916 Nicholls was court-martialled for desertion. He pleaded guilty; the charge was reduced to being absent without leave, and he was sentenced to twenty-eight days detention. Arriving in England in December 1916, Nicholls was soon discharged as medically unfit due to a chronic knee injury. He returned to Australia in May 1917. A second daughter, Hazel, had been born at Wallaroo in July 1916, but died seven months later.

Following his return from the war, Nicholls took up a soldier settlement block near Melrose in partnership with his brother-in-law. He also worked as a wharf labourer. While unemployed he attempted to supplement his small allowance from the state government by using a bicycle to exchange books for threepence a time. In 1921 the family again moved to Adelaide and, after a time in Norwood, Nicholls operated a shop in Bowden. His wife returned to Wallaroo and later moved to Sydney, leaving Maisie in his care.

Nicholls was involved with the labour movement and the ALP from an early age. A capable administrator and public speaker, his first official involvement was as part-time secretary of three small unions. He organised, and was a leading member of, the Manufacturing Grocers’ Employees’ Federation, the Wool and Basil Workers’ Federation, and the Federated Confectioners’ Association. He became part-time secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia (UTLC) in 1938 (the UTLC at the time could not afford to provide a full-time salary), and on his resignation in 1944 was praised for his work in building up the trade union movement. Elected as a delegate to the Congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, he was also appointed a member of the South Australian State Prices Fixation Committee (later the Industrial Commission), which set the basic wage for workers in the state. Vice-president of the South Australian Labor Party from 1941 to 1945, he was a member of the ALP Federal Executive in 1944.[1]

In September 1942 Nicholls was selected in second place on Labor’s South Australian Senate ticket. Elected in August 1943, his term began on 1 July 1944. His first speech reflected his background when he paid ‘special tribute to the workers of Australia … [and] to the organised trade union movement’. Labour matters continued to be a topic of interest in his speeches in the Senate, but he was vocal on a wide range of issues. Moving the Address-in-Reply in February 1945, he set out an idealistic vision of life in postwar Australia, in which its people would be provided ‘with a standard of living and a degree of human happiness never before attained in the history of mankind’. Central to his hopes were the attainment of ‘decent housing conditions’ and the use of expert advice to transform every industrial town in Australia by encouraging new industries and establishing adequate parklands and leisure facilities. In 1951 he advocated price control to deal with inflation, which he regarded as ‘the outstanding problem that faces this country’. A recurring theme in this and other speeches was the obligation owed ‘to the people of this country who sacrificed so much in the dark days of war’. Throughout his terms as a senator, he fought to ‘remove the grave injustices which operate under the Social Services Act’, and to fund the increased costs ‘by raising additional revenue from those who can afford to pay, that is, the very rich and those who exploit the community’.

Speaking in 1944, Nicholls argued that the adoption of deflationary policies during the Depression had ‘only made the rich richer and the poor poorer’, and he was unequivocal in urging the adoption of ‘Labour’s real objective—the socialization of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. Nicholls’ commitment to traditional socialism did not preclude an informed understanding of some of the practical problems impeding Australian trade. Criticising the introduction of import restrictions against the United Kingdom in 1952, he saw ‘more exports’ as ‘the only solution’, and noted that shortages of machinery and farm implements were a serious obstacle to increased primary production. Six years later he observed that the expansion of trade with China was handicapped by Australia’s deference to American non-recognition of the Chinese government. He also discussed in detail the problem of waterfront organisation and control and its effect on trade. In 1961 he headed the party ticket, and was credited with helping to secure a record Labor vote in South Australia.[2]

Nicholls was widely credited with possessing a photographic memory, a trait of which he was very proud. On one occasion he was reported to have memorised a speech of forty-five minutes given in the House of Representatives, and to have recited it in the Senate, word perfect, as it ‘had some validity and was of fair quality’. He approached his parliamentary life with the adage, ‘If you lose the ability to laugh while you are in the Parliament you might as well give it away now’.

In his role as Chairman of Committees (1946–51) and as a temporary chairman of committees (1951–61), Nicholls always displayed a detailed knowledge of the standing orders of the Senate, and was reputed to be able to recite them verbatim. He won respect for his common sense and impartiality in the chair, especially during the ‘strenuous and torrid’ debates on the banking legislation in 1948.

Regarded as a good family man and friend, Nicholls was a ‘cheerful, almost philosophical person’ who ‘mixed well with people of all parties … [and] appeared not to have any enemies’; he was welcomed as an entertainer in the social life of the Parliament. However, he ‘had a very acid tongue which he could use when he wanted to do so’.

Nicholls stayed in Canberra between sittings of the Senate, and was regarded as having an excellent knowledge of the Australian Capital Territory. He always occupied the same chair next to the window in the Senate club room because ‘he believed there was so much hot air inside that it was necessary to get some cool air from the outside’.

Nicholls, who suffered heart problems from 1957, did not make any speeches in the Senate between 1960 and his valedictory address in 1968, during which he thanked parliamentary staff for their assistance during these ‘last few difficult years’. He devoted the greater part of his final speech in the Senate to the Vietnam War, asserting his strong opposition to American and Australian involvement, and to conscription. He expressed the hope that the Paris peace conference, which was about to begin, might lead to peace based upon a neutral Vietnam. He spent his post-Parliament years in his home in Brooklyn Park with his second wife, Alice Maude, née Low, whom he had married at the Perth Registry Office on 11 January 1928. Nicholls died at the Western Community Hospital, Henley Beach, on 22 July 1977. He was survived by his daughter, Maisie, Alice having predeceased him. His funeral was held privately at Centennial Park Cemetery, Adelaide. Nicholls’ nephew, Martin Henry Nicholls, was member for the federal South Australian electorate of Bonython from 1963 to 1977.[3]

Dean Jaensch

[1] Nicholls, Theophilus Martin—Defence Service Record, B2455, NAA; Nicholls, Theophilus Martin, Court martial record, A471, 416, NAA; CPD, 16 Aug. 1977, pp. 3–7; Advertiser (Adel.), 23 Aug. 1943, p. 3, 5 Dec. 1961, p. 7; United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, Minutes, 11 Feb. 1938, SRG 1/1/11, 26 May 1944, SRG 1/1/15, SLSA; Advertiser (Adel.), 28 Jan. 1939, p. 20, 25 May 1944, p. 7, 7 Dec. 1955, p. 10; Information provided by the SLSA; ALP, SA branch, Minutes of annual state conventions, 10 Sept. 1941, 12 Sept. 1944, SRG 73/37/4, SLSA; Patrick Weller and Beverley Lloyd (eds), Federal Executive Minutes 1915–1955, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1978, pp. 247–8.

[2] ALP, SA branch, Minutes of annual state convention, 17 Sept. 1942, SRG 73/37/4, SLSA; Advertiser (Adel.), 20 Aug. 1943, p. 2; CPD, 18 July 1944, p. 68, 22 Feb. 1945, pp. 29–34, 28 June 1951, pp. 580–3; Advertiser (Adel.), 5 Dec. 1961, p. 7; CPD, 14 Sept. 1944, pp. 783–6, 29 May 1952, 1056–9, 21 Aug. 1958, pp. 185–8, 20 June 1951, pp. 87–90, 20 Mar. 1957, pp. 25–8, 16 Aug. 1977, pp. 4–5; Advertiser (Adel.), 9 Dec. 1961, p. 6, 11 Dec. 1961, p. 1.

[3] CPD, 16 Aug. 1977, pp. 3–7, 13 June 1968, pp. 1801–13; Advertiser (Adel.), 12 Apr. 1957, p. 3, 10 May 1957, p. 5; CPD, 9 May 1968, pp. 925–6; Advertiser (Adel.), 25 July 1977, p. 28, 26 July 1977, p. 40.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 185-188.

NICHOLLS, Theophilus Martin (1894–1977)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for South Australia, 1944–68

Senate Committee Service

Chairman of Committees, 1946–51

Standing Orders Committee, 1946–64

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1947–50, 1956–62

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1957