Nicholson, William (1816-1865) (DNB00)

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NICHOLSON, WILLIAM (1816–1865), Australian statesman and ‘father of the ballot,’ son of Miles Nicholson, a Cumberland farmer, was born at Tretting Mill, Lamplough, on 27 Feb. 1816. Educated at Hensingham and Whitehaven, he became a clerk to the firm of m'Andrew & Pilchard, fruit merchants at Liverpool, about 1836. Subsequently he went out to Melbourne in October 1841, and set up in business as a grocer. ‘By the sheer force of intellect, energy, and character’ (Kelly) he rose to fortune, developing his business into the mercantile firm of W. Nicholson & Co. of Flinders Street.

In Nov. 1848 Nicholson was elected to the city council of Melbourne for Latrobe ward. Early in 1850 he was created alderman, and on 9 Nov. 1850 became mayor of Melbourne. His year of office was one of the most eventful in the history of the colony, being that of the gold discoveries, and the erection of Victoria into a separate government. Resigning his seat on the corporation soon after his mayoralty expired, he contested the city unsuccessfully in the first election to the mixed legislative council, and in October 1852 was elected for North Bourke. He quickly came to the front in the council. In December 1852 he seconded an unsuccessful vote of censure on the government. During the same session he was elected a member of the committee to inquire into the state of the goldfields, and that upon the Savings Bank Laws. In the following session he was on the committee for revision of the constitution.

It is stated that Nicholson, as mayor of Melbourne, defeated by his casting vote in 1852 a motion in favour of vote by ballot (McCombie), and that in his first address to the electors he had declared himself opposed to the ballot; but he now completely changed his views, and on 18 Dec. 1855, after unsuccessful suggestions to the ministers to adopt the ballot, he moved a resolution to the effect that any electoral act should be based upon the principle of voting by ballot. The ministry made this a test question, and, being defeated by eight votes in a house of fifty-eight, resigned office. Nicholson had previously made arrangements to visit England, which he abandoned with some reluctance on being unexpectedly sent for by Sir Charles Hotham [q. v.], amid popular acclamation. His attempt to construct a cabinet was the first instance of the kind in the history of the colony, and was ultimately unsuccessful, owing to the divergence of views among his supporters. On the governor's death Nicholson abandoned the attempt; but, in spite of this failure, the victory of the ballot was won, and the ministry was forced to accept it as part of their electoral act, the cruder form of Nicholson's project being superseded by the method afterwards known as the ‘Australian ballot.’

Shortly afterwards (1856) Nicholson returned to England, where he was welcomed as the father of the ballot, not yet adopted in the old country, and spoke in public on the subject on several occasions. On 14 April 1858, at the Freemasons' Hall, he was presented by the council of the Society for Promoting the Adoption of the Ballot with an address, signed by Cobden, Bright, and others, recognising his services in the cause. John Stuart Mill, writing to Henry Samuel Chapman of Victoria in the same year, refers to Nicholson's fame, and the interest aroused in England by the adoption of the ballot in Victoria.

Returning in July 1858 to Melbourne, he unsuccessfully contested one of its districts, but was elected to the assembly for Murray in January 1859, and for Sandridge at the general election in August of the same year. He became chairman of the Constitutional Association formed to overthrow the existing (O'Shanassy) government, and in November 1859, at the opening of parliament, defeated the government on an amendment to the address.

Nicholson now became premier, and formed a strong ministry, with James (afterwards Sir James) McCulloch [q. v.] in charge of finance. He set himself to settle the land question on the basis of throwing open the colony's lands in blocks to free selection, and of payment by instalments. The upper chamber emasculated his bill, and Nicholson resigned; but the governor, Sir Henry Barkly, declined to accept his resignation on public grounds, and he continued in office, sending the bill, again amended, back to the council. That chamber cut out the amendments a second time, and Nicholson resigned; but, after the failure of three others to form a ministry, returned to office, with his cabinet impaired by the loss of two leading ministers. Ultimately, after a riot before the parliament house (28 May), and compromise on both sides, the bill, considerably changed, became the Land Act of 1860. After a short recess the houses met again in November 1860, and Nicholson, defeated on an amendment to the address, resigned office, and became the leader of the opposition. In 1862 he joined O'Shanassy's second administration, without portfolio.

In January 1864 Nicholson was suddenly struck down by paralysis, and he died at St. Kilda on 10 March 1865. He was buried at the Melbourne general cemetery. His portrait hangs in the council chamber of the Melbourne town-hall.

Nicholson was a great promoter of the benefit building society systems, a founder of the Bank of Victoria, and chairman of the Australian Fire and Life Insurance Company. In 1859 he was chairman of the Melbourne chamber of commerce. He held a very high reputation as a magistrate.

Nicholson married Sarah Fairclough, and left children, who remained in Australia.

[Melbourne Argus, 10 March 1865; McCombie's History of Victoria, 1858, p. 294; Kelly's Victoria, 1859, ii. 263 seq.; Heaton's Australian Dictionary of Dates and Men of the Time, 1879.]

C. A. H.