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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nicholson, John Barnes (1840–1919)

by W. Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Barnes Nicholson (c.1840-1919), miner, trade unionist and politician, was born at Aikton, Cumberland, England, third child of John Nicholson, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Lightfoot. He worked as a linen and woollen draper and as a farm labourer before going to Canada after April 1871, thence to the gold and silver mines of California, and in 1882 to New South Wales.

Working as a coalminer first at Newcastle, then at Bulli, Nicholson emerged as a trade union leader in a strike involving the southern district from August 1886 to January 1887. In March, after work had resumed, an explosion killed all but one of the eighty-two men and boys working in Bulli mine. Nicholson and other unionists had not been re-employed and the district union organization failed. After working as a goldminer in Queensland for some months, he returned to Bulli to rebuild the Illawarra Miners' Association, becoming its first paid secretary. He was a delegate to the Intercolonial Trades Union Congress, Ballarat, in 1890. That year he led another strike against wage reductions; this merged with the maritime strike, the miners refusing to produce coal for 'black trains'. As with earlier strikes, the owners introduced non-union labour protected by extra police and in one instance 160 soldiers; the women from the mining communities helped the union's attempts to dissuade blacklegs from working.

On 25 February 1891 at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, Nicholson married Ellen Brodie, née Smith and widow of Greener Brodie, a victim of the Bulli explosion. She had six Brodie children and was to bear Nicholson four more (three of whom died in infancy); she died in 1914. In June 1891 Nicholson was selected by the hastily formed Woonona Labor Electoral League and won the Legislative Assembly seat of Illawarra with 1180 votes, 400 more than the other successful candidate Andrew Lysaght, Protectionist. In October he survived a new election after a protest.

For twenty-six years Nicholson held his seat (Woronora, 1894-1904, and Wollongong, 1904-17). He was not a steadfast unionist: a Protectionist and a strong individualist, he refused to sign the Labor pledge and stood as Independent Labor in 1894, Independent in 1895, as Free Trader in 1898, Independent Labor again in 1901, returning to the Labor Party in 1904. A member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works from 1914, he supported W. A. Holman and W. M. Hughes in the conscription issue of 1916 and was expelled from the party; as a Nationalist he was defeated in the 1917 election by William Davies, having at last lost the support of the miners.

In his years as their parliamentary representative Nicholson was often criticized by some southern miners: he did not sufficiently oppose their political enemies; he failed to support sufficiently the reforms they wanted in the Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1896; he looked back on the strikes he had led as mistakes; he insisted that he represented mine owners as well as miners. He survived censure motions from the local Labor Party through the strong support of the numerically powerful Helensburgh branch.

Survived by his son, Nicholson died on 17 February 1919 at his home at Woonona and was buried in the Anglican section of Bulli cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1897, p 548
  • W. Mitchell, ‘John Barnes Nicholson: N.S.W. Southern Miners' Labour Member 1891-1917’, Labour History, no 10, May 1966, p 13
  • Illawarra Mercury, 12 Sept 1893, 22 Aug 1895
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Mar 1911, 7 Jan 1913, 20 Feb 1919
  • South Coast Times, 21 Feb 1919.

Citation details

W. Mitchell, 'Nicholson, John Barnes (1840–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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