Illawarra’s first Labor MP: John Barnes Nicholson

First Bulli Hospital Management Committee 1892

J. B. Nicholson (third from left top row) was also a director of the first Bulli Hospital Board in 1892. Also pictured are A. S. Artis (Sitting bottom row third from left) whose formal objection to a shortage of ballot papers at Bulli, caused by an “error of judgement” by returning officer Henry Fry (bearded and sitting top row fourth from left) caused a by-election in 1891. Bulli Hospital Management Board 1892: Top row, G.Seymour, J Glass, J B Nicholson MLA, A G Alanson, H. S Fry, T A Jones, T Farrell, F Wilson, J. Evans, W Kenwood. Bottom row: S Jones, G Henderson, A S Artis, Mr Woodward, S Cope, A Black. Picture: Wollongong City Libraries.


JB Nicholson Portraite 1891

John Barnes Nicholson. Picture: State Library of NSW

FOR quarter of a century English born John Barnes Nicholson represented the predominately working class people of the northern Illawarra as a politician.

Labor’s first Illawarra parliamentarian did not find his way to Macquarie Street easily though, and controversy surrounded his 1891 entry into politics.

Nicholson arrived in Sydney in 1882 as a 42 year-old from the Californian gold fields. Mining was in his blood, entering the pits in England as a teenager, and after his Californian adventure, working in the Newcastle coal fields.

Nicholson later ventured south gaining work at the Bulli Colliery, developing an interest in unionism. He was appointed Bulli Lodge secretary just prior to the infamous 1886 miners’ campaign for shorter working hours.

The six month strike lasted into February 1887 when, defeated, the Bulli miners returned to work to be killed in a methane explosion claiming 81 lives.

The union leader escaped certain death as management refused to employ the strike leader who consequently found work in the Queensland gold fields.

Hearing of the Bulli explosion Nicholson returned determined to improve working conditions by rebuilding a demoralised Illawarra Miners’ Association and becoming their first paid secretary.

Just four years after leading Illawarra miners in a district stoppage, Nicholson again guided the district miners in another major strike against wage reductions in 1890. Subsequently he was taken under the wing of the recently formed Labor Party as their endorsed election candidate.

In what would be considered a wise political move, 51-year-old Nicholson, prior to the election, took a wife in February 1891.

He married Ellen Brodie, widow of Greener Brodie, who was killed in the Bulli explosion of 1887, inheriting a family of six children. Ellen also bore Nicholson four children (three of whom died in infancy).

MPs Nicholson (sitting 2nd from left) and Campbell (standing 8th from left) at the opening of the Wollongong Hospital in 1907.

MPs Nicholson (sitting 2nd from left) and Campbell (standing 8th from left) at the opening of the Wollongong Hospital in 1907. Standing left to right: W H Owen, W G Lance, W Rigg, J Kirby, Dr John Kerr, W McKenzie, S C Rose, Alex Campbell, Walter Evans, Frank Farnell, J H Parsons, J A Mayo, R Finlayson, W G Robertson. Sitting left to right: Harold Cox, J B Nicholson, W J Wiseman, J H Carruthers, Dr T W Wade, Thomas Cook. Picture: Wollongong City Libraries.

After gaining endorsements from both the Woonona and Wollongong Labor Electoral Leagues, Nicholson hit the hustings. During his first policy speech, at the Woonona Royal Hotel, he promised, if elected, to push for an eight hour working day and told of his support for Federation.

The Illawarra electorate allowed two parliamentary representatives and the unlikely political duo of Nicholson and conservative Protectionist Andrew Lysaght went to Macquarie Street as a result of the June election.

The pair sat on the cross-benches of Henry Parkes’ conservative Freetrade government hardly having time to warm their seats when in September 1891 a protest was lodged on their election by Mr A S Artis of Bulli.

Several hundred people were unable to vote due to a shortage of ballot papers at Bulli and the election of Nicholson and Lysaght was declared invalid due to “errors of judgement on the part of Mr Henry Strange Fry, the presiding officer at Bulli, and of Mr Charles Frederick Smith the returning officer for the district”.

Freetrader, Archibald Campbell

Freetrader, Archibald Campbell

The candidates lined-up for a second time with Freetraders, Archibald Campbell, owner of the Illawarra Mercury, and Joseph Mitchell nominating,  along with Labor’s Nicholson and Andrew Lysaght (this time as an independent).

Lysaght lost the support of the miners when the Woonona Branch of the Labor League branded Lysaght “no working man’s friend”.

The support of the miners was crucial and the by-election, on October 3, declared Nicholson, along with Freetrader, Archibald Campbell as Members for Illawarra.

Nicholson did not easily accept party discipline refusing to sign the Labor pledge and in subsequent elections stood as an independent, Independent Labor and surprisingly a Freetrader.

His strong links through the support of the various northern Illawarra miners’ lodges enabled him to defy Labor politics until an electoral distribution in 1904 made it impossible for him to rely on the miners for re-election. Reluctantly he signed the Labor pledge permitting him to remain the Wollongong Labor MP as a backbencher until 1917.

The end of Nicholson’s political career came when he went against Labor guidelines once too often and was dismissed for advocating a “yes” vote in the 1916 conscription referendum.

“I am 76 years of age but still deem it my duty to fight for the land of my adoption and am willing to offer my services tomorrow,” he said while challenging his opponents.

He unsuccessfully ran for his Wollongong seat as a Nationalist and died aged 79 in 1919 at his Woonona home.

© Copyright 2014 Mick Roberts

FOOTNOTE: I have been trying to locate an image of Andrew Lysaght (Snr) for some time. Can any one help?

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