Almanac Life: Two Giants of Indigenous Leadership




In a sense, both the late Sir Doug Nicholls OBE, MBE and the late Archie Roach AM, were poles apart in their journeys and yet their contributions to Australian and more-so indigenous culture are gigantic.


My daughters gave me this book , Pastor Doug, for my birthday last year. It’s an antique now, first published in 1956 and this revised edition is 1972.


Sir Doug was born in 1906 at Cumeroogunga Station on the Murray River. He was eight years old when his sixteen year old sister Hilda, was removed from the family to be trained as a servant. The police arrived knowing the men would be working cutting timber away from the camp.


Doug witnessed young girls trying to escape by jumping into the Murray whilst others were forced into cars with mothers wailing and threatening the police with any weapon they could lay their hands on. The memories of these police visits haunted Doug and his friends to the point that anytime a car pulled up, they would hide under their beds.


At the age of fourteen, Doug left home and joined the post-WW1 unskilled workforce doing just about anything to survive. Whilst working at a sheep station, a shearer challenged the five foot two inch teenager Nicholls to a boxing fight with the winner to hand over his week’s pay. Doug finished him off in six rounds. It would be the start of a long and illustrious sporting career covering boxing, athletics and football.


Doug starred in professional athletics and eventually football in the VFA with Northcote. He played there for five years and was described by the VFA as ‘brilliant, polished, clean, skilful, accurate, spectacular and scrupulously fair’. After Northcote, Doug astonishingly took off with the infamous Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe for a year, fighting random civilians for money all over the country. He was hugely popular, simply because every opponent underestimated the five foot two inch pocket rocket!


It was football that lured Doug back to Melbourne where he was picked up by VFL team Fitzroy, where he stayed for six years and represented Victoria on four occasions. It was around this time, 1932, that Doug, a shy non-drinker and non-smoker found the Church of Christ in Fitzroy.


It’s here where he found the strength to deal with the extreme racism he endured on and off the football field. Being black, very talented and short, he had all the hallmarks of someone ready to be vilified and Doug withstood it all. Even his team mates stirred him up but within a couple of years when Doug became a Pastor, they were turning up to church to hear him speak.


Doug devoted the next 50 years of his life to community service. He formed the Australian Aborigine’s League to fight for recognition of Aborigines as human beings and for full rights of citizenship. The book details the shameful treatment of Aborigines by the white governments and press. This is the battlefield that Doug chose to fight, to get his people to push through the crushing inferiority feelings they possessed.


Doug enlisted in the army to serve in WW2 but after a year he was called back to Fitzroy by the Victoria Police to assist with the growing hordes of Aboriginal men moving to factory jobs in the city. The police felt they were losing control of the drinking and brawls and they needed Doug to settle things down. As Fitzroy became a haven for the disenfranchised, Doug leased an old church in Gore St, Fitzroy. It became the Church of Christ Aborigines Mission with Doug as Missioner.


Doug married Gladys in 1942, a widow to his brother Dowie, who was killed in a car accident, and took on their three children. They were married for thirty nine years and had another three children. Gladys took bible classes for the children and often they would hit the road and preach in small towns as they travelled interstate.


Incredibly, such was the level of racism in Australia, that if an Aborigine wanted to stay in a hotel they had to have an “exemption certificate”, otherwise known to the white faithful as the “dog licence”. Charming.


Doug’s achievements are quite frankly breathtaking when you think about how hard it was to get around and to communicate. No emails or jumping on a plane. Doug was in South Australia one minute fighting for the rights of those tribes affected by the British nuclear testing, then lobbying governments, Prime Ministers and mining companies over land rights in Vic, NT and North Qld after which he would be educating whites in universities, mother’s clubs farmers groups and schools. Doug just wanted the story of the First Australians heard and for the white population to understand the atrocious conditions so many were living in at that time.


The author Mavis Thorpe Clark has written Pastor Doug ‘scholarly’ like she’s a history teacher at school. It’s a narrative style more accustomed to sitting up straight and behaving one’s self, or you’ll get a whack on the knuckles with a ruler!  Nonetheless it’s very thorough and an excellent insight into a man who crammed a hell of a lot into his 81 years.


Sir Doug was the first Aboriginal man to be knighted and was the first Aboriginal Governor of a State, being SA.  It’s great that the AFL Indigenous Round is named after him and I know the indigenous AFL players are well versed in Sir Doug’s life. He is a truly great Australian.


This is a lovely little tribute to Sir Doug from the AFL;






After reading Tell me why by the late Archie Roach AM, my throat felt dry and I was ‘fanging’ for a smoke, even though I haven’t drank or smoked for nearly 16 years! It’s a shame Archie missed Sir Doug’s residency in Fitzroy because it may have helped him avoid a lifetime of gut wrenching abuse.


Archie was removed from his parents at the of two and never saw his parents again. It’s hard to fathom quite what that would be like especially when you’re a parent yourself. He was placed in foster care in Melbourne with loving white  parents and did well at school but there was something that just kept gnawing at him. Upon receiving a letter from a sister he didn’t know, he left school at fourteen and worked manual jobs before the itch became a scratch and he packed his clothes and guitar, hitchhiking to Shepparton where he had friends.


From there he hitched to Sydney where his sister mentioned he had other family. In a park near the CBD he found some other Aborigines who made him welcome and gave him a drink of fortified wine. It would be the start of Archie’s love affair with booze.


Despite the drinking, Archie describes beautifully the solace and sense of spirit in the communities he met living rough in the parks. The description of the drinking sessions brought back some bad memories for me growing up in Kwinana WA, when the fortified wines and mentholated spirits took  charge. The fights and the deranged behaviour that emanate from that type of booze aren’t dissimilar to the effects of meth amphetamine these days. Archie lived it and and described its destructive qualities perfectly in the book.


The meeting with his life partner Ruby Hunter saved his life despite Ruby having her own addiction issues. An amazing musician in her own right she was a rock for Archie up until her death in 2010 and this book is as much a tribute to her compassion, unconditional love and humour as it is about Archie.


There’s a lot of redemption happening throughout the book especially when it came to getting clean from the booze. It was Ruby who led the way by taking the kids away and putting herself in for rehab, then Archie finally wilted. He has described the cold turkey process beautifully and reminded me why I’ll never drink again!


Once both were clean, all the creativity came bouncing back and in between writing songs and children’s books both Archie and Ruby devoted much of their time helping others with drug and alcohol addictions in St Kilda. Archie has left a foundation empowering troubled youngsters to find themselves through the arts.


Ruby’s death crushed Archie and their children but he was been able to reconcile with the past and discover much about his real family he never knew and it’s a fascinating journey. Of his dozen or so albums, it’s his first, Charcoal Lane that brought him immediate attention way back in 1990. If you’re a fan of this iconic album, you will enjoy Archie’s retracing of the events in the book and the making of it with Paul Kelly and Steve Connelly. Of course, ‘Took the Children Away’ remains a heart breaking classic song and is the anthem for the ‘Stolen Generation’.





Archie’s journey with Ruby took them all over the world but what shone through here was the desire for both of them to head home to country. For Ruby it was the Ngarrindjeri people in the Riverland of South Australia and for Archie it was the Gunditjmara people near Warnambool Victoria. Archie describes eloquently why these places have such a spiritual significance to them.  What strikes you about Archie is his humility, resilience and dignity.


Paul Kelly describes the book as, “An inspiring story of survival, grace and generosity”. Couldn’t have said it better.


I thought I’d finish by reproducing the song ‘Down City Streets’. Reason being is that it was written by Ruby, recorded by Archie and it describes the people Sir Doug cared for in Fitzroy. Video of the song featuring Ruby follows the script.


Crawled out of bushes, early morn

Used newspapers to keep me warm

Then I’d have to score a drink

Calm my nerves, help me to think

Down city streets, I would roam

I had no bed, I had no home

There was nothing that I owned

Used my fingers as a comb

In those days, when I was young

Drinking and fighting, was no fun

I was daily living for me

I had no choice, it was meant to be

Down city streets, I would roam

I had no bed, I had no home

There was nothing that I owned

Used my fingers as a comb

Now I’m a man, I’m not alone

I am married, I’ve got children of my own

Now I have something I call my own

These are my children and this is my home

I look around and understand

How street kids feel when they’re put down

Down city streets, I would roam

I had no bed, I had no home

There was nothing that I owned

Used my fingers as a comb

I look around and understand

How street kids feel when they’re put down






More from Ian Wilson can be read Here.


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About Ian Wilson

Former army aircraft mechanic, sales manager, VFA footballer and coach. Now mental health worker and blogger. Lifelong St Kilda FC tragic and father to 2 x girls.


  1. Frank Taylor says

    Terrific Ian.
    Men of real character. Brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Ian Wilson says

    thanks heaps Frank much appreciated cheers

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