Talking to Archie Roach about Sir Doug Nicholls

By Michael Sexton


Archie Roach is finishing his lunch in an Adelaide hotel room when the conversation turns to football.


The singer-songwriter has just spoken to a gathering of stolen generations members about his life and experiences.


In his gentle, rolling way he urged communities to rally around each other to encourage healing. For the younger members of the audience he warns of the dangers of wallowing in self pity and to seek success through education.


“It’s intergenerational you know, it affects the children and grandchildren because they find out about these things,” he says.


Archie Roach continues telling the stories to new audiences mostly through song.  For many hearing Took the Children Away for the first time is having the singer read them a chapter of Australian history.


Nancy Bates performed with him on a recent tour and becomes emotional describing seeing audience members in tears as the songs pour over them – a concert communion.


“Archie makes people change the way they feel about us (Aboriginal people), that is what he does,” she says.


The common ground isn’t all political; his song The Colour of Your Jumper celebrates having a kick and a catch with your cousins and the egalitarianism of sport.


… It’s the best game in the world

Every young man knows

It’s the colour of your jumper not the colour of your skin


Nicholls playing for Victoria (source AFL)

Nicholls playing for Victoria (source AFL)


This is how we get to talking about football and Doug Nicholls.


“I grew up in Fitzroy and back in that day you barrack for the team where you come from.


“You come from Fitzroy you barrack for Fitzroy – or Collingwood (he coughs in mock disgust behind his hand and then smiles broadly) you barrack for Collingwood.


“That is how it was. Community was strong. Uncle Doug, Pastor Doug was the one. He had an op shop place we went to. On the top floor they had dances. Uncle Doug put them on.”


Doug Nicholls came to Melbourne in 1927. After being rejected by Carlton he played at Northcote in the VFA where he won a premiership and two best and fairest awards. After a year with Jimmy Sharman’s boxing troupe the wingman joined Fitzroy. In his six seasons he was picked twice for Victoria.


He was the size of a heavy jockey but was fast and determined. The Sporting Globe described him as brilliant and plucky.


“I was a bad loser,” he told an interviewer. “I always wanted to be on top … I went for the ball, I want to be on top. I wanted to be good. This was my own thing. Dominating my mind was that I was their equal.”


Bad knees ended his VFL career after 54 games.


In 1943 he set up the Fitzroy Church of Christ Aboriginal Mission and his presence consolidated a Koori community in the inner city.


Archie Roach remembers it all. Fitzroy was community he says.


“When I first went to Melbourne I ended up over at Northcote. They had the [Aborigines] Advancement League and he had the hostels – one for boys and one for girls – young women and men.


“He was just a leader an uncle you could go to who was so passionate about advancing.


“Being a champion for Fitzroy and Victoria means a lot to fellas who love playing football. Even if he didn’t it was just his nature, who he was, just would have earned him that respect anyway.”


The respect grew beyond Fitzroy. His work for social justice made him a national figure. His pulpit was everywhere. He stood in the back of a truck distributing food during hard times in the bush. He led street demonstrations for recognition, law reform and fair work conditions and initiated what would evolve into NAIDOC week. An OBE came in 1968 a KT in 1972 and in 1976 he was appointed Governor of South Australia.


That hot January day he and Gladys arrived on North Terrace in an open top Rolls Royce accompanied by 22 mounted police. On the lawns of Government House 1,500 people listened as Premier Don Dunstan forecast he would be a “much loved Governor of this state”.


“We also know you come here,” he continued “not as the Aboriginal Governor of South Australia but as Governor of the whole people. South Australia is proud that it is the first state in which a member of the original race of Australians has obtained the highest office in the state.”


Among those standing on the edges of the ceremony that day was Bob Randall. He was dressed in the style of 1970s activists – his fine afro setting off a Fu Manchu moustache.


He had been taken from his mother in Central Australia and was at the forefront of aboriginal political and social movements including establishing the Adelaide Community College for Aboriginal People.


Asked about his feelings he said “one of pride and hope.”


“We are seeing something that is real and perhaps can’t fully be understood unless they are an Aboriginal person and has experienced being an Aboriginal person in Australian society.”


After the ceremony Sir Douglas agreed to an interview with the ABC. He offered to show the bundles of letters he had received from people of all walks of life including children welcoming him.


“Will you be outspoken?”


“If it needs to be then we all should be outspoken – you – the ordinary man on the street, anywhere humanity is at stake, there is a social problem, we all have to say something. I want to help all ethnic groups and want to encourage them to be one with us.”


When asked about how he differed from his predecessor the eminent physicist Sir Mark Oliphant he replied: “We are two different people certainly. He is a scientist. I am a footballer and a gardener but I love people and I want to meet people. I had 23 years of lovely ministry in Fitzroy.


“Sport is your first love what will you be doing in that?”


For the first time that day a huge smile opened up on his face.


“I don’t know yet, I will wait until the season starts. I want to see if there is a team of maroon and blue I might have a look at it or the Redlegs. I haven’t made up my mind yet but I am hoping to meet some of the teams”.


What ambitions he held for the office were cut short by a stroke in January 1977 that saw Sir Douglas leave Government House. He returned to Victoria for his final years.


His brief tenure is the only Vice-Regal position held by an Aboriginal man or woman.


Being sworn in as SA Governor 1976 (source National Archives Australia)

Being sworn in as SA Governor 1976 (source National Archives Australia)


Is there any measure of its impact?


Here is one.


Nunga Elder Aunty Coral Wilson has worked for four decades in areas of Aboriginal health and justice in South Australia. Her initial response to the news in 1976 was disbelief.


“For many years we thought I am nobody I can’t get very far, I can’t do anything but that was wrongful thinking and with Sir Douglas becoming Governor that sort of woke everyone up.


“I think everyone said well let’s go now and succeed in what we are doing, and I certainly did.


“We didn’t run and jump into things. Aboriginal people don’t do that they wait for the right time and when Sir Douglas became Governor they thought we can go ahead with what we like to do and a lot of people changed their minds about things.


“He opened our eyes.”


There are many ways of seeing the Sir Doug Nicholls Round this weekend. One is admiring a pioneering footballer of great ability. Another is a reflection on reconciliation – an opportunity in the wake of the treatment of Adam Goodes.


Either way, the little man still has something to say to us and Archie Roach remembers how it sounded.


“There was gentleness but he also had this … he could be … with people in the community and organisations … he had this way of talking, very eloquent, great speaker and you just listen to him … you know you just had this respect for him.”



You can read more about Sir Doug Nicholls in an earlier Footy Almanac article 



For more of Michael Sexton’s Almanac contributions, click here.




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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. Thanks Mike. Fascinating insights.

  2. Sir Doug is a great story. Thanks Mike. Always reminds me of the MLK quote “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
    Attorney General Peter Duncan with the long hair looking suitably disinterested at the inauguration.

  3. Having professionally developed many of the AFL clubs around Indigenous history and football when I talk about Doug Nicholls and Syd Jacskon I say that it astounds me that no film has been made of them.

    Good stuff Michael.

  4. Well done Mike. Great to read.

    I ran into another of the indigenous legends of our game last week, Syd Jackson. I hadn’t sen him for a few years but he was in good nick. Had a brief chat re two of his likes, the Gee-Gees and the golf

    We don’t hear enough about Doug Nicholls. I can remember him from my childhood,, being surprised at the esteemed role he held. Sadly his name seems to have gone of the radar, but if that’s the case llet’s put it back. A great leader for hisi people,, a great leader for all people .


  5. G’day Michael. This Friday i’ll have a bit of a a chat re Doug Nicholls on our radio show. If you want to listen it’s on 855AM, 09-00 Melbourne time. I believe we’re also podcast.


  6. jan courtin says

    Thanks for your insightful article Mike.

    It’s always good to be reminded of people who have made a difference, and continue to do so through others’ contributions, as is the case with Archie Roach; especially Indigenous people, and especially in this so-called advanced society in 2016, when nothing much has changed when it comes to race and colour.

  7. E.regnans says

    G’day Mike –
    Grand story, very well told.

    The past is a different place. But only if people make it so.
    Well done those people.

  8. Thank you for this piece.
    Here is a song by Briggs, featuring a mix of Archie’s ‘The Children Came Back’:
    (Sir) Doug Nicholls is mentioned in the song.

  9. Thanks Mike, great article. I’m another with great gratitude for Archie’s story-telling. And Bob Randall’s. I was fortunate enough to be among a group that stayed with Bob and his family on their homelands a few years ago. Though he’s no longer with us in human form, I hope to take future groups out there to share with his family – if they are still interested in having us.

    While we were living in Fitzroy, my wife and I paid a visit out of respect to the old church in Gore St where Sir Doug was Pastor. No one answered our knocks, but the door was open, so we tentatively ventured in and spent some time in the hall. I’m glad to see the banner for Indigenous round carrying his name. And to feel it all the more, by virtue of sharing in your article and these comments. Thanks again.

  10. What a man Sir Douglas Nicholls must have been

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