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Lady Gladys Nicholls

1906 – 1981

Leading Aboriginal and Women’s Rights activist

“She was a lady way ahead of her time.” [1]

Lady Gladys Nicholls was a leading Aboriginal Rights activist although she probably wouldn’t describe herself as one and instead she would have humbly said she just wanted to help her people. Gladys worked with strength, compassion and determination to advance Aboriginal and Women’s rights and to provide practical assistance to those living in poverty.

Gladys Naby Muriel Bux was born in 1906 on Cummeragunga Mission, located over the NSW border not far from Echuca Victoria in Yorta Yorta country. She had Baraparapa and Dja Dja Wurrung connections on her mothers side. Her father was a Punjabi Indian merchant.[2]

Gladys left school at a young age to work at her father’s general store which was situated not far from Cummeragunja Mission and later took a job milking.[3] Gladys also worked at the Ardmona Fruit cannery later in life. In the 1920s, she travelled to Melbourne where she learnt to become a seamstress and made suits for the family store.[4]

In 1939 Gladys and her family were part of The Cummeragunga Walk-Off – the first mass strike of Aboriginal people.  Gladys moved to Barmah then Melbourne, however she continued to visit and support the mission community throughout her life.[5]

In 1942, when Gladys’ first husband Herbert Nicholls died as a result of being struck by a car, his brother Pastor Doug Nicholls — an emerging Aboriginal leader — supported Gladys and her three children.

Gladys and Doug were later married and their powerful partnership lasted 37 years and resulted in two children, increasing the family to seven.

‘She was the backbone in the family that kept us all together and all in line and she had this wonderful inner strength…she was also political in her thinking’[6]

At the end of World War 2, Gladys worked voluntarily to fundraise and actively address rising poverty and social problems in Melbourne’s Aboriginal community.

She established a food van near the Victorian Housing Commission office in Glenroy and used her skills as a seamstress and businesswoman to open and run a series of opportunity shops in Fitzroy.

In the 1950s Gladys saw a need for safe accommodation where Aboriginal girls from the country seeking work and refuge in Melbourne could stay.  She opened, managed and worked daily at a hostel in Northcote -now known as the Lady Gladys Nicholls Hostel.

In the 60’s and 70’s Gladys co-founded The Women’s Auxiliary of the Aborigines Advancement League (AAL) and was a founding member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Council. Gladys also worked with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. She actively campaigned alongside her husband for Indigenous rights in the 1967 referendum.

Gladys was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2008. In 2012 she was inducted into the Indigenous Honour Roll.

Lady Gladys died in 1981 at the age of 75, she was buried at the Cummeragunga cemetery, in 1988 her husband Pastor Doug was buried beside her. [7]Successive generations of the Nicholls’ family continue to work to further the rights of their people and to educate.


This Biography has been written in consultation with the family of Lady Gladys Nicholls


Photo: Lady Gladys Nicholls provided by Family

Site: Lady Gladys Nicholls Hostel

[1] Jason Tamiru, Grandson (Sep 19, 2010) Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family – Message Stick, ABC

[2] Gary Murray (2007) Biographies of Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls, Melbourne Victorian Government

[3] First Peoples Relations (Nov 2019) Lady Gladys Nicholls, an activist of great personal strength, Victorian Government

[4] Gary Murray (2007)  Biographies of Sir Douglas and Lady Gladys Nicholls, Melbourne Victorian Government

[5] Ibid

[6] Lilian Tamiru, Daughter, (Sep 19,  2010) Bloodlines: The Nicholls Family   Message Stick, ABC

[7] First Peoples Relations, (Nov 2019) Lady Gladys Nicholls, an activist of great personal strength, Victorian Government.