Charles Nicholson

Charles Nicholson
Sir Charles Nicholson as Chancellor of the University of Sydney, c. 1850.

Sir Charles Nicholson, 1st Baronet (23 November 1808 - 8 November 1903) was a British-Australian politician, university founder, explorer, pastoralist, antiquarian and philanthropist. The Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney is named after him.

Nicholson was born in England, the illegitimate son of Barbara Ascough of Iburndale near Whitby in Yorkshire and christened Isaac Ascough. His father is unknown.[1]. His name was later changed. He was educated at Edinburgh University where he took the degree of M.D. in 1833.

On 9 Oct 1833. Nicholson sailed for Sydney as ship's surgeon on the James Harris at the behest of his uncle, William Ascough. Ascough had made a considerable fortune as a ship's captain and owner bringing convicts to the Colony, where he had also become an extensive landowner. Nicholson arrived on 1 May 1834 and set up as a doctor in Sydney on Jamieson Street, Wynyard close to The Rocks. In 1836, William Ascough drowned at sea while sailing from Sydney to his property on the Hawkesbury River. Nicholson was the main benefactor of his uncle's will and soon began acquiring extensive property in his own right throughout Australia. In 1843 he was elected a member of the first Legislative Council as one of the representatives of Port Phillip, and sat in this body until 1856. He was elected speaker in 1846 and subsequently was twice re-elected.

He took much interest in the founding of the University of Sydney and on 24 December 1850 was appointed a member of the senate. On 3 March 1851 he was unanimously elected vice-provost. He was also elected a member of the library committee which laid the foundations of the present excellent library. At the inauguration ceremony held on 11 October 1852, eloquent addresses were given by Nicholson and the first principal, Dr John Woolley, which were printed as a pamphlet and may also be found in H. E. Barff's Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney. Nicholson became chancellor in 1854 and held the position until 1862. He was most active in forwarding the interests of the university and in 1860 presented a large and valuable collection of Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan antiquities to it, collected during a trip to Egypt and the Contintent in 1856-7[2]. Nicholson's donation of nearly 1000 artefacts was the genesis of what is today the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney. A catalogue of the collection was published in 1870 by the curator Edward Reeve.

An older Sir Charles Nicholson.

Between 1856 and 1859 he obtained donations to pay for the stained glass windows of the great hall and himself subscribed £500. When Queensland became a separate colony in 1859 Nicholson was nominated a member of the legislative council, and at the special request of the governor, Sir George Bowen, undertook the office of president of the council for the first session of parliament. In 1862 Nicholson returned to England and in 1865 married Sarah Elizabeth Keightley. He never returned to Australia but kept his interest in it, and occasionally contributed papers relating to it to the journals of learned societies. In 1890 he was appointed to represent the interests of the Central Queensland separation league in London, and in connexion with this headed a deputation to Lord Knutsford.

He died in England on 8 November 1903 having nearly completed his ninety-fifth year. He was given the honorary degrees of D.C.L. by Oxford, and LL.D. by Cambridge and Edinburgh universities. He was knighted in 1852, and created a baronet in 1859. His eldest son, Charles Archibald Nicholson, the second baronet, became well-known as an ecclesiastical architect (his achievements include the west front of St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast[3]), and another son (Archibald Keightley Nicholson) a stained-glass artist.

In 1844 Ludwig Leichhardt named a mountain after him.


  1. ^ M. Turner, 'Mystery on the Yorkshire Moors: the humble origins of a great man', Sydney University Museums NEWS, Issue 20, February 2010, 2-4
  2. ^ K.N. Sowada, 'Sir Charles Nicholson: an Early Scholar-Traveller in Egypt', in K.N. Sowada and B.G. Ockinga (eds), Egyptian Art in the Nicholson Museum, Sydney (Mediterranean Archaeology, Sydney, 2006), pp. 1-13
  3. ^ Belfast Cathedral - Architects at
Parliament of New South Wales
New title Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Council
Succeeded by
Sir Alfred Stephen
Academic offices
Preceded by
Edward William Terrick Hamilton
Chancellor of the University of Sydney
Succeeded by
Francis Merewether
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New title Baronet
(of Luddenham)
Succeeded by
Charles Archibald Nicholson
Parliament of Queensland
New title President of the Queensland Legislative Council
Succeeded by
Sir Maurice O'Connell

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