Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 73 - July 2015
Judge Vaux Nicholson - Soldier, Sportsman, Barrister, Judge Print E-mail

Judge Vaux Nicholson


Wallaby 1939

2nd Australian Imperial Force – Lieutenant 3 July 1940 – Honorary Major 18 February 1946

Prisoner of War 15 February 1942 – 22 September 1945 - Changi, Singapore; Sandakan and Kuching, Borneo

Married 20 December 1945 – Ruth Mary (nee Bunting)

The University of Queensland, St John’s College – BA, LLB

Barrister, Queensland Bar

Judge, District Court of Queensland 1968-1976


During this centenary period of the First World War, the Honourable Justice Logan has led a comprehensive research project as to lawyers from Queensland who served in the First World War. In ‘reflecting’ generally as to those lawyers from Queensland who served at war, his Honour Judge Vaux Nicholson is a very significant and extraordinary individual worthy of further consideration. The statement by Tom Brokaw, an American television journalist, who described the generation that grew up during the 'Great Depression' and then went on to fight in World War II as the “greatest generation”, is particularly apt as to his Honour.

His Honour was born on 18 November 1917 and was the youngest son of a solicitor at Beaudesert, Mr Frederick Nicholson. Mr Frederick Nicholson was a member of the Wallabies 1905 tour to England with his brother Frank, who had been the captain of that team: Blackburn, Sportsmen of Changi (2012) at 32.

His Honour attended The Southport School from 1931 to 1934. At the School his Honour took an active part in sporting activities, but was also a prefect in 1934 (Bearing the Palm, A Century of Education at The Southport School at 98). He was a member of the 1st XV in 1933 and 1934. He rowed in the 1st Head of the River IV and was captain in 1934. He stroked his crew to victory in the Head of the River in Brisbane in 1933. He was in the 1st IV tennis in 1933 and 1934, captaining tennis in 1934. He competed in athletics from 1931 to 1934 and swimming for the same period. He was also in the 1st XI cricket from 1932 to 1934 and opened the batting. The Southportonian further notes that he was an altar server in 1934. He had the rare distinction of earning an honour cap, which the Southportonian of the time states was awarded only to those who represented the school in every sport.

After school, his Honour went to St John's College at the University of Queensland, reading for the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws. At St John's, he was a member of the 1st XV, the 1st XI, the tennis IV, swimming and athletics. In 1935 he received a St John's College blue and in 1937 he represented the University of Queensland in tennis.

Although his Honour was remarkably diverse in his extraordinary sporting ability, it was in rugby that he particularly excelled. From 1935 to 1939 he played for the University of Queensland XV and was at times captain. From 1936 to 1939 he was a member of the Queensland XV. In 1939 he was selected in the Australian rugby team to tour England. That team arrived in England on the very day war was declared and consequently the tour was cancelled. The team spent a further fortnight in the United Kingdom, filling sandbags to assist in home defence before returning to Australia by ship. His Honour had been selected as a winger for the tour. He was to turn 22 in November 1939 on his voyage home to Australia.

His Honour enlisted on 3 July 1940 in the Second AIF. He was Commissioned as a Lieutenant on 31 May 1941 and served with the Royal Australian Artillery in the 2/10 Field Regiment. The predominance of the Queensland Wallabies before the war joined the 2/10 Field Regiment: Phillip Ide, Burnett Schulte and Nicholson. It was said that his Honour was persuaded by Schulte to join the 2/10 Field Regiment, in that they had played for the University of Queensland and the State side in 1938 and 1939. He was to be deployed to Malaya as a reinforcement Officer for the 2/10 Regiment, after completing his Corps training at Holsworthy in New South Wales. The reinforcement contingent paraded through Martin Place, Sydney, prior to their embarkation.

His Honour was captured by the Japanese on 15 February 1942 at Singapore. He was to spend more than three years as a prisoner of war at Changi in Singapore, then being subsequently transferred to Sandakan and Kuching in Borneo. His Honour was one of the 1500 Australians taken from Changi to Sandakan in July 1942, in the group known as 'B Force'. In October 1943 the Japanese transferred most of the Officers, including Nicholson, from Sandakan to Kuching after they found a secret radio in the camp. It was said that the Japanese feared that the POWs were facilitating anti-Japanese resistance in the area, hence the transfers. At Kuching, they would sometimes play cricket using a ball made from the rubber trees, but there were very limited rations and dysentery was rife. His Honour had been promoted to Captain on 22 September 1942 and as an Honorary Major on 22 September 1944. The Semper Floreat newspaper of the University of Queensland of 29 June 1944 records Vaux Nicholson as a prisoner of war in Malaya. He was ‘recovered’ by the Australian Army at Kuching on or about 22 September 1945 and was hospitalised for severe malnourishment and 'intestinal illness': Blackburn, Sportsman of Changi (2012) at 234.

His Honour was taken from Kuching to a hospital ship on 13 September 1945 and disembarked to a hospital on Morotai. He embarked for Australia on 26 September 1945 by hospital ship. He was to marry Ruth Mary Bunting on the 20th of December 1945 in Brisbane. His date of discharge from the Army was 18 February 1946. He returned to the University of Queensland to continue the Bachelor of Laws degree. He had graduated from the Bachelor of Arts in 1938, having been in third year law when war broke out. Remarkably, having regard to his time as a Prisoner of War, The Semper Floreat of Friday 3 May 1946 records that the varsity A grade football team defeated New Farm and that ‘Vaux Nicholson scored 4 tries’. On 17 May 1946 the Semper Floreat records that Vaux Nicholson's shoulder had not yet 'mended'. By 28 June 1946 the Semper Floreat reports that Vaux Nicholson, 'making a very welcome reappearance in the team figured in some fine runs on the wing’. He was to graduate on 26 January 1949 from the Bachelor of Laws degree. In 1949 the graduates included names that were to become very well known, including the Honourable Peter Connolly, Frank Connolly, the Honourable Octavius North and the Honourable Jack Kelly.

His Honour was called to the Bar in Queensland in February 1949. On 1 January 1968, his Honour was appointed to the District Court of Queensland, as an additional appointment further to the District Courts Act 1967. His Honour received his Commission as a Judge, as noted in the Queensland Government Gazette Volume 226 at 1157.

In A Court Apart: the District Court of Queensland, by Dr Denver Beanland, the following is stated:

"At 10.00pm on 9 February 1976, Judge Nicholson and his daughter Sally Anne, aged 20, who was then his associate, were killed in a car accident on the Warrego Highway 3 kilometres west of Grantham. They had been travelling from Toowoomba to Brisbane to visit Judge Nicholson's sister who had been badly burned the previous day in a car accident near Nerang. Two days after the judges death, his sister, Ms Faye Nicholson, aged 68, died in the Princess Alexandra Hospital. Police investigations revealed that sludge comprised of grease, dust and water on the surface of the Warrego Highway had made the road slippery and caused the fatal accident."

At the Court Valedictory on 12 February 1976 the Chairman of the District Courts, Judge Grant-Taylor, stated that:

"He was a friend, acquaintance, or colleague of all of us present today. To me he was a loyal and respected friend for more than forty years. As counsel he was most industrious, painstaking and tenacious. Any clients whose interests came under his care had a safe and steadfast guardian thereof.

As a Judge many cases gave him cause for long and anxious deliberation in the endeavour to arrive at a correct solution. At any cost this goal he never failed to seek to achieve. Fortunately in its pursuit he had the capacity of being able to make up his mind. He had a deep-rooted sense of principle and from that he would not swerve. The people of Queensland have lost a very valuable Judge by his passing. Throughout his professional life no whisper ever hinted of a departure from decency and fairness.

However, I believe it is as a friend and companion he will be longest and most warmly remembered. He was ever the best of company. Amongst his friends one could not say he never spoke a strong word - strongly - nor had a strong word spoken strongly back to him. It would be valid to say that no meanness, pettiness or small-mindedness could ever be recalled by those who knew him.

In 1978, St John's College at the University of Queensland opened the Vaux Nicholson Room, which was officially dedicated by then Archbishop Felix Arnott, who stated at the opening that ‘the dedication of the room in his memory was an affectionate mark of appreciation for his contribution to the enrichment of the life of the College’. The Archbishop had been the College Warden during his Honour's time at the College as a student before the war and the room was named in his honour in recognition of his time as a student, foundation member of the Old Jonian Association, a member of the College Council and an "unswerving" supporter of the College (Bearing the Palm, A Century of Education at The Southport School at 99).

In conclusion, the then Mr Brennan QC, representing the Bar at the Court Valedictory, stated relevantly as to this extraordinary Australian:

"Judge Nicholson had an uncommon blend of personal qualities. His upright integrity marked his judicial professional and personal life. His gentleness was welcomed by all who knew him and endeared him to his many friends. His devotion marked him as a soldier who served his nation and a sportsman of national renown. He was a man of simple faith and of deep attachment to his family."

Dominic Katter

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