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John Whitburn Nicholls

John Whitburn Nicholls, the only child of Robert Whitburn Nicholls, a farmer, and his wife, Lilian May, formerly Hare, was born 16 October 1916 in Bendigo, Victoria.

As a 10 year-old boy in 1926, John Nicholls heard a radio broadcast of the Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.  A few months later, with his family, he left Tarnagulla, near Bendigo, and came to Melbourne to become a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral under the legendary Dr A.E. Floyd.  The young Nicholls “had never heard the names of Bach, Handel and Beethoven, but from that time Cathedral music was the chief interest in his life.”

For four years he sang in the St Paul's Cathedral Choir and began organ lessons at the Cathedral with Dr Floyd; after only nine months of study Nicholls was able to give a recital at the Anglican pro-Cathedral in Bendigo.  For four years he made St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne “his second home.  Whenever possible he was playing the organ, and he attended all the weekday and Sunday services as well as all the choir practices.  He barely missed one of the daily choral services in eight-and-a-half years.”  As a teenager, Nicholls also studied the piano with the famous Melbourne pedagogue Roy Shepherd.

In January 1934, still in his teens, he was appointed Deputy Organist and Choirmaster to Dr Floyd at St Paul's Cathedral, playing for all the choir rehearsals and at many special services in an honorary capacity.  He was also Organist of St Mary’s Anglican Church, South Camberwell, Melbourne.

In May 1935 “one of his earliest ambitions was fulfilled” when he gave a recital in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne; repertoire included works by Wesley, Mozart, Reubke, Karg-Elert, Bach and Rheinberger.  It was said that the works he had studied, "including compositions by all the great organ masters, covered three closely written pages.”  This wide repertoire continued to develop throughout his life; in 1966 he performed Don Kay’s Organ Sonata on an ABC National Radio broadcast – this was the first work commissioned from the Australian composer.

In December 1935, at the age of 19, Nicholls won the Clarke Scholarship from the University of Melbourne, the most coveted musical award in Victoria, to study for three years at the Royal College of Music in London.  During his time in England, Nicholls gained the Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists, and became an Associate of the Royal College of Music.  He also won the first prize for organ playing at the Royal College of Music. 

While in England, Nicholls studied with Dr Ernest Bullock, the Organist of Westminster Abbey, and Dr Henry Ley, Organist of Eton College, who considered it “a real pleasure to teach such a gifted musician, and to know such a delightful personality.”

John Nicholls’ intention “to ultimately become a Cathedral Organist himself” was realized in October 1939 when he was appointed to the position of Organist of St David’s Cathedral, Hobart.  Among his many testimonials at the time was one from Dr A.E. Floyd, who wrote “Mr Nicholls is a magnificent organist, and knows the art of choir training inside and out.”  The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne at the time, Dr Head, wrote “As an organist he has developed in a marvellous way, and I have been astonished at his skill and power to interpret the mind of the composer.”

Following the death of James Scott-Power, John Nicholls was also appointed Hobart City Organist.  In 1966-67 he was Consultant for the rebuilding of the Hobart Town Hall Organ by the English organ builders J.W. Walker & Sons.

As a performer, teacher, examiner and conductor, John Nicholls was highly regarded and widely admired.

Nicholls married Jean Howarth, only daughter of Mrs Harris of Elsternwick, Melbourne, and the late Mr Garth Harris, formerly of Swan Hill, Victoria, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne on 5 July 1944. 

John Nicholls died on 18 April 2009, aged 92, and was cremated at Springvale in Melbourne on 24 April 2009.

From articles in The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania and The Argus, Melbourne, Victoria.  With thanks to Faye Guthrie.