My First Cousin 3x removed, Charles Bruce Nicoll
You may recall from the quick glimpse we did on my 2x Great Grandmother, Janet Nicoll O’Connor, that Charles is her nephew, and he gave the speech at her second wedding. I mentioned that Charles is an interesting character and his story deserves its own post. Well, this is not it, this is just a taster.
I found these amazing pictures of him on Trove from the Fairfax archives, one of our oldest newspaper companies. The accompanying description is titled, Captain Charles Bruce Nicoll. Now to the best of my knowledge, Charles was never bestowed the title of Captain by any authority, I have a feeling it was self-styled from the fact that his father and uncle owned numerous steamships throughout his life that worked the East Coast colonies of the late 19th century.
I mentioned in that earlier post on my 2x Great Grandmother that I managed to squeeze in a trip to Sydney before the major Covid lockdown earlier last year. On that same trip, I was able to travel out to NSW State Archives at Kingswood to do some research.
I had some amazing finds but In particular, there was a massive file on a bankruptcy issue that Charles went through. It was so massive that it took me almost three hours to photograph its contents. There is so much information to share, but it will definitely need a few posts to do it justice.
What I would like to share from this file now, is a couple of handwritten letters from my first cousin 3x removed, Charles Bruce Nicoll, penned from Darlinghurst Gaol to the Bankruptcy Registrar who had thrown him into the debtor’s gaol.
First, the Gaol, to set the scene.
Next, this notice from Friday the 23rd September 1910 to give us the context.
And then a couple of days later this brief notice of the outcome of the petition.
I have never seen it referred to like that before, stating that acts of bankruptcy had been proved, mind you my knowledge on bankruptcy issues can fit on the head of a pin, so no big surprise. But from what I have read the next step is that the official assignee, Mr W H Palmer in this case, then sits down to interview the bankrupt person (Charles) to ascertain how the person got into the financial difficulties and then plan how to best manage the debt. It is in this process that Charles did not handle himself too well, and it is this that got him into major trouble. That being jailed.
Next are the star pieces in this post. These 111-year-old pieces of paper. Just sitting in this huge file on Charles’s bankruptcy hearing. NSW Archives couldn’t tell me when the last time was that the file was accessed, but as you can see from the photos above, it looked like it had been left undisturbed for decades when it was presented to me.
Slideshow 1: All images photos of original documents held at NSW State Archives, Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives
Slideshow 2: All images photos of original documents held at NSW State Archives, Courtesy of Macvean Family Archives
Looking at the dates between the letters looks like Charles was in prison for a couple of weeks at least and that he was obviously pretty keen to get out. From the phrasing of the letter, I think Charles has had a big shock at actually finding himself locked away.
I love the Chief Clerk’s response on the right above. Short, sharp and no explanation furnished.
In addition to the Wine and Spirit business that Charles had in partnership with Samuel Rodgers, Charles was also the licensee for the Gresham Hotel, which amazingly for Sydney, still stands today on the corner of York and Druitt St opposite the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) and Town Hall.
I had the opportunity to travel into the city and visit the site for myself on this same visit. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked past that building when I lived and worked in Sydney. Probably 1000s and I had no idea of the family history link I had to it.
You know I ran my hands over that marble and sandstone, don’t you? I half expected an Outlander moment and a crack in time to open up and take me back to 1910, it didn’t. (For future family readers, 100 years from now, look up ancient old series of books by Diana Gabaldon, made into a fairly salacious TV show in the mid-2010s.)
Like the article above, all the way from Western Australia, I was also very fortunate in finding this next article giving detailed reasons as to why Charles was sent off to the debtors’ prison and from the Melbourne press in this instance. I wonder if Charles and the rest of the family ever became aware that the story travelled so far across the early federated states?
Slideshow 3: Courtesy of Trove: National Library of Australia
Charles obviously made it out because here he is 2 weeks to the day being interviewed again by Mr Palmer.
Interesting, I wonder where the money came from to pay for a King’s Counsel to appear for him?
I was amazed, I found an exposé on Charles’s case reported in the Evening News two months after the notice above.
It gives an extensive review of Charles’s lack of business acumen. The history behind that and what lead to the bankruptcy. It also talks about his relationship with his wife, brothers, and the deaths of his parents. If any article is worthy of the title of family history gold, this is it. I have provided a copy of the article in its entirety.
It is lengthy but so worth the read. Remember, that this is copy that was penned over 111 years ago. World War One was in the saber-rattling stage, the true horrors of that conflict were still four years away.
Interestingly, the war would give Charles the chance to redeem some of his lost credibility from this sorry episode in his life, when he is awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. But then it seems he reverted to type, and it all comes crashing down again when he is sent home with a dishonourable discharge in the closing stages of the war. We will save that story for the next post as well.
Slideshow 4: Courtesy of Trove: National Library of Australia
I can only imagine that this would have stung so very much. To have all your dirty laundry aired in public like this and to be so specifically called out for gross prevarication and evasion by a public figure must have been so humiliating, not just for Charles but for the rest of the family too.
I just came across another version of this article above printed on the 3rd of December, and it states that Charles informed them that he only came out of Gaol the Saturday before, the 26th of November. If that is correct, it means the Registrar kept him incarcerated for two months.
While Charles was in Darlinghurst both of the businesses were put up for sale. First the stock from the Wine and Spirit store in Bond Street Sydney.
Then the actual Gresham Hotel and all of it’s good will.
Then we get notice of the first meeting of creditors in November just three weeks later.
Now you might have noticed that this all seemed to move very quickly from the time bankruptcy was declared in September 1910 up to this point two months later, but this is where things definitely changed.
This bankruptcy stayed in the courts for the next nineteen years, yep you read that correctly, nineteen. Here is just a small selection of the mentions over the years.
I was looking for that notice that had the definitive end date of the matter, but this notice below is the last mention of the bankruptcy in the press. It also fits into the timeframe with the date that is written on the front of the file as seen back in Figure 2b.
As I stated earlier in this post, this is just a Quick Glimpse into this matter. To say that Charles was a complicated man would be an understatement. I thought this final article would be an interesting way to finish off this post.
It is almost a decade after the bankruptcy is finalised, and six years away from Charles’s passing. All the major players in his family are dead, his parents, his brother George and his wife Kate, his Aunt, my 2x Great Grandmother and his other brother Gordon. His wife Laura has disappeared, there is no mention of her anywhere.
It is hard not to judge from a century away, but this article is a pretty damning indictment of the man he had become.
It does appear that Charles is revealing himself to be the black sheep of the family. A man who came from a wealthy background, who was used to seeing people get what they wanted. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t come so easy later in life as all those family members who had provided access to that life, disappeared from his.
It appears he felt the only way to get what he wanted was by working the marks. For five years no less in this instance.
There will be plenty more to share about Charles soon.