Trawling biographical databases for Doing our bit

Liz Stokes & Virginia Macleod, 18 September 2012 · # · ·

A man – Hilda Rix Nicholas, 1921 AWM ART19613

A few weeks ago I joined in the Mosman Library Buildathon to see what a local council library might get up to in starting up their own digital humanities project. This post reports on the experience of a small team (2 of us! Virginia – a freelance historian, and myself, an information professional) trawling through online databases to ‘see what we could see’.

We started off with our knowledge of existing online biographical databases, and a couple of good allrounder resources:

We knew we were interested in the social historical context of wartime, as it pertained to Mosman, and we both had an interest in art history. Our first tack was to trawl these databases for what they could tell us about local Mosman identities, the art and design scene, and the home front context of Mosman 1914-18. Our social focus was also informed by Virginia’s interest in the social effects after war- what happened to communities after the war officially ended? Bernard’s post on the endearing story of the two Franks is a good example. Biographical databases are interesting because of their ability to link people, events, geographic locations and points in time.

As we found contenders for our search scope, we corroborated the evidence against targeted searches in the other databases. We also got a hot tip from Tim to investigate the art collection of the Australian war memorial website. It really became an interesting process of meaning making, as matches and leads began to make sense to each other. I was really buoyed by the discovery that Hilda Rix Nicholas, not only a painter who fit the search criteria of ‘artist’, ‘Mosman’ and 1914-18, was herself someone concerned with the after effects of WW1, who in her Mosman studio ‘made drawings of soldiers who had returned from the war and were yet to find employment’. Thus neatly tying together all the strands.

Other Mosman personalities (and this is just the tip of the iceberg) included:

The experience also gave us an excuse to test Mosman Library’s wireless and our mobile devices. Virginia had brought along her mini laptop, and I had my new android phone ready to test. Since the Buildathon greatly increased the number of people wanting to access the Library’s trusty battalion of desktop computers, we were very glad that wireless codes were distributed for the event! As our lives are becoming increasingly networked and valuable information is available online, free wifi is becoming as necessary as tables and chairs for public community spaces.

Ernest Alfred Nicholls

Ernest Alfred Nicholls was born in London c1890. He had begun singing on London piers at the age of 11 with ‘Carrie Lauries’ Juveniles’. Nicholls migrated to Australia and worked as a Picture Operator in Melbourne. Following enlistment in Melbourne with the AIF in June 1916, he was sent overseas on troopship Euripides, disembarking Plymouth 26/6/1919. He marched in to Perham Downs and was attached to 8 Battalion on 30/10/1916. Whilst at the Perham Downs camp he formed ‘The Perham Stars’ with fellow servicemen, entertaining the troops there. Nicholls was an accomplished baritone and wrote of musical numbers. Their fame spread and they were eventually recognised by the AIF and became the First Official Concert Party. The group renamed and became ‘The Aussies’. They toured hospitals and other camps. Another member of the cast was 3856 WO II John Sinclair ‘Jack’ Lumsdaine, later a famous radio concert pianist. Nicholls was the business manager for the group. Their manager was Lieutenant Arthur Charles Boorman MC.

Following discharge in 1919, Nicholls continued his association with musical societies and was an acting member of the Gillbert & Sullivan society, Sydney Musical Society, Mosman Musical Society and the dramatic group, The Thespians. He played an active role with the RSL, and he is remembered for playing song after song at their reunions.


Reinforcing old social hierarchies and adopting appropriate codes – integrity, honour, civilised manners – golf was an antidote to modern influences and cultural practices. It also had the often intended effect of crystallising and quarantining classes. At Mosman, ‘Swaggerdom’ – as the Labor Daily dubbed members of the Mosman Golf Club – managed to secure 59 acres (24 hectares) of the Middle Head military reserve in 1924 on a 21-year, peppercorn lease on which they built a nine-hole course for almost £5,000 and a stone club house at an additional cost of £6,000. The entrance fee was 10 guineas (£10 10s) for full members. ‘Ladies’ paid a two-guinea fee. In the mid-1920s the basic wage was around £4 per week.

By controlling membership intakes, setting entrance and membership fees, and regulating codes of behaviour and dress on the golf course and in the club house, these suburban clubs defined and redefined social hierarchies, and their members’ places within them, as well as social values based on an acceptance of genteel ideals. Thus one’s social circle was protected from both unknown outsiders and those known or deemed to be socially inferior on the basis of their upbringing (as opposed to their status at birth) and respectability.

PG Taylor scarf

Purple and white striped rayon scarf. The ends of the scarf is finished with a fringe of purple and white tassels. Associated with the service of Captain Patrick Gordon ‘PG’ Taylor.

Taylor was born in Mosman, Sydney, NSW, on 21 October 1896 and educated at The Armidale School. In late 1914 he enlisted in the AIF and posted to Liverpool Training Camp, where he was appointed a platoon commander. In 1915, in an attempt to increase his chances of seeing active overseas service Taylor requested a direct transfer to the Australian Flying Corps. His request was rejected; however Taylor successfully applied for leave from his unit to travel to England at his own expense, to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was commissioned into the RFC on 12 August 1916 and commenced pilot training. He qualified as a pilot in December, having completed 30 hours flying time.

Taylor was then posted to a gunnery school at Hythe to undertake a machine gun course, before being posted to Port Meadow aerodrome on 12 January 1917 for training on Bristol Scouts. 10 days later he was transferred to Tern Hill aerodrome for training on Sopwith Scouts. In February Taylor proceeded overseas to France and was taken on strength by 66 Squadron, RFC. On 26 July 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has taken part in over forty offensive patrols at low altitudes and under heavy fire from the ground. He has always shown exceptional dash and gallantry in attacking large formations of hostile machines, setting a very fine example to all his comrades’. Taylor was later promoted to captain and given command of ‘A’ flight.

After completing eight months of front line service with 66 Squadron Taylor was transferred back to England. He subsequently served with 88 and 94 Squadrons in a training capacity, before both units were deployed to France. After the war Taylor returned to Australia and went on to have an outstanding career in civil aviation