E.D. Nicolle - Australian Pioneer of Refrigeration

Michael Organ & Fred Turnidge


Eugene Dominique Nicolle (1824-1909) is perhaps best remembered in the annals of Australian history as a engineer and pioneering collaborator with Thomas Sutcliffe Mort in the development of refrigeration during the 1860s and 1870s. Though Nicolle and Mort were ultimately pipped at the post by a South American team in being the first to successfully ship a supply of frozen meat to England, their ground-breaking work in this field nevertheless set the scene for later successes such that by the turn of the century the Australian meat industry was able to make regular shipments to Europe and the Americas.

In addition to his is work with ice making and the development of refrigeration, Nicolle was also a speaker on matters of theosophy. A book entitled Lectures delivered by the late Eugene Dominique Nicolle, C.E., at Whiteheath, Illawarra was published posthumously in Sydney during 1922,1 bringing together a number of the presentations he made on various Sundays between 4 November 1894 and 28 April 1907. Though of a theosophical nature, they had a decided scientific bent, refelcting his profession background. Titles included The Object and the Purpose of Comets, God versus Modern Science and The Sublime Plan of the Universe, alongside more purely religious and scriptural items such as Christ Charged with Insanity, The Sins and Sorrows of this World and The Ideal Christian Mother. The lectures were largely a scientific interpretation of the biblical text and its teachings, delivered from a Christian perspective. Nicolle had been raised a Catholic in France, though he was later to marry in the rites of the Presbyterian church. The Whiteheath referred to in the title of the book was his residence at Primbee, on a hill overlooking Lake Illawarra, south of Wollongong. Though Whiteheath has long since been demolished, a second house bearing the somewhat strange name Esperanza, and which Nicolle helped to build, stands to this day in the near vicinity.

Eugene Dominique Nicolle is famous enough to rate an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and his is widely referred to in works such as Alan Barnard's Visions and Profits - Studies in the Business Career of T.S. Mort. This latter book includes a detailed account of Nicolle and Mort's refrigeration experiments in Sydney between 1866 and 1878. Nicolle is also made reference to in articles by James Jervis which appeared within the Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society during 1938 and 1948.2 A number of brief biographical pieces have also featured in newspaper historical columns over the years, highlighting his work with refrigeration.3

A brief summary of Nicolle's life and working career as an engineer is outlined below. It also included a commentary upon his retirement years in Illawarra.

France and England 1824 - 1853

Eugene Dominique Nicolle was born at Rouen, Normandy, France on 30 September, 1824, the son of Pierre Nicolle and his wife Louise Elizabeth Quesne.4 Pierre was a gardener and florist, though one account has described him as a Professor of Botany. Nicolle learned much from his father, and his knowledge of plants was put to good use later in life when he practised as a medicinal herbalist at Illawarra.

The young Eugene was an intelligent though somewhat solitary child, with a gift for languages which gave him the ability to converse in five different tongues. He was educated in Paris and Italy before being apprenticed to a firm of engineers in Rouen during 1838 at the age of 14. Eugene eventually attained formal qualifications in mechanical/civil engineering (this explains the "C.E." sometimes used after his name) and it is also commonly believed that he qualified as a doctor in France, however this has not been officially verified.

According to a former Illawarra resident Mrs Hannah Nethery (b.1902) - who visited Nicolle for treatment as a six year old in 1908, and in 1992 returned to the former home of his son Stanley Nicolle, Esperanza, with one of the authors - the story was told during her youth that "Dr" Nicolle had enrolled in medicine at a French institution, but due to financial constraints was forced to return to engineering after 3 years study. Our subsequent knowledge of Nicolle would suggest that his medical skills were developed as a hobby, rather than a profession, though Mrs Nethery's story should not be dismissed out of hand. Nicolle was obviously something of a polymath, developing skills in the various scienes, engineering, medicine and botany.

By 1843 Eugene, aged just 19 and following five years substantially employed as a mechanic, had invented an automatic lithographic inking machine, subsequently known as the Nicollithographic machine. It proved to be so successful that a eulogy on its merits appeared in the French scientific journal Les Moniteur des Arts, concluding with the following comments:

The Nicollithographic machine does not produce more than 200 printed proofs and 100 drawings per hour; but all the lithographers, particularly Monsieur Lemercier, are of the opinion that the problem of mechanical inking is solved today, and that it is to a young mechanic of about 20 years old that we must attribute the honour.5

During this period the French were widely regarded as producers of the finest lithographic prints in the world. Nicolle's discovery did not therefore pass unnoticed. His employers took the machine to England and shortly thereafter the young inventor followed, spending considerable time between 1843 and 1845 promoting the Nicollithograph and perfecting the process. Nicolle returned briefly to his homeland in 1845. According to an account in the Sydney Mail of 28 September 1910, he was then advised by one of the Rothschilds to learn the English language and not to return to England until he had done so. He took the advice and the following year obtained employment with a firm in Birmingham.

With a steady job and burgeoning career Eugene's thoughts also turned to settling down and having a family. On 27 July 1848 he married Catherine Henrietta Jacobine Schick, daughter of Professor Johann Christian Schick, at Saint James Westminster, London. John Charles Edkins, Elizabeth Edkins and Maria Barnard were witnesses. Both Eugene and Henrietta gave Coventry Street, London, as their address on the marriage certificate.

Between 1846-50 Nicolle worked as an engineer for the Birmingham firm, at the same time maintaining close links with his family in France. By 1851 he was working for the London firm of Fox, Henderson & Co. and involved in the construction of London's Crystal Palace.6 The Crystal Palace building was used for the great International Exhibition of that year.

Not much is known of know of Nicolle's wife Catherine Henrietta. She did have a sister Frederique and was referred to by the family as Henrietta. Both women appear to have suffered continuing ill health, as is revealed in a letter from Frederique to Henrietta, dated 2 April 1855 (reproduced below).7

Following their London marriage Eugene and Henrietta were domiciled partly in England and partly in France, with periods of separation. In 1851 Nicolle was forced to return briefly to Paris to rescue his wife who was then caught amongst the political turmoil of the time associated with the the beginning of the Third Republic. Paris was in a state of siege, barricades had been thrown up here and there, and pedestrians were forced to get along as best they could dodging the pot-shots from the roofs and balconies of nearby buildings. Nicolle had great difficulty in rescuing his wife and taking her back to the safety of England. The story was told as follows in the 1910 Sydney Mail article:

In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, Mr Nicolle returned to Paris for his wife (he had previously married), but before doing so had the good sense to obtain a passport from the French Consul in London. Armed with this safeguard he set out on a voyage of discovery, accompanied by a gendarme, and after several hairbreadth escapes, found his young wife sheltering in a cellar with but a few remnants of a very scanty larder.

The passport mentioned above is at present in the Mitchell Library collection and describes Nicolle as living at 2 Violet Place, Monument Lane, Birmingham. He was 1.68 metres (5ft 6in) tall, with auburn hair, chestnut eyes and an oval face. He is not listed at 2 Violet Place in the 1851 Census of England. Further physical details can be gleaned from various extant portraits. Two photographs, a pencil portrait, and a profile silhouette of Nicolle survive in the Mitchell Library collection and a number of portraits remain in family collections.8

According to Frederique's letter of 1855, the escape of the Nicolles from Paris was sudden and unexpected, having occurred after the two sisters had previously parted company with harsh words. Frederique's emotional letter of apology (reproduced below), written four years later to her sister then in Sydney, asked forgiveness for her behaviour, which she said was brought on by her illness. The letter was addressed to Madame Nicolle of 46 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, however it was undelivered at that address and was redirected to George St, Queens Wharf, and advertised as "unclaimed". It reads as follows:

2 Avril 1855

[Breteuils-s-Iton, France]

My Dear Henriette

You will probably be surprised receiving a letter from me whom you have left. It is perhaps astonishing you went without even saying good-bye. I forgive you. I do not want to go on feeling angry toward you because you can't have any idea how much I was hurt when I was told you had gone to Australia. My God how vindictive you are, or have I been so nasty toward you. I know well I was so angry with you when you came to Paris, they had set me so much against you. If you knew all they said to me, you would easily understand why I was not happy at all but in commencing this letter I promised myself I will not wake up the past except for asking you to forget everything and to answer and tell me you forget the distress I have caused you.

Come on be a real sister to me, I mean good friend as you have always been. I am sure if you were now with us we would get along much better. You see, before I had any experience of the world it was not surprising that we couldn't understand each other but today things have changed and I judge differently, it is also because I have been so often betrayed and I have had more suffering physically and morally than a woman can endure.

If you knew how much all this has changed me. So it is rare one can hear me singing. In spite off all things I hope the joy of the heart will come back when I will receive a long letter from you and when God will give me back my health.

I hope that with time, the health, oh yes the health I need so much now. You see I have to tell you I want to live and have a long life to love. I don't need to say why, you have guessed haven't you? Because I have confessed to you about my love, even if at the moment there was any hope, I knew then that one day I would give my soul and my body but I never dared hoping to be in possession of his heart as I am now.

Oh I know at this moment you are saying to yourself - poor sister, you delude yourself. But be assured that I am not, my dear Henriette, even if he had not for me the love he has, there is near us a little one who would be my good angel. If the father sometime ceases loving me, he would always love his dear daughter, as he always calls her and the consequence he will conceal his lack of faith to me for his daughter's love.

It is all I ask to God and I hope my prayers will be answered. It will soon be three years we are married (in front of God) and he is always the same for me. He ...... isn't this, my dear Henriette, the proof that he loves me very much?


Emigration to Australia

After the escape from Paris in 1851, Eugene and Henrietta spent another year in England before deciding to migrate to Australia. Their reasons for the move are unknown - Henrietta's ill-health may have been a factor, with the Australian climate seen as a possible saviour. However her husband also had a weak constitution. Nicolle may also have seen in the Australian goldrushes of 1851 a chance for a skilled engineer such as himself to obtain advancement and wealth, and such was to prove the case.

In January 1853 the Nicolle's, accompanied by Eugene's younger brother Jules Antoine and his wife Georgina Jane (née Hort) traveled to Australia on the 540 ton barque Elizabeth under the command of Captain Hancock. The Elizabeth9 sailed from Bristol on 23 December 1852. She called at Plymouth before finally departing on 27 January 1853. A swift voyage ensued, with the Elizabeth arriving in Melbourne on 27 April. Prior to their departure, Jules and Georgina had married at Saint Martin's in the Field, London, on 14 December 1852.

During the passage out Eugene produced a weekly paper called The Tropical Times. One issue, apart from giving daily details of the voyage, lists the passengers, showing amongst others Monsieur J. Nicolle and wife as second class passengers.10

On arrival in Melbourne Eugene and Henrietta made immediate plans to travel on to Sydney, though Jules and Georgina remained in the southern city and their first child Jules Henri was born there on 16 September 1853. The Shipping Intelligence column of the Sydney Morning Herald of 17 May 1853 noted the Nicolls as arriving in Sydney on the Mary and Ellen on 16 May 1853. Possibly this explains James Jervis's statement that "In 1863 E.D. Nicolle arrived in Sydney on the Marion & Ellen, a ship he chose because it bore his mother's maiden name", substantially correct though out by a decade.11 Jules and family were in Sydney by 5 May 1856 when their second son, William Eugene Hort Nicolle was baptised in the Parish of Holy Trinity, County of Cumberland (possibly the Garrison Church at the Rock). Jules was described in the church register as an engineer living at 3 Argyle Street, Sydeny.12

Sawmills and Breweries

Upon arrival in Sydney in May of 1853, Eugene and Henrietta ' ...took up residence at the corner of Market and Pitt streets, paying £2 per week for a single room. Possessing a good wardrobe, he dressed just as carefully and precisely as the most fastidious of his race. Old hands told him there was no chance for one of his stamp, and the sooner he returned home again the better. But the neatly-dressed new arrival was made of sterner stuff. A visit was paid to P.N. Russell and Son, and here a surprise met Mr Nicolle. One of the first persons he addressed at the firm was Mr Strong, whom he (Mr Nicolle) had succeeded in the Birmingham works. Subsequently Mr Nicolle became manager for P.N. Russell and Son' (Sydney Mail, 1910).

These latter events must have taken place during or shortly after 1855, for P.N. Russell & Co. was founded in that year, and Norman Selfe in an article on Nicolle mentions first meeting him in Sydney in 1855, whilst serving as an apprentice. Selfe noted that, at the time, 'Mr. Nicolle was ... known as an extremely clever and ingenious engineer who had perfected several elaborate mechanical contrivances.'13

P.N. Russell & Co. had sawmill and brewery interests, and Nicolle remained with the company for a number of years before setting up his own business at Circular Quay. By 1859 he had designed and supervised the erection of sawmills for Wilkinson & Co. at Darling Harbour and installed the colony's first vertical saw system, driven by steam and with overhead cylinders. Two of Nicolle's photographs of the Darling Harbour mill are reproduced in Waterfront Sydney, 1860-1920.14 Both originals are now in the Mitchell Library collection, Sydney.

Between his arrival in Sydney in 1853 and up to the year 1860 Nicolle resided variously at Burwood, then at Strathfield, next Liverpool Street, Sydney, and finally at Surry Hills. In 1858 the Sands Directory listed Nicolle as an engineer of 85 Botany Street, Surry Hills. One account states he visited Melbourne and Queensland during this period seeking work as a civil engineer; another that he at times traveled long distances in connection with the erection of milling and brewery machinery.15 Throughout this period his fertile and active mind was involved in formulating inventions in a variety of fields. He was soon known throughout the colony as a quiet-spoken but brilliant engineer. With fame came fortune, such that he was able to accumulate enough wealth to purchase a share in P.N. Russell & Co. by the end of the decade.

Personal Turmoil & Family Ties

Whilst his professional career was moving in a positive direction, the same could not be said for aspects of his personal life. The precise details of Eugene and Henrietta Nicolle's experiences in the colony in the immediate years following their arrival are unclear. At some point before 1862 Eugene and Henrietta separated. Also, during the late 1850s, Eugene Nicolle made the acquaintance of a widow Jane Williamson (née Schermer) who had been born in England around 1832. Jane Williamson already had a daughter Jane Louise Gregory Williamson (born in England about 1855) when she met Nicolle, and on 4 February 1861 she gave birth to his son, Eugene Henry Stanley Nicolle (known as Stanley). Jane was then living at 13 Mowbray Terrace, Surry Hills. On Stanley's birth certificate Jane stated that she and Eugene had been married in New Zealand during 1859: as Nicolle was still married to Henrietta at the time, and a Catholic, this could not have been so.

Any personal dilemma was settled when Henrietta died of dysentery at Parramatta Hospital on 26 February 1862, aged just 40. Jules Nicolle was listed as informant on the death certificate while Eugene was not mentioned. The fact that Nicolle's son Stanley, when giving information for his father's death certificate in 1909, did not know his father's first wife's name suggests that Nicolle did not talk about her to his son.

On 5 April 1862 Nicolle married Jane Williamson at Woolloomooloo in the rites of the Presbyterian Church. Twin daughters Adelaide Constance and Eugenie Florence Eleanor were born to them on 17 May 1862.16 The baptismal record for Florence shows that Florence Eugenie Eleanor Nicolle, born to Eugene D. & Jane Nicolle, was baptised in the Wesleyan Church, Parramatta Circuit on 7 September 1862. There does not appear to be a baptismal record (as opposed to a birth certificate) for Adelaide Constance.

After the marriage the family took up residence at Crown Street, Woolloomooloo, though for how long is not known. Between 1864 and 1877 the Sands Directory lists Nicolle at a variety of locations: in 1864 he is cited as a civil engineer of Petersham; 1865-69 manager of the Sydney Ice Company works at West Street, Darlinghurst; 1870 at Railway Terrace, Burwood; and between 1871 and 1877 at Barcom Street, Darlinghurst. The Illawarra Electoral Roll for 1873 also shows Nicolle with freehold at Lake Illawarra by this time. Whether the various Sydney localities were residences and/or business addresses is unclear. Whatever the case, it is most likely that the family resided at Darlinghurst (Paddington) throughout the sixties and seventies. In 1881 Nicolle is shown on the East Sydney electoral role as having a leasehold in Barcom Street and residing at Wollongong. At the same time for the Division of Illawarra both Eugene and Stanley are shown with freehold on Lake Illawarra.

James Jervis's article of 1948, and that in the Daily Mirror of 1965 contain a photograph of Nicolle's distinctive Barcom Street, Sydney, house, with two women standing in front.

That house, located adjacent to the Sydney Ice Company works at West Street, Darlinghurst, was of single storey, with additional rooms in the large roof space. It featured ornate verandah woodwork and elaborately carved trim around the upstairs window. Nicolle's later house at Illawarra was of a similar style, though somewhat larger. The Darlinghurst house is referred to in an 1875 Memorandum of Agreement between Nicolle and T.S. Mort, the agreement being that the Nicolle family could occupy the house paying a peppercorn rent until July 1878, though it was now the property of the Sydney Fresh Food and Ice Company.

In 1866 Nicolle became a naturalized British citizen. All of his children were to eventually marry, though Jane's daughter by her previous marriage, Jane Louise Gregory Williamson, remained single and was a life-long companion to her step-father, accompanying him on a number of overseas trips in later life. Though born Jane Louise Gregory Williamson, she often took on her step-father's name and was commonly referred to as Miss Nicolle. She later gave birth to a daughter, Eugenie Louise Williamson, around 1879, the year of her mother's death. Nicolle thereafter referred to the child as his niece, and cited her as such in his will.

Not much is known of the later history of Nicolle's twin daughters Adelaide and Florence except that both married in New South Wales - Eugenie Florence to Robert Petrie in 1886 and Adelaide to Theodore Lachaume in 1889. Both had issue and were living in New South Wales in the early 1900s.

Stanley Nicolle initially followed in his father's footsteps, pursuing a career in engineering. As a child he received his education at Camden College and Mr Sotheby's, Throsby Park, Moss Vale. On leaving school he spent some time at Mort's Dock, Sydney, training for his chosen profession. After having married Catherine C. Watt in 1892, Stanley moved his family to Primbee in 1895 to be near his father. He remained at Primbee until about 1924 when he moved to Wollongong, where he died in 1929.17 E.D. Nicolle's immediate family details can be summarised as follows:

Eugene Dominique Nicolle

born 30 September 1824, Rouen, Normandy, France; died 23 November 1909, Primbee

married #1 - 24 July 1848 - Catherine Henrietta Jacobine Schick (b. 1822 - d. 26 February 1862, Parramatta), at Saint James Westminster, London

married #2 - 5 April 1862 - Jane Williamson nee Shermer (b.1855, England - d. 13 February 1879), at Presbyterian Church, Woolloomooloo


1. Jane Louise Gregory Williamson (b.1832, England - d. 19 March 1926, Wollongong) - daughter of Jane Williamson and ?Gregory Williamson. Later known as "Miss Nicolle"

2. Eugene Henry Stanley Nicolle (b. 4 February 1861, Sydney). Son of E. D. Nicolle and Jane Williamson.

3. Adelaide Constance (b. 17 May 1862, Sydney). Daughter of E.D. Nicolle and Jane Nicolle

4. Florence Eugenie Eleanor (b. 17 May 1862, Sydney). Daughter of E.D. Nicolle and Jane Nicolle

E.D. Nicolle as Scientist and Engineer

Ice and Refrigeration

According to Norman Selfe, sometime during the spring of 1859, whilst still in charge of the Wilkinson sawmill at Darling Harbour and working for P.N. Russell & Co., Nicolle decided to become involved in the construction of an ice-making machine based on a process using the compression of ether which had been invented by James Harrison of Geelong. Harrison had visited England in 1856-7 to secure patents and produce working models. His system was eventually used by a number of British firms during the late fifties and sixties, with one of his English manufactured machines being brought to Sydney around 1859 by P.N. Russell and Co. It was this machine with which Nicolle was involved.18

At the end of 1860 the Sydney Ice Company was formed by P.N. Russell & Co. and James Harrison. The following advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 1860, announced it to the public:

Sydney Ice Company. - The want of a regular supply of Ice having been so long felt by the inhabitants of Sydney and its vicinity, the SYDNEY ICE COMPANY, now established, have the pleasure in announcing that they have in course of completion one of Harrison's ice-making machines, similar to those constructed by P.N. Russell and Co., and so well known from the success that has attended them in Victoria and South Australia, and that they will be in a position to commence the manufacture of ice upon an extensive scale, for the ensuing year.

Any information that may be required respecting the above, can be obtained on application to P.N. Russell and Co., Sydney Foundry, George-street, or James Harrison, Pafenine, Geelong.

At the time Nicolle held shares in P.N. Russell and now put his lucrative saw milling and brewery work to one side to concentrate on the newly formed company. His role with the Sydney Ice Company was to assist in operating and refining the Harrison ice making process and to produce new apparatus based upon this system. Previous to this ice had been manufactured in Sydney since 1852 on a small scale by Harrison, or alternatively it had been imported from America since 1839, and as such was considered a luxury item.19 A description of the Harrison / Russell process was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, 21 December 1860, as follows:

Manufacture of Ice in Sydney

A very interesting branch of industry - the manufacture of ice - has been within the last few days initiated in Sydney. The machinery which was invented and patented by Mr. James Harrison, of Geelong, has been manufactured by Messrs. P.N. Russell and Co., and is now in operation at their factory in George-street. A large quantity of ice has already been manufactured, and the production will be continued so as always to meet the demand arising for the article; and judging from the quantity of ice that has been consumed during previous hot seasons, there is little doubt that the refrigerating process will be kept in pretty constant employment.

The mode in which the refrigeration is produced is by the evaporation of ether in a vacuum, the vapour of ether is withdrawn by an air-pump, and by means of a self-regulating valve communicating with a condenser, it returns to the evaporating vessel, thereby preventing any waste of material. The vessel containing the ether is interested with tubes, through which there is a constant flow of water. It is in the process of evaporating the ether that heat is withdrawn from the surrounding fluid. For the purpose of producing ice, the fluid used is salt-water, which will remain fluid below the ordinary freezing point of water, and is therefore adapted as a refrigerating medium. Connected with the refrigerating vessel are two large parallel wooden troughs through which salt water flows, returning to the vessel, and so forming a continuous stream. In these troughs are ranged the moulds containing the fresh water to be frozen. The action of the salt water upon these moulds gradually freezes the water they contain.

The apparatus in operation at Messrs. Russell's contains a hundred and sixty of these moulds, which are constructed of zinc, and measure about eighteen inches square, with a thickness of some four inches, which expands towards the top, giving the blocks of ice a wedge-like shape. The freezing process begins in an hour or two; the water in the moulds nearest the refrigerating vessel freezes first, and those next follow, until in about ten hours all the moulds are filled with ice. In order to shorten the duration of the process, Messrs. Russell propose to pass a pipe direct from the refrigerating vessel to the second trough, which will then receive the cold water before its refrigerating power has been lessened by passing through the first trough.

When all the water is frozen the ice is taken out of the moulds, wrapped in flannel, and placed in a bin formed of a double casing of wood lined with sawdust. in this manner the ice has been kept for several days without any perceptible loss. The machine is driven by a ten-horse engine, the fuel for which is almost the only cost of working the apparatus, there being no waste of material in the process.

A company, in which Mr. Harrison has the principal interest, has been formed for the purpose of working the machine in Sydney; and Mr. Watson, soda water manufacturer, has been appointed agent for the sale of the ice. The price charged is threepence per pound, but a block, which weighs about fifteen pounds, is the smallest quantity sold.

At present the demand for ice appears to be limited in Sydney to its use in confectionery and in cooling summer drinks. Now that a permanent supply is established its value will probably come to be appreciated for other purposes, such as the salting of provisions, and dairy operations.


For a year or two Nicolle worked with the Harrison machines, such that by 23 December 1861, in collaboration with Richard Dawson, he received his first Australian patent for a process to liquefy ammonia for use as a refrigerant. During the following year Nicolle, Dawson and the Wilkinson brothers bought the Sydney Ice Company from P.N. Russell & Co. and James Harrison, along with the franchise to use Harrison's machines in New South Wales (though they ceased to use them from this point on as they believed their own process was superior). The new owners moved their operations from George Street, Sydney, to land leased by Nicolle and Dawson in West Street, Darlinghurst.

On 26 February 1863 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, despite a delay due to the illness of Nicolle, the Sydney Ice Company was now operating a new ice-producing method designed by him and based on an ammonia absorption process.

The Sydney Ice Company having completed their apparatus and brought it into working condition, and having obtained a patent for the process, have now permanently commenced the manufacture of ice and its supply to the public. The price at present charged for the ice, which is delivered in carts to subscribers in blocks of seven pounds and upwards, is threepence per pound, but it is expected that next summer it will be supplied at a cheaper rate.

The apparatus is the invention of M. Eugene D. Nicolle, and the manufacture is carried on under his superintendence at Darlinghurst. Patents for the process are being applied for by M. Nicolle in the other colonies, and in the meantime we abstain from published a detailed description of the apparatus. We may, however, state with regard to the principle of the operation, that ammoniacal gas is liquefied by the pressure of its own vapour, and that by the evaporation of the liquid so obtained the cold is produced. The ice is perfectly pure and transparent, and is not in any way affected by the chemicals used in its production.

The manufacture has been delayed through the illness of the patentee and other causes, but there is not likely to be now any interruption to the supply, and during the remainder of the warm season there is sure to be an extensive demand for the luxury.


The following year a large plant was set up at Darlinghurst to service the Sydney market with Nicolle ice, and a second ice machine was also constructed for the Wilkinson Brothers plant in Brisbane. These machines and Nicolle's method were fully described in the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 November 1864, as follows:

The Ice-Making Machine

We had the pleasure last week of seeing in successful operation, at the Sydney Ice Company's establishment in Paddington, an ice-making machine which has recently been constructed, and which will this week be sent to Brisbane, to be brought into use there. The machine is similar in size and also somewhat different in construction from that which has been for some time past at work. We take the opportunity of giving a few particulars respecting the process of ice-making, which we were unable to do when the apparatus was first brought into use, as at that time a patent for the improved invention had not been secured. The Sydney Ice Company have now patents for their machine in the various colonies, and they intend to apply for one in England.

Although the fact (discovered by Professor Faraday) of cold being produced by the liquefaction of ammonia has been known for many years, the merit of contriving an apparatus for applying that discovery to the production of ice is due to Mr. E.D. Nicolle, and the two machines at Paddington have been constructed under his immediate direction. The perfecting of the apparatus required powers of invention and adaptation of a high order; and many difficulties and great expense were encountered in carrying out the undertaking; but these will, no doubt, be more than compensated by the extensive demand for ice which must exist in a warm climate. it is unnecessary to refer ot the many valuable applications of ice, particularly in the preservation of food; and though it is at present regarded chiefly as a luxury, it will probably at no distant period become a necessary. in the hands of the medical profession it has many uses which hitherto have scarcely been developed, especially in this part of the world.

In proceeding to give a short description of the ice-making machine, it may be desirable to remind unscientific readers that ice is water from which the heat of fluidity has been removed. Besides that heat which produces its sensible temperature, water contains also a certain quantity of latent heat which it has acquired during its passage from the state of ice to that of water. As ice and water may be obtained of the same temperature, the difference between them arises from the latent heat contained in the latter. it may also be stated that water itself is capable of receiving and rendering latent another portion of heat, which it does during its passage from the state of fluid to that of vapors or steam. This remark is also applicable to other bodies which are capable of assuming the solid, liquid, or gaseous form.

Mr. Nicolle's ice-making apparatus consists of four portions, and its action depends upon two important facts: - First, that water is capable of absorbing ammoniacal gas in the enormous proportion of six or seven hundred volumes; and second, that the ammonia can be displaced from the solution by the application of heat. The solution of ammonia sold at the druggists' shops consists of gaseous ammonia liquefied by absorption in water. The ammonia used in this apparatus is entirely a colonial production, and is prepared under the direction of Mr. C. Watt.

The portion of the machine first calling for notice, consists of a strong iron boiler capable of holding several gallons of a strong solution of ammonia. This vessel is so arranged that heat can be applied to it either by means of steam or otherwise, and is furnished with a large pipe which conveys the gaseous ammonia - the elimination having been effected by heat - into another vessel which is surrounded by cold water. When a sufficient pressure is obtained, the gaseous ammonia becomes liquid and gives out that increment of latent heat which it possessed in the gaseous state. After this liquefaction is effected the liquefied ammonia is allowed to run into another vessel which is supplied with a pipe and tap for that purpose; this vessel is called the freezing cistern or tank. The liquid ammonia acts as the cooling agent.

From the freezing cistern a pipe communicates to a series of three small boilers; into these is poured the spent liquor from which, in the first instance, the ammonia was expelled by heat, as before stated. When the connexion between the freezing cistern and the boilers is opened, there being little or no pressure upon the liquefied ammonia, it commences to boil, and again assumes the gaseous state; it is again absorbed by the spent liquor before mentioned, until sufficient gas has been taken up by the liquor to render it fit to be again passed into the boiler, and to again undergo the operation before mentioned.

In the tank holding the liquefied ammonia, a series of vessels holding pure water are placed, and are there frozen in the course of a few hours by the intense cold produced by the rapid evaporation of the liquid ammonia and its passage into the state of gaseous ammonia. Thus the heat from the water supplies the latent heat to the liquid ammonia that causes it to reassume the gaseous form; this heat is again given out when the gaseous ammonia is reabsorbed by the fluid from which it was originally eliminated.

This apparatus, which, as we have above stated, is intended for Brisbane, is capable of producing one ton of ice per day. It can be worked with great economy, as it is almost entirely self-acting, and requires no attendance at night nor any employment of mechanical force. For economy of space one portion of the machine is placed above another; there are three floors each ten feet square, and the woodwork and other portions are so arranged that they can be quickly put up on reaching Brisbane. The entire apparatus was made at the Ice Company's establishment.

The ice produced by the Brisbane machine is much more opaque than that made by the Sydney machine, and this again is much more opaque than natural ice. Some persons consider - very erroneously - that the opaqueness is a defect; it is simply the effect of the rapidity with which the freezing has taken place. Whereas in the case of natural ice it requires several days to freeze water an inch in depth, in the Sydney machine it takes about twenty-four hours to freeze the small blocks, but in the machine for Brisbane, the blocks are frozen in three or four hours. The difference between transparent and opaque ice may be illustrated by referring to the difference between white sugar and sugar candy, the transparency of the latter being, it is well known, caused by its slower crystallisation. Another peculiarity of artificial ice is the number of fine concentric tubes, which give the blocks a curious and rather pretty appearance. This is caused by the freezing commencing first on the outside, thereby squeezing towards the centre the atmospheric air which has previously been held in solution in the water. in the formation of natural ice, on the other hand, the water is frozen from the surface, and the cold air is driven downwards. This has been remarked as a wise provision of nature for supplying the necessary air for the inhabitants of the water, for as the freezing proceeds more air is forced down to the water below.

We learn that the artificial production of ice is in Europe fast superseding the collecting of ice from frozen ponds and rivers. The great advantage of the former arrangement is, that the ice can be produced in blocks of a convenient size, whereas when obtained in masses it has to be sawn and chopped, involving expense and waste.

It is right to state that in the apparatus above described, all the ammonia being reabsorbed, it is not allowed to escape; consequently it does not come into contact with the ice, and, therefore cannot possibly communicate any impurity. besides which it should be known that wherever water is frozen it becomes absolutely pure; even when sea water is frozen the water obtained by the thawing of the ice is pure.

As good ice can be produced in Sydney in sufficient quantities to meet the requirements of the community, it is not likely that any more cargoes of American ice will be imported. No import duty is needed to protect the colonial manufacturers, as they can produce an equally good article at a very low price. We may state that the Sydney Ice Company sell their ice at 2 1/4 d per lb., making an allowance where a large quantity is taken, and deliver it to any part of the city.

The ice machine for Brisbane is the property of Messrs. Wilkinson Bros. and Mr. E.D. Nicolle. Mr. Dawson is associated with the above gentleman in the Sydney Ice Company.


Throughout the sixties Nicolle continued to refine his refrigeration processes, both for industrial and household or small business applications. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald of 19 December 1867, carried an advertisement for a new domestic ice refrigerator developed by Nicolle's Ice Works, along with ongoing reference to the availability of ice:

New Ice Refrigerator. - The undersigned begs to inform the public that he has invented an improved refrigerator, receiving daily complaints from his numerous customers of their inability to refrigerate articles of food, wine, &c., with the common sawdust refrigerator now in use here. The New Refrigerator invented at the Ice Works combines all advantages required, viz., elegance, cleanliness, durability, and great economy of ice, as every degree of cold contained in the ice is turned to advantage. These refrigerators can be seen in operation daily at the Ice Works, Darlinghurst.

E.D. Nicolle.

Ice. Ice. Ice. - Notices. - Parties in town and in the country, wishing to become subscribers for their supply of ice during the season, will please send their names and addresses to Mr. E.D. Nicolle, at the Iceworks, who will forward them, on application, a form, with particulars and terms, to be filled.


With the completion of construction of each new machine he would immediately move on to the next, continuing to update his method or even taking an entirely new direction. A system using ammonia would be dropped for one utilising compressed air, which in turn may be rejected; different metals and alloys would be experimented with for carrying coolant and maintaining pressures; and he would constantly be on the lookout for new and more efficient insulation materials. All this work took a great deal of time, money, and engineering expertise. Unfortunately Nicolle, with a young family to support, did not have much of the first two to spare. Progress in this new field of engineering science was slow, however by 1876 Nicolle had his name attached to a total of twelve refrigeration-related patents, either singularly or in collaboration with T.S. Mort, Augustus Morris, and others. He had also produced at least seven different refrigeration machines and associated plant.

Freezing Meat for Export

Around 1865, by which time his ice making machines were in operation, Nicolle was introduced to a pastoralist named Augustus Morris who was the proponent of a grand scheme to transport frozen meat (sheep and cattle carcasses) to England.20 Up to this point Nicolle had been mainly interested in producing ice and a household refrigerator for the Australian market, however he was soon convinced that Morris's idea - which was seen as novel for the time - had some merit. Morris likewise found in the Frenchman an inventive genius and skilled engineer who could bring his dream to reality, and the two men immediately set about gaining further support from local pastoralists and industrialists. After initial rebuffs, by September 1866 Morris had issued a circular calling for public investment in the freezing scheme. He was to eventually gain the substantial financial and resource backing of T.S. Mort.21

Mort had previously carried out his own experiments in the production of ice, and family legend has it that, upon hearing of the discovery of a prehistoric mammoth preserved in the frozen wastelands of Russia, he had dreamt of exporting frozen meat to England. This was all long before encountering Nicolle and Morris.22 Mort had extensive cattle and dairy interests and saw that the colony needed to develop an export trade in those commodities if it was to progress. At the time only salted meat and meat extracts could be exported and these items were not popular with consumers. A cheap and efficient means of refrigeration for use in the hot Australian climate and for dispatching frozen and chilled cargoes to England, Europe and America would expand markets enormously.23 A similar problem was faced by pastoralists in South America.

After the three men - Mort, Nicolle, and Morris - had initially linked up, Mort dispatched Morris to England in September 1867 to investigate current freezing methods and secure Nicolle patents in Europe and America, whilst Nicolle marketed a new domestic refrigerator that year and continued his experiments, only this time with the considerable backing of Mort and his engineering works. In line with the proposed export scheme he immediately designed a refrigerated vessel capable of holding 1000 tons of meat and of being placed in the hold of a ship. A model was erected in Sydney and successfully tested over a number of months. The Sydney Morning Herald of 18 September 1867 ran a full description of the process and of the company's future plans:

The apparatus now in active use at the Ice Company's Works has been set up in a shed on the eastern side of the yard, and is sufficient for preserving 3000 bullocks or, say 1000 tons of meat. The apparatus is more particularly designed for use on board ship, the whole of the machinery and fittings being so arranged that everything can be conveniently stowed away, and space so be properly economised....

Mort soon realised that to implement the plan a great deal of capital would be required, along with overcoming public ignorance and even hostility towards the idea of using once frozen perishable foods such as meat which had been chilled and refrigerated. On 2 February 1868 a public meeting was held at the Sydney Chamber of Commerce to discuss Mort's meat exporting scheme and to raise public money. A Meat Export Committee was set up and contributions were called for. Mort's enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and Nicolle's obvious technical skill and knowledge won many supporters, with over £2,500 initially subscribed. Unfortunately more than enthusiasm and money were required to overcome the inevitable teething problems of such a new and complex engineering process. As ever, progress was slow, and the Sydney Morning Herald noted such in its issue of 10 October 1868.

The major problem was that, despite the fact that Nicolle and Mort were ready to go with their 1000 ton refrigerated plant, various ships captains would not accept it within their holds as its use of ammonia under high pressure could cause problems at sea if there were any leakages. Insurers were skeptical and no one was willing to take a gamble. Nicolle and Mort were therefore forced to scrap this plant and develop a less volatile system, using compressed air. In the meantime their South American rivals had unsuccessfully attempted to ship half a ton of frozen meat from Montevideo to London in January 1869, using Monsieur Tellier's freezing machines. These units employed the compression of dimethyl ether vapour for refrigeration, and were a variation of Harrison's process.24

During April and May 1869 the public were given further reports of the slow progress of the local meat export scheme, and of the ill-health of Nicolle, as shown in the following letter from Mort to the chairman of the Meat Export committee which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Greenoaks, April 10, 1869

My Dear Mr. Cowper

I have delayed replying to your letter because I have been in great hope that I should be able to accomplish something decisive by waiting; but Nicolle is again hors de combat, and I feel not likely to tackle work for some time.

I have really wrought hard - harder than I ever did at anything in my life before, and I have spared no cost to accomplish my object, and even yet I am not prepared to acknowledge myself beaten, nor do I intend to give in; but I think, as I have failed to come up to anything like decent time, it is only right that the money which was subscribed should be returned.

I am, as you can easily understand, very weary, but I am not by any means hopeless of eventual success; my regret is that I should have allowed myself to believe that the thing could be accomplished in so short a time, thereby giving good friends a great deal of trouble, which I would fain have spared them. One thing, however has resulted from their action at the Chamber of Commerce meeting over which you were so good as to preside - the subject has been thoroughly ventilated throughout the world, and the genius of all nations has, in consequence, been challenged to accomplish what we aimed at. I do not know if you are aware that an experiment is being made on board the City de Janeiro steamship by Tilley, assisted by a rich gentleman by the name of De Cocq, to carry meat under the cold air process. I do not, however, think it will be a success, as the plan is one which Nicolle abandoned long ago. Ammoniacal gas being the agent employed, we shall hear about it bye-and-bye. It is a satisfaction to me, in the midst of all my disappointments, to know that no one save myself has suffered in pocket by my experiments. Nicolle participates with me in loss of health, and, I fear, reputation also - but then he is in the same boat, so cannot grumble.

I am quite certain Nicolle is still confident of success and will never leave the matter until he, or someone else, shall have accomplished it.

I am, my dear Mr. Cowper,

Very faithfully your,

Thos. S. Mort

On 24 April 1869 Nicolle was presented with a gold locket inscribed "Genius Triumphed". Whilst the precise circumstances and meaning of the award are unknown (perhaps Nicolle had come up with a completely new refrigeration process) it is possible that Mort was the presenter, aiming to raise the spirits of his sick collaborator. Whilst Mort considered Nicolle an inventive genius and would stand by his friend during these times of illness and setbacks, others were not so loyal or appreciative of his work. Mort's brother Henry once described Nicolle as a "....clever-talking French adventurer, void of conscience and without any practical ability, but possessed of a dangerous smattering of all the sciences ... I really do not know any one of all his schemes which can be looked upon as a success."

Perhaps Henry was concerned at the large amounts of money and personal effort his brother was expending upon schemes in association with Nicolle, as well as worried by Thomas's continuing ill-health - Mort suffered debilitating attacks of chronic fatigue throughout his life, and never really recovered from the shock of losing his wife in 1869.

On the bright side, Augustus Morris returned from England in July 1869 with the news that Nicolle and Mort's freezing method was at the forefront of world research, and that they should continue refining their preferred process using compressed ammonia, as opposed to compressed air, to reduce temperature.

By 1870 the grand export plan had ground to a halt, with Nicolle working on a completely new process for local plant. It was not until July 1872 that the people of Sydney once again were made aware of Mort and Nicolle's continuing labours. During that month a freezing apparatus - using ammonia under reduced pressures - was set up at the Royal Hotel, George Street, Sydney, and was successfully operated with regular public inspections.

In October of that year Mort wrote a letter to the New South Wales Minister for Works outlining his association with Nicolle and Morris, and calling for government support for a new venture in local refrigeration. By July of 1873 he had put in place a plan to link a large slaughtering and chilling works at Bowenfels, near Lithgow, with a freezing plant at Darling Harbour, operating with ammonia gas supplied from the nearby Sydney Gas Works. Once again, Nicolle was designing the equipment. This system would not necessarily result in the achievement of the export of large amounts of frozen meat to England, but it would make it available for the metropolis of Sydney and lay the foundation for any future endeavour in that direction. In the long run it would prove of much benefit to Australia.

On 2 September 1875 Mort celebrated the opening of this Darling Harbour freezing depot with a media day-trip from Sydney to the factory at Bowenfels where the party feasted on goods frozen many months before. This event marked Mort and Nicolle's most successful period of collaboration, going a long way to convincing the public that there was no harm in eating once frozen meat. The place of Mort and Nicolle in the annals of Australian history was secured.

As this scheme came to fruition, Nicolle held thoughts of retirement. On 1 July 1875 he signed a memorandum of agreement with Mort and others whereby he sold his interest in the Sydney Ice Works Company for £8577.6.1. His old business was subsequently renamed the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Company, with Nicolle maintaining some control via his accumulation of shares in the new company and employment for a period of three years to July 1878 as a consultant engineer. He also held continuing rights to various patents, and his brother Jules benefited from the agreement.

It was during 1875 that Mort and Nicolle presented papers to the Agricultural Society of New South Wales on 'The preservation of food by freezing, and the bearing it will have on pastoral and agricultural interests of Australia,' and 'On the preservation of food by regulated temperature.' Whilst both appeared in the Journal of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, Nicolle's paper also appeared in the Town and Country Journal of 20 November. It is reproduced in the Appendix to give an idea of Nicolle's thoughts at the time, and demonstrate some of the mystery surrounding the theory of refrigeration as then understood.

Following the successful launching of the Darling Harbour / Bowenfels meat processing scheme, Nicolle and Mort once again turned their talents to developing a method for exporting frozen carcasses to England in an effort to find markets for expanding local sheep and cattle industries. This time a compressed air method would be used, one which would not find opposition from ship captains. If it proved viable they would be able to secure valuable world-wide patents as their South American rivals were as yet unsuccessful. Nicolle's own words best describe the ill-fated attempts to export frozen meat between 1867-78:

Mr Mort offered to find the capital if I contributed the skill. I therefore designed a special machine able to store and freeze some 40 tons of meat. This was in 1867. A trial of the apparatus was given lasting over 12 months, and was eminently satisfactory. With always the future in view, this apparatus was designed to suit ship board, and it was in connection with this that we met our first rebuff.

In those days, vessels available rarely exceeded 500 tons, and ship-masters were unwilling to alter the internal construction for fear of weakening their vessels. Exception was also taken to the circulation of ammoniacal gas at high pressure, which might in heavy weather escape, and perhaps damage the rest of the cargo.

To get over this difficulty a second apparatus was constructed on the low-pressure basis, capable of freezing half a ton of water daily, and maintaining an equal temperature. A freezing chamber was erected at the rear of the Royal Hotel, George Street [in 1872], and was in operation for some fifteen months, during which time thousands of persons visited the place and witnessed the experiments being made. It was at this stage that Mr Mort decided that something in a large way should be attempted. Large freezing works were erected at Darling Harbour [in 1874-5], under my supervision and from my designs.

An attempt was made to fit up the Whampoa, a large steamer, which seemed to possess the necessary space. Negotiations were entered upon, backed up by Captain Farquhar, a retired P. and O. commander, who at the time was the manager of the F.F. and I. Company. The proposal was vetoed, however, by the captain of the vessel on learning that liquefied ammonia was the freezing agent. We retired greatly mortified at his refusal, and recognising that either a high or low pressure ammonia apparatus would be against insurance regulations, we turned our attention to the compressed air system.

The next attempt was to fit up the Northam, an iron sailing vessel. But owing to the refusal of the agents to delay the time of sailing, the apparatus was not fully complete when shipped [in July 1877]. A staff was sent on board to work it, and these men, returning from England by the mail boat, proved by records taken that the apparatus had performed its work satisfactorily. This was in 1878, marked by two noteworthy incidents - the regrettable death of Mr T.S. Mort, and the loss at sea of the Northam on her return voyage to Sydney.


Nicolle does not mention other setbacks such as the disastrous fire at the Darling Harbour meatworks in December 1875; or the equipment failure on the Northam during July 1877, the day before departure, causing the shipment to be aborted. Both he and Mort were shattered by the Northam incident, especially when they considered the time and money (more than £100,000 in Mort's case) which had been invested in the project. They were dealt a further blow when their South American rivals were successful in bringing a frozen cargo to England at the end of 1877.

However, the use of a compressed air system to export chilled beef ultimately proved successful. Local attempts to export a frozen cargo continued. On 29 November 1879 the SS Strathleven left Sydney with a load of meat refrigerated using English equipment operating on the cold-air principle. It arrived in London in February 1880. It is unfortunate that neither Mort nor Nicolle was in charge of the final stages of the project. Mort had died at Bodalla on 9 May 1878 and Nicolle had retired in July of the same year.

By 1881 three Orient vessels had been fitted with Nicolle freezing equipment and new markets were opening up to the Australian frozen meat trade thanks to Nicolle's pioneering work and support from individuals such as T.S. Mort and Augustus Morris. As the latter noted in 1875:

...Without the aid of Mr Nicolle's inventive genius to which Mr Mort has so repeatedly and emphatically borne testimony, Mr Mort could have done little; but most assuredly without the encouragement of Mr Mort's capital, marvelous patience and great knowledge of business, Mr Nicolle's genius would not have warmed into life.

The numerous setbacks were due mainly to the trail blazing nature of the work, involving many new challenges and problems both engineering and chemical. As world leaders in this area their efforts deserve recognition, even if they were eventually pipped at the post by a South American team.

Shale Oil

It would be erroneous to think that Nicolle devoted almost twenty years of his life solely to perfecting his refrigeration process, for he was a man of many talents, a workaholic involved in a number of enterprises, perhaps even a charlatan and con-man if we are to believe Henry Mort's comments.

Throughout the sixties he not only continued to build plant for local sawmills, breweries and similar enterprises but also, between 1865 and 1868, was instrumental in the setting up of a shale oil distillation plant at Waterloo, Sydney. This plant was designed to use material extracted from the Western Kerosene Company mine at Hartley, on the western edge of the Blue Mountains in the vicinity of Victoria Pass. T.S. Mort was one of the shareholders of the company, along with Charles Watt, the chemist.

The refining of shale oil was not only a new and complicated process, but it was also extremely dangerous, employing many volatile chemicals and extreme heat. The commercial exploitation of shale oil was an untried industry for the colony in the mid sixties, with no local expertise. There were many obstacles to be overcome in setting up such a complex operation, and engineers from Scotland and America were eventually brought in, as occurred at the American Creek (Illawarra) and Joadja mines during the 1860s and seventies. Once again Nicolle seems to have been attracted to the engineering challenge, and with Mort's financial assistance he was eventually successful in bringing in to operation the Hartley/Waterloo shale oil mining and refinery operation.

The Sydney Morning Herald of 29 April 1865 reported on Nicolle's presentation of a plan for a shale oil distillery to a meeting of Western Kerosene Company shareholders in Sydney. The plan was accepted and he is known to have worked through to at least September 1868. It was while returning from the Hartley mine that Nicolle suffered an accident which was to have a profound effect on the remainder of his life. James Jervis related the incident as follows:

...[Nicolle's] horse fell on the way down Lapstone Hill and the shaft of the gig in which he was driving penetrated his side. He was ill for months afterwards, and the medical men were unable to close the wound. Eventually Nicolle succeeded in clearing up the chronic sore which was the result of the accident. After his retirement he treated many people at Illawarra who suffered from similar sores. He refused any payment, saying he did it out of gratitude to the Almighty for his own recovery.

The precise date of his accident is unknown, though Mort's previously cited comment regarding "hors de combat" suggests that it may have occurred around April 1869. Nicolle's weak health continued to plague him throughout the 1870s, and following the failure of the Northam cargo in 1877 he looked towards retirement the following year. Some say he was worn out and disillusioned, though other reports indicate he was a pragmatist - at ease with his failures and proud of his many successes.

Retirement Years 1878 - 1909

When Nicolle's contract of employment with the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Company expired on 1 July 1878 he retired a reasonably wealthy man. He had invested in land at Illawarra, on the New South Wales South Coast, since the mid sixties and was receiving dividends from his share investments and patent licenses. Nicolle used part of his fortune to build a residence (Whiteheath) at Lake Illawarra, with adjacent workshop and laboratory, and in the latter part of 1878 he took his wife and step-daughter on a European tour.

After a holiday which undoubtedly included a visit to family in France, the trip ended unhappily when Nicolle's wife Jane died of a stroke on board the Garonne on 15 February 1879, just three days out from Adelaide on the return voyage. She was buried at the Cheltenham Cemetery, Port Adelaide and Nicolle and his step-daughter returned to Illawarra.

Alone, and released of any major business commitments, Nicolle's ever inquiring mind returned to interests in herbal medicine and theosophy, both of which were developed at Whiteheath, alongside continuing experimentation in engineering. Apart from some time spent on overseas visits, Nicolle resided at Primbee for the remaining thirty years of his life. Early in 1881 he journeyed once again to France, returning to Sydney aboard the Potosi on 28 September, accompanied by his brother Jules and Miss E. Williamson. A letter to his cousins in France, dated December 1881, describes part of the perilous voyage to Australia aboard the Potosi.

[December 1881]

I have had much pleasure in receiving your kind letter of the 20th Sept. together with another from my good friend and cousin Maurice. You have no doubt received my letter from the Cape of Good Hope in which I have given you some details of the first section of the voyage which was by no means encouraging.

I will now continue the second section which was not accomplished without great danger. You no doubt heard the deplorable news of the shipwreck of the SS Canton, 5 hours after departure from the Cape. We left on the same day and the same hour from Plymouth with this ship, it having gained 18 hours during the passage. Our engine having been in troublesome holdups during the last gale, it was under trial till near the coast of Africa, its operations being retarded. The Canton, having taken on coal, continued its voyage, two days after her arrival, around Africa towards Natal which was her destination. It passed close to our ship which was at anchor and five hours later was at the bottom of the sea. The wind and the sea were only moderate, the sky was clear and the moon was at its height, all means for a favourable passage but this was not to be. The imprudence of the captain who approached too close to the coast has resulted in 200 passengers being engulfed in the sea. You have probably read of this catastrophe which will save me discussing any more about this unhappy affair.

Two days after departure and casting away of the Canton, our necessary repairs having been made, as well as could be expected, there being no constructional workshops at the Cape capable of repairing an engine such as that in the Potosi, we then continued our voyage. During the first two days there was favourable weather and we made good time, but on the third day the weather changed and the wind and sea greatly increased. On the fourth day we ran into a heavy storm and for 16 days the sea became worse and worse. It was a terrible state of affairs. At that time our position (already very bad) was in a dangerous state, the waves raised themselves like mountains above us and had a calculated measurement of 15 metres in height. Although the wind blew so much, it had but little effect on so terrible a sea.

The boat for the greater part of the time remained under streams of water thus announcing the closeness to disaster. The rolling was so strong it was difficult to walk and also lie on the bed without hanging on. For a meal the table could not be used for a single thing because its geometrical position approached the perpendicular. I expected at any moment that the rudder would have been carried away by the sea squalls which struck continuously and that we would see our end arrive.

This last night I had lost all hope of our safety and I was considering the extreme when towards 3 o'clock in the morning a mountain of water passed over our vessel and for seconds we were submerged. The ports of the vessel shook for a long time after such a violent shock and it oscillated several seconds later till it had relieved its prow of water.

We had escaped from this imminent danger. In the afternoon the wind lessened a little but the sea remained in the same state and it was not until 2 days after the wind moderated that the sea became navigable. Our brave Captain was exposed to the greatest danger during all this tempest and owing to his courage and experience, we have survived the storm. We can say that over 25 years round the oceans of the world, we have never seen a similar sea.

We were then close to the St Paul and Amsterdam islands, having gone beyond the mean distance of the coasts of Africa and Australia, passing these dangerous islands at a distance of 150 leagues. We were obliged to change our course, as we were unable to use some part of the engine, which happily in spite of the bearings which were in use to work it, resisted all efforts to which it was submitted.

The weather continued to become favourable and some days later we reached the coast of Australia having been exposed to the terrible violences of the equinoctial gales which at the time ravaged the seas over which we were navigating.

Jules has been very frightened and I fear that he will not undertake another voyage. As far as I am concerned that would not prevent me from returning but I would not choose the route of the Cape of Good Hope which is the more dangerous. I have already made two voyages and I expect the third one would be as bad. The most imminent dangers would be floating ice and complete absence of a port of refuge between the two countries which are also far apart and if an accident happened to an engine in the middle of a storm. These steamships do not carry enough sails to be able to navigate and if they took four months to reach the coast with only a months supply one would be exposed to die from hunger...


After returning home Nicolle curtailed his travelling for a number of years, however he is known to have visited Rouen, France, in August 1889, judging from information contained in a letter to his cousin Charles dated 19 January 1890.

Life at Primbee

Nicolle was a relatively young 54 years of age when he first settled at Lake Illawarra, and after recovering from the premature death of his wife he was to lead a hectic life there. While living at Whiteheath he spent a great deal of time in his workshop laboratory which was stocked with lathes, drills, and a blast furnace. He experimented with various machines, worked on his inventions and scientific studies, and frequently entertained such distinguished visitors as Professor T.W. Edgeworth David (an Australian geologist), W.C. Russell (New South Wales Government Astronomer), Sir Ernest Shackleton (the polar explorer), William Hamlet and M. [Monsieur] Louie, the nephew of Louis Pasteur. According to Norman Selfe, Nicolle was still carrying out experiments on refrigeration at Primbee as late as 1899.

Apart from working at science, Nicolle also spent his retirement years developing a substantial orchard and garden. Though the property Whiteheath was best suited to dairy cattle (being surrounded by low lying swampy and sandy land) due to its proximity to Lake Illawarra he also attempted to grow rice and wheat there in order to test out the capabilities of his patent steam plough. In line with this scheme, part of the swamp immediately south of Whiteheath was successfully drained, subdivided, and a dam with a large sluice gate constructed along its western edge. A drainage channel was also excavated, running along the south side of the present day Nicolle Road and connecting the Nicolle paddy field to Lake Illawarra.

Despite these elaborate arrangements and the help of his steam plough, the rice and wheat crops eventually failed, possibly because the bulk of Nicolle's land to the south of Whiteheath was low lying and subject to flooding from the lake. A resident of Primbee in the 1920s remembered the remains of Nicolle's rice fields in a book of reminiscences published in 1987:

...there are about 20 posts in the water still down off Nicolle Road. That was what they called the sheep fence, which the late Dr Nicolle had built to keep the sheep back. I can go back to when it was wired. I remember when I used to go shooting down around there, rabbits and one thing and another. It was called, by all the old people in my time, The Sheep Fence.

That fence continued right up to the swamp, right up through his property. The posts were quite high, they had been cut down. Up near the orchard and the old swamp, that was called Primbee Swamp. There was a flood gate put in there. It was a huge gate. It was a steel gate. He had it made to keep the water back where he attempted to grow rice once. That huge drain is still there. It goes right from the swamp down to the lake, and that's what they called The Sheep Fence.

I couldn't say if he did any good with the rice but apparently he had coloured people working for him. He did a lot of work down there on the rice but whether it was successful or not, I don't know. All that was before my time. It was finished before we came here. That was 1914-15.

The fruit trees and vegetation such as apples, pears and grapes. We could still go down there and pick those. But it wasn't cultivated and no one bothered much. When the old doctor died no one bothered about it.

In a letter to a Mr Bennett, dated 29 April 1882, Nicolle outlined how his efforts to use a steam plough to work some fields on his property were brought to a halt by a high flood of Lake Illawarra. He also mentions that he had purchased a steam launch 32ft long, 7ft 2in beam and 4ft deep, capable of carrying 20 passengers. It was worth £400 but had cost him £300, and was named the Petrel. The launch was no doubt used for leisurely cruises on Lake Illawarra and perhaps around the nearby Five Islands. The Nicolle jetty on Lake Illawarra was most likely located to the north of the property, facing Griffins Bay.

Life for Nicolle in Illawarra, though relatively quiet after the years associated with industry at Sydney, was nevertheless lively. Many accounts of his time there have appeared over the years, all revealing different aspects of the man. One of the earliest is the following notice from the Illawarra Mercury of 2 October 1897 describing his 73rd birthday celebrations:

73rd Birthday Celebrations

Age With Honor

Mr E.D. Nicolle of Whiteheath, Lake Illawarra, having attained the three score and thirteenth anniversary of his birthday, on Wednesday last, was entertained by the members of his family at a picnic on that day as a fitting and happy celebration of the event. Mr Stanley Nicolle, his amiable wife and Miss Nicolle, whose genial hospitality is so well known and appreciated by her friends, had the arrangements mostly in hand and they were carried out in a princely manner.

The scene selected for the joyous festivity was the Bong Bong Pass, in the Illawarra range, overlooking West Dapto. The company, including all Mr Nicolle's children and children's children, with several friends, numbered about 30 and a right happy day they spent. The honored guest was hale, hearty, vigorous and agile as an athlete, despite the years of the 'sere and yellow leaf'; the weather was bracingly cool, the immediate surroundings enchanting and the varied and expansive view toward every point of the compass, simply glorious.

Sumptuous refreshments having been partaken of, Mr Nicolle's health was proposed in complimentary terms and 'Many happy returns of the day' wished him most heartily by the company. He responded in suitable terms, expressing thanks to his family and friends for the kindness done to him by the exhilarating proceedings of the day and the presence of so many intimate personal friends to do him honor at that stage of his lifetime. More than half the party, including several ladies, then ascended the Pass to the summit of the mountain and 'viewed the landscape o'er' from the edge of the Bong Bong bluff, which towers skyward to a height of about 1800 ft above sea level and from which the vista was indescribably grand. Mr Nicolle not only was one of the scaling party but actually led the way all the distance of upward of 1000 ft above the picnic site and much of which was very steep.

All eyes having feasted upon the entrancing view, a descent was made and afternoon tea having been partaken of, three hearty cheers were given for Mr Nicolle, Mr Stanley Nicolle, Miss Nicolle and the Nicolle family generally and the party then dispersed homeward bound, all having pleasant recollections of the outing and the best wishes for the honored chief of the proceedings.

For the interest of the readers of these lines who may not be aware of the fact, it may be stated that the gentleman referred to played a most important part in the initiation of an enterprise which eventually developed into the present gigantic concern known as the Fresh Food and Ice Company of Sydney. About thirty years ago ice making and freezing of meat was commenced in the vicinity of Surry Hills, by the late Mr T.S. Mort and E.D. Nicolle, as a firm, under the name of Mort and Nicolle. After the enterprise had reached a certain stage successfully, Mr Nicolle retired from it and has since resided in Illawarra on a favorite spot between Lake Illawarra and the ocean, living a quiet, retired life, studiously solving scientific problems and hospitably entertaining personal friends from far and near.


Reminiscences of Mrs Dorothy Nute

The Newcastle Herald of 2 August 1958 included reminiscences by Mrs Dorothy Nute, Nicolle's grand-daughter. She recalled that

...Well-trained natives from Noumea were employed as houseboys and gardeners. Mrs Nute also remembers clearly the cylindrical gramophone Mr Nicolle had sent out from his home country. On special entertainment nights, the family and friends were treated to French renditions of operas such as "Carmen" and "Barber of Seville." The gramophone was well publicised in Sydney newspapers as being the first of its kind in the colony.

Title page for E.D. Nicolle's Lectures, published postumously in Sydney, circa 1922.

Mrs Nute goes on to mention her grandfather's series of religious lectures - delivered on various Sundays between 4 November 1894 and 28 April 1907 that we know of - and the marine diesel engine he was designing just prior to his death.

Another account of life at Whiteheath is contained in Nicolle's obituary notice, taken from the Illawarra Mercury of 26 November 1909:

Death of Mr E.D. Nicolle, C.E.

The death took place on Wednesday night last of Mr Eugene Dominique Nicolle, C.E., at his residence, Whiteheath, Lake Illawarra, at the ripe age of 86 years. Mr Nicolle was a well-known man in scientific circles, and was an intimate friend of the late Mr Mort, with whom he was associated as consulting engineer. He designed the first freezing plant built by the Fresh Food and Ice Company, and built the first plant for extracting kerosene from shale at Lithgow. He took a warm interest in the establishment of Mort's Dock, and held a number of shares in the company.

He took up his residence at Lake Illawarra about forty years ago, and did much to improve and beautify the property. But it was his benevolent and kindly acts which won for him the love and esteem of the people of Illawarra. He was skilled in the treatment of wounds and sores of every description, and was ever ready to give advice and treatment to anyone who went to him. Not infrequently he would keep patients at his house for several days while attending to them. For all this labour of love he resolutely refused to accept remuneration of any sort or shape. All were welcome, and all received of his best.

Mr Nicolle leaves one son and several daughters, all of whom are married except one, Miss Nicolle, 39, who resides at Whiteheath.

The funeral took place yesterday, and was largely attended. The cortege journeyed to the Wollongong cemetery via Unanderra. The Rev. F. Lampard, who conducted the service, delivered an appropriate address.


Nicolle's estate was valued at over £18,000 at the time of his death, with the bulk going to his son Stanley and step-daughter Jane. Unfortunately it was many years before the estate was finally settled as many of the properties Nicolle had purchased in Illawarra were not subdivided and sold by the executors until 1926. As early as 1910 there appears to have been some conflict between Stanley and the other members of the family over the terms of the will, with the former resigning his position as executor at that time and denying any charges of impropriety. By the 1920s he was once again listed as executor on many of the land title deeds.

Further reminiscences concerning Nicolle's years at Primbee are contained in James Jervis's 1948 article on Nicolle. At the time his niece Miss Eugenie Louise Williamson (1879-1949) of Wollongong told how it was her uncle's practice:

...to assemble the household in the drawing-room every Sunday night, where he held a religious service, and a lecture or sermon was delivered. Afterwards the servants were entertained at supper in the dining-room.

From his published book of Lectures, plus letters and newspaper reports we can see how Nicolle was more than just a brilliant engineer and inventor. He saw his work in refrigeration as playing an important role in the future progress of mankind and the feeding of large populations. His interest in theosophical matters developed even further during his years of retirement at Primbee and his family and workers were privy to his outpourings. No doubt his own illness, and dealing with the illnesses of Illawarra residents at Whiteheath, added to his opportunities for reflection upon such matters.

"Doctor" Nicolle

Nicolle was most fondly remembered by the people of Illawarra for his medicinal and herbal work in curing sores and wounds, rather than as an inventor or scientist. A description of some of his work in this field is contained in the following letter from Mrs Hannah Nethery to Fred Turnidge:

30 October 1985

Dear Mr Turnidge

This is just a personal letter to let you know that I knew Mr Eugene Dominique Nicolle personally. When I was a little girl six years old [c.1908], I had a lump grow on my neck and at first my mother thought I had the mumps - as it is usual for children to catch this kind of sickness when first starting school; but after a few days the lump grew bigger and only on one side of my neck. So a visit to the doctor was arranged and the doctor said he would have to operate and made arrangements to do so.

As my grandmother had heard of several cures of sick people that had visited Mr Nicolle she asked permission of my parents to take me to see Mr Nicolle. So my Grandma who lived on the Gunyah estate near Wollongong got her pony and sulky ready for early Monday morning and with Auntie we three set off from Wollongong to Lake Illawarra South. We had to travel through Dapto, Albion Park to Oak Flats on the main road, then turn east and travel to the south side of the lake.

We arrived at Mr Nicolle's home about 10.30am and were greeted by Mr Nicolle who had been ill and recovering and having his morning walk around three or four pine trees (which I think are still growing) with a path around them, and so many times around these trees was so far. He would [then] sit down on the garden seat and have a bowl of broth. When we arrived he stopped to greet us and called to his daughter to bring a cup of tea for the ladies and a glass of milk for the little girl. When he finished his walk and bowl of broth, he decided to have a look at my neck and as he was doing this his daughter, who was just coming through the garden gate with an armful of vegetables, called out, "Oh Da, that's a tumor", and Mr Nicolle reprimanded her for saying so in front of a little girl (I well remember).

Well he took us into his study and made a graph of the lump on paper using a pair of compasses and told Grandma [to] go home and boil a fair size onion in water until it was soft, pour the water off and put the pulp into a napkin and apply to the lump on my neck and leave it there for twelve hours and repeat the treatment every twelve hours and come and see him in five or six days, and each visit he would take a graph of the lump and his treatment took many weeks.

At this time the family had made arrangements to go to Blackheath for a holiday for Mr Nicolle's benefit. But the holiday had to be delayed as he would not go until my neck was safe to leave and the lump had been reduced to normal except for some proud flesh that had grown with being moist so long. So Mr Nicolle had [to] burn this off with Blue Stone (I think) and then cover [it] with sticking plaster.

Mr Nicolle and family traveled to Blackheath for their holiday and while they were away I had to visit Mr Stan Nicolle each week and he would replace the sticking plaster.

Mrs Nicolle wrote to Grandma while at Blackheath and asked her if she could find a good girl, as she was in need of extra help when she return home, giving date and time of train to meet at Wollongong. Mr Stan Nicolle would meet them with a pair of ponies and carriage to go home. I still have the post card in my album and will enclose it with other printed matter for your collection.

Mr Nicolle's family vault [is located] just inside the fence of the Church of England cemetery in Kenny Street, South Wollongong, close by my Grandma and Grandfather's graves. I think I was Mr Nicolle's last patient and around the same time there was a Chinaman came to see Mr Nicolle. He had a rash on his back and whatever the remedy was it cured the rash on the Chinaman's back and when he came to pay for his treatment Mr Nicolle refused payment (as was usual with his patients) so the Chinaman promptly emptied his load of vegetables at Mr Nicolle's gate and drove off.

Later the two Miss Nicolles came to live at Cliff Road, Wollongong, overlooking the beach, and Mr Stan Nicolle and family later came to Wollongong to live.

The pine trees at Lake Illawarra South are still standing and I still carry the scar from the burn of the proud flesh on my neck and I am now 93? years old. Should you visit Wollongong I would be happy to meet you.

Trusting you can find something in this letter to further your inquires.

Yours faithfully

(Mrs) Hannah Nethery.

I was Hannah Brown and Grandma was Mrs Emma M. Robson.


This medical side of Nicolle is further expanded upon in the Primbee book. We know that Nicolle possessed a professional degree in civil engineering, however the legitimacy of the application of the title "Doctor" before his name is open to debate. Throughout Primbee our subject is nonetheless referred to as "Dr. Nicolle", whilst one of the compilers specifically states that he was:

....a man of many talents [and] a qualified French medical practitioner. He had no license to practice in Australia, but for some years he used to treat local people free of charge, and those who remember him recall that he always wore a rose in his lapel as he tended patients.

Another account from the Primbee book notes that he

....was reputed to have cured many people in this area in the old days. People would come from Wollongong and up and down the coast. He was a very kind man and he effected some cures on people with ulcers and problems like that. He was well known and a very kind man.

A local resident, Mr Kevin Cook of Woonona, has memories of the Nicolle family gathered from his parents who were farmers at Primbee during the 1920s. Mr Cook's mother was once treated by "Dr Nicolle" as she had a sore on her hand and he applied some of his personal ointment. Mr Cook noted that Nicolle never charged his patients and was somewhat concerned that he was taking business away from the local chemists.

Nicolle's almost miraculous skill in curing wounds and sores are obvious from the above accounts. With so few doctors in Illawarra at that time, it is understandable that people would travel to him from throughout the district and refer to him as a doctor. His knowledge of medicinal plants was undoubtedly acquired from his florist father, and would have been put to further good use in his garden at Whiteheath.

Mr Cook also remembers that Dr Nicolle's son Stanley was "a real gentleman", of independent means and educated at Oxford. When he returned to Primbee after travelling the world he worked in his father's laboratory on all manner of experiments. Whilst it is not proved that Stanley ever went to Oxford, it is obvious that in the years prior to his marriage in 1892 at the age of 29, he obtained a liberal education. After returning to Illawarra to live he became a member of the committee of the Wollongong A.H. & I. Association; assisted his father with medical treatments; and worked in the Nicolle laboratory on various engineering and refrigeration problems. When he died he left a large family and an estate valued at over £35,000.

Whiteheath and Esperanza, Primbee

When, in 1878, Nicolle decided to remove himself from the hustle and bustle of Sydney and retire he settled near Wollongong, by the eastern shore of Lake Illawarra and just 50 miles south of Sydney. There he built on a high sandy ridge with a panoramic view to the west towards Lake Illawarra and the Illawarra escarpment a residence which he named Whiteheath.

That the house had a south-westerly aspect was verified by Mrs Hannah Nethery who visited there as a child in 1908, and in January 1992 went back to the site with the author. On the latter occasion she told of how, in 1908, she approached the house from Wollongong via a circuitous route around the western edge of Tom Thumbs Lagoon and Lake Illawarra. It was necessary to take this long route, as the entrance of Lake Illawarra would regularly close up with sand and cause flooding between Primbee and Port Kembla. Upon reaching Primbee Mrs Nethery and her grandmother drove up a semi-circular drive past giant figtrees and an avenue of pines, approaching Whiteheath from the south-west.

Whiteheath, The Residence of E.D. Nicolle, Primbee

Korrungulla Swamp was located to the south of the house, on an estate of 300 acres. It comprised the southern portion of the modern suburb of Primbee, a name which was not officially used until 1901. Of the total Nicolle estate, 161 acres had been purchased from the Crown in 1867 and the rest was obtained from John Stewart, Francis Axam, and David James during the following ten years. The block upon which Nicolle built his homestead was on the north-eastern corner of his estate, this being the highest point in the Primbee area. The land was most likely virgin bush and swamp when Nicolle first made his purchases. There was some earlier farming on land to the north, between Whiteheath and the Lake, however to the south and east it was mostly sandy scrub which was used by the local Aboriginal people as a hunting and camping area up until the turn of the century.

A conspicuous feature of the Nicolle land (and of Primbee) is its sand, the whole area located within a large coastal dune system with Lake Illawarra on the western side separated by a strip of sandy land less than 2 miles wide from the Pacific Ocean on the east. The hill upon which Whiteheath was erected was capped with a fine grey sand, though there was a sandstone base to this hill and some of this rock was later quarried for associated roadworks at Esperanza. During this century there has seen much mining of sand in the Primbee area, especially the eastern section of Korrungulla Swamp which is currently being mined by a Port Kembla company. The soft foundations of the land constrained any plans Nicolle may have had for grand buildings upon the site - double storey brick and sandstone were out in 1878, and weatherboard on wooden piles was the preferred method of construction.

The house Whiteheath - named after the native heath which grew abundantly in the area - was similar to Nicolle's ornate Sydney residence, though larger and with elaborately carved woodwork verandah and roof features, plus twin chimneys. It was erected just below the highest point on his land. Nicolle's grand-daughter Mrs Nute during 1958 recalled that "...the home Mr Nicolle built was influenced by his French background. All the furnishings were French made, of French design and all the beds had typical French canopies over them."

Nicolle lived in Whiteheath until his death in 1909. Thereafter Jane Louise Williamson (also known as Miss Nicolle) occupied it with her daughter Eugenie until the estate was sold in 1924 and she removed to Neptune, 5 Cliff Road, Wollongong, where she remained until her death on 19 March 1926. Eugenie lived with her mother at Neptune for a period, before removing to Inglebah, at 8 Smith Street, Wollongong, where she died on 20 March 1949.

The fate of Whiteheath after 1924 is unclear. Mrs Hannah Nethery remembers that the house was somewhat rundown at the time of her visit in 1908, the year before Nicolle's death, however the nearby Esperanza was in pristine condition. Whiteheath, one photograph of which survives, appears to have been demolished sometime prior to the 1960s.

Stanley Nicolle resided in his own house Esperanza, which his father had built for him on the estate, 100 yards to the south-east of Whiteheath and on the crest of Primbee hill. In 1892 Stanley had married Catherine Charlotte Watt - daughter of Charles Watt, a Sydney chemist and longtime associate of Nicolle. According to Primbee:

...Dr Nicolle built Esperanza for his son, starting in 1890 and completing in 1892. There was a three roomed wing in the front but this had to be pulled down later due to white ant infestation. The name Esperanza is a Spanish word meaning "House of the Wanderers". Mr Nicolle Junior built a tennis court in 1909. He had a mill for sawing wood for his steamer to pump water for his garden, he then built a lookout on top of the tank. There is a butter cooler (not in use) at the front steps. Apparently the wind whistling in the trees and white bee boxes in the front yard gave the children the idea that it was a haunted house.

Esperanza was an L-shaped building, painted a pale green colour when Mrs Nethery visited there in 1908. The three-roomed wing referred to above extended out from the north-east corner. The front wing housed a large room (used as a school room) and governess's quarters; it also possessed a balcony with iron lattice-work. Unfortunately the extension was demolished during the 1930s or 1940s following its purchase by the O'Donnell family, and the house attained its present form. The outhouses at Esperanza were also modified by the O'Donnells during this period. The original weatherboard sheds - a carriage shed, garage, laundry and servants quarters, plus toilet - were updated with corrugated iron walls, and some of the shallow wooden pier foundations were replaced with concrete equivalents.

George North remembers that at Esperanza ...the laboratory and carriage house were sandstone brick, but the house itself was of timber. This most likely refers to the laboratory used by both Eugene and Stanley Nicolle and originally part of the Whiteheath estate. It is possible this laboratory was located between Whiteheath and Esperanza and was demolished with the former building.

Esperanza was of a similar external design to Whiteheath in that both possessed elaborately carved wood finishing around their verandahs and roof, however there was no iron lacework on the older building. Perhaps Esperanza's most distinctive features are the internal Wunderlich walls and ceilings made of tin. These walls feature embossing upon the lower half, while the ceilings contain fine corrugations. The verandah rafters are curved and supported by cast iron posts with elaborate iron lacework trim, produced by William Davies and the David Brothers of Wollongong. Esperanza is classified as a Federation carpenter Gothic/filigree house.

Both Whiteheath and Esperanza are unique buildings in the inventory of Illawarra's architectural history, very much reflecting the distinctive French influences of the Nicolle family. While Whiteheath is no more, Esperanza still stands, surrounded by some of the original gardens Nicolle had planted shortly after his arrival.

One of the reminiscences from Primbee creates some confusion as to the number of buildings originally on the Nicolle estate. It states that

...before [Nicolle] died, he built his son (not many people know this) a weatherboard cottage just below the present Esperanza homestead. It was a huge weatherboard cottage he built for his son to live in while he lived. Then when he died the son Stanley shifted up into Esperanza. It still stands to this day.

This suggests that Nicolle resided in Esperanza for a period, and that Stanley did not move in until after 1909. However this conflicts with other reminiscences which state that Eugene lived in Whiteheath until his death and that Stanley resided at Esperanza shortly after his marriage, and was there by 1895 at the latest. We also know that Stanley's first child Dorothy Jane Watt Nicolle was born at Esperanza on 20 September 1893, which strongly suggests that the house had been built as a wedding present for Stanley and Catherine.

Nicolle's will, dated 24 November 1898, includes a map of the estate, with 6 buildings depicted in plan. This possibly includes Whiteheath, Esperanza, the laboratory, the stables and outhouses associated with Esperanza (3 buildings), and a large shed by Korrungulla Swamp to house Nicolle's pumping equipment.

At present, of the original 300 acre Nicolle estate, only the house Esperanza and its associated buildings remain on a small block of about 1 acre. The remainder has been subdivided into suburban lots, however Korrungulla Swamp still maintains some of its original appearance and Nicolle's drainage channel still remains. Land at Primbee to the north of the Nicolle estate was first subdivided in 1919 (termed "The Lake Suburb" subdivision). This saw the creation of the semi-circular Korrungulla Ave fronting on to the northern edge of the Nicolle land and bypassing Whiteheath.

In 1924 Stanley Nicolle, as executor of his father's will, sold Esperanza to J. Vereker, a local butcher, and moved to Cliff Road, Wollongong, where he resided until his death on 2 December 1929. E.D. Nicolle's various Illawarra properties continued to be sold until at least 1926.

During 1924 the initial subdivision of the Nicolle estate was made by Vereker, with the creation of Jones Avenue, fronting on to Esperanza and ending in a roundabout adjacent to, and behind, the Whiteheath site. In 1926 there was a further subdivision to the north of present-day Nicolle Street and the drainage channel on the flat ground to the south-west of Primbee hill.

At some point Whiteheath was demolished and Jones Avenue extended a couple of blocks further west, right through the middle of its former foundations. The large figtree and pines surrounding Whiteheath were cut down, the old house and nearby laboratory were leveled, and bitumen was poured. No sign now remains of Whiteheath.

By the time Esperanza was sold to the O'Donnell family in 1937 much of the adjacent land had been subdivided, and it was now surrounded on three sides by suburban blocks and Jones Avenue. Since 1937 only minor internal and external work has been carried out on the building, apart from the removal of the north-east extension as described above. With the death of Mrs O'Donnell in January 1992 a chapter in the history of Esperanza ended, and the property was recently sold. It can only be hoped that Esperanza survives to the next century, not only as a unique item of Illawarra's architectural heritage, but also as a memorial to Eugene Dominique Nicolle and his important role in the development of science and technology in Australian.


Thanks in compiling this article are due to the staff of the Local Studies Section, Wollongong City Library; the late A.P. Doyle of the Illawarra Family History Group for general assistance; and Joe Davis for his revelation of the medical skills of E.D. Nicolle. Also to Fred Turnidge and Kent Taylor.

  1. E.D. Nicolle, Lectures delivered by the late Eugene Dominique Nicolle, C.E., at Whiteheath, Illawarra, W.C. Penfold & Co., Sydney, c.1922, 516pp. The precise bibliographic details of Nicolle's Lectures are yet to be revealed, however it was tentatively dated by the Mitchell Library as published in 1922, though 1915 was cited elsewhere. A copy in the author's collection is inscribed in pencil inside the front cover "Alfred N. Owen from Miss Nicolle Monday 22nd March 1922".
  2. Alan Barnard, Visions and Profits. Studies in the Business Career of Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, Melbourne University Press, 1961; 'Eugene Dominique Nicolle (1823-1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, 5, 1969, 342; Great Australians - Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962. James Jervis, 'Thomas Sutcliffe Mort: A National Benefactor', Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 24, 1938, 325-395; 'Notes on the Lives of Augustus Morris and Eugene Dominique Nicolle', Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 34, 1948, 290-301.
  3. 'The Pioneer of Refrigeration: Thomas S. Mort', Sydney Mail, 2 March 1938; 'A District Link with Refrigeration Centenary', South Coast Times, Wollongong, 8 November 1956; A. Watkins, 'Frenchman Led in Refrigeration', Newcastle Herald, 2 August 1958; 'E.D. Nicolle', The Sydney Sun, 24 November 1958; 'French Inventor Pioneered Refrigeration - The Story of E.D. Nicolle', Daily Mirror, Sydney, 8 February 1965; 'Father of Refrigeration - At 86, His Labour Done', Wollongong Express, 2 December 1970.
  4. Genealogical and other Nicolle family information in this article has been extracted from Fred Turnidge's The Nicolle Family, unpublished manuscript, January 1992, and independent research by A.P. Doyle.
  5. Sydney Mail, 28 September, 1910.
  6. Turnidge, op cit., 11.
  7. Reproduced in Jervis, op cit., 1948, 290.
  8. Mitchell Library, MIN240 - undated coloured photograph; MIN241 - undated silhouette profile in a cameo brooch; MIN242 - pencil portrait in a gold locket, dated 24 April 1869; and a photograph of Eugene at the age of 75, reproduced as the frontispiece to his Lectures (Sydney, c.1922) .
  9. Marten A. Syme, Shipping Arrivals & Departures Victorian Ports, Vol.2, 1846 - 1856, Melbourne.
  10. Nicolle Papers, Mitchell Library, MSS A2751.
  11. James Jervis, op cit., 1948, 297. Obviously Jervis has got confused here as neither Marion nor Ellen form any part of Nicolle's mother's name. However her middle name was Elizabeth, which was the name of the ship on which the couple came to Australia. Jervis was also confused with the year of arrival in Sydney.
  12. NSW Index to Births, Deaths and Marriages, Birth entry volume 42, no. 4961.
  13. N. Selfe, 'A Pioneer Refrigerating Engineer', Ice and Refrigeration Illustrated: A Monthly Review of the Ice, Ice Making, Refrigerating, Cold Storage and Kindred Trades, Chicago, 16(4), April 1899, 297-8. Selfe had previously supplied articles to that magazine on James Harrison (February 1895) and T.S. Mort (August 1895) .
  14. G. Aplin and J. Storey, Waterfront Sydney 1860 -1920, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, 76-7.
  15. James Jervis, op cit., 1948; Sydney Mail, 28 December 1910.
  16. NSW Index to Births, vol. 121, no. 6171 (Pre 1856 fiche), and 1862, nos. 1223 & 1224.
  17. Obituary notice of Stanley Nicolle, Illawarra Mercury, 6 December 1929.
  18. B. Wallace, 'James Harrison: A Study of Entrepreneurial Failure', Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, 1, 9, 1961; W.B. Gosney, Principles of Refrigeration, Cambridge, 1982, 8-9.
  19. Refer also to the article on Ice in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1849.
  20. James Jervis, op cit., 1948; Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September 1867.
  21. Jervis, 1938, op cit.
  22. Jill Buckland, Mort's Cottage, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1988.
  23. Mort was eventually proven right, however it was not until the 1880s that the frozen meat trade took off. Refer R. Duncan., 'The Australian Export Trade with the United Kingdom in Refrigerated Beef, 1880-1940, Business Archives and History, II, 2, August 1962, 106-121; 'The Demand for Frozen Beef in the United Kingdom', 1880-1940, Journal of Agricultural Economics, 12, 1 July 1956, 1-2; and D. Sladen, The Frozen Meat Trade, New Zealand Official Year Book for 1894, Government Printer, Wellington, 1894, 311-321.
  24. Gosney, op cit., 9.
  25. Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday, 28 April 1869.
  26. Henry Mort to William Mort, 6 July 1877, Mittagong Manuscript, Mitchell Library, Sydney.
  27. Sydney Mail, 2 March 1938.
  28. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 1873.
  29. Nicolle Papers, Mitchell Library, MSS A2751.
  30. T.S. Mort and E.D. Nicolle, 'On the preservation of food by freezing, and the bearing it will have on pastoral and agricultural interests of Australia', Journal of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales, 2, 15, November 1875, 244-60.
  31. Sydney Mail, 28 September 1910.
  32. Gosney, op cit., 18; cf. J.J. Coleman, 'Air Refrigerating Machinery and its Applications', Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineering, 68, 1882, 146-215.
  33. Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1875.
  34. Primbee Writers Group, Reflections of Primbee, The Lake Suburb, Primbee, 1987.
  35. Primbee, op cit., 5.
  36. Ibid., 7.
  37. Ibid., 88.
  38. Ibid., 7.

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