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Hilton John Nicholas (1925–2017)

by Geoffrey Blainey and Marjorie Nicholas

Hilton Nicholas, was a son of the founder of the Aspro pharmaceutical business, flew hurricanes during World War II before taking on the running of the family firm. He was chairman of the Victoria Racing Club, a successful breeder of thoroughbreds and chairman of the St. Vincent's Institute for Medical Research.

Hilton John Francis Nicholas, who has died aged 91, was the youngest of the four children of Nicholas Aspro founder, George Nicholas, and his wife Ruby (nee Campbell). During World War I, when medications previously imported from Germany could no longer be sourced, Hilton's father George, a pharmacist working in his shop in Windsor, and later at St Kilda Junction, had succeeded in replicating the formula for aspirin.

George and his brother Alfred went into business manufacturing the white tablet in pink packaging, which they named "Aspro". Over time Nicholas Aspro became the most famous Australian product throughout the world's shops and pharmacies and Hilton was born into a family that, from humble beginnings, had already become a household name in many countries.

Alfred and George Nicholas were determined to share the wealth that came to them through the success of Nicholas Aspro. They were benefactors to many organisations and maintained a particular interest in education and welfare of young people, as witnessed by their contributions to Wesley College, Methodist Ladies' College and the Lord Somers Camp.

Hilton's mother died when he was only 18 months old, and the aunts – George's sister Nell in particular – were called upon to help care for Hilton and his older siblings.

Hilton was just four years old when he had his first experience of overseas travel. Needing to be in England for business, George took the whole family, including the aunts, with him. They travelled by ocean liner, and then in convoy by car around England, and that was the start of Hilton's lifelong fascination with travel.

Ten years after the death of his Hilton's mother, George remarried, and there were two children of this second marriage, Michael and Jenifer.

Hilton's second overseas trip, nine years after his first as a four-year-old, took him to London with the family for the marriage of his sister Nola to the already world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and then to Los Gatos, California, to attend the wedding of his brother Lindsay to Menuhin's sister, the young, highly talented pianist Hephzibah Menuhin.

As a student, Hilton attended Wesley College, Melbourne, initially as a day boy and then during his secondary school years as a boarder.

Despite some early misgivings (he was conscious of the role his father and uncle had played in financing the entire rebuilding of the college some years previously, and was anxious that he should not be accorded any special privileges in consequence of this) he quickly came to enjoy and appreciate the boarding house life.

Holidays were mostly spent at "Alton", the family's country residence high on Mt Macedon. Cousins and friends would be invited to stay too, and there was a lively interaction among the families who had their summer residences there – tennis tournaments, swimming parties, cricket matches, luncheon and dinner parties were the order of the day. In those days "The Mount" was a hub of social life.

World War II came. Darwin was bombed in February 1942. A year later, on his 18th birthday, Hilton went straight from school to enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force. After training in Australia as a pilot, he was posted overseas before the European war entered a crucial stage with the Allied invasion of France in June 1944. Based in England he flew Hurricanes, eventually being seconded to the RAF as an instructor of naval aviators.

Hilton's mother was a classically trained violinist who played in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Hilton later studied the violin. So when, during World War II, Hilton as a young airman reached England, his friendship blossomed with Yehudi Menuhin who by now was an officer in the US army. In London in his sister Betty's apartment he heard and watched Menuhin practising the violin.

Hilton was only 20 when the war ended.

Back in Australia he joined the family firm, Nicholas Pty Ltd, of which his father was head. Given no privileges, he learned the hard way. Older employees delighted in playing practical jokes on him – as the boss' son, he was fair game. Happily, Hilton proved equal to the task.

It was whilst living and working in England that he met his first wife, Brenda Reis. They were married in London in 1951.

Returning with his bride to Melbourne, he bought a property called "Yarrowee" in Lower Plenty. Nicholas ran cattle, cut hay, indulged his love of dogs and horses, delighted in his large garden and played polo with what has been aptly described as "an enthusiasm bordering on wild abandon". He and Brenda entertained with gusto a wide variety of guests, both from their Melbourne circle and from afar; their life was full to overflowing.

He worked at the head office in Chadstone, taking ever-increasing responsibility and rising higher in the company's hierarchy, and upon the merger of the Nicholas and Kiwi companies in 1980 he became the deputy chairman of this major corporation.

Hilton's love of horses was something that he inherited from his father, who was a noted breeder of thoroughbreds and served on the committee of the Victoria Racing Club for nearly 20 years. When George died in 1960, Hilton was successful in a contested election, and for the next 33 years served as a committeeman, vice-chairman and from 1982 to 1986, chairman of the VRC. He retired from the committee in 1993. His wife Brenda died during his term of office as chairman.

Hilton was totally committed to ensuring integrity in the racing industry, and the welfare of both the horses and the humans involved was always at the forefront of his thinking. As a leader in these fields he was instrumental in the creation of a number of initiatives to further these objectives, including his collaboration with the late Professor Blood of the University of Melbourne in the establishment of the Equine Research Foundation.

For 16 years he was chairman of the Totalisator Agency Board in Victoria, succeeding the inaugural chairman Sir Chester Manifold in this role.

He also served on the board of St. Vincent's Institute for Medical Research for 30 years, the last five as chairman. He was immensely proud of the discoveries made at the institute and of the growing prestige of Melbourne as a world-class centre of medical research.

He was president of the Athenaeum Club from 1977 to 1979. Warm-hearted in greeting people, he listened carefully when they spoke. His services in many spheres were officially recognised by an OBE and an AM.

Hilton was keenly interested in thoroughbred breedingand following his father's death took on the thoroughbred stud "Shirley Park", Woodend, which his father had established 20 years earlier. His champion stallion Court Sentence was a legend in his day, as was his exceptional mare, Begonia Belle. The Begonia Belle Stakes, named by the VRC in her honour, is run annually at Flemington Racecourse on Victoria Derby Day. The VRC also recognises Hilton's contribution to the club and to racing as a whole through the annual Hilton Nicholas Handicap.

In 1989, Hilton married again. Whilst spending more time in later years with his wife Marjorie at their property in the Southern Riverina, he continued to enjoy both city and rural life.

Hilton maintained his interest in aviation and with his brother, Lindsay, established Nicholas Air Charter in Melbourne. This company provided the first air ambulance service in Victoria. Hilton continued to indulge his love of flying until well into his 70s, his chief pilot and friend Rob Moss by his side.

Hilton did not have children of his own, but he followed the progress of his extended family with great interest and affection and took much pride in their accomplishments. He is survived by his wife, Marjorie.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geoffrey Blainey and Marjorie Nicholas, 'Nicholas, Hilton John (1925–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1925
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


25 January, 2017 (aged 91)
Victoria, Australia

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