Henry Niccol was born on 22 September 1819 at Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the son of a Clyde shipbuilder, Thomas Niccol and Isabel McQuistan. He married Sarah McLarty at Greenock on 29 November 1840; they were to have 14 children. Henry and Sarah Niccol were among the settlers who arrived at Auckland on the Jane Gifford on 9 October 1842.
With other members of his family, Niccol established his first rudimentary shipyard at Waiheke Island and in 1843 completed the 16 ton schooner Thistle, which was soon sold for a little over £60. With the benefit of this money Niccol moved his yard to Auckland, where, on a site now well inland, at the corner of Queen Street and Vulcan Lane, he built three yachts for the sheriff of Auckland, Percival Berry. For his next contract, the government schooner Albert, Niccol moved to a site in Mechanics Bay, further away from the growing town, and there he remained until 1865 or 1866, when he moved his yard to Garden Terrace (Queens Parade), in Devonport.
Of all the vessels built by Henry Niccol, three in particular stand out. The 236 ton brig Moa, completed in 1849, had an exceptionally long life until finally broken up in 1926, a testimony both to the suitability of New Zealand timbers for shipbuilding and to Niccol's workmanship. The barque Novelty, of 375 tons, was built in 1862 for the local merchant firm of Henderson and Macfarlane, and remains the largest sailing vessel built in Auckland city. In 1874 he built the Melanesian mission schooner Southern Cross, third of the name. After 18 years with the mission this schooner had another 34 years' hard trading as the Ysabel in the Tasman and Pacific trades, until destroyed by fire in September 1926.
The Southern Cross had been fitted with an auxiliary steam engine, an indication of Niccol's ability to adapt to changing trends. He built a number of steamers during the 1870s, including three which later formed part of the initial fleet of the Northern Steam Ship Company. When he moved his yard to Devonport, he built the first patent slip in New Zealand.
Despite his busy and demanding life as a shipbuilder, Niccol also found time for community affairs. He was chairman of the Devonport Highway Board, and following the constitution of the Auckland Harbour Board in 1871 he was among its first members. Service on these bodies carried on through another generation, his son, Malcolm, becoming first mayor of Devonport and subsequently chairman of the harbour board.
Two of Henry Niccol's sons, Thomas and George Turnbull, joined him in the shipbuilding business, but after a fall from a ferry in the mid 1880s, he became less active. He died at his Devonport home on 9 November 1887.
Niccol was famous in his day: the launching of a ship from his yard became a social occasion, where crowds gathered and prominent citizens officiated. He built over 180 ships between 1843 and 1887, and can be justly regarded as the founder of the Auckland tradition of excellence in wooden shipbuilding; more importantly, his yard was the training ground for many of those who subsequently established their own businesses, and could aptly be described as the nursery of Auckland shipbuilding.