Billie Nicholl believed he was 10 when he arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1862. This would put the date of his birth at 1851 or 1852, but it may have been as late as 1856. He was born William Sharman Crawford Nicholl, at Garvagh, County Londonderry, Ireland. He emigrated with his parents, Martha Jane George, and her husband, George Nicholl, a labourer. His father seems to have died soon after. By 1868 he was living on the Thames goldfields in a raupo whare with his mother and stepfather, Lawrence Costello.
At 16 Nicholl went fossicking for gold. Within days he picked up a discarded stone, and exposed shining gold. It proved valuable; his stepfather pocketed several pounds, and Nicholl received just one shilling. It was a pattern often to be repeated.
Nicholl spent the 1870s working the Coromandel area. He regularly found gold, but as often became involved in wildcat speculations, or lent money never to see it again. At Tokatea he bought equipment on credit and built a shelter under a rata tree alongside a creek. Dipping his billy in the creek he found a stone peppered with fine gold. He sold it for £10, brought in his companions, and began working the French Republic claim. Although it paid £40 a week for two years, he ended £30 in debt.
In 1880 mining activity moved to Te Aroha. Nicholl did not hesitate: he tramped there, only to be disappointed. Undeterred, he set off for the Waihi plains. On the flanks of Pukewa he found the deserted diggings of John McCombie and Robert Lee. He attacked the hill with vigour and struck gold. He then disguised his digging, laid a false trail, and trudged to Thames to get his friend Bob Majurey. He registered the claim 'Martha', naming it for his half-sister, Martha.
Nicholl sent five tons of ore for trial crushing, organised the construction of a stamper battery, and sought financial backing. His first approach ended in failure, but he had a good reputation. F. A. White, an Auckland businessman, agreed to assist, and the Martha Gold-Mining Company was formed.
Claims sprang up and a small township was laid out. As the complexities of the operation increased a number of the companies amalgamated. The Waihi Gold-Mining Company, floated on the London market in 1887 by Thomas Russell, became the most lucrative mine in the history of goldmining in New Zealand. Nicholl, although the manager for a time, saw little of the money.
Nicholl married Mary Jane Compston, an American, at Coromandel on 7 January 1885; they were to have two (possibly three) sons. In 1887, leaving his family behind, he sailed for Fiji to prospect for gold. He was back in Waihi in 1888 none the richer. Thomas Henry Russell (son of Thomas Russell) had taken over the Waihi mine and was experimenting with the cyanide process of extraction – the ultimate foundation for success. Nicholl worked for Russell, cutting timber for fuel; but when Russell failed to pay his contractors he threw it in: 'on the rocks again with a wife and two children and £36 in debt to my store keeper.'
Nicholl drifted over to Thames, where Charles Judd owned the Maratoto mine in the Ohinemuri district. Nicholl ran it and soon cleared his debts. He opened a bank account in Mary Nicholl's name, and saved £210 to buy the mine. Nicholl drove himself hard for three years, making £1,300 a year; 'The wife was all honey when I brought the Bullion in every month and I was happey [ sic ] to see her pleased for I thought no man had a wife like me.'
By the mid 1890s the Coromandel peninsula was experiencing a gold boom and Nicholl sold the mine for £2,000. Mary Nicholl was in 'great glee…and in her excitement she gave me a kiss.' While Nicholl went off to collect his gear, she went to the solicitor's office to sign the transfer and collect the money. On his return Nicholl found a note: 'You Brute I only married you for spite. You will never see my face again.' She had left with £1,000 from the deal; Nicholl was fortunate to get the other £1,000. He was stunned; they had never had a cross word, and he 'could not believe it was real.' His reminiscences, however, reveal that their relations had soured, and she thought him empty-headed.
Mary Nicholl soon got through her money, then worked as a cook in a Hamilton hotel. During a visit to Melbourne to see her son William, who was returning from action in the First World War, she fell down a flight of stairs and was 'picked up dead and penniless'. Nicholl later wrote that 'she cured me from having anymore to do with women.' He attempted to score out all mention of her in his writing; perhaps he never came to accept her loss.
After his wife's departure Nicholl settled down to care for the boys. Within weeks he was off again: news of the huge goldrush in the Klondike, Canada, reached New Zealand in 1896, and Nicholl could 'stand it no longer'. A gold strike was perhaps a ready excuse for escape. There was no fortune for Nicholl in Canada, and by the turn of the century he was back, poorer than ever. Waihi was all bustle, with an enormous 200-head stamper battery in the course of construction at the Waihi mine. Nicholl took a job there and brought his sons home.
In 1927 Nicholl was still prospecting; it was nearly the death of him. Returning to Waihi to replenish supplies he was attacked by a bull. He slept rough overnight, and was caught in a storm. Wet, cold and exhausted, he had the 'worst battle to save my life that I ever had during my sixty years of experience as a digger.' The ordeal left him partially blind for three days and one night he awoke racked with pain. The doctor prescribed six months' rest, and although he remained as irrepressible as ever, his days of arduous prospecting were over.
Nicholl spent his latter days at Waitekauri before moving to Newton, Auckland, where he lived with his half-sister Martha McQuoid. He died on 6 August 1937.