In the March 2023 issue of On Stage, RICHARD FOTHERINGHAM described the history of George Wallace Senior’s famous World War Two patriotic song ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’. Joy Nichols (19251992) was another of those who sang it—in her case on the 2GB Youth Show (194243), on the Tivoli stage (194346), and on Australia’s Hour of Song during her 1953 tour. Joy Nichols—who would go on to be one of Australia’s greatest exports in popular culture—will be the subject of a new biography by Richard Fotheringham and Roberta Hamond, Nichols’ daughter.

nichols joy nichols 091950s cigarette card. Frank Van Straten collection.

In october 1952  Britain’s Royal Family—the new young monarch, Elizabeth II, on the throne but not yet crowned, accompanied by her husband Philip Duke of Edinburgh and sister Princess Margaret—went to the Palladium, one of London’s largest theatres. For her first time as Queen, she had commanded her nation’s greatest entertainers to appear gratis at the sold-out annual Royal Variety Charity Performance. Almost all the then stars of British stage, radio and TV popular entertainment appeared, including Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields, Tony Hancock, Arthur Askey, Jimmy Edwards, Terry-Thomas, Max Bygraves, Maurice Chevalier, Bud Flanagan with his ‘Crazy Gang’, and a young singer-comedian, claimed to be one of the Queen’s ‘favourites’, Joy Nichols.

The Weekly Dispatch representative was watching the Royal box and reported on 26 October that the Duke and Princess Margaret joined in singing ‘Let’s All Go Down the Strand’ and that, when Joy Nichols took to the stage and started into Marie Lloyd’s old music hall number: ‘My old man said follow the van/And don’t dilly dally on the way …’, ‘the Queen sang as well’. The entertainers’ own newspaper, The Stage, also loved the show but, in its 6th November issue, grumbled that women had been under-represented and only two ‘out-and-out comediennes’ appeared: Gracie Fields, for many years the highest-paid and most admired of English popular singers—and Joy Nichols.

Four years later, the United Kingdom’s Actors’ Equity held its own annual charity performance, the Green Room Club ‘Midnight Matinée’ for the benefit of the Entertainers’ Benevolent Fund. Most of the Knights and Dames of British high performance art took part, including ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn and actors Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Edith Evans, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Lady Olivier (Vivien Leigh). The Stage (8 March 1956) thought they were all great, but when Joy Nichols walked out and sang in her deep, warm, clear voice the sexy, exuberant Broadway number ‘I Wanna Get Married’, she ‘brought the house down’.

Every one of those named above were legends in their field then, and many are still remembered today. Joy Nichols has been almost entirely forgotten.

She was an Australian, born in Sydney in 1925, who grew up in extreme poverty, particularly after first an outbreak of swine flu and then the Great Depression bankrupted the family piggery. Her desperate father became occasionally violent and Joy, the only daughter, retreated to total dependency on her mother Freda, a former amateur actor who taught her and one of her brothers, George, elocution and singing and arranged tap dancing lessons in exchange for other students she taught.

Both George and Joy became clever impersonators of famous adult entertainers, particularly the Scots comic singer Sir Harry Lauder; Joy also sang in imitation of Gracie Fields. Freda sent George off at the age of seven to tour with the Young Australia League. At age 4, Joy lost her beloved brother and became the centre of her mother’s attention. And her mother’s only interest was the stage. Confusing to a child to say the least but, as Joy later wrote, ‘mum lived through my performances as if it were she. She was happy. I became even more important to her. I liked the feeling.’

Freda wrote incessantly to radio stations and theatre managers and, by age seven, Joy was acting and singing to earn money to help the struggling Nichols family. By the late 1930s both George and Joy had become leading young variety artists. However, Joy had also won a scholarship to Fort Street Girls High School, was a high academic achiever, and wanted to become a teacher. But, in mid-1940, Freda secured for her a contract to sing between feature films in cinemas and, without first telling her daughter, withdrew her from the school. Joy’s career path was set, and she would struggle mentally all her life with the consequences, delighted by the astonishing success she enjoyed both in Australia and England but so nervous she threw up before almost every performance, became emotionally unstable, and bitterly attacked those close to her who tried to help. Another Joy Nichols, one the public never saw.

Success on stage and radio came immediately. On 28 May 1940, even before she stopped being a student, Joy Nichols appeared in front of a packed Sydney Town Hall audience at the first of many Commonwealth ‘Win-the-War’ rallies. Prime Minister Robert Menzies and federal Treasurer Percy Spender were present, and the famous Australian baritone Peter Dawson also on the bill. The fifteen-year-old Nichols sang patriotic songs including Harley Cohan’s ‘Swingin’ Along the Road to Victory’. One report claimed the applause held up the show for five minutes.

Soon after, she became the leading singer and comedian on the weekly 2GB Sydney Youth Show and later its compere as well. She was also the star of many later live concerts raising funds and entertaining Australian troops during World War Two. In 1942, at the age of 17, she recorded ‘When a Boy from Alabama meets a Girl from Gundagai’, written by Jack O’Hagan as American troops poured into Australia. Her voice on that disc is still heard occasionally today in radio and TV documentaries about Australia’s role in the Second World War. Later the same year, Joy was one of the first to sing George Wallace’s patriotic song and march, ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’, composed in the darkest days of the War as the Meiji Emperor’s troops attempted to capture Port Moresby prior to a possible invasion of Australia. By 1944, after she had joined the Australian Tivoli Circuit, she was being acclaimed as ‘our best young variety performer’.

At the end of that World War, as the sea lanes reopened, the Tivoli management reverted to its long-successful policy of importing from England and the USA the headline acts for all its shows, ignoring the protests of local professional performers. Many Australian entertainers, starved of work and the limelight in their own country, went to London to further their careers. Joy Nichols was one of them—and one of only a very small number who succeeded. George went with her and, after a first difficult six months, their double act had modest success.

George later returned to Australia; Joy stayed and, for the next six years, her meteoric rise and glittering career generated countless enthusiastic news stories in British and Australian newspapers. She inspired many other young female stars of the Australian stage to try their luck in London to see if they could become ‘another Joy Nichols’, including Lorrae Desmond, Maggie Fitzgibbon, and Toni Lamond.

Before she left Sydney, 2GB had engaged her to record over 50 fifteen-minute episodes of Presenting Joy Nichols. These were still being replayed on Australian radio stations ten years later, reminding listeners of the warm contralto voice and cheerful personality of the Aussie girl who had gone to London and made good. What they didn’t know was that, in addition to her private turmoil, her public joi de vivre was being sustained by ‘uppers’, given to her from her Youth Show days. Like Judy Garland, to whom she was often compared, she became addicted.

Joy Nichols starred in many seasons on stage in London’s biggest West End theatres, but it was her success on BBC radio with Jimmy Edwards and fellow-Australian Dick Bentley in the weekly comedy, singing, and satire broadcast Take It From Here that made her a household name in both countries. By 1949 TIFH, as it became known (pronounced ‘TIFE’), had the largest audience of any radio program in the UK with over ten million listeners, and was equally popular in Australia. According to a London correspondent for Sydney Truth, in 1949 ‘Joy’s face beams at you from posters in all the underground stations’.

Nichols maintained this hectic pace for over six years, interrupted only briefly by marriage in 1949 to Wally Peterson, an American singer/actor/songwriter, and the birth of their daughter Roberta in 1952. She reportedly was earning £200 per week on the live stage and £160 on radio—what she herself later described as ‘a preposterous amount of money’. Then, in the middle of 1953, Joy Nichols took a break to return to Australia to see her family, show them her one-year-old daughter, and to star on the Tivoli Circuit in a show built around her: Take It From Me.

There were Lord Mayors’ Dinners, newspaper and radio interviews, publicity gigs and charity appearances. She was everybody’s Joy, sometimes page 1 news. With the incessant attention, requests and commitments, her reliance on amphetamines to keep going, the demands of motherhood, and her unresolved childhood demons which re-intensified as family and old friends gathered around, she broke. Barely a week into the opening season in Sydney she had a serious breakdown which incapacitated her for nearly a year. Interest in her in Australia slowly faded away; some even assumed her career had ended then.

It didn’t, although Joy Nichols did pull back, trying to find a better balance. She made a successful return to the London stage, notably as the female lead in the long-running (1955-57) London premiere season of the musical The Pajama Game. In England, she became a legend—young English comediennes also aspired to be ‘another Joy Nichols’— and was sometimes claimed as an English ‘local’, standing high amidst the American invasion of the popular musical stage.

However, in these later decades, Joy Nichols was both unlucky and unable to conquer her nightmares. The 1953 trip to Australia meant she lost her place in the cast of Take It From Here, which ran till 1960 and made stars of her successors. In 1957, Joy and her husband lost almost all their money when defrauded by their financial adviser. They sought a new start in New York where at first both struggled to survive and where she was unable to capitalise on the prominence The Pajama Game had given her in the UK. Wally eventually broke through as a successful entertainer though never a star, and as a stage and production manager. Joy performed less frequently and less prominently but in major shows and in radio and television on both sides of the Atlantic, taking time out after she gave birth to twins, Richard and Victoria, in New York in 1962.

In 1965, the tug between Joy Nichols’ career and her Australian family of origin delivered one final unfortunate twist. Her mother had died, but she wanted to reconnect with her father and siblings and for her three children to meet them. She was asked by the Australian Tivoli to star in a British musical farce, Instant Marriage. Before she left New York, Joy was approached by the later legendary Bob Fosse. She first met ‘Bobby’, as she called him, when he came to London to choreograph The Pajama Game. Fosse was organising, for potential financial investors, a concert performance of a new musical he wanted to direct, Sweet Charity. Fosse asked her to assist at this ‘backers’ audition’. Joy did and so was the first to sing in public its biggest hit, ‘Hey Big Spender’. The financiers were enthused and the premiere Broadway season ran for 608 performances, but she couldn’t accept his offer to perform in the show as she had contracted to go back to Australia, for the last time, to star in a musical that didn’t take.

Joy Nichols gradually lost her struggle with mental illness, left show business and died in a care home in Brooklyn in 1992. There were brief obituaries in the trade magazines and a few newspapers, none of which revealed (or probably knew) the price she had paid for fame. There are listings of some of her achievements on entertainment history databases in the UK and USA, while a few books on stage, film and radio history include some brief details, often inaccurate, of the career in the 1940s and 1950s of one of Australia’s and England’s greatest stars of popular entertainment who, as she was often titled, had been ‘Our Joy’, but never her own.


This summary of Joy Nichols’ career is sourced from Australian and English newspapers, published memoirs, and Nichols’ own press cuttings, letters, etc, which Roberta, her daughter, holds. We would welcome hearing from anyone with memories or material related to Joy Nichols’ career.

We would also particularly like to hear from anyone who knows if any of the radio recordings of her singing ‘A Brown Slouch Hat’ have survived. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Listen to Joy Nichols

‘I’m Not at All in Love’ from The Pajama Game

‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’

‘Be a Clown’


Roberta Hamond, née Peterson  England

Roberta Hamond studied political history at Boston University and also holds a MA in Theatre Arts (Distinction) from Goldsmith’s College, London. She has over 40 years’ experience as a professional actor, writer, theatre arts teacher and producer/director, particularly for theatre education projects. She currently works as a carer representative for the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists.