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Parker, Sir Stephen Henry (1846–1927)

by Wendy Birman and G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir Stephen Henry Parker (1846-1927), politician and chief justice, was born on 7 November 1846 at Cold Harbour, Western Australia, second son of Stephen Stanley Parker (1817-1904), farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Sewell, and grandson of Stephen Parker (c.1795-1879), pioneer settler at York. S. S. Parker was a nominated member of the Legislative Council in 1876-85 and of the Aborigines Protection Board in 1890-97.

The cleverest student at Bishop Mathew Hale's school, and notable always for his retentive memory, Parker in 1863 became tutor to the bishop's son before serving five years legal apprenticeship. Admitted to the Western Australian Bar in 1868, he practised independently. In 1870 he was fined £100 by Chief Justice (Sir) Archibald Burt for writing to the Inquirer criticizing Burt's judgment against one of his clients; the newspaper's editor and proprietor were imprisoned. This won Parker repute as a battler for the underdog and for some years he was known as 'the people's Harry'. His sporting prowess enhanced his popularity. A skilled amateur rider, he won the colony's leading turf event, the Queen's Plate, in 1865. He ceased to ride competitively after his marriage on 27 July 1872 to Amey Katharine, daughter of George Walpole Leake; but his horses won the Plate every year from 1873 to 1876. In 1873 he tried to start a yacht club; next year he became honorary secretary of the Western Australian Turf Club; and in 1885 he was a founder and vice-president of the Western Australian Cricket Association. These activities smoothed his entry into public life.

Entering municipal politics as auditor to the Perth Town Trust in 1870, Parker defeated the chairman of the Perth City Council, (Sir) George Shenton, in November 1877. His two-year term saw the marking out of several reserves and the belated beginnings of an efficient sanitation policy. He was mayor for a few months in 1880-81. Parker had entered the Legislative Council for the Perth seat in May 1878. Prominent as a colonial nationalist impatient of British restraint, he immediately sponsored an unsuccessful motion favouring responsible government. He revived the issue in 1882 and 1883, each time commanding greater support, and his speeches rallied public opinion; but despite growth in Western Australia's revenue and population, the majority of council thought the colony still unequal to the burden. Parker showed persistence in other directions: in 1881 he introduced a married women's property bill, passed on the third attempt in 1892 and frequently called Parker's Act; he urged reform of the gaming laws, sponsored a bill to introduce the totalizator, supported municipal reform, and in 1886 secured legislation enabling the operations of the Perth Gas Co.

In 1887 the Legislative Council at last agreed to request responsible self-government. Parker seemed at the height of his reputation. But the boom of the mid-1880s, fuelled by railway construction and the short-lived Kimberley gold rush, was collapsing; in April 1888, following a crisis in the finances of the Midland Railway Co. of Western Australia Ltd, Parker petitioned for bankruptcy and resigned his seat. His affairs were soon in order, and later that year he was back as member for Vasse; but his prestige and self-confidence never quite recovered though his energies seemed undiminished. With Sir Thomas Cockburn-Campbell he was sent to London in 1889 to lobby the British parliament for acceptance of the bill establishing Western Australia's self-governing constitution without partition or limitations and he was principal witness before the parliamentary select committee. He was appointed Q.C. in 1890. On his return to Perth he joined the local boards of the Union Bank of Australia Ltd and Dalgety & Co., and that year was a founding member of the Perth Chamber of Commerce. But he failed to press unambiguously his claims to be premier under responsible government, and was outflanked by the surveyor-general (Sir) John Forrest. At the end of 1890 Parker became the member of the Legislative Assembly for York, but Forrest formed the first ministry. During the next two years Parker was unofficially regarded as leader of the Opposition.

Less dynamic than Forrest as an economic planner, Parker was no longer 'the people's Harry'. From February 1892, as mayor of Perth, he presided over the decision to introduce electricity to the city, but resigned in October on joining Forrest's ministry as colonial secretary and representative in the Legislative Council. His main achievement in office was the passage of the Elementary Education Amendment Act in 1893 which placed primary education under ministerial control. Although a staunch Anglican, he opposed denominational influence in schools. After the council became elective in June 1894 Parker was member for Metropolitan Province, but resigned from cabinet in December after disagreements with Forrest. At the 1897 elections he left the council to contest the important Perth seat in the assembly, as potential leader of the anti-Forrest 'Independent Party'. He was beaten by H. L. Hall, a little-known Forrest protégé, and lost, again narrowly, when he attempted to re-enter the council for Metropolitan-Suburban Province next year. The Opposition leadership had passed to his brother-in-law George Leake, who was younger and closer to goldfields sentiment. Lingering uncomfortably on the fringe of public life, Parker accepted Forrest's invitation to go to London in 1900 as lobbyist for Western Australia's special interests during the passing of the Commonwealth bill. The errand was futile, he won no concessions and added nothing to his reputation. Alfred Deakin described him at this time as 'a plump, well-mannered and pleasant little lawyer, fluent, astute and flattering'.

With a large family to support, Parker turned his attention increasingly to his legal practice, Parker & Parker since the admission of his brother George to partnership in 1881. In the 1890s he invested substantially in gold-mining. In May 1901 he once more became mayor of Perth, in time to welcome the Duke and Duchess of York. He resigned in September on appointment as puisne judge of the Supreme Court, replacing R. W. Pennefather, a temporary appointee who had been Forrest's attorney-general. Pennefather's partisans accused Parker of improprieties, including shady land deals and the suppression, in circumstances suggesting blackmail, of a Sunday Times article deploring his behaviour. Next year a royal commission exonerated Parker and thoroughly discredited the accusations. As a judge he proved competent and conscientious, though hardly spectacular. He became chief justice in 1906, was knighted in 1908, and appointed K.C.M.G. on his retirement in 1914. That year his wife died and he later moved to live near his daughters in Melbourne, where he died on 13 December 1927. His estate was valued at over £50,000.

Sir Henry Parker's later years as judge and public figure were an anticlimax to the early promise of the dashing young reformer, orator and horseman. Almost the first of the locally colonial-born to shine in politics, he fought for autonomy from Downing Street but lacked imaginative grasp of the social or economic policies which autonomy could foster, and was surpassed by Forrest and others with a keener sense of the uses of power. Yet Parker was well liked and respected, his hospitality and generosity backed by a wife famed for her domestic skills. Their St George's Terrace home was a venue for musical recitals and other cultural events, including early ceremonies of the University of Western Australia.

Of their four sons and seven daughters to reach adulthood, the second son Hubert Stanley Wyborn Parker (1883-1966) served throughout World War I with the Australian Imperial Force and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He became a partner in the family firm but resigned to serve as crown prosecutor in 1920-26. A member of the Legislative Assembly for North-East Fremantle in 1930-33, and of the Legislative Council for Metropolitan-Suburban province in 1934-54, he was attorney-general for two months in 1933 and chief secretary in 1948-50.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Charges Made Against Mr Justice Parker, Votes and Proceedings (Western Australia), 1902 2nd session, 2 (25)
  • University Studies in History (Western Australia), 1968
  • West Australian, 14 Dec 1927
  • W. F. P. Heseltine, The Movement for Self Government in Western Australia from 1882-1890 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1950)
  • N. Hasluck and H. M. Beatty, Sir Stephen Parker, 1846-1927 (manuscript, State Library of Western Australia)
  • M. Uren, The House of Parker (manuscript, c1968, library of Parker & Parker, Perth).

Citation details

Wendy Birman and G. C. Bolton, 'Parker, Sir Stephen Henry (1846–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/parker-sir-stephen-henry-7957/text13853, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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