This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
John William Parnell (1860-1931), soldier, was born on 6 March 1860 in Melbourne, only son of Edwin Parnell, teacher, and his wife Olivia, née Higginbotham, both from Dublin. His father trained as an engineer in Ireland but on arrival in Victoria in 1853 became a headmaster; he was also active in the Victorian Military Forces, twice commanding the Engineer Corps in 1865-78 and 1885.
Educated at All Saints Grammar School, St Kilda, and at Wesley College (1877-79), Parnell excelled as a sportsman, being champion athlete at Wesley for 1878. Matriculating in 1882, he began medical studies at the University of Melbourne but by 1885 had abandoned his course. While at the university he captained the lacrosse team for three years and was awarded blues for cricket and lacrosse. In 1887 he captained the Victorian lacrosse team against South Australia.
In 1884 he had joined the university company of the 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles. Transferred to the 1st Battalion in May 1885, Parnell was commissioned lieutenant in August. In 1888 he raised and commanded the West Melbourne Senior Cadets until transferred to the Victorian Engineers on 1 January 1889. Later claiming he was persuaded to take up soldiering full-time by Major E. F. Rhodes, R.E., commanding the local engineers, Parnell was placed on the strength of the permanent engineers on 30 August and took command of that corps' field company. Promoted captain in October 1890, he was sent to England for training and returned to Australia early in 1892. On 10 August he married Ida Mary Grover at St John's Anglican Church, Melbourne.
Remaining in command of the permanent engineers in Victoria and promoted major in July 1899, Parnell simultaneously filled several staff appointments until 1904. Inspector of army signalling (1895-1904) and staff officer for engineer services (1896-1902), he perodically acted as assistant adjutant general in 1899-1901 and helped to prepare three Victorian contingents for service in South Africa. In 1901 he was involved in celebrations marking the creation of the Commonwealth and was thanked by the Victorian government and awarded a gold medallion. Next year he assisted with arrangements for the visit to Melbourne of the Japanese fleet, and with a board inquiring into the organization of the cadet system in Victoria; he also became assistant inspector of Australia's submarine mining defences and chief instructor at the school of military engineering.
In August 1904 Parnell went to England for training courses and on his return next year became director of engineers at Army Headquarters. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in January 1907 and in August also became chief of ordnance on the Military Board. In 1909 he was appointed commandant of the 6th military district (Tasmania) with temporary rank of colonel; transferred to Queensland in July 1911 as commandant, he was confirmed as colonel in October. In May 1912 he became commandant in Victoria.
Parnell was appointed C.M.G. in June 1914, the month he took up duty as commandant of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. War began just six weeks after he arrived, and although he attempted to obtain his release for active service it was considered that in view of his age his services were more valuable at Duntroon. He was recognized as a firm disciplinarian by cadets; his concern for their well-being caused him to be dubbed 'Mum'. He was made temporary brigadier general in December 1915 and honorary major general in July 1918. His retirement age and appointment as commandant were both extended in 1918 so he remained at the college until 1 June 1920 when he retired with honorary rank of lieutenant-general. He was appointed O.B.E. in October.
Parnell was made administrator of Norfolk Island in September 1920 but returned to Australia in ill health in January 1924 and resigned in April. He was honorary colonel of the Corps of Australian Engineers from 1930 until his death at Hawthorn, Melbourne, on 8 July 1931 after heart failure. Survived by his wife and a daughter, he was buried with military honours in Melbourne general cemetery; three children had predeceased him.
Chris Clark, 'Parnell, John William (1860–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/parnell-john-william-7962/text13863, accessed 14 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988