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Parsons, Sir Herbert Angas (1872–1945)

by Elizabeth Kwan

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

This is a shared entry with John Langdon Parsons

Herbert Angas Parsons (1872-1945), by Underwood & Underwood, c1920

Herbert Angas Parsons (1872-1945), by Underwood & Underwood, c1920

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B4060

John Langdon Parsons (1837-1903), politician, and Sir Herbert Angas Parsons (1872-1945), judge and politician, were father and son. Langdon was born on 28 April 1837 at Botathan, near Launceston, Cornwall, England, son of Edward Parsons, farmer, and his wife Jane, née Langdon. Educated locally and at Bellevue Grammar School, Plymouth, he was apprenticed to a grocer. Although Anglican, Langdon experienced a conversion and trained as a Baptist minister at Regent's Park College, London. He was recommended to George Fife Angas as a minister for Angaston and arrived in South Australia in 1863. He accepted a call from Dunedin, New Zealand, returning to Angaston to marry Rosetta (Rose) Angas Johnson, Angas's granddaughter, on 23 January 1866. The Parsons soon moved from Dunedin to Angaston, and in 1869 to North Adelaide. Langdon's 'brilliant preaching [which] filled the pews continually', led to the building of the imposing North Adelaide Baptist Church in Tynte Street; he was president of the South Australian Baptist Union in 1869 and of the local Evangelical Alliance.

Parsons increasingly doubted the biblical basis of his faith. While in Europe in 1873-74 seeking relief from recurrent bouts of rheumatic fever, he felt the impact of the publication in 1871 of Darwin's The Descent of Man. Perhaps, too, he found it difficult to support his family on his church members' 'beggarly contributions'. He resigned in 1876, the year his wife died of diphtheria, and became first a merchant with J. Preston, then a broker and agent with Ebenezer Finlayson.

In 1878 Parsons was elected to the House of Assembly for Encounter Bay, and in 1881 for North Adelaide. Having served on the Council of Education in 1877-78, he wished to improve the school attendance of 'gutter children', and to raise teaching standards. He had married on 4 August 1877 Marianna Dewhirst, daughter of an inspector of schools. While minister of education (1881-84), Parsons sensitively chaired the select committee and subsequently the royal commission on education, which examined the administration of John Hartley.

Parsons was also minister controlling the Northern Territory. His tour of that area in 1882 and to Mackay, Queensland, next year, fired him with the Territory's possibilities, particularly concerning sugar-cane. As minister, government resident (1884-90), and member for the Northern Territory (1890-93), he pressed for developmental measures: the building of a railway from Palmerston (Darwin) to the gold-mining settlement at Pine Creek (completed 1889), and from Oodnadatta to Pine Creek; and immigration of indentured Asian labour. He invested in land, but despite his optimism agriculture in the Territory failed to prosper; mounting costs led to a royal commission in 1895 to which he gave evidence. He continued to explore the Territory's potential, travelling widely in East Asia on private and official business, notably in 1895 as honorary commissioner for South Australia. He was consul for Japan in 1896-1903.

On the issue of Aboriginal rights Langdon Parsons developed strong views. He had gone to the Territory at a time when a general uprising of Aborigines was feared, and he supported the police's brutal retaliation after Aborigines killed four white miners. In this he differed from Judge Charles Dashwood which, in part, led to both men being recalled and Dashwood's appointment in 1892 as government resident and judge. However, Parsons recognized Aboriginal land rights and unsuccessfully urged the government to create reserves for their use, and to ensure fair payment and conditions for Aborigines in employment.

From 1901 he represented Central district in the Legislative Council. He continued to be a prolific pamphleteer and lecturer. During the 1890s depression and the subsequent growth of the United Labor Party, he had become increasingly conservative. A member of the Australasian National League, he argued that policies like progressive land tax 'embodied the vulgar principle under which those who had not saw someone above them and said that they should pull him down and empty his pockets for distribution among themselves'. He defended large landowners and restricted suffrage for the Legislative Council.

In appearance Parsons was all full beard and stern rectitude, though he was known to have a 'warm heart', even towards those who differed from him politically. On his death in Adelaide on 21 August 1903 Parsons was described as 'one of the most finished cultivated, eloquent and persuasive speakers that the South Australian Pulpit, Platform and Parliament had ever known'. He was survived by his wife and eight children, two by his first and six by his second marriage, and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Herbert Angas, only son of Langdon and Rose, was born at North Adelaide on 23 May 1872. He was educated at Prince Alfred College and briefly at the Agricultural College, Roseworthy, before spending three years under his great-uncle John Howard Angas following pastoral and financial pursuits. Herbert studied law at the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1897) and was articled to a member of Charles Kingston's firm. He was admitted to the Bar in 1897 and became a partner of Patrick McMahon Glynn. On 18 April 1900 in the Pirie Street Methodist Church, Parsons married Mary Elsie, daughter of (Sir) John Langdon Bonython of the Advertiser.

Like his father Herbert was a pamphleteer, publishing on the Northern Territory, criminal law and common sense, the rights of youth, education and Imperial expansion. A small man, he was gregarious with 'a loud, cheery laugh'; he had business acumen and was well-connected by birth, profession and marriage.

In 1912-15 he sat in the House of Assembly for Torrens, and in 1918-21 for Murray, being briefly attorney-general and minister of education in 1915. Although a member of the Liberal Union, Parsons had an 'unorthodox … disregard' for party, believing that social solidarity not class distinction was important. His pleas for extending education for adolescents and increasing teachers' salaries derived from his view that 'the trouble with democracy is that it is so badly educated and ill informed'. He advocated reclamation rather than imprisonment of drunks, and reform rather than punishment of prisoners. Trial by a jury of twelve untrained men he thought 'out of date and altogether barbarous', preferring either a panel of experts or a judge or judges.

As early as 1913 Parsons had been perceived as 'ambitious of judicial rank'; having a seat in parliament and the Advertiser behind him was no hindrance. But Sir Samuel Way considered that 'his knowledge of law is too superficial altogether'. Nevertheless he was appointed K.C. in 1916, a judge of the Supreme Court in 1921, senior puisne judge in 1927, acting chief justice in 1935 and, on occasions, deputy governor. As a judge he was known for his good humour, kindness and common sense which, Sir Mellis Napier said on Herbert's retirement in 1945, had been 'invaluable as a touchstone with which to test too fine-spun theories'.

Parsons espoused many organizations, often heading them: the South Australian Cornish Association; the Royal Empire Society and other Imperial bodies; the Prison Reform Association, the Automobile Association of South Australia; and the Australian Round Table. He was a warden of the University of Adelaide's senate, and vice-chancellor in 1942-44. He spent many hours at the Adelaide Club, preferring its convivial atmosphere to his wife's Methodism.

Following his father as consul for Japan from 1904, he was honoured with the Order of the Rising Sun in 1921. He was knighted in 1936 and appointed K.B.E. in 1945. Survived by Lady Parsons and their two sons, he died of cirrhosis of the liver on 2 November 1945 and was buried with his parents in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Reports of the Government Resident of the Northern Territory, 1884-89, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia)
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 27 Mar 1891, p 3, 17 June 1892, p 3, 17 Aug 1899, p 8, 2 Dec 1904, p 4
  • Observer (Adelaide), 31 Aug 1895, 29 Aug 1903
  • Mail (Adelaide), 23 May 1914
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 June, 3 Nov 1945
  • private information.

Citation details

Elizabeth Kwan, 'Parsons, Sir Herbert Angas (1872–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/parsons-sir-herbert-angas-8501/text13871, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

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