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Cobden Parkes (1892–1978)

by Peter Reynolds

This article was published:

Cobden Parkes (1892-1978), architect, public servant and soldier, was born on 2 August 1892 at Hampton Villa, Balmain, Sydney, youngest of five children of English-born parents Sir Henry Parkes, politician, and his second wife Eleanor, née Dixon (d.1895). Raised by his stepmother, Cobden was educated at Fort Street Model School and Rockdale College. He entered the Department of Public Works in 1909 as a cadet in the office of the government architect W. L. Vernon and studied at night at Sydney Technical College.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 27 August 1914, Parkes embarked for Egypt with the 1st Battalion. At Gallipoli, he was promoted lance sergeant in June 1915 and commissioned two months later. On 4 September he was wounded in both hands: his left index finger was severely lacerated and three fingers of his right hand were amputated—a critical impairment for a draughtsman. He was invalided to Australia where his A.I.F. appointment terminated in April 1916. After serving in the Militia, he gained a new commission in the A.I.F. in February 1918. Sailing via Egypt to England, he joined the 34th Battalion on the Western Front in October. His second appointment terminated in Sydney on 4 September 1919.

Parkes rejoined the Department of Public Works in 1920 and had extended periods in country offices. On 19 November 1921 he married Victoria Lenore Lillyman at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney. He returned to head office in 1929. Appointed designing architect in charge of the drawing office on 1 February 1930, he succeeded Edwin Evan Smith on 4 October 1935 as government architect, the first to be fully trained within the office. His duties included preparations for the sesquicentenary celebrations in 1938.

Essentially 'a man of considerable stature as an administrator and organiser', Parkes continued the conservative architecture of his predecessors in projects (1939-41) such as the portico and great reading room of the New South Wales Public Library (designed by Samuel Coleman). He recognized the skills of his staff architect E. H. Rembert and gave him carte blanche to produce buildings such as the Newcastle Technical College (from 1936) and the Hoskins block at Sydney Technical College (1938), both inspired by the Dutch modernist W. M. Dudok.

In 1939 Parkes accompanied the minister for health on a visit to inspect hospitals in England and North America. He returned to Sydney after World War II began and chaired the technical committee of the National Emergency Services. Following Japan's entry into the war in 1941, he provided support for the Air Raid Precautions and New South Wales Camouflage committees. In the 1950s, as the building trade recovered from postwar shortages of materials and manpower, one of Parkes's innovative measures was to develop co-operative arrangements with private architects to alleviate staff shortages. He also encouraged university training of cadets, who were given office experience on specialized projects in Rembert's 'Design Room' during vacations and on graduating.

Parkes retired on 1 August 1958 and was appointed (full-time) officer-in-charge of building, planning and development at the University of New South Wales, and a member of the planning and co-ordination committees of the Prince of Wales and Prince Henry hospitals. As councillor, honorary architect, president, vice-president or fund-raiser of such organizations as the Women's Hospital, Crown Street, the Nielsen-Vaucluse Park Trust, the Legacy Club of Sydney and the State division of the Australian Red Cross Society, he was regarded as a legend. He was a man of character, charm, dignity, understanding and humanity who inspired 'affection in all who knew him'.

A member (from 1924) of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales, Parkes was a foundation member (1929), fellow (1936) and life fellow (1958) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects; he was president (1942-44) of the State chapter, and a national councillor (1947-54) and president (1950-52). He was also a member (from 1942) and chairman (1949-63) of the Board of Architects of New South Wales, and a member of the Board of Architectural Education. Elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1951), he received the Florence Taylor award (1955) from the Master Builders' Association of New South Wales. The U.N.S.W. conferred on him a D.Sc. (honoris causa) in 1958, the year in which he was appointed C.B.E. In 1964 he received the gold medal of the R.A.I.A. He belonged to the Imperial Service Club.

Survived by his son and two daughters, Parkes died on 15 August 1978 at Blakehurst and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. P. Webber, E. H. Rembert, the Life and Work of the Sydney Architect, 1902-1966 (Syd, 1982)
  • Architecture in Australia, Oct-Dec 1958, Nov 1964
  • Building, Lighting and Engineering, Dec 1964, p 70
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Oct 1935, 17 Aug 1978
  • P. L. Reynolds, The Evolution of the Government Architect's Branch of the New South Wales Department of Public Works, 1788-1911 (Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972), vol 2.

Citation details

Peter Reynolds, 'Parkes, Cobden (1892–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 August, 1892
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


15 August, 1978 (aged 86)
Blakehurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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