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William Edward Parry-Okeden (1840–1926)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

This article was published:

William Edward Parry-Okeden (1840-1926), public servant, police commissioner, protector of Aborigines and horseman, was born on 13 May 1840 at Marranumbla station, Snowy River, New South Wales, only child of David Parry-Okeden (1810-1895), English pioneer settler, and his wife Rosalie Caroline, née Dutton (1814-1874). David was born on 7 February 1810 in Dorset, fourth son of David Parry Okeden, landed proprietor, and his first wife Mary, née Harris. He served in the Royal Navy as cadet, midshipman and lieutenant in 1822-29, and fought at Navarino. An expert swordsman, pistol-shot and horseman, he resigned on a point of honour, went to Sydney in 1830 and commanded trading vessels. He visited England, where in 1838 he married, and on his return bought the rights to Marranumbla (which he sold in 1841) where Rosalie showed courage and resource, not least when she and her baby were visited by bushrangers. After four months exploring in Gippsland, Port Phillip District, with Rosalie and William (carried on a pillow lashed to his father's saddle) David crossed the mountains again to Rosedale where they were the first white settlers. William was imaginative, resourceful and physically strong; his parents encouraged a literary bent. The local Aborigines were treated kindly—and were possibly the first to play cricket.

In 1851, after the discovery of gold, David sold Rosedale to John King and the family moved by bullock-waggon to Melbourne where William attended R. H. Budd's Diocesan Grammar School and then W. E. Northcott's grammar school. A skilled horseman and used to firearms, he was over six feet (183 cm) at 14 when he joined the Volunteer Rifles. He acted in amateur theatricals, boxed and was president of the East Melbourne Cricket Club. From 1857 he was articled to Winfield Attenborough, solicitor, but after three years joined his parents in Queensland, where his father managed Burrandowan station, near Dalby and Gayndah.

William assisted his father for ten years and, with a close friend Richard Stuart, explored the upper waters of the Dawson River in 1862-63 and discovered the Boxvale country. In 1867 David bought Mount Debatable station, near Gayndah, in partnership with Stuart. William was foundation master of the Burnett Hunt Club in full panoply of pink pursuing kangaroos. He had success with several horses, sometimes as his own outsize jockey; The Hermit won the first Queensland Derby in 1868. He and Stuart hunted wild horses on the Bunya Mountains and wrote lively ballads. William deepened his knowledge of Aboriginal lore and language, attending the feast of ripe bunya-nuts for which the local tribes gathered in February.

After Mount Debatable was ruined by drought, David worked as a sheep superintendent and in local government appointments at Cunnamulla, Charleville (where his wife died of snakebite and he assisted his son) and Gayndah. He continued his Anglican lay-preaching and teaching activities. Following William to Brisbane in 1886, David died there on 9 August 1895 and was buried in Bulimba cemetery.

In 1870 William began thirty-five years' work in the Queensland Public Service on being appointed inspector of customs and officer-in-charge of a patrol to curb lawlessness and smuggling along the New South Wales border. He was police magistrate for Cunnamulla (1872-75), Charleville (1873-81) and Gayndah (1881-86) simultaneously with other positions, especially in lands administration. On 16 October 1873 at St Paul's Church of England, Maryborough, he married (Elizabeth) Gertrude Wall (1848-1918), recently of the West Indies; they had eight children.

At both Charleville and Gayndah they played a central role in the district: he as president of the jockey club, judge of bloodstock, all-round cricketer or life and soul of an entertainment. The Charleville Times later wrote of the time 'when Parry-Okeden was king'. He was not above delivering judgments in verse—but none was ever reversed.

In 1886 he was appointed to positions dealing with migrants, including Pacific Islanders, and the family moved to Brisbane. At the request of (Sir) Samuel Griffith he drew up plans for a labour bureau to register the needs of employers and employees. In 1887 Parry-Okeden was on a board of inquiry investigating penal establishments, which recommended reforms to avoid both the 'harsh and cruel treatment' of early times and the 'feeble and nerveless' condition into which gaols had fallen; the Prisons Act of 1890 followed. Another member of the board W. K. Rose described 'Parry' as 'a regular specimen of the cornstalk … spare of flesh, but hard as nails, as active as a kangaroo, and the best horseman and whip I have ever met … his companionship was a never failing delight'.

On 23 July 1889 Parry-Okeden was appointed to the chief public service post—under colonial secretary (renamed principal under secretary): Premier (Sir) Hugh Nelson told him, 'We want you to be the eyes and brains of the Government'. Heart and sinews were needed, too, in the crises: the floods in Brisbane in 1893, and the shearers' strikes of 1891 and 1894. The Peace Preservation Act of 1894 gave special powers of arrest and examination to district magistrates of 'proclaimed districts'. Parry-Okeden was appointed district magistrate of Flinders, and fifty special constables, in two companies of mounted infantry, were sworn in. In three months peace was restored. The shearers accepted discipline from one who knew the west, who visited their camps alone, who understood their grievances, and who could take his place beside them in the sheds.

On 1 July 1895 he was appointed commissioner of police, a post unsought but loyally accepted. Many reforms ensued: reorganization of Queensland's police into seven districts; appointment of a chief inspector; the institution of a criminal investigation branch; more comfortable uniforms; the use of bicycles; better horses; finger-printing; a police museum; and facilities for 'police benefit and recreation'. Parry-Okeden and his family's social gifts contributed to morale.

In 1896 he spent two months on Cape York investigating complaints about the Native Police after Archibald Meston had recommended their abolition. Parry-Okeden's knowledge of Aboriginal languages was an asset in a strenuous tour which resulted in a reasoned defence of the force and moderate but wide-ranging recommendations. His Report on the North Queensland Aborigines and the Native Police (1897) became the basis of the Aboriginals' protection and the restriction of the sale of opium Act 1897, which set up the first government-controlled Aboriginal reserves. As commissioner of police, Parry-Okeden became protector of Aborigines.

Failure to detect the murderers at Goodna and at Gatton led in 1899 to a royal commission into the criminal investigation branch. Parry-Okeden, who insisted on being judged with his men, was criticized by two of the five commissioners for treating the police like soldiers, for certain appointments, and for lacking police experience. His detailed and dignified reply acknowledged the good done by the investigation. One-tenth of an undermanned and overworked force was used to track down the murderers Patrick and James Kenniff in 1902; despite sympathy for the Kenniffs akin to that for Ned Kelly, the police department was showered with congratulations.

More congenial were social, ceremonial, and patriotic duties: the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, the dispatch of Queensland Bushmen to the South African War, the inauguration of the Commonwealth and the presence in Brisbane of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York were occasions that displayed the commissioner's fine presence. In June 1903 he was appointed I.S.O. He retired from the public service on 1 April 1905, but in 1906-07 served on the Commonwealth royal commission investigating conditions and methods of government in British New Guinea, which recommended an Australian administrator and European settlement; the travel involved had been strenuous.

The Parry-Okedens lived successively at Kangaroo Point, Toowong and Kedron, though much of William's retirement was spent at Redcliffe. Survived by three sons and four daughters whose lives were similarly long, adventurous and public-spirited, Parry-Okeden died in Brisbane on 30 August 1926 and was buried beside his wife in Bulimba cemetery. Their eldest son Captain Uvedale Edward (1874-1961), after lively years in Alaska and the American wild west, won a Military Cross at Gallipoli as an Anzac and returned to pastoral life; he captained the Queensland cricket XI in 1896 and the A.I.F. XI in Egypt in 1916 and was a noted amateur steeplechase rider. Their youngest son Flight Commander Captain Herbert David (1889-1950), of Bingleburra station, Chinchilla, served in the 6th Light Horse, the Imperial Camel Corps, the Royal Flying Corps, the Australian Flying Corps and the Royal Australian Air Force.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Haygarth, Recollections of Bush Life in Australia (Lond, 1848)
  • K. Mackay, Across Papua (Lond, 1909)
  • Queensland Police Department, A Centenary History of the Queensland Police Force 1864-1963 (Brisb, 1964)
  • H. C. Perry, A Son of Australia (Brisb, 1928)
  • P. de Serville, Port Phillip Gentlemen (Melb, 1980)
  • J. S. D. Mellick, The Passing Guest (Brisb, 1983)
  • Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), 4 (1948-52)
  • Queensland Police Union Journal, Nov 1985
  • Brisbane Courier, 31 Aug 1926
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 15 Aug 1965
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 1 Aug 1970
  • D. Parry-Okeden, History of My Life (typescript, no date, State Library of Queensland)
  • H. M. Draper, Origin and History of the Queensland Police Force to 1900 (typescript, 1950, State Library of Queensland)
  • Parry-Okeden papers (privately held)
  • Aboriginal Affairs. Brief Administrative History (typescript, M009, 12/21, Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Parry-Okeden, William Edward (1840–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 May, 1840
Marranumbla station, Snowy River, New South Wales, Australia


30 August, 1926 (aged 86)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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