Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Parsons (1876–1951)

by Owen F. Watts

This article was published:

Joseph Parsons (1876-1951), educationist, was born in December 1876 in Moscow, of English parents Frederick Parsons, an engineer contracted to the Tsarist government, and his wife Selina, née Firth. They migrated from England to Sydney in 1886. Joseph attended a public school and at 15 became a pupil-teacher at Cleveland Street Superior Public School. He won scholarships to Fort Street Training School and the University of Sydney, graduating with first-class honours in Latin and French (B.A., 1899). With other young teachers, 'the wise men of the east', in 1899 he was attracted to Western Australia and a job at Perth Boys' State School.

The colony's roughest schools were on the eastern goldfields; Parsons was promoted headmaster in 1901 to the largest of these, at Boulder. His efficiency and introduction of the 'new curriculum' impressed Cecil Andrews, principal of the Training College, Claremont; next year Parsons became a lecturer there and promoted innovative teaching methods. He became headmaster of Coolgardie School in 1903.

Parsons received his M.A. in 1904 from the University of Sydney; it was the highest degree held by a teacher in the Western Australian teaching service, and he became instructor to the monitors' central classes. In 1905 he went as head to the State's best school, Perth Boys' School. On 27 March 1907 Parsons married Mary Gellie Tennant Longmore in Perth; they had two daughters and a son.

In 1911 he was promoted to the inspectorate and, after a year in the city, became a district inspector based at Kalgoorlie. He encouraged children to develop their own ideas, suggesting that 'teachers should not try to “teach” too much'; and he emphasized sport, believing that 'a teacher who is willing to play with his children not only keeps his own youth but gains the confidence and affection of his pupils'.

From 1912 Parsons was headmaster of Western Australia's first state secondary school, Perth Modern School, where he remained twenty-seven years—the culmination of his career. He fostered discipline, success in public examinations and tradition. The school treated both sexes equally, and only admitted students chosen by a State-wide scholarship and entrance examination. It won repute for scholastic brilliance, but scholarship was encouraged for its own reward; there were no school prizes. Many from the school later made notable contributions to State and nation.

In 1922 Parsons also became inspector of state secondary schools. Since most of the teachers had also attended his school, his influence was profound. From 1929 he lectured part time in education at the University of Western Australia.

Parsons was a tall, shy, bespectacled man, known to his pupils as 'Joey'. He insisted that a school be known by its ex-students' contribution to society; after a visit to Britain he encouraged the founding of the Old Modernians' Association in 1914, maintaining contact with it after retiring in 1939. He was a president of the Kindergarten Union, vice-president of the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research, and chairman of the Soldiers' Children Education Board.

The loss of his son in World War II, followed by a heart attack in 1944, left Parsons weakened. He died on 16 November 1951 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta cemetery. Thomas Robertson, director-general of education, called him 'one of the great headmasters of Australia'. In 1970 a new library at Perth Modern School was named for Parsons. There is a portrait of him there and the library benefited from his will.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Mossenson, State Education in Western Australia, 1829-1960 (Perth, 1972)
  • L. Fletcher (ed), Pioneers of Education in Western Australia (Perth, 1982).

Citation details

Owen F. Watts, 'Parsons, Joseph (1876–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 April 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]


December, 1876
Moscow, Russia


16 November, 1951 (aged 74)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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