C. Northcote Parkinson

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C. Northcote Parkinson
Cyril Northcote Parkinson 1961.jpg
Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1961
Born Cyril Northcote Parkinson
30 July 1909
Barnard Castle, County Durham, England, UK
Died 9 March 1993(1993-03-09) (aged 83)
Canterbury, Kent, England, UK
Occupation Naval historian
Nationality British
Education University of Cambridge
King's College London
Subject Naval History
Notable works Parkinson's Law (1957)
Notable awards Julian Corbett Prize in Naval History

Cyril Northcote Parkinson (30 July 1909 – 9 March 1993) was a British naval historian and author of some 60 books, the most famous of which was his best-seller Parkinson's Law, which led him to be also considered as an important scholar in public administration and management.

Early life and education[edit]

The youngest son of William Edward Parkinson (1871–1927), an art master at North East County School and from 1913 principal of York School of Arts and Crafts, and his wife, Rose Emily Mary Curnow (born 1877), Parkinson attended St. Peter's School, York, where in 1929 he won an Exhibition to study history at Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. He received a BA degree in 1932. As an undergraduate, Parkinson developed an interest in naval history, which he pursued when the Pellew family gave him access to family papers at the recently established National Maritime Museum. The papers formed the basis of his first book, Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth, Admiral of the Red. In 1934, then a graduate student at King's College London, he wrote his PhD thesis on Trade and War in the Eastern Seas, 1803–1810, which was awarded the Julian Corbett Prize in Naval History for 1935.

Academic and military career[edit]

While a graduate student in 1934, Parkinson was commissioned into the Territorial Army in the 22nd London Regiment (The Queen's), was promoted to lieutenant the same year, and commanded an infantry company at the jubilee of King George V in 1935. In the same year, Emmanuel College, Cambridge elected him a research fellow. While at Cambridge, he commanded an infantry unit of the Cambridge University Officers' Training Corps. He was promoted to captain in 1937.

He became senior history master at Blundell's School in Tiverton, Devon in 1938 (and a captain in the school's OTC), then instructor at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in 1939. In 1940, he joined the Queen's Royal Regiment as a captain and undertook a range of staff and military teaching positions in Britain. In 1943 he married Ethelwyn Edith Graves (born 1915), a nurse tutor at Middlesex Hospital, with whom he had two children.

Demobilized as a major in 1945, he was a lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool from 1946 to 1949. In 1950, he was appointed Raffles Professor of History at the new University of Malaya in Singapore. While there, he initiated an important series of historical monographs on the history of Malaya, publishing the first in 1960. A movement developed in the mid-1950s to establish two campuses, one in Kuala Lumpur and one in Singapore. Parkinson attempted to persuade the authorities to avoid dividing the university by maintaining it in Johor Bahru to serve both Singapore and Malaya. His efforts were unsuccessful and the two campuses were established in 1959. The Singapore campus later became the University of Singapore.

Parkinson divorced in 1952 and he married the writer and journalist Ann Fry (1921–1983), with whom he had two sons and a daughter. In 1958, while still in Singapore, he published his most famous work, Parkinson's Law, which expanded upon a humorous article that he had published in the Economist magazine in November 1955, satirising government bureaucracies. The 120-page book of short studies, published in the United States and then in Britain, was illustrated by Osbert Lancaster and became an instant best seller. It explained the inevitability of bureaucratic expansion, arguing that 'work expands to fill the time available for its completion'. Typical of his satire and cynical humour, it included a discourse on Parkinson's Law of Triviality (debates about expenses for a nuclear plant, a bicycle shed, and refreshments), a note on why driving on the left side of the road (see road transport) is natural, and suggested that the Royal Navy would eventually have more admirals than ships. After serving as visiting professor at Harvard University in 1958, the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley in 1959–60, he resigned his post in Singapore to become an independent writer. To avoid high taxation in Britain, he moved to the Channel Islands and settled at St Martin's, Guernsey, where he purchased Les Caches Hall and later restored Annesville Manor. His writings from this period included a series of historical novels featuring a fictional naval officer from Guernsey, Richard Delancey, during the Napoleonic era.

In 1969 he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject 'The Status of the Engineer'.

After the death of his second wife in 1984, in 1985 he married Iris Hilda Waters (d. 1994) and moved to the Isle of Man. After two years there, they moved to Canterbury, Kent,[1] where he died in March 1993, at the age of 83. He was buried in Canterbury.

Published works[edit]

Richard Delancey series of naval novels
  • The Devil to Pay (1973)(2)
  • The Fireship (1975)(3)
  • Touch and Go (1977)(4)
  • Dead Reckoning (1978)(6)
  • So Near, So Far (1981)(5)
  • The Guernseyman (1982)(1)
Other nautical fiction
  • Manhunt (1990)
Other fiction
  • Ponies Plot (1965)
Biographies of fictional characters
  • The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower (1970)
  • Jeeves: A Gentleman's Personal Gentleman (1979)
Naval history
  • Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth (1934)
  • The Trade Winds, Trade in the French Wars 1793–1815 (1948)
  • Samuel Walters, Lieut. RN (1949)
  • War in the Eastern Seas, 1793–1815 (1954)
  • Trade in the Eastern Seas (1955)
  • British Intervention in Malaya, 1867–1877 (1960)
  • Britannia Rules (1977)
  • Portsmouth Point, The Navy in Fiction, 1793–1815 (1948)
Other non-fiction
  • The Rise of the Port of Liverpool (1952)
  • Parkinson's Law (1957)
  • The Evolution of Political Thought (1958)
  • The Law and the Profits (1960)
  • In-Laws and Outlaws (1962)
  • East and West (1963)
  • Parkinsanities (1965)
  • Left Luggage (1967)
  • Mrs. Parkinson's Law: and Other Studies in Domestic Science (1968)
  • The Law of Delay (1970)
  • The fur-lined mousetrap (1972)
  • The Defenders, Script for a "Son et Lumière" in Guernsey (1975)
  • Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (1978)
Audio recordings
  • Discusses Political Science with Julian H. Franklin (10 LPs) (1959)


Sources consulted

External links[edit]