C. Northcote Parkinson


C. Northcote Parkinson : biography

30 July 1909 – 9 March 1993

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

Parkinson and his wife 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, Parkinson published his most famous work Parkinson’s Law, a book that expanded upon a humorous article that he had first published in the Economist magazine in November 1955, satirizing government bureaucracies. The 120-page book, first published in the United States and then in Britain, was illustrated by Osbert Lancaster and became an instant best seller. This collection of short studies 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, the book 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, and the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley in 1959–60, he resigned his post in Singapore at the University of Malaya to become an independent writer and celebrity. 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 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, he married a third time, in 1985 to Iris Hilda Waters (d. 1994) and moved to the Isle of Man. After two years there, they moved to Canterbury, Kent, where Parkinson died in March 1993, at the age of 83. He was buried in Canterbury.