Florence Mary (Parsons) Taylor OBE made history when she became the first woman to qualify and practice professionally as an architect in Australia. Later she was to become a strong advocate of town planning as an important element in the built environment.
Her enduring legacy lies in the contribution she made for over fifty years as a major publisher, writer and editor in the fields of architecture, construction and town planning.
Education and early career
Florence Taylor found herself the sole supporter of herself and her two younger sisters when she was only nineteen. She was fortunate in finding work as a clerk in the office of a Parramatta architect, Francis Stowe, who had been an acquaintance of her father’s. Although being employed by Stowe solved the family’s immediate financial problems, Florence soon realised that she earned far less as a clerk than did the architectural draftsmen working in the office. Gaining an architectural qualification would be one way of ensuring a more secure future for her and her sisters.
In 1898 Florence moved to the architectural office of Edmund Skelton Garton, becoming articled to him as a junior draftsman. In the following year she enrolled as a night student in the newly established architecture course at Sydney Techical College. The course had four main subject areas: architectural drawing; building construction; architectural history and quantity surveying. Florence Taylor struggled at first, failing some subjects in the first year, but persevered. Her results began to improve markedly and she started receiving honours grades. By 1904 her goal was accomplished and Florence Taylor became the first woman in Australia to complete final year architectural studies. Not one to rest on her laurels she continued to take additional courses, this time at the Sydney Marine Engineering College where she gained an engineering qualification. Florence Taylor once more broke new ground for Australian women, a pattern that was to continue throughout her life.
Soon after completing her articles under Garton, Florence Taylor took up a position in the city office of John Burcham Clamp, the Diocesan architect. This was a professional step up as Clamp was highly regarded. Hard work and commitment led to Florence Taylor being promoted as Clamp’s chief draftsman and she claimed later to have designed between 50 and 100 houses for developer Alfred Saunders before 1907. Attribution is not easy to confirm, however, as her contribution would have been embedded in a team effort rather than being showcased individually. At the time this was fairly typical of the way design contributions by many early women architects were not properly acknowledged. It is known, however, that Florence Taylor won several design competitions, including at the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work held in Melbourne in 1907 where her plans for a modern kitchen won an award.
John Clamp thought so highly of Florence Taylor and her work that in 1907 he joined two others in nominating her as a member of the New South Wales Institute of Architects. The nomination failed, however, with Florence Taylor claiming she had been blackballed because she was a woman. There was no such blackballing thirteen years later, however, when she was successfully nominated for membership of the NSW Institute. By this time Florence Taylor had become a recognised architectural writer and had been accepted for membership of both the English Society of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects. She registered with the State Board of Architects in 1928.
A career in architectural publishing
Not long after her failure in 1913 to become a member of the NSW Institute, Florence Taylor married one of her former lecturers, George Augustine Taylor. They shared many interests, including flying – in 1909 Florence Taylor had established another record when she became the first Australian woman to fly in a glider. The couple’s most important shared passions, however, were architecture and town planning.
Florence Taylor left architectural practice around this time and she and her husband launched the Building Publishing Company, the aim being to publish trade journals for the construction industry. As editors and contributors, they were able to use their new journals to express opinions and criticisms about the building industry. They were also able to campaign in their publications for sounder urban planning, improved construction methods and better materials for the building industry.
In 1913, their joint enthusiasm for town planning led the Taylors to becoming founding members of the Town Planning Association with which Florence Taylor remained involved for many years. A recent biography of her by Robert Freestone and Bronwyn Hanna noted that Florence Taylor’s interests in town planning changed over the decades. They suggest she was an anti-slum campaigner in 1910, shifted to practical suggestions for city improvement schemes in the 1920s and moved on to city remodelling schemes in the 1940s.
George Taylor’s death in 1928 left Florence Taylor in charge of a large publishing company, by this time well respected in the building field. Although initially needing to reduce the number of journals the company published, she continued to head the firm till her retirement in 1961. The business not only survived the Great Depression but expanded significantly after World War II.
The best known periodicals Florence Taylor’s company published were two trade journals, Construction and Building and a professional journal, Australasian Engineer, which Florence Taylor edited herself and to which she contributed columns. Other long running titles included The Commonwealth Home, The Property Owner and Town Planning. These journals now provide an important source of information on the design, construction and representation of the built environment in Sydney in the first half of the twentieth century.
After World War II Florence Taylor travelled widely, visiting Europe, the Americas and Asia. She continued to bring back ideas on urban and rural planning which informed her writings and speeches and she edited two respected books of designs for Australian homes. Towards the end of Florence Taylor’s life, an extensive, illustrated account of her work was authored by one of her staff, JM Giles, and released by her publishing company. The book, Fifty Years of Town Planning with Florence Taylor, included many of her town planning proposals for Sydney. These had been of mixed success (she had opposed, for instance the siting of the Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point) but many were practical suggestions for improved city transport and city remodelling that foresaw changes that would eventually take place in Sydney.
Florence Taylor was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1939. In 1955, a Citizen’s Appreciation Lunch with 1000 guests was held for her in Sydney. Further recognition followed in 1961 (the year of her retirement) when she became a Commander of the British Empire.
Florence Taylor died in Sydney on 13 February, 1969. The Canberra suburb of Taylor has been named in her honour.
Florence Mary Parsons was born in Bedminster, England on 27 December 1879, the eldest daughter of John Parsons, a labourer, and his wife Eliza. The Parsons family migrated to Australia in the early 1880s, settling in Sydney where Florence Taylor’s father found employment with the Parramatta Council. The three Taylor sisters attended a nearby public school where they are said to have received a good education. Florence Taylor’s mother died in 1896 and her father’s death followed three years later.
Contributed by Pamela Harris
Photograph by Dorothy Welding, State Library of New South Wales
Hanna, Bronwyn (2001) “Australia’s Early Women Architects: Milestones and Achievements.” FABRICATIONS, 12.1, 27-57.
Hanna, Bronwyn, ‘Taylor, Florence’, Dictionary of Sydney
Hanna, Bronwyn and Robert Freestone (2007) Florence Taylor’s hats; designing, building and editing Sydney. Halstead Press, Ultimo.
Heywood, Anne (2002) “Taylor, Florence Mary (1879-1969) Australian Women’s Register
Ludlow, Christa (1990) “Taylor Florence Mary (1897-1969) Australian Dictionary of Biography
Willis, Julie and Bronwyn Hanna, (2001) Women Architects in Australia 1900-1950, Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Canberra