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Sir Henry Parkes
1815 – 1896



27 May 1815 in Canley, Warwickshire (now a suburb of Coventry), England and christened in the nearby village of Stoneleigh.

His father, Thomas Parkes, was a small-scale tenant farmer.

Of his mother, little is known, although when she died in 1842, Parkes would say of her that he felt as if a portion of this world's beauty was lost to him forever.

Early Years

He received little schooling, and at an early age was working on a rope-walk for four pence a day.

His next work was in a brickyard, and later on he tells us he "was breaking stones on the Queen's highway with hardly enough clothing to protect me from the cold".

He was then apprenticed to John Holding, a bone and ivory turner at Birmingham, and probably about the year 1832 joined the Birmingham political union.

Between that year and 1838 he was associated with the political movements that were then endeavouring to better the conditions endured by the working classes.

He was steadily educating himself, too, by reading assiduously, including the works of the British poets.


In 1835, he addressed some verses, afterwards included in his first volume of poems, to Clarinda Varney, the daughter of a local butler.

On 11 July 1836 he married Clarinda Varney and went to live in a single room.

Parkes commenced business on his own account in Birmingham and had a bitter struggle to make ends meet.
While the last ten years of his life were his most influential politically, Parkes faced immense personal turmoil following the death of his first wife, Clarinda Varney.

He remarried quickly to Eleanor Dixon and they had two more children.

Dixon soon died and Parkes remarried yet again, this time to Julia Lynch


Following the death of their two children at an early age and a few unsuccessful weeks spent dwelling in London, Parkes and his wife immigrated to New South Wales on an assisted passage.

They travelled aboard the Strathfieldsaye, which arrived at Sydney on 25 July 1839.

Another child had been born two days before.

During his first fortnight in Sydney, Parkes looked vainly for work.

He and his wife had only a few shillings when they arrived, and they existed for a time by selling their belongings.

Parkes' luck changed when one of the colony's wealthiest settlers, Sir John Jamison, gave him a labourer's job.

He worked on Sir John's impressive Regentville estate, near Penrith, for a wage of £25 a year and a ration and a half of food.

This ration consisted mainly of rice, flour and sugar, for the meat was sometimes unfit to eat.

After spending six months at Regentville, he returned to Sydney and obtained work at low wages, first in an ironmongery store and then with a firm of engineers and brass-founders.

Tide Waiter

About a year after his arrival in Sydney, Parkes was hired by the New South Wales Customs Department as a Tide Waiter, and given the task of inspecting merchant vessels to guard against the smuggling of contraband.

He had been recommended for this responsible post by Sir John Jamison's son-in-law, William John Gibbes, who was manager of Regentville and the offspring of the Collector of Customs for New South Wales, Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes.

Parkes' financial position improved due to his stable new government job, even though he was still burdened with a backlog of undischarged debts.

He nonetheless abandoned the security of his employment with the Customs Department at the beginning of 1846, submitting his resignation after a disagreement with Colonel Gibbes over a press leak that concerned the alleged behaviour of one of Parkes' co-workers.

Irrespective of this rupture, Parkes would continue to remain on friendly terms with the Colonel and his descendants for the rest of his life.


Parkes seems to have had few close personal friends during the early 1840s.

Yet, when his volume of verse, Stolen Moments, was published in Sydney in 1842, the list of subscribers included many of the most distinguished people in the colony (including Colonel Gibbes, to whom the poetry book was dedicated).

It was about this time that he met the poet Charles Harpur and the newspaperman William Duncan, then editor of the Weekly Register; he mentions in his Fifty Years of Australian History that these two men became his "chief advisers in matters of intellectual resource".

After his departure from the Customs Service, Parkes embarked on a varied career in the private sector.
He did business from premises in Kent Street as an ivory and bone turner but afterwards moved to a shop in Hunter Street where he kept for sale to the public a stock of writing-desks, dressing-cases, fancy baskets, ornaments and toys.

At one stage, he owned the newspaper 'The Empire'.

Parkes went bankrupt after running up debts totalling £48,500.


Parkes started to take a keen interest in the public proceedings of the colony and the burning question of the day, namely, the stoppage of convict transportation.

Self-government was another important question of the day, the first step towards this objective having occurred in 1843, when an enlarged Legislative Council was sworn in, consisting partly of nominated and partly of elected members, and the powers of the governor were much restricted as a consequence.

The third big question on people's lips was the colony's land laws.

The struggle to make them fairer lasedt for many years.

Meanwhile Parkes began writing for the Atlas and the People's Advocate; but it was not until 1848 that he first began to speak out in public on important issues of community concern.

In that year, Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke, was a candidate for the constituency of Sydney, standing as a champion of the anti-transportation cause.

Parkes became a member of Lowe's election committee, was appointed one of his secretaries, and wrote the address to the voters which helped to secure Lowe's return.

This marks the beginning of Parkes's political career.

universal suffrage

In 1849, Parkes was active at a meeting got up to petition both houses of parliament for a reduction of the suffrage qualifications.

He made his first political speech, and advocated universal suffrage, which was not to become a reality for many years.

Parkes thought his own speech a very weak performance.

As a result of the petition, the qualification to vote was reduced to £10 household and £100 freehold.

Fifth premiership and Federation

With a small majority he formed his fifth administration, which began in March 1889 and lasted until October 1891. As far back as 1867 Parkes at an intercolonial conference had said: "I think the time has arrived when these colonies should be united by some federal bond of connexion."

Shortly afterwards a bill to establish the proposed federal council was introduced by him and passed through both the New South Wales houses.

This was afterwards shelved by the action of the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Various other conferences were held in the next 20 years at which the question came up, in which Parkes took a leading part, but in October 1884 he was blowing cold and suggesting that it would be "better to let the idea of federation mature in men's minds", and New South Wales then pulled out of the proposed federal council scheme.

In October 1889 a report on the defences of Australia suggested among other things the federation of the forces of all the Australian colonies and a uniform gauge for railways.

Parkes had come to the conclusion that the time had come for a new federal movement.

He now felt more confidence in the movement and on 15 October 1889 telegraphed to the premiers of the other colonies suggesting a conference.

On 24 October 1889, at the Tenterfield School of Arts, Parkes delivered the Tenterfield Oration.

The oration was seen as a clarion call to federalists and he called for a convention "to devise the constitution which would be necessary for bringing into existence a federal government with a federal parliament for the conduct of national undertaking".


Towards the end of his life he lived in Kenilworth, a Gothic mansion in Johnston Street, Annandale, a Sydney suburb.

He died of natural causes while living there. on 27 April 1896, five years before Australia became a federation on 1 January 1901


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