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Sir Henry Parkes (1815–1896)

by A. W. Martin

This article was published:

Sir Henry Parkes (1815-1896), politician and journalist, was born on 27 May 1815 in Warwickshire, England, youngest of the seven children of Thomas Parks, tenant farmer on Stoneleigh Abbey Estate, and his wife Martha, née Faulconbridge. Forced off their farm in 1823 by debt, the Parkes family moved to Glamorganshire and about 1825 settled in Birmingham, where Thomas was a gardener and odd-job man. Henry's formal education was in his own words, 'very limited and imperfect'; he briefly attended Stoneleigh parish school and later joined the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute. Obliged as a boy to help in supporting the family, he worked as a road labourer and in a brickpit and rope-walk, before being apprenticed to John Holding, bone and ivory turner of Moseley Street. Having served his articles, he began his own business in 1837. On 11 July 1836 at Edgbaston Parish Church he had married Clarinda, 23-year-old daughter of John Varney, butcher. They regularly attended Carr's Lane Independent Chapel under the formidable John Angell James, whose precepts and oratorical style left a permanent impress on Parkes. Another important Birmingham influence was Thomas Attwood's Political Union, which Parkes joined at 17. He heard Attwood, Scholefield and Edmunds orate at Newhall Hill, sported the union badge and in 1833 dedicated a poem on the wrongs of Poland to Attwood's son.

The business failed and in 1838 Parkes took Clarinda to London in search of better prospects. They survived a few weeks by pawning his tools, then determined to leave for New South Wales as bounty migrants. In March 1839 Hetherington's Charter published verses from Parkes as 'A Poet's Farewell', indignantly condemning a society through whose injustices 'men like this are compelled to seek the means of existence in a foreign wilderness'. Parkes assured his Birmingham family of his certainty of 'making my fortune and coming back to fetch all of you'. He and Clarinda sailed from Gravesend on 27 March 1839 in the Strathfieldsaye, their ears 'incessantly assailed by the coarse expressions and blasphemies' of other steerage passengers.

They reached Sydney on 25 July 1839 with a first surviving child born at sea two days earlier. Parkes found work as a labourer on Sir John Jamison's Regentville estate but after six months returned to Sydney to work in Thomas Burdekin's iron-mongery and Peter Russell's brass-foundry. In 1840 he became a tide-waiter in the Customs Department, slowly bought tools and in 1845 set up in Hunter Street as an ivory turner and importer of fancy goods. Impressed by what seemed 'flattering prospects' of developing 'a respectable mercantile business', he opened branches in Maitland and Geelong, but both failed and by 1850 he was in financial difficulties, writing remorsefully to his wife of 'too culpable neglect of my business in Sydney'. He had by then become deeply involved in literary and political activities, attractions which highlighted the dullness of a business life.

Parkes's talents as a writer, extraordinary for one so lacking in formal education, developed quickly in the 1840s. He was briefly Sydney correspondent for the Launceston Examiner, and contributed occasional poems and articles on political and literary topics, sometimes under the pseudonym 'Faulconbridge', to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australasian Chronicle and the Atlas. In 1842 he published by subscription a first book of verse, Stolen Moments. Through W. A. Duncan and Charles Harpur, his 'chief advisers on matters of intellectual resource and enquiry', he came to be associated with most of the colony's radical patriots. Discussion gave place in 1848 to action, when with J. K. Heydon he became organizing secretary of a tradesmen's committee which successfully promoted Robert Lowe for the City of Sydney seat in the Legislative Council. Later that year he joined radicals in the Constitutional Association which developed out of the Lowe committee to agitate for franchise extension and land reform. In his first public speech, made at the City Theatre in January 1849, Parkes advocated universal suffrage as the best guarantee that the people, 'growing in enlightenment', would avoid 'the excesses of Paris and Frankfurt'. His radicalism reached a brief apogee in April 1850 when Rev. John Dunmore Lang and J. R. Wilshire established the Australian League to work for universal suffrage and transformation of the Australian colonies into a 'Great Federal Republic'. Parkes wrote to Lang to denounce the 'dung-hill aristocracy of Botany Bay' and to assert his eagerness to 'enrol in the league for the entire freedom and independence' of this 'land of my adoption and of my children's birth'. In July he worked as chief organizer and canvasser when Lang stood against J. R. Holden for a vacant Sydney seat in the Legislative Council. In this campaign Parkes joined the Chartist, David Blair, to issue the Representative: A Daily Journal of the Election as a counter to the 'discreditable handbills' circulated by Lang's opponents. Lang won the seat but his league did not survive long and Parkes's republicanism soon evaporated. Daniel Deniehy told Lang that Parkes had 'too much, not of the Englishman in him, but of “Englishmanism” about him', to lend serious comfort to the republicans of New South Wales. But this was only part of the story; Parkes was already finding a more congenial cause in the liberal movement which by the early 1850s was becoming the most effective spearhead against the old colonial conservatives.

Parkes, who had been prominent in the great protest which greeted the convict ship Hashemy in 1849, eagerly dedicated his organizational talents to the Anti-transportation League and drifted easily into the liberal campaigns against the anti-democratic Electoral Act of 1851. Late in 1850 he found support to set up as editor-proprietor of the Empire, a newspaper destined to be the chief organ of mid-century liberalism and to serve as the rallying and reconciliation point for the sharpest radical and liberal minds of the day. Critics of the existing system as diverse as C. G. Duffy, Edward Butler, James Martin, William Forster, Deniehy and Lang were contributors but Parkes was presiding genius. Full-time journalist and politician now, he abandoned shopkeeping for a happy reconciliation of desire and duty: the Empire allowed devotion to a political cause and promised steady economic support for a growing family. By 1853, deeply involved in organizing the Constitution Committee to oppose Wentworth's constitution bill, he was ready to seek a place in the Legislative Council. Failing at a by-election that year, he won Wentworth's old Sydney seat in 1854, defeating Charles Kemp in a contest generally seen as a trial of strength between liberals and conservatives over the constitutional issue. The radicals' acceptance of a frankly liberal Parkes as their candidate in place of Lang symbolized the merging in his person of radical and liberal movements. The liberal leader, Charles Cowper, warmly welcomed him to the council as an opponent of 'Wentworthian and Thomsonian policy', and Parkes's election to the Chamber of Commerce signified his acceptance into the inner liberal group.

Parkes entered the council near its end: the constitutional proposals were under scrutiny in London and no longer a subject for effective local debate. Meanwhile the liberals' reformism was chiefly reflected in a range of inquiries instituted by the dying council into such matters as a nautical school for boys, the importation of Asiatic labour, the adulteration of food and the state of agriculture. In this work Parkes won repute as an assiduous and imaginative committeeman.

In March 1856 at the first Legislative Assembly established by the new Constitution, Parkes was one of the liberal bunch which carried all four seats in the premier Sydney City constituency. He supported Cowper in the complex manoeuvres of the first parliament until obliged in December to resign to give full attention to the Empire, then in serious financial difficulties. He re-entered parliament in January 1858 for the North Riding of Cumberland but in August had to resign for insolvency. The Empire had collapsed, ending his dream of using the paper as 'an independent power to vivify, elevate and direct the political life of the country' and leaving him 'to begin life afresh with a wife and five children to support, a name in a commercial sense ruined and a doubt of the practical character of my mind'. He survived bankruptcy proceedings, struggled on with the support of friends and the proceeds of occasional journalism and planned briefly to abandon politics for a legal career. But in June 1859 he was back in parliament to represent East Sydney.

Politics in the assembly had by then settled into a faction mould. Having in 1857 declared his independence of Cowper and John Robertson, Parkes developed a personal following in the House and in 1859-60 emerged as critic and rival of the established liberal leadership. But economic insecurity made him vulnerable, and early in 1861 he accepted an invitation by Cowper to tour England with W. B. Dalley as government lecturer on emigration at a salary of £1000.

Parkes sailed in May, leaving his family in poverty on their rented farm at Werrington. In England he attended vigorously to his duties, though with limited success. Prevailing English sentiment was well expressed by Sir John Pakington, who declared at Parkes's meeting in Droitwich his unwillingness to see 'the pith of our English population seeking a home elsewhere'. Early in 1863 Parkes returned to Sydney in good spirits, his self-confidence strengthened by the kind attention he had received from government officials and such literary idols as Carlyle, Hughes and Cobden, and having established while in Birmingham a new fancy goods importing business which he hoped might in the next six years 'provide for the rest of our lives'.

An opportunity to return to parliament offered itself in August 1863 when J. B. Darvall sought ministerial re-election at East Maitland. Parkes opposed Darvall and lost the contest after a bitter campaign, but in January 1864 was returned at a by-election for Kiama, a seat he held until 1870. From late 1864 until early 1866 he opposed consecutive Martin and Cowper ministries, while steadily rebuilding his own faction. In 1865 Cowper tried without success to buy him off again, with offers first of the lucrative post of inspector of prisons, then of a portfolio in his ministry. By early 1866 Martin and Parkes were in private negotiation: successful censure of Cowper followed and Martin, commissioned to form a ministry, included Parkes, as colonial secretary, and two followers.

This coalition, scarcely more than a marriage of convenience, failed to develop a positive and unanimous programme. Its leaders differed on such basic issues as the tariff, state aid, electoral and land reform. Parkes was responsible for establishing the hulk Vernon as a nautical school for destitute boys, for an Act requiring the inspection of hospitals and for bringing to Sydney under Lucy Osburn nursing sisters trained by Florence Nightingale. But the government's support was uncertain and its ministers quarrelsome; its only major legislation in two years and a half of office, Parkes's 1866 Public Schools Act, passed the assembly with Opposition assistance. This measure was Parkes's first important contribution to education reform. Prompted by the high cost of competing national and denominational systems of education, it aimed at rationalizing expenditure by placing both under a Council of Education which was also to oversee teacher training and the content of secular lessons.

The measure aroused sectarian controversy which Parkes did little to assuage. It revived again in March 1868 when H. J. O'Farrell attempted to assassinate the visiting Duke of Edinburgh. The government, alleging a Fenian plot, carried a savage Treason Felony Act suspending civil rights, but no conspiracy was discovered. In September Parkes resigned from the ministry in protest at its handling of a quarrel between the treasurer, Geoffrey Eagar, and W. A. Duncan, collector of customs. Lacking Parkes's support, Martin's ministry fell within a month. Meanwhile in a speech at Kiama Parkes had alleged that he had evidence to prove O'Farrell had acted on Fenian orders and that one conspirator had been murdered when suspected of revealing the plot. While his move had obvious political purposes, Parkes's correspondence also shows that he was obsessed with fears for his own safety and a belief in Catholic ambitions to seize political hegemony. A select committee under W. J. Macleay found no proof of the allegations, but though Parkes rallied sectarian and factional support to have its report expunged from the records of the House, the 'Kiama ghost' long remained an embarrassment.

Parkes's financial difficulties had been mounting: his importing venture failed and in December 1870 he collapsed again into bankruptcy. He resigned his seat but soon assured his sister that he would be 're-elected to the Legislature whenever I choose to offer myself, and strange as it may seem two-thirds of the mercantile classes will vote for me. They have got a notion that I am wholly unfit for business, but the fittest of all men for Parliament'. He survived by borrowing from friends, working as a journalist and briefly acting as travelling agent for H. H. Hall. In January 1872 he was returned for Mudgee in time to help in ousting the Martin-Robertson coalition ministry. General elections in February-March confirmed Martin's defeat and after complex negotiations Parkes became premier for the first time. His achievement bore witness to the political arts of which he was now supreme master: besides his own followers the ministry included old Cowper-Robertson men and Butler, a barrister who had covertly engineered sectional Catholic support for Parkes at the election.

The ministry took office in May at a time of commercial prosperity. By December, thanks chiefly to the rising sale of public lands, the Treasury had a substantial surplus. Parkes embarked on vigorous development of public works, effected a downward revision of tariff schedules and negotiated an agreement with Victoria on free border trade. Though once 'bitten by the doctrine of fostering infant industries' Parkes had in 1861 learnt from Cobden the error of his ways: now as tariff reformer, he received a gold medal from the Cobden Club and established his image as high priest of free trade in New South Wales. He also won the confidence of Sir Hercules Robinson, a convinced free trader and experienced colonial governor, whose eagerness to discuss administrative and constitutional problems with cordiality and balance proved important for Parkes's development.

Despite favourable assembly majorities, the council mauled government bills to consolidate the criminal law and to redraw electoral boundaries. The governor refused a ministerial request for new appointments and the council threw out a bill which, with overwhelming assembly support, aimed to give the Upper House an elective component. Echoes of former constitutional battles brought Parkes kudos as an old liberal campaigner. He emerged less happily from another crisis which arose in 1873 when his attorney-general and personal friend, Butler, resigned in protest against his failure to honour an implied promise of the chief justiceship then vacant. Though correct in judging that Martin had superior claims to the post, Parkes extricated himself from the obligation to Butler without displaying the frankness of a gentleman or the sensitivity of a friend and colleague. His deviousness is understandable in the light of pressure from the Bar, of his instinct for intrigue, of his unease at Butler's unpredictability and of the danger of his ministry falling. The reputations of both men were not enhanced when Butler made public their correspondence. The unhappy consequence of the breach was more than personal since the Parkes-Butler alliance had effected a liberal-Catholic rapprochement full of promise for the colony's best interests.

After an assembly motion in November 1874 which condemned the handling of messages on the governor's response to petitions for and against the release of Frank Gardiner, the ministry resigned in January 1875. Public passions muddied the constitutional issues at stake and the ministry's defeat had resulted from a clever Opposition stratagem: the permanent significance of the case lay in calmer discussions between Robinson, Parkes and the Colonial Office leading to clearer definition of the responsibilities of ministers and governor in exercising the prerogative of pardon.

Parkes led the opposition to Robertson's ministry of 1875 and was premier from March to August 1877. By then politics had drifted into chaos. Of the faction leaders of the 1860s only Parkes and Robertson remained, but neither helped to readjust members' loyalties by developing distinctive policies; while both shuffled on major issues, a 'third party' was formed under J. S. Farnell and short-lived governments did little more than business essential to the conduct of administration. On 13 December 1878 Robertson resigned from parliament, hoping that 'the Assembly will naturally arrange itself into two parties'. Four days later a meeting of opposition members, mostly Robertson's followers, invited Parkes to become their leader. On 21 December he formed a new ministry with himself colonial secretary and Robertson, speedily appointed to the Upper House, vice-president of the Executive Council. 'It only remains to be hoped', wrote Governor Robinson dryly, 'that these gentlemen who have for nearly a quarter of a century assailed each other with such bitter political hostility will now work together harmoniously in the same cabinet'. But Parkes's claim that the coalition had been effected 'without any violation of principles' was substantially correct. The government, overwhelmingly supported in the assembly, passed appropriation and loan bills with an ease unknown to its predecessors. By late 1880 its Lands, Public Instruction and Electoral Acts had surpassed in importance any legislation for more than a decade. Elections in November enlarged the ministry's majority. Its 1881 Licensing Act regulated the liquor trade and established local option, for which the temperance movement had long clamoured. Chinese immigration was restricted and employers' liability for workmen's injuries extended. New public works were started, electoral boundaries revised and stipendiary magistrates set up.

The Public Instruction Act was for Parkes the ministry's most significant measure, an earnest of his deep conviction of the social necessity of equal educational opportunity. He had steadily defended the 1866 settlement against pressure from the Public School League and embattled Catholic and Anglican denominationalists until by the late 1870s administrative difficulties on the Council of Education, concern to spread scarce resources more widely and the alliance with Robertson led him to move in a way most practical politicians were coming to think inevitable. Archbishop Vaughan's 'audacious' attacks on National schools embittered the debate but did not prompt the 1880 legislation. Parkes correctly insisted that his bill was not anti-religious and tempered pragmatism with that liberal faith in 'freedom and equality' for which he had argued in his Empire days. Though he understood the Catholic position, he grieved at the separation of Catholic children from others with whom they would have to 'mix in later years', and his exhortations still echoed the simple colonial nativism of the 1840s and 1850s: 'let us be of whatever faith we may, let us still remember that we are above everything else free citizens of a free commonwealth'.

In December 1881 on medical advice Parkes began a holiday voyage, leaving Robertson as acting premier. He was accepted abroad, according to The Times, as 'the most commanding figure in Australian politics'. Hoping to further Australian interests, he secured commissions from all colonial governments except Victoria to represent, in the United States government and financial circles, their wish for support for the trans-Pacific steamship service and for a relaxation of import duties on wool. Though Parkes's speeches and talks on these matters had no perceptible effect on American policy he was treated everywhere with flattering attention which made his six weeks in America something of a personal triumph. He arrived in England in March 1882. His health was still poor but he found strength to become one of the social lions of the season: 'fortunately for me', he wrote, 'I can enjoy the Dinners because I have little exertion and new men of mark I constantly meet are of unfailing interest to me'. He was noticed by royalty, politicians, expatriate Australians, guilds and companies; he spoke at dinners, visited Birmingham as the mayor's guest, stayed three days with the Tennysons at Farringford, lunched at Brussels with the King and Queen of Belgium and at Potsdam spent a day as the special guest of Prince Frederick and his wife, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. Invited by Lord Leigh he visited his birthplace, Stoneleigh, where he slept at the abbey and spoke to an assembly of village children in authoritative tones: 'you will not all rise to a position of power, honour, influence and responsibility such as that I now fill. But by resolving to discharge the duties of life, and in being of use and service in your day and generation, you will do far better than I have done'. He returned to Australia in August to be honoured at civic banquets in Melbourne and Sydney.

Parkes spoke to friends of new ministerial goals: to establish a comprehensive system of local government and make a vigorous attempt to federate the colonies. But on 16 November the government was defeated on Robertson's land bill and advised a dissolution. A general election proved unfavourable; Parkes lost the East Sydney seat but won Tenterfield and the government resigned on 4 January 1883. Its abrupt fall followed Robertson's refusal to recognize weaknesses in his 1861 land system. The governor, Lord Augustus Loftus, also noted that since his return Parkes had squandered the 'popularity and confidence he had previously enjoyed … had become dictatorial in his mode of action and overbearing in his manner, and whether intentionally or not had assumed a despotic tone which latterly became not only offensive to the Parliament but to the country'.

Loss of office dampened Parkes's zest for politics and loss of ministerial salary brought him financial problems: he returned to business and went to England as agent for a Sydney firm. Though absent from July 1883 to August 1884 he held the Tenterfield seat at the request of his constituents. In England a busy social round was punctuated by hard work on his own affairs. He addressed the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and other public meetings in Scotland and was the moving spirit in founding the Australasian Investment Co., with its head office in Edinburgh and in Sydney a colonial board, on which he was to be prominent. He brought ivory goods home for sale and undertook to become Australasian representative of the engineering firm of Latimer, Clark, Muirhead & Co. After three months in the assembly as an ordinary Opposition member, he resigned on 3 November in protest at what he saw as the corrupt railway policy of Alexander Stuart's government. To a friend he also wrote that at 70 he was being forced by adversity 'to close a great career' to give all his time to improving his finances.

This self-imposed retirement ended when in March 1885 he attacked Dalley's decision to send colonial troops to the Sudan and contested the Argyle seat as the 'one way of constitutionally testing the opinion of the country'. Though his election by a narrow majority proved little, his principled and lucid approach to the Sudan affair did much, once jingoism abated, to reduce the government's prestige. In parliament he faced an expulsion move by enemies anxious to brand as a 'gross libel' his public assertion, made when resigning Tenterfield, that 'political character had almost disappeared from the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly'. He survived and before the dissolution in October became the spearhead of a sustained Opposition attack on the government's alleged corruption.

In the elections Parkes contested St Leonards against G. R. Dibbs and won the seat after an acrimonious campaign. In the new parliament the government fell after announcing a large deficit resulting from economic recession and the collapse of land revenue following Stuart's land reforms. Robertson unwillingly formed a ministry in December but Parkes refused to join him. Robertson fell in February 1886 and Jennings took office, to struggle in a turbulent House to carry measures to meet the financial crisis. A group led by Parkes, alarmed by protectionist clamour out of doors, chose to interpret a proposed 5 per cent ad valorem tariff as 'sneaking in protection'. The climax to wild scenes in the assembly came at midnight on Saturday, 10 July, when after three days of continuous sitting Parkes led his followers out of the House, throwing on the table a written protest against the government's determination to sit on into the next day as a violation both of the Constitution and of the Sabbath.

When Jennings resigned in January 1887 Parkes formed his fourth ministry and went to the country with the slogan 'good government and commercial freedom'. He won a resounding victory, partly through his own energetic electioneering and partly through the work of the Free Trade Association of New South Wales which had taken charge of organizing the campaign. In the new parliament he led a majority whose dedication to the principle of free trade forced political divisions into a party-like mould and signalled the imminent end of the old faction system. For Parkes a ministerial salary compensated for the collapse of his commercial hopes in a third bankruptcy.

By 1889 the ministry had 'balanced' the budget, mildly reformed the tariff and amended the bankruptcy and criminal laws. Major reform of public works administration and railway management followed. In 1888 Parkes had responded to the Chinese immigration crisis with restrictive measures which defied imperial authority and nettled other colonial leaders anxious for concerted action. Given these successes, some mystery surrounds Parkes's virtual abdication of power in January 1889 when he 'courted defeat' by refusing to answer charges against the integrity of W. M. Fehon, appointed to the new Railway Commission. Parkes professed weariness in face of the Opposition's obstructive tactics; some supporters were disgruntled at his equivocal attitude to free trade and direct taxation, and his cabinet was divided. Parkes was also under personal strain: he was still in financial difficulties; Clarinda had died on 2 February 1888; and his marriage at St Paul's Church of England, Redfern, on 6 February 1889 to Eleanor Dixon offended his family and provoked social censure.

Defeated on a snap adjournment division, Parkes resigned on 16 January. In protest William McMillan rallied the free traders who denied supply to the new Dibbs government and the House was dissolved. Narrowly victorious at the poll, the free trade party asked Parkes to resume leadership. In March he was back in office at the head of a reconstituted free trade ministry, and held office until October 1891, being dependent after June on support from the new Labor Party.

For Parkes, the principal departure of these years was the campaign which resulted in the Federation Conference and the Australasian Federal Convention of 1890-91. Though an advocate of colonial union for over thirty years, Parkes had shunned the Federal Council and puzzled federalists by seeking, largely at the prompting of Sir Alfred Stephen, to alter the name of New South Wales to Australia. In January 1889 he had announced in Melbourne his readiness to join 'heart in hand' to promote true Federation, and in June warmed to a suggestion from the governor, Lord Carrington, that to confederate the colonies would be a 'glorious finish' to his life. He told his daughter that he had lost much of his 'former relish for parliamentary work' and was moved by 'repeated suggestions and invitations from the other colonies' to offer himself 'as leader in a great movement to federate on a solid basis all the colonies'. He sounded Duncan Gillies on the subject and in October employed Major-General Edwards's reports on defence as evidence of the urgent need for Federation. In that month, as a counter to Gillies's insistence that New South Wales join the Federal Council, he went to Brisbane to consult Queensland ministers and on his return journey delivered at Tenterfield a speech calling for a federal convention to devise 'a great national Government for all Australia'. The following Federal Conference and Convention owed much to the private negotiations of Lord Carrington yet were also personal diplomatic triumphs for Parkes and at the convention he was, according to Alfred Deakin, 'from first to last the Chief and leader'.

Political opportunism and the hope of strengthening his immediate position in New South Wales doubtless supported large-minded idealism in Parkes's commitment to Federation after 1889. But in Sydney the draft Constitution bill of 1891 divided free traders, was suspected by Labor and aroused little public enthusiasm. Meantime the maritime strike and its aftermath focussed attention on more urgent social issues. While the other colonies awaited a lead, Parkes failed to press the bill to an issue in his parliament, dallying lest opponents persuade the electors 'that we had consumed our time in the “fad” of federation … and had neglected the legislation so urgently required for the advancement of New South Wales'. He was also in poor physical shape to fight forlorn battles after injuries from a cab accident in 1890, though he continued to hold the reins of government firmly, as acting premier McMillan found in September when an injudicious reaction to the Circular Quay riots earned sharp censure from the premier. But another minister, J. H. Carruthers, feared that Parkes's health was 'gradually breaking and feebleness supervening his usual vigour'.

In October 1891 Parkes supported a motion to adjourn the debate on the recommittal of the coal mines regulation bill; the motion was not carried and he resigned leaving office with 'joyful satisfaction'. Though pressed to stay as free trade Opposition leader he refused. 'I am working on my book and … resting from political turmoil', he told Carrington two months later. In June 1892 Parkes completed Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History, his great apologia, its vitality reflecting the wells of strength that were his. By 1893 'extremely well in bodily health', he toured Victoria in November to speak on Federation, dined and danced at Government House, and enjoyed the Derby with Sydney friends who invited him out in a 'brand new drag and four fine horses': he 'climbed to a top seat with a young lady on each side of me and went to Flemington with a dash'. But his old political acumen did not accompany renewed physical strength. In 1894 he pettishly revealed his resentment of (Sir) George Reid's re-election as free trade leader and shocked friends by moving formal censure on the new government. Out of tune with Reid's fiscal and social reformism, he became obsessed with an ambition to head 'a new Party'. In the 1895 election he joined his old enemy Dibbs to form a shadowy 'Federal Party', which was labelled by the Sydney Morning Herald as 'an act of flagrant political immorality—an insult to the country'. In the Sydney-King electorate he challenged Reid, to fail after a vituperative campaign, which underlined his genuine concern for Federation but cruelly revealed his insensitiveness to the electorate's mood and the erosion by old age of his former powers. He unsuccessfully contested two other seats, and his political career was at an end.

Parkes had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1877 and G.C.M.G. in 1888. Lady Parkes, 'for whom I have paid so heavy a penalty and who has been such a true friend to me', died of cancer during the King campaign. He determined to retire to 'perfect privacy', but still spoke on Federation, hinted at another trip to England and rejoiced 'in better health than for many years past'. On 24 October 1895 he married Julia Lynch, but on 27 April 1896 died suddenly at his home Kenilworth, Annandale, of heart failure after an attack of pneumonia. He was reconciled on his deathbed to Reid and at his own wish was buried without pomp beside his first wife at Faulconbridge on the Blue Mountains. He was survived by his third wife and by five daughters and a son of the twelve children of his first marriage, and by four sons and a daughter of the second. The Bulletin, which had never spared him, carried a cartoon-epitaph which captured the momentary mood of the whole colony. Under the caption 'Finis', a young cornstalker, the 'Little Boy from Manly', with tear-filled eyes wistfully closed a great volume, on its spine the simple legend, 'Parkes'.

Largest figure of nineteenth century Australian politics, Parkes also remains the most enigmatic. In a celebrated obituary, William Astley saw him merely as a 'master of the art of seeming great'; more sensitively, Alfred Deakin felt 'there was in him the man he dressed himself to appear'. Deakin's instinct for the real Parkes has not in fact been bettered: 'though not rich or versatile, his personality was massive, durable and imposing, resting upon elementary qualities of human nature elevated by a strong mind. He was cast in the mould of a great man and though he suffered from numerous pettinesses, spites and failings, he was in himself a large-brained self-educated Titan whose natural field was found in Parliament and whose resources of character and intellect enabled him in his later years to overshadow all his contemporaries'. Parkes's papers add other dimensions which indicate a personality moulded over a long and changeful life by inner conflict, as he sought to reconcile deeply held principles, a mighty drive for self-realization and the compromises which were the price of success. Astley further sensed that his 'heart was … not in politics but in literature, in history and in art. There was a singular vein of sentiment in his nature which found no appropriate vent in his public existence … To see him handle a letter of Tennyson or Carlyle, or the simple autograph of Lincoln, was to receive a lesson in reverence. Books and other mementoes of the illustrious dead were to him the wine of life. And yet he was no scholar—scarcely even to be termed a student. As to his own place in literature, his poems are a byword'. Fate deprived him of easy paths to the preferred life of the 'choice spirit' (his phrase), through gentle birth, education, independence or business success, and the way of politics offered a sometimes unhappy alternative.

His vanity, craving for recognition and overbearing manner were the concomitants of a ruthless pursuit of personal success. Yet fiery integrity bit through in his scorn for the world's judgment of his marital and financial affairs and his inner resources provided resilience to weather crises which might have destroyed other men. While a remarkable instinct for political guile explains his ascendency in faction politics, he held tenaciously to important principles and prejudices. He was ever suspicious of the Church of Rome, steady in his concern to prevent cant depriving children of education, genuine in his wish to see justice achieved within the framework of a laissez faire system, dedicated to the idea of keeping Australian society racially homogeneous and sincere in his chosen role as guardian of constitutional proprieties. His probity and skill as an administrator cannot be seriously challenged and his energy and self-sacrifice in tasks sincerely undertaken command profound respect.

Bearded after 1861, he was always physically impressive, though imposing rather than handsome. For studied oratory he had few peers among colonial contemporaries, despite his uncertainty about aspirates and a tendency towards affectation. He collected autographs, books and artistic bric-à-brac, and his friends were always intrigued by his choice menagerie of native wild animals. Though temperate, he enjoyed champagne and had, as William Walker had it, great faith in the virtue of gastronomy as a political force.

Parkes's other volumes of verse were Murmurs of the Stream (1857), Studies in Rhyme (1870), The Beauteous Terrorist and Other Poems (1885), Fragmentary Thoughts (1889) and Sonnets and Other Verse (1895). His other prose works include Australian Views of England: Eleven Letters Written in 1861 and 1862 (1869) and many political pamphlets. An Emigrant's Home Letters is an edited collection of his letters to his family in 1838-43, published in 1896 by his daughter Annie.

Portraits by Julian Ashton are in the National Memorial School of Arts, Tenterfield, and copies are in the Parliament Houses in Sydney and Canberra; by Tom Roberts in the National Gallery, Adelaide; by Mary Stoddard in the Legislative Council Chamber, Sydney; and by John Henry Chinner in the National Library of Australia. A bust by Nelson Illingworth is in the National Library and a bust by Theodora Cowen in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Lyne, Life of Sir Henry Parkes (Syd, 1896)
  • W. Walker, Recollections of Sir Henry Parkes (Windsor, 1896)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, H. Brookes ed (Melb, 1944)
  • A. W. Martin, Henry Parkes (Melb, 1964)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • G. H. Hawker, The Parliament of New South Wales, 1856-1965 (Syd, 1971)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘Sir Henry Parkes, and public education in New South Wales’, Melbourne Studies in Education 1960-1961, E. L. French ed (Melb, 1962)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘Henry Parkes and electoral manipulation, 1872-82’, Historical Studies, no 31, Nov 1958
  • N. B. Nairn, ‘The political mastery of Sir Henry Parkes’, JRAHS, 53 (1967)
  • M. Rutledge, ‘Edward Butler and the chief justiceship, 1873’, Historical Studies, no 50, Apr 1968
  • Bulletin, 9, 16 May 1896
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28, 30 Apr 1896
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Apr 1896
  • J. A. Ryan, B. R. Wise: An Oxford Liberal in the Freetrade Party of New South Wales (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1964)
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales circa 1865-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972)
  • Carrington papers (privately held)
  • J. D. Lang, Henry Parkes and Windeyer papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

A. W. Martin, 'Parkes, Sir Henry (1815–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

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© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Parkes, 1880s

Henry Parkes, 1880s

National Library of Australia, 23351399

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Faulconbridge

27 May, 1815
Warwickshire, England


27 April, 1896 (aged 80)
Annandale, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.