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Varney Parkes (1859–1935)

by Louise Raine and Peter Reynolds

This article was published:

Varney Parkes (1859-1935), architect and politician, was born on 4 June 1859 at Ryde, Sydney, seventh child of (Sir) Henry Parkes and his first wife Clarinda, née Varney, both from Birmingham, England. He attended The King's School irregularly in 1873-77, working for the Bank of New South Wales in 1876. Joining the Civil Service in March 1878, he was appointed a cadet in the Colonial Architect's Office on 1 January 1879, receiving a diploma when he resigned on 31 May 1880 to form a partnership with C. H. E. Blackmann; they joined the Institute of Architects of New South Wales on 31 March 1883.

At the Presbyterian church, Liverpool, Parkes had married Mary Cameron Murray on 21 March 1883. She died five months later, and on 24 December 1884 he married her elder sister Isabella. They had five children and frequently moved house, living at Parramatta, Ashfield, Cabramatta, Rockdale and Liverpool.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly at a by-election for Central Cumberland in September 1885, Parkes held his seat as a free trader and supporter of his father until resigning in March 1888. His practice was flourishing and with H. C. Kent he submitted an unsuccessful design for the proposed new parliament house in May. His most opulent work was the 'Marble Bar' for George Adams's hotel in Pitt Street, begun in 1891. In partnership with James Bull Alderson in 1893-95, he designed two Bank of New South Wales buildings, one on the corner of George and Regent streets in exuberant Federation Romanesque Revival style (1893-94), the other on the corner of George and Bathurst streets in Federation Free Classical style (1893); and alterations to the crypt, portico and spire of St James's Church.

Returning to the assembly in June 1891 for East Sydney, Parkes represented Canterbury in 1894-1900 and in 1907-13 as a Liberal. Declared bankrupt in June 1895, he was forced to resign his seat, but was immediately re-elected; he was not discharged from bankruptcy until July 1907. He was chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1894. His allegations, including favouritism, corruption and incompetence, against R. R. P. Hickson led to a royal commission into the Department of Public Works in 1896, but none of his allegations was substantiated. From August 1898 to September 1899 he was postmaster-general in (Sir) George Reid's ministry. Again resigning his seat in June 1900, he unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Parkes in 1903. In 1912 he and (Sir) Thomas Henley made charges of corruption against the secretary for public works, A. H. Griffith, who was also exonerated by a royal commission.

From 1895 Parkes had practised alone, designing residential, commercial and municipal buildings, except for brief partnerships in 1904-06, 1914 and 1923-24. After separating from his wife and unsuccessfully filing for a divorce in 1902, Parkes moved to Canterbury, where he won small local commissions. He called his last tender in May 1926.

He retired to Conjola, near Milton, where he lived as a recluse, collecting fossils, sketching geological landforms, lecturing on evolution and teaching drawing. Many of his fossils were acquired by the Australian Museum, Sydney. He was admitted to the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, in 1934 and died there on 14 May 1935, survived by two sons and a daughter. He was buried with Anglican rites beside his father in Faulconbridge cemetery.

Parkes was not a distinguished architect. While he was fashionable, he had influential clients and his style reflected their standing in society. When he had faded from the limelight, with clients of modest means, his buildings became increasingly mundane. When he retired, it was to Nature and a handful of friends that he looked for solace.

Select Bibliography

  • Bank of New South Wales, Photographs of Premises Past and Present (Syd, 1907?)
  • New South Wales Department of Education, Architecture and Decoration for the Use of Pupils in High Schools (Syd, 1922)
  • M. C. I. Levy, Wallumetta (Syd, 1942)
  • J. Jervis, A History of the Municipality of Canterbury (Syd, 1951)
  • J. Jervis and V. Kelly, The History of Woollahra (Syd, 1960)
  • J. Carroll, The Settlement and Growth of Mosman (Syd, 1963)
  • Blue Mountains Historical Society, Excursion into History (Katoomba, NSW, 1968)
  • A. W. Martin, Henry Parkes (Melb, 1980)
  • A. W. Martin (ed), Letters from Menie (Melb, 1983)
  • L. Raine, Varney Parkes, Architect, 1859-1935 (B. Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1977).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Louise Raine and Peter Reynolds, 'Parkes, Varney (1859–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Varney Parkes, 1937

Varney Parkes, 1937

State Library of New South Wales, 26267

Life Summary [details]


4 June, 1859
Ryde, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 May, 1935 (aged 75)
Gladesville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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