He may have gone from business failure to ‘Father of Federation’ – but why should you care about Sir Henry Parkes?
Here are seven reasons.
- His rags to riches tale – born into poverty, Parkes was the youngest of seven children. He had very little formal education after the age of eight. He suffered early setbacks with business failure in England, and came to Australia as a penniless immigrant in 1839.
- His early determination and hard work – despite hardship and supporting a young family, Parkes worked odd jobs as a farm labourer, a factory worker, an ivory-turner and importer, shopkeeper and journalist.
He held ideas and ideals – he started a newspaper (The Empire) and helped set up the Australian League to educate people about the rights and duties of citizens in a democracy. He fought for jobs and fair wages by opposing the free labour sourced through convict transportation. He argued for universal suffrage.
- He stood for public office often without personal gain – he sought out and was elected to the NSW Parliament in 1854 and represented his constituents for long periods without pay. He actually left public office on a number of occasions to stave off personal bankruptcy and financial problems.
- He worked his way to the top – while his political career started quietly enough, his work chairing a committee to investigate the condition of the working classes (particularly his concern for the condition of children) raised his profile. He also led the creation of nursing as a profession, and was instrumental in education reform. This saw him eventually rise to the top in 1872 (Parkes went on to serve five terms of Premier of New South Wales).
- He developed a great speech making ability – despite his lack of education in early life, Parkes developed a great sense of oratory to inspire, unite and impel his audiences to action. He didn’t always get his way, but many of his words and speeches linger long in Australian history. His Tenterfield Oration in 1889 was possibly the most influential speech that eventually led to the uniting of the colonies and Federation of the nation of Australia.
- He led to the creation of Centennial Park – and plenty of other public spaces, facilities and services, but Centennial Park was one of his crowning achievements. The Park was established to commemorate the 100th anniversary of European settlement in the colony, and at its opening in 1888, Parkes gave it the nickname “the People’s Park”.
“The great question…is whether the time has not now arisen for the creation of this Australian continent of an Australian Government and an Australian Parliament. I believe the time has come. Surely what the Americans did by war, Australians can bring about in peace.” – Sir Henry Parkes, Tenterfield Oration, 1889
Public titan, private challenges
Parkes was married on three occasions and fathered 17 children!
He did not avoid scandal in his life – his second wife Eleanor had been his mistress during his first marriage, and he had two children with her prior to them formalising their relationship (this indiscretion apparently led to his refused entry to Government House!). He later married again – this time to his 23-year-old housekeeper – shortly after his second wife died (he was 80 at the time and in those days was certainly an ‘eyebrow raising’ event).
Despite his decades of interest in Federation, and his driving force behind the eventual union of the colonies, Parkes never witnessed the birth of modern Australia. He died quietly in 1896, and was buried in Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains.
“…he was himself a large-brained self-educated Titan whose natural field was parliament and whose resources of character and intellect enabled him in his later years to overshadow all his contemporaries.” – Alfred Deakin (who went on to become Prime Minister of Australia), on the death of Parkes in 1896
Remembered in statuary and currency
The man often known as the “Father of Federation” has left a long and wide-ranging legacy.
Want to know more about Sir Henry Parkes?
If you are interested in further information on the life and times of Sir Henry Parkes:
- Read our webpage on Sir Henry Parkes
- Read the Australian Dictionary of Biography reference on Parkes
- Listen to this podcast of an interview of Stephen Dando-Collins who released a biography on Parkes
- Link to the book by Stephen Dando-Collins
- The Sir Henry Parkes Foundation still exists today
- Article on an information panel honouring Parkes in Canberra from May 2013