He may have gone from business failure to ‘Father of Federation’ – but why should you care about Sir Henry Parkes?

Here are seven reasons.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The bearded Sir Henry Parkes was an imposing figure

    The bearded Sir Henry Parkes was an imposing figure

    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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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).

Sir Henry Parkes (circa 1890)

Sir Henry Parkes (circa 1890)


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.

His statue stands proudly in Centennial Park, and his image appears on the Australian one-dollar coin of 1996, as well as the Australian $5 note issued in 2001.

The statue of Sir Henry Parkes that stands in Centennial Park today

The statue of Sir Henry Parkes that stands in Centennial Park today


Want to know more about Sir Henry Parkes?

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