Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Parkes, Henry

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PARKES, Sir HENRY (1815–1896), Australian statesman, was born on 27 May 1815 on Lord Leigh's Stoneleigh estate, Warwickshire, where his father, Thomas Parkes, was a small tenant farmer. Parkes received his early education at village schools in the neighbourhood. Owing to the misfortunes of his parents he was compelled to earn his own living as a child of eight. Yet by assiduous self-culture in after years Parkes became one of the most widely read of Australian public men, and a devoted lover of English literature. In very early manhood Parkes migrated from Stoneleigh to Birmingham, where he was apprenticed, and became an ivory turner. On 11 July 1836 he married, at the parish church, Edgbaston, Clarinda, daughter of Robert Varney of Birmingham. The father of the bride, a well-to-do man, promptly disowned her. They married without any provision for their wedded life except the work they could obtain from day to day, and went back from Edgbaston to live in the little room at Birmingham where she had lodged when alone' (An Emigrant's Home Letters, p. 10).

After losing two children and passing through many hardships, Parkes and his wife went to London preparatory to emigrating to Australia. They remained in the metropolis, suffering much privation, from November 1838 to March 1839, when they sailed as 'bounty emigrants' to Sydney, arriving on 25 July 1839. The young wife gave birth to a child a few days before landing, and they reached Sydney without a friend to greet them or a letter of introduction to 'unlock a door.'

Parkes's first experiences in Australia were disappointing. 'For fully twelve months I could not muster sufficient fortitude to write to my friends in England of the prospect before us. Finding nothing better, I accepted service as a farm labourer at 30l. a year, and a ration and a half, largely made up of rice. Under this engagement I worked for six months on the Regentsville estate of Sir John Jamison, about thirty-six miles from Sydney, assisting to wash sheep in the Nepean, joining the reapers in the wheat field, and performing other manual labour on the property' (Fifty Years of Australian History, p. 4).

Returning to Sydney, Parkes found various humble employments: he worked in an ironmonger's store, and then in an iron foundry, and was for a while a tide-waiter in the customs. At last he fell back on his own trade and opened a shop as an ivory and bone turner, adding the sale of toys and fancy goods. In this historic shop in Hunter Street began Parkes's career as a public man. Here he was wont to write amatory verses for the 'Atlas,' edited by Robert Lowe (afterwards Viscount Sherbrooke) [q. v.], and, reverting to an earlier sympathy with chartism in England, became known as a powerful working-class agitator. From Hunter Street he issued a manifesto in favour of Lowe's candidature for Sydney, which resulted in his election in 1848 (Life and Letters of Lord Sherbrooke}.

The great question then agitating the Australian public was the transportation of criminals. On 8 June 1848 the convict ship Hashemy entered Port Jackson, when a monster demonstration to oppose the landing of the criminals took place, at which Lowe was the principal speaker. On this occasion, speaking from the standpoint of a working-class colonist, Henry Parkes made his first public oration to an audience of some eight thousand enthusiastic citizens. Henceforth he was recognised as a leader of the anti-transportation movement which finally triumphed against the forces of English and colonial officialism.

In 1849 Parkes founded the 'Empire' newspaper as the organ of liberalism in New South Wales. The first number appeared on 28 Dec. 1850, and Parkes was editor and chief proprietor of the journal throughout its stormy career until its death in 1857. His account of his journalistic struggles (Fifty Years of Australian History, chap, iv.) is perhaps the most interesting passage in prose from his pen. The truth is that Parkes lacked not only money, but prudence, experience, and foresight, so that his ambitious enterprise, despite his own great abilities and untiring energy, was foredoomed to financial failure.

During this troubled period Parkes was returned to the legislative council by a two to one majority for Sydney. Referring to his labours on the 'Empire,' and his activity in the legislative council, he himself characteristically remarks: 'I at once entered into the work with an astonishing amount of zeal. Sitting up all night was a recreation to me. I did not know what weariness could mean. I would leave the council when it adjourned and go to the "Empire" office, where I would remain until daylight. Day and night I was at work. Very often I was thirty-six and forty-eight hours without going to bed. I believe in those days I could have gone into the fire

As blithely as the golden-girdled bee
Sucks in the poppy's sleepy flower

for the sake of my convictions' (Fifty Years of Australian History).

Parkes threw himself with unbounded energy into the great struggle for the establishment of responsible government in New South Wales. It was on this question that he found himself in the fiercest conflict with the actual founder of that system, William Charles Wentworth [q. v.], whose aim was to copy as far as possible the English system with an upper house of colonial peers, while Parkes insisted on a democracy pure and simple. In this struggle it was inevitable that Parkes should conquer.

On the establishment in 1858 of responsible government, Parkes was elected for East Sydney (1858-61). During this period he was an active supporter of (Sir) John Robertson [q. v.] as a land reformer, and became on most questions the recognised leader of the democratic party. In 1861 Parkes and William Bede Dalley [q. v. Suppl.] came to England as commissioners of emigration. Parkes addressed large public meetings in the north of England and the midlands, and made the personal acquaintance of Carlyle, Cobden, Bright, and Thomas Hughes. He sent a number of interesting letters to the 'Sydney Morning Herald,' which were subsequently published in London under the title 'Australian Views of England' (1869). These letters display keen political insight, and present a number of faithful portraits of the leading English public men of the day (see 'Sir Henry Parkes in England' in A. Patchett Martin's Australia and the Empire, 1889).

Returning to Sydney in 1863 Parkes soon re-entered parliament, and, in January 1866, accepted office for the first time as colonial secretary in Martin's ministry [see Martin, Sir James]. During his term of office he passed the Public Schools Act in the teeth of fierce clerical opposition, especially from the influential Roman catholic body. On 12 March 1868 a murderous attack on the Duke of Edinburgh was made by an alleged fenian named O'Farrell in Sydney Harbour; Parkes, from his official position, was mainly responsible for the execution of the criminal, and for the passage of the Treason Felony Act (1868). Resigning office in 1868, Parkes was in 1871 elected for Mudgee, and in the next year became prime minister of New South Wales, having formed a coalition with Sir John Robertson. It was mainly owing to the enormous influence of Parkes at this time that New South Wales, unlike the other Australian colonies, adhered to free trade. In 1875 the Parkes ministry resigned over the subject of the release of Gardiner, a notorious bushranger; but in 1878 he was again prime minister and colonial secretary. In the previous year he had been created K.C.M.G.

Parkes revisited England in 1882 while still holding office as prime minister, and was received with much distinction in London. But on his return to Sydney his government was defeated, and he himself was rejected at the polls for East Sydney. Thereupon he again revisited England and spent much time in congenial political and literary society, including that of Lord Tennyson, who formed a high regard for him. Parkes himself published two or three slender volumes of verse, in which, among much that is crude and unfinished as to mere technique, there are occasional evidences of poetic ability and fervour.

In January 1887 he once more became the dominant power in New South Wales, forming his fourth administration and bringing the colony back again to free-trade principles, from which it had temporarily departed. He was created G.C.M.G. in 1888, and very fittingly, as the statesman who had kept the banner of free trade floating in his own colony, he was awarded the gold medal of the Cobden Club. In January 1889 he retired from the administration of New South Wales in favour of Mr. (afterwards Sir) George Dibbs, who held office for only a couple of months, when Parkes became for the fifth and last time prime minister. It was during this period that the question of Australian federation first assumed a practical shape. Although Parkes displayed considerable antagonism to Service's scheme of a federal council, he was nevertheless recognised throughout Australia as the foremost advocate of the wider scheme of federation [see Service, James, Suppl.] In February 1890 Parkes attended the intercolonial conference in Melbourne, while he presided over the Sydney convention of 1891, which practically laid the foundations of the Australian commonwealth. Parkes's attitude towards both Australian and imperial federation is eloquently set forth in the volume of his speeches on 'The Federal Government of Australasia,' published in 1890, and dedicated to Lord Carrington. It was in his Melbourne oration that Parkes summed up the matter in a single famous phrase 'the crimson thread of kinship.' When the commonwealth was inaugurated (January 1901), the invaluable life-work of Sir Henry Parkes was specially marked at the state banquet in Sydney by the entire company rising and drinking to his honoured memory in solemn silence.

In 1895, at the time of his second wife's death, Parkes opposed Mr. G. H. Reid, who had succeeded him as the free-trade leader, but was defeated for the King division of Sydney. This was the end of his political career. Towards the close of his life, and partly as the result of a severe accident, Parkes suffered great pain: while despite, or perhaps in consequence of, his long life of devotion to the public interest, he was left in most straitened circumstances. He died on 27 April 1896. Of all contemporary public men, except perhaps Gladstone, Sir Henry Parkes was the most frequently photographed and caricatured. A fine marble bust was executed of him by his friend Thomas Woolner, R.A., as well as many portraits by local artists.

Parkes was thrice married. After the death in 1888 of his first wife, he married successively Mrs. Dixon in 1889 (who died in 1895), and almost on his deathbed he married his servant. His eldest son, Mr. Varney Parkes, is a well-known public man in the colony.

Outside politics, which was the business of Parkes's life, his restless energies were much engrossed with literary subjects, and his most cherished friendships were among men of letters. In Australia, almost alone among prominent public men, he generously befriended struggling authors; while the list of his own published works is by no means unimportant or scanty.

He published:

  1. 'Stolen Moments,' 1842.
  2. 'Murmurs of the Streamlet' (volumes of early poems).
  3. 'Australian Views of England,' London, 1869, 8vo (a selection of letters by Parkes written to the 'Sydney Morning Herald' in 1861 and 1862).
  4. 'Speeches of Henry Parkes, collected and edited by David Blair,' Melbourne, 1876, 8vo.
  5. 'The Beauteous Terrorist and other Poems. By a Wanderer,' Melbourne, 1885, 8vo.
  6. 'Fragmentary Thoughts' (poems dedicated to Alfred, Lord Tennyson), Sydney, 1889, 8vo.
  7. 'Federal Government of Australia;' speeches delivered 1889-90, Sydney, 1890, 8vo.
  8. 'Fifty Years in the making of Australian History' (Parkes's autobiography), London, 1892, 8vo.
  9. 'Sonnets and other Verse' (dedicated to Hallam, Lord Tennyson), London, 1895, 8vo.
  10. 'An Emigrant's Home Letters,' English edit. London, 1897, 8vo.

[Parkes's published works; Lyne's Life of Sir Henry Parkes, 1897; Dilke's Problems of Greater Britain; Patchett Martin's Life and Letters of Lord Sherbrooke, and Australia and the Empire; Gilbert Parker's Round the Compass in Australia; Froude's Oceana, p. 195; Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biogr.; Heaton's Australian Diet, of Dates; Melbourne Review; Atlas; Empire; and Sydney Morning Herald; personal knowledge.]

A. P. M.