The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Parkes, Hon. Sir Henry

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Parkes, Hon. Sir Henry, G.C.M.G., ex-Premier of New South Wales, is the son of the late Thomas Parkes, a farmer on Lord Leigh's Warwickshire estate, and was born at Stoneleigh in that county on May 27th, 1815. He acquired some rudimentary education at a dame's school at Kenilworth, and at a hardly more ambitious academy at Gloucester. The fact that his school training ended at eleven years of age will sufficiently illustrate the process of self-education which the most literary of Australasian Premiers has constantly been undergoing and extending. Though he has recently denied that he ever formally associated himself with the Chartist agitation, it is undoubted that he was warmly interested, as a working youth, in the advanced Liberal movements of the time. Attracted by the freer range which colonial life seemed to offer, Mr. Parkes emigrated to New South Wales in March 1839, and spent some portion of his early Australian career as a farm labourer on the Regentville estate of Mr. John Jamieson, near Penrith. Several of the poems, which he ultimately published in a collected form, have reference to this period of his colonial life. It was in Sydney, however, that his most remarkable vicissitudes were experienced. For some time he was engaged in an iron store, and subsequently worked in a foundry. He then started business as an ivory turner, and was afterwards a dealer in toys in Hunter Street, Sydney. He now began to figure in the political arena as a leading agitator on the progressive side and a vehement opponent of the transportation system. On these lines he took a prominent part in securing the return of Mr. Lowe (afterwards Lord Sherbrooke) to the partially elective Legislative Council as member for Sydney. A year later he started the Empire newspaper, which he edited until 1857 under great pecuniary difficulties as the organ of metropolitan Liberalism. In 1853 Mr. Parkes himself unsuccessfully contested Sydney, but was returned for the city by a majority of two to one in the following year. The colony was now in the throes of the great struggle which culminated in the concession of responsible government. Mr. Parkes distinguished himself by his fervid protests against the nominee Upper House, which was subsequently established under the Constitution Act. He was more successful in his opposition to Mr. Wentworth's pet project for the institution of a hereditary colonial peerage on the English model. Responsible government having been conceded, Mr. Parkes represented East Sydney in the Legislative Assembly from 1858 to 1861, when the late Right Hon. W. B. Dalley and himself were sent to England as commissioners for promoting emigration. Their mission proved a comparative failure, owing to their having no power to grant assistance to emigrants, but there are persons engaged in extensive businesses in the colony who came out in consequence of their representations. Mr. Parkes acted as correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald during the tour, and a selection of his letters was published by Messrs. Macmillan & Co. in London, under the title, "Australian Views of England." Returning to Sydney in 1863, he was re-elected to the Assembly in the following year for a country constituency. Mr. Parkes first took ministerial office in Jan. 1866, when he was appointed Colonial Secretary in the Administration of Mr. (afterwards Sir) James Martin. He, however, resigned in Sept. 1868, owing to a difference with his colleagues on a minor matter of administration, but not before he had signalised his term of office by passing the Public Schools Act, on which the present educational system of New South Wales is based. After being for a few months out of Parliament, Mr. Parkes was elected for Mudgee in 1871, and in the following year became Premier of the colony, with the post of Colonial Secretary. Mr. Parkes had made himself prominent in Opposition as the staunch advocate of the free-trade policy to which New South Wales adhered till 1892. He strongly opposed the 5 per cent, ad valorem duties imposed by the Cowper Ministry in 1865-6, and vindicated his consistency by taking advantage of a period of great financial prosperity to effect their repeal in the year 1878. The Parkes Government, having been censured in relation to the release of the prisoner Gardiner, resigned office in Feb. 1875, and the ex-Premier for some time left the leadership of the Opposition to subordinates. In March 1877, however, he again came to the front, and succeeded in carrying a vote of want of confidence in the Robertson Administration, becoming Premier and Colonial Secretary until August. In the same year he was created K.C.M.G., having previously refused the C.M.G. Later (in 1877) he coalesced with his old opponent, Sir John Robertson, and formed a Ministry in conjunction with that statesman, in which he was Premier and Colonial Secretary, and which lasted from Dec 1878 to Jan. 1883. In 1882 Sir Henry Parkes visited England and was received with much distinction in political and literary circles. On his return the Government was defeated on a measure for amending the Land Act, and met with an unfavourable response when they appealed to the country, Sir Henry Parkes being himself defeated in East Sydney, and having to take refuge in a country electorate. For some time subsequently Sir Henry took very little active part in politics, and in the interval again revisited England. On his return he swept the country at the general election in Jan. 1887, free trade being nominally the question which decided the issue, but the result being really a vote of personal confidence in Sir Henry Parkes as the only man in the colony capable of grappling with the exigencies of the situation. He now formed his fourth administration, again repealing the ad valorem duties imposed by his predecessors, and held office until Jan. 1889, when he retired, owing to an adverse vote. Mr. Dibbs, who succeeded him, only held office until March, when Sir Henry commenced his last memorable Premiership. During his fourth term of office as Prime Minister, Sir Henry Parkes supported Sir Thomas McIlwraith's contention that the colonial governments should be consulted by the Imperial authorities in the appointment of Governors, and carried an address to the Crown, embodying this view, arguing that future Governors should be selected from the class of public men eligible for Cabinet office at home. In 1889, during Sir Henry Parkes' fifth term of office, General Edwards, who had been instructed to investigate the military defences of the Australasian colonies, handed in a recommendation that the forces of the seven colonies should be federalised for purposes of common defence. Sir Henry Parkes cordially endorsed the suggestion, and seized the opportunity to inculcate the desirability of a complete political federation of the Australasian colonies. The fact that Sir Henry Parkes had from the first treated the Federal Council of Australasia, in which the other colonies were associated, with ill-concealed contempt, and had been instrumental in preventing New South Wales from participating in its deliberations, rendered Victoria somewhat suspicious of the olive branch which he now offered, especially after his official attempt to appropriate the national title of "Australia" for New South Wales alone. Ultimately, however, all difficulties and jealousies were overcome, and an Intercolonial conference was held in Melbourne in Feb. 1890, at which, despite the fact that Mr. Gillies, the Premier of Victoria, presided over its deliberations, Sir Henry Parkes, as the promoter of the conclave, was naturally the most prominent and interesting figure. The greatest unanimity prevailed, and the Convention held in Sydney in March 1891 was the outcome of the resolutions arrived at and of the subsequent action of the Colonial Legislatures. Sir Henry Parkes was very fittingly elected to preside over its deliberations. Sir Henry, who was awarded the gold medal of the Cobden Club, and was created G.C.M.G. in 1888, married, in 1835, Miss Clarinda Varney, who died in 1888; and secondly, in 1889, Mrs. Dixon. He stands prominent amongst colonial statesmen for the generous encouragement which he has afforded to struggling literary and artistic merit. In 1890 he broke his leg; but, despite his advanced age, has apparently quite recovered from the effects of the accident The general election of June to July 1891 resulted in the return of a minority of Ministerial supporters, and gave to the labour members the deciding voice in the New South Wales Assembly. For some time the latter supported Sir Henry Parkes, but in Oct. 1891 they threw their weight into the scale against him, and he was compelled to resign office. He subsequently retired from the leadership of the Opposition.