Cobden Parkes1892 - 1978
Cobden was born in Sydney on 2 August 1892, the youngest of five surviving children born to Henry Parkes and Eleanor Dixon. Cobden arrived in Sir Henry’s 78th year. Nellie was 35.
Cobden was born at the Parkes family home. At the time they were living at Hampton Villa in Balmain. Soon after the family moved to Johnstone Street in Annandale.
At the time of Cobden's birth Henry wrote, ‘August 2nd. Tuesday … At thirty minutes before midnight Lady Parkes was delivered of a boy: the event was over in a few minutes. Aug 3 Wednesday. Lady Parkes and her baby are doing well … We have much to be thankful for that he is so healthy a young creature. How strange that the responsibility never presented itself as it does now. This new comer under any possible circumstances will still be a today child when I shall have to quit this world forever. Poor Nellie will do her part I know for a more tender-hearted mother never lived … Aug 4 Thursday. All going well with Nellie and her baby. It is a blessing beyond price that all Nellie’s children are strong healthy and hopefully intelligent. Have been discussing the name for the youngster and have agreed to give him the name of the great anti-corn law leader … So our little lad is to be Cobden. Bravo, Cob Parkes’.
Despite his advanced age, Henry delighted in his young family. He described the infant Cobden to a Mr Potter in December 1892 … ‘You probably know that I have little children of my old age. We have a fine thriving infant four months old to whom we have given the simple name “Cobden”. Some of my young political friends meet me with “How are you and how is the Cob?” … The child is a general favourite – at times there is quite a competition for the honour of nursing him and my home is forever full of the name sound of Cobden. From old and young the name rings out all day – pretty Cobden, darling Cobden, precious Cobden, Cobden, Cobden; not all the riches in the world would buy Cobden. His mother I verily believe repeats the name 500 times a day, and every time with the foolish extravagance of love which mothers only feel’.
Tragically the family unit was shattered by the time of Cobden's third birthday, with his mother's death to cancer in 1895, and his father's passing ten months after. And for Cobden, here began a lifetime of public recognition as the youngest child of 'the Late Sir Henry Parkes', a man he actually never really knew.
Following Nellie’s death, Henry’s adult children from his first family - especially his unmarried daughters Annie and Lily – provided some help with the little children. But family correspondence shows that even Henry’s political skills were not up to the task of blending first and second families.
Instead Henry’s chief support had been the young Irish woman who was housekeeper and nanny to the children. Julia Lynch ran the home, by this time at Johnston Street in Annandale. She also nursed Nellie through her battle with cancer. Three months after Nellie's death, Henry proposed to marry Julia, thereby conferring the title Lady Parkes on the 23-year-old girl from County Cavan, and giving her legal responsibility for his five young children. It was fortunate for the children because six months later, in April 1896, and at age 81, Henry died. Within the family it is said that Julia became stepmother at the dying Nellie’s suggestion.
Thus, when Cobden was aged 81 and coerced into writing a memoir, he said ‘I do not have a mental picture of my mother and father, and I feel certain that what I do have, or imagine I do have, is no doubt the result of the conversations during my lifetime, and of the many photographs seen, and so it would be proper for me to say I do not possess any recollection …
‘Our stepmother (nee Julia Lynch) cared for we five children for about 18 years, and gave us every consideration, love and kindness. I remember her as a handsome and buxom young woman who (virtually) sacrificed her life to care for (us) we small children. She had healthy rosy cheeks and was a member of the household before marrying my father and so obtained the lawful right to care for us. She was Irish and I believe came from County Cork.
‘Our income was from the state and was very small. Aurora – my sister, and I stayed at home with my stepmother, whereas Sydney later boarded in Bridge Road Glebe, and Kenilworth died early and Henry was mostly at sea as an apprentice and later a junior officer on ships of sail, and travelled around the world.
‘Glebe at this time – about the end of the 19th century – had plenty of vacant land toward the waterfront adjacent to Jubilee Park … We played in paddocks about and near the Chinaman’s Garden and the Chinese Joss House. Our favourite game was ‘bobbies and huskies’ among the caves of the unbuilt on land. Often at night and without permission, we built a fire on the dairy paddocks and baked potatoes …’
And so his story goes … Cobden recounted only fond memories of his childhood, which is corroborated by photographs and family correspondence. Julia kept the family together and devoted herself to raising Cobden, his brothers Ken, Sid and Henry, and sister Aurora.
At the outbreak of World War I, Cob enlisted. He was twenty-three. He joined the 1st Battalion of the A.I.F. 1st Division, landing at Gallipolli on 25 April 1915.
Miraculously Cob survived for four months before being wounded. Although he was discharged from the army on medical grounds – he lost three fingers from his right hand – in 1918 he re-enlisted and went to the Western Front. There he got word that Julia was gravely ill. She died the night his boat docked at Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne. Cob always said it was his greatest regret – that he did not get home from the war to see Julia.
Although Cob lost fingers from his writing hand, after the war he resumed his architecture studies - contriving a way to grip a pen with his one remaining finger – and he entered government service as a draughtsman.
Soon after, he married Victoria Lillyman, a vivacious young woman from northern (country) New South Wales. They made a home at 19 Narooma Road, Northbridge, on Sydney's leafy north shore, and started a family - first Barry (b.1924), then Helen (b.1926), and finally Judith (b.1931). Cob and Vic remained at that address for the rest of their lives. A modest, three-bed stucco brick house built on an outcrop of sandstone, the place barely changed in sixty years.
Of all Henry’s children, Cob enjoyed a successful career and made something of a contribution to public life. Ultimately he was promoted to the position of Government Architect. Over many years he designed schools and public hospitals, and the University of New South Wales. Although a design conservative, one of his final public duties saw Cob (plus three eminent practitioner colleagues) judging the international design competition for the Sydney Opera House, and giving support to the extraordinary design of Joern Utzon.
In 1958 Cob was offered a knighthood for services to architecture, which he declined, instead accepting the lesser honour of a C.B.E. (Knight Commander of the British Empire). The official reason cited was the poor health of his wife, Vic. But he had no time for the fuss of it. He was a modest man who cared more about family. And he’d endured a lifetime of public attention, for being the youngest child of Sir Henry Parkes, a man he never actually knew.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography (2000) entry for Cobden Parkes is reproduced here.