Henry Parkes1815 - 1896

Henry Parkes, by H. William Barnett (1893)

Henry Parkes, by H. William Barnett (1893)

Henry Parkes was born in 1815 to a family of tenant farmers, at the Canley Moat House near Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, England.  It was the year of Waterloo, and Britain’s economy had been ruined by decades of war with France under Napoleon.  Like thousands of poor farmers, Henry’s father Thomas ended up in the debtors’ prison. Henry received little formal education because - by age ten - he’d joined the army of child labour, and was toiling to support his family.

At the height of his political achievement, and on being compared with Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of English politics, Henry reflected, ‘When he was at Eton preparing himself for Oxford, enjoying all the advantages of a good education, with plenty of money, and being trained in every way for his future position as a statesman, I was working on a rope-walk at four pence a day, and suffered such cruel treatment that I was knocked down with a crowbar and did not recover my senses for half an hour.  From the rope-walk I went to labour in a brickyard, where I was again brutally used; and when Mr Gladstone was at Oxford I was breaking stones on the Queen’s highway, with hardly enough clothing to protect me from the cold.’

Fate saved Henry from the dark satanic mills of England’s north.  He was apprenticed to an ivory turner, and spent eight years in an artisan’s workshop, where he became keenly interested in ideas about unionism, electoral reform, and ‘chartism’.  They were not prosperous times.  ‘I am one of the many who cannot now obtain the means of living in their native country. In a fortnight’s time I shall be gone to seek a better home in the wilderness of Australia.’ Henry penned these bitter words in March 1839, in a letter to the radical London newspaper The Charter.  He was twenty-four, living in poverty with his wife Clarinda, and awaiting passage as a bounty emigrant to New South Wales.  Henry and Clarinda’s first surviving child (Menie) was born at sea on the Strathfieldsaye, two days before they entered Sydney Harbour, in 1839.

Over the next thirty years Henry supplemented his meagre income working ivory and bone to make handles, jewellery, decorative pieces, and other objet.  The young Parkes family lived at 25 Hunter Street Sydney where Parkes billed his establishment as an ‘Ivory Manufactory and Toy Warehouse’ (and at night the address served as a meeting place for ‘radical activists’ and political hopefuls).  Henry imported ‘fancy goods’ from Britain, France and China:  shawls and fans, crockery, chessmen, puzzles, pictures and boxes, brushes and combs. The business supported Henry’s family for a time, but - like all his business ventures - ended in bankruptcy.

Henry’s talents as a writer, remarkable for one so lacking in formal education, developed quickly in the 1840s. He was briefly Sydney correspondent for the Launceston Examiner, and contributed occasional poems and articles on political and literary topics, sometimes under the pseudonym 'Faulconbridge', to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australasian Chronicle and the Atlas.  Then, late in 1850 Henry found support to set up as editor-proprietor of the Empire, a newspaper destined to be the chief organ of mid-century liberalism and to serve as the rallying point for the sharpest radical and liberal minds of the day.

Henry was also deeply involved in political activities, emerging as leader of the merged radical and liberal movements.  In 1854 Henry won his first seat in the Legislative Council, marking the commencement of a long and distinguished political career.

Sir Henry Parkes, G.C.M.G., championed ‘the people’, reformed hospitals and prisons, and introduced free, non-secular education:  according to The Times of London he was ‘the most commanding figure in Australian politics’.  With five terms to his credit, he remains the longest-serving premier of New South Wales.  And he led the cause for ‘nationhood’. Henry’s oration at the Tenterfield School of Arts (1889) was the clarion call ‘to devise the constitution ... [for] a federal government with a federal parliament for the conduct of national undertaking’.  And for this Henry was called the ‘Father of Federation’.

In The Federal Story (1944), Alfred Deakin offered an impression of Henry Parkes.  Though Deakin is best remembered as Australia’s second Prime Minister, a decade earlier Deakin had been the youngest delegate at the National Australiasian Convention (1891).  ‘… Though not rich or versatile, his [Parkes’] personality was massive, durable and imposing, resting upon elementary qualities of human nature elevated by a strong mind. He was cast in the mould of a great man and though he suffered from numerous pettinesses, spites and failings, he was in himself a large-brained self-educated Titan whose natural field was found in Parliament and whose resources of character and intellect enabled him in his later years to overshadow all his contemporaries’.

The journalist William Astley noted in his obituary of Henry, that Henry’s ‘heart was … not in politics but in literature, in history and in art. There was a singular vein of sentiment in his nature which found no appropriate vent in his public existence … To see him handle a letter of Tennyson or Carlyle, or the simple autograph of Lincoln, was to receive a lesson in reverence. Books and other mementoes of the illustrious dead were to him the wine of life. And yet he was no scholar—scarcely even to be termed a student. As to his own place in literature, his poems are a byword’.

A less well known aspect of the Henry Parkes story concerned his private life:  that along road to nationhood, Henry also navigated tumultuous events on the family front.  And in addition to fathering the nation, the ageing white-bearded Henry also fathered five additional children by his mistress, Eleanor (Nellie) Dixon.

In the late 1870s, Henry met English-born Eleanor Dixon, a shoemaker’s daughter who had migrated to Victoria with her widowed mother and siblings at the age of twelve.  In 1881 – when she was twenty-three and Henry was sixty-six – Eleanor moved from Melbourne to Sydney, an unmarried mother with a month old son.  The infant died six weeks after her arrival.  The following year she bore a daughter who also died in infancy.  It is strongly presumed that Henry was the father of both children.  The second child was called Nellie, which became Henry’s pet name for Eleanor.  Her next child was Sydney (1884-1937), born while Henry was touring the United States.  Sydney was beyond question Henry’s.

Aurora was born in 1888. According to the family story, Aurora was so named because the night she was born, an aurora illuminated the night sky over Sydney. Henry (now aged 73) was in the midst of his fourth term as Premier of New South Wales and Colonial Secretary.

By this time Henry was maintaining two households for his two families, Clarinda’s at Faulconbridge, and Nellie’s at Balmain.  ‘Domestic irregularity was not unknown in the colonies and clubroom and parliamentary gossip had long spread tales of Sir Henry’s virility, but for a gentleman to marry his lowly born mistress was rare’ (Travers, 2000).

Two weeks after Aurora was born, Clarinda died.  She had been Henry’s wife for 52 years, and was the mother of his seven adult children.  Clarinda’s death enabled Henry to marry his beloved Nellie and legitimise his second family, but the second marriage drew harsh criticism from several quarters.  Henry’s fifty-year-old daughter Menie called it … ‘the most sorrowfully disastrous mistake of your whole life …’  Social convention barred the new Lady Parkes from many circles.  In response, Henry did not attend those functions at which his wife was not welcome.

After they married, Henry and Nellie had two more sons, Henry Charles (1890-1954) and Cobden (1892-1978).   Cobden arrived in Sir Henry’s 78th year.

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’.

In Henry’s day, politicians were not paid, unless they held office in government.  When he retired from politics Henry wrote, ‘After forty years of Parliamentary labour and nearly twelve years of service in the office of Prime Minister I am now within 18 months of four score years of age, and I stand before the world a ruined man, steeped in unmitigated poverty’.  In 1894 the family home and its contents were put up for sale.

Matrimonial bliss for Henry and Nellie came to an abrupt and tragic end.  Nellie developed cancer (of the uterus), and in 1895 died at age 38.  In his 81st year – and as the march toward Federation gained momentum – Henry found himself the sole remaining parent of five young children.  Aurora was seven, and Cobden not quite three.  Henry wrote ‘… I have myself suffered much during the long illness of poor Lady Parkes, with the secret knowledge that she must die gnawing at my breast.  I had to sustain a studiously false demeanour in encouraging her to hope and believe she would get better. It was a cruel time’.

Following Nellie’s death, Henry’s adult children - 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.

Henry’s chief support was the young Irish woman who was housekeeper and nanny to the children.  Julia Lynch ran the home at Johnston Street in Annandale.  She also nursed Nellie through her battle with cancer.  Given his age Henry must have feared for his young children.  He was bankrupt, and this alone virtually guaranteed that upon his death the children would be split up and sent to foundling homes.

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.

Henry Parkes died on 27 April 1896.

When Anna Clark (granddaughter of the historian Manning Clark) asked school children about Australian history for her book History’s Children, they chorused ‘boring’ … and top of the poll for boring was the subject of Federation.

Australia’s peaceful transition from colonial rule to nationhood was in social and political terms an extraordinary achievement.  But the paradox of a peaceful transition means that less happened on the road to nationhood.  No pitched battles, guillotines, murder or mayhem. Instead, Australia’s nationhood was shaped with the greatest civility, by starchy old gentlemen explicating into their beards at dreary Constitutional Conventions. 

Tom Roberts’ Big Picture (The Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V), May 9, 1901) cheekily includes the presence of Henry in a fantasy portrait.  In the Big Picture, Sir Henry Parkes hovers paternally, Father-like, above the gentlemen of Federation.  Sir Henry Parkes is the oldest, starchiest and most bearded of them all.