Eleanor Dixon1857 - 1895

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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).

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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