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Parkes' People's Park

Sir Henry Parkes came to Australia a penniless English immigrant. He was a farm labourer, bone and ivory turner, journalist, newspaper proprietor, and a failed businessman. But he was also a man with an urge towards self-betterment.

A politician extraordinaire, he rose to become Premier of New South Wales five times and was the man responsible for bringing forward the bill of Parliament that created Centennial Park.

More than 100 years after his death, Sir Henry Parkes is still an enigmatic and complex figure. Born into poverty in 1815, Parkes lived a transient life from the age of eight, moving from place to place as his father looked for work. At twelve he was apprenticed to a bone and ivory turner, who he worked with for eight years.

“My master gave me a trifle, weekly, above my wages,” Parkes remembered in an 1844 letter to Lord Leigh, “out of which, when I grew to the age of 17 or 18 years, as it increased as I became more useful, I was enabled to purchase tickets to the Mechanics’ Institution; and resume something like an educational training, which had been totally neglected from the time I was a child of seven or eight years.”

Poverty aside, Parkes enjoyed a rewarding childhood. "His parents were very good farmers,” says great grand-daughter Jane Gray. “They lived on the land, they had good food, fresh air, and they were intelligent people. He was brought up in a very healthy situation – well fed, well looked after and much loved. Even though he’d been through the bottom depths of despair with his family, he had somehow managed to weather through and this gave him determination to succeed in life."

Parkes came to New South Wales in 1839 aged 24, with wife Clarinda and a daughter born at sea two days before they arrived. According to Manning Clark in A History of Australia, their first year was spent living roughly. “But by 1841 Henry’s heart was filled with confidence. He had found steady work in Sydney and was reading widely.” Clark remarks that in Australia Parkes found purpose: “He predicted that he and his fellow exiles would liberate Australia from the convicts’ clanking chains and allow freedom’s voice to be heard across her ransomed plains.”

Parkes’ life became the life of politics. In the 1840s, he honed his writing talents as the Sydney correspondent for the Launceston Examiner and a contributor to other publications. A decade later as editor and proprietor of the Empire newspaper, he declared he would use the publication as "an independent power to vivify, elevate and direct the political life of the country."

In 1854 Parkes was elected to the New South Wales Parliament, the start of half a century of almost unbroken – and predominantly unpaid – parliamentary membership. Financial ruin was never far from Parkes’ doorstep, and he sometimes lost his seat due to bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, Parkes implemented a wide range of social reforms, and presided over the major achievement of his era: the introduction of a public education system. From the late 1860s he began talking about the States joining together to become a single nation.

On 5 June 1877 Parkes learned he had been created a Knight of the Order of St Michael and St George. He had become an imposing figure whose political victory was unparalleled, as illustrated by this 1873 limerick:

There once was an ogre called Parkes
Very fond of political larks
Who dined off his chums
Making soup of the crumbs
And threw their old bones to the sharks.

In 1887, having won office yet again at the age of 71, Parkes turned his mind to creating Centennial Park. With the Centenary of the founding of the colony just a year away, he was keen to find an appropriate proposal to celebrate the occasion. Parkes had been a long time advocate of the need for open space for recreation, and seized upon the idea of creating a park to fulfil two needs: a people’s park and a grand setting for a State House to celebrate the Centenary.

His plans were nothing if not ambitious. They would provide relief work for the vast pool of unemployed men who were victims of depressed working conditions. They would be funded by the sale of portions of land along the boundaries of the park. They would convert “that particular portion of the surroundings of Sydney into the most coveted, the most fashionable and the most healthy suburb of Sydney.”

The State House was central to Parkes’ plans for Centennial Park. The Act of Parliament that created the Park on 13 July 1887 is notable for its lack of detail on creating the Park, in contrast to the vivid description of the State House’s many features. It was to include a gallery, public mausoleum, great hall, and museum for: “all books, documents, printed or written matter and reliques as may be illustrative of the historical material and industrial stages of the colony’s progress and of the various aboriginal races of Australia their customs, languages and ethnological characteristics.”

As grandiose and exciting as it seemed, the State House was never built, and according to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1888 met with such strenuous opposition in Parliament and from the public that the plans were shelved and eventually abandoned by Parkes.

Parkes was not so easily dissuaded when it came to his dreams of a united Australia. Jane Gray recalls that Parkes was the first politician to use the word ‘commonwealth’ in relation to Australia. "It is such a generous word to use, and already back then, it was so timely."

On 24 October 1889, in a speech in his seat of Tenterfield, Parkes issued his clarion call: “The great question…is whether the time has not now arisen for the creation of this Australian continent of an Australian Government and an Australian Parliament. I believe the time has come.”

Persuading his fellow Australians to combine the six existing colonies into one commonwealth, he argued: "Surely what the Americans did by war, Australians can bring about in peace."

More than ten years passed before his vision was fulfilled. Parkes died in 1896, a month after auctioning his library of books and chinaware due to “financial difficulty”. It was four years before Federation came about in his beloved Centennial Park.

Manning Clark writes how the crowd ‘murmured’ their approval for a car in the 1901 Federation procession containing a bust of the late Sir Henry Parkes, the father of “what it was all about”.

“Its banner proudly bore one of the many slogans on which he had conferred a measure of immortality: ‘One People, One Destiny’.”

Sir Henry Parkes is commemorated today with a statue in Centennial Park on Parkes Drive (see gallery below).