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: