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Parkes Lays The Foundation Stone Of Australia

So here in the next Noteworthy Collectibles profile of people whose faces appear on our Australian banknotes we take the time to look at a very interesting man indeed. He is better known as, “The Father of Federation” and his name is Sir Henry Parkes. He is commemorated on our Five Dollar polymer note and in keeping with his Father Christmas type looks he truly gave our country one of its greatest gifts, political stability through Federation of our disparate States. This in turn enabled Australia to become one nation and to move forward in to the 20th century as a unified entity.

Portrait of Sir Henry Parkes
Portrait of Sir Henry Parkes

He was born in Warwickshire , England in 1815, the youngest of seven children. He had an informal education and served an apprenticeship as a bone and ivory turner. At the age of 21 he married a local butchers daughter Clarinda. He also attended Thomas Attwood’s Political Union at the age of 17 which gave him a deep-seated interest in things political. at the age of 23 after the business were he was working failed he traveled to London in the hope of better prospects but this to was doomed to failure and after the pawning of most of his trade and personal belongings, he and Clarissa applied to become bounty migrants in New South Wales. They departed Gravesend on the Strathfieldsaye in March of 1839, Australia bound. Their first child was born 2 days short of landfall.

Parkes worked in a variety of jobs until he managed to save enough money to buy back the tools of his trade. Having located suitable premises in Hunter Street Sydney he set out as a trader in turned ivory goods and an importer of fancy goods from abroad. The business did so well at first that he even managed to expand his small empire to include 2 other stores in Geelong and Maitland. Life was never going to be easy for him and by 1850 these two additional stores had failed financially and he was left to tend his Sydney based business. He was however in serious financial difficulties at this point. In later years he was to do so much better than he would have ever dreamed possible as proven by the beautiful house that he owned some 30 years later.

Hampton Villa in Balmain
Hampton Villa in Balmain where Parkes lived from 1888 until 1892

His interests in politics and his acquired talents as a writer, despite the lack of formal education, found him mixing with most of the colony’s radical patriots. Issues of land reform and franchise extensions abounded. He joined a group known as the Constitutional Association where he would make the first of a great many public speeches. he advocated a course for the people of Australia which would see them, “growing in enlightenment” and this in itself would avoid the excesses of Paris and Frankfurt. He railed against the conservative aristocrats of the day and this in turn led him towards the liberal movement which in itself would act as a foil against the old colonial conservatives.

Having been a writer for various publication throughout the colonies he eventually found enough support for his ideas to set leave his small business and set up the Empire newspaper as both editor and owner. It was to be the printed word for the radical and liberal thinking minds of the day. The paper also afforded him a steady income and this allowed him to spend more time actively building the organisational structure of the Constitution Committee. Through this medium he set about seeking a place in the Legislative Council. His first attempt at getting voted onto the council failed but he did mange to secure a local seat and this in turn was his spring-board for being accepted into the Chamber of Commerce. The inner most echelons of the Liberal party had given him the nod and Parkes was on his way to great things.

A new Constitution was put in place in 1856 and at the first Legislative Assembly formed under its auspices, the Liberals carried all four seats in the Sydney City constituency and Parkes had one of them. This was short-lived joy for Parkes as the Empire newspaper had run into severe financial difficulties and Parkes was forced not only to shut the paper down but to stand down from his place in the Assembly due to insolvency. The next few years saw him struggling onwards with the support of family and friends until in mid 1859 he finally regained a seat representing East Sydney.

Henry Parkes on the Five Dollars banknote.
Henry Parkes on the Five Dollars banknote.

In 1857 he accepted a salaried position as a government lecturer on emigration in England for 1000 pounds a year. Leaving his wife and children in poverty on their rented farm he sailed off, not to return until 6 years later in 1863 by which time he was looking to renew his original business in such a way as to provide for his family for the rest of their lives. This to was a short-lived dream as by 1870 he was bankrupt again and although he had managed to get back into local politics and hold the seat of Kiama he was forced to relinquish it due to the bankruptcy. He consistently continued to campaign for change whether in or out of the Legislature.The Parkes 1866 Public Schools Act was a good example of this and was his first contribution to education reform.

He survived the next few years with the help of loans from friends and working as a journalist. In 1872 he ran for the seat of Mudgee. In the general elections he managed to assist in ousting the Martin-Robertson coalition ministry and after some extremely difficult negotiations he was announced for the first time as Premier. His enthusiasm and large surplus budget saw him vigorously expanding a public works program and also negotiating an open trade policy between Victoria and New South Wales on the border. In 1878 the opposition leader Robertson resigned and a collection of his most avid supporters asked Parkes to become their leader. Parkes appointed the resigned Robertson to the Upper House as Vice President of the Executive Council. Extraordinary events in extraordinary times. He instigated the Licensing Act and the Public Instruction Act which basically gave equal opportunities for education.

Stamps and coins released to honor Sir Henry Parkes

In 1881 Parkes traveled abroad where he was hailed as the most influential person in Australian politics. He spent 6 weeks in America where despite the fact he did little to change their way of thinking or policy he was very well treated and highly respected. His travels also took him to England, Belgium and Germany where he met heads of state and royalty, politicians, guild halls and companies. All the while expounding the virtues of Australia and selling our country as one of prosperity, change and a good trading partner. He was honored on his return with civic banquets in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Wood block engraving print of Parkes.
Wood block engraving print of Parkes moving the first resolution at the Federation Conference in Melbourne on 1 March 1890

In 1887 Parkes formed his fourth ministry and won a hands down victory. His new ministry was in the main dedicated to the goals of free trade. His long-suffering wife Clarida died in 1888 and he remarried again the following year which invoked a great deal of public censure. His main goals continued to be free trade but he was also starting to gain steam in a campaign that eventually resulted in the Federation Conference and the Australasian Federal Convention of 1890-91. In 1889 he announced that he was ready to go forward to promote true Federation. it was at this point that he delivered his most famous speech at Tenterfield in New South Wales. In this speech he called for a federal convention to bring about ‘a great national Government for all Australia’. Parkes by then had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1877 and later G.C.M.G. in  1888.

In the 1895 elections he tried unsuccessfully to get the Federal Party off the ground as it was seen to be a fad at the time. He tried to no avail to win several other seats and when this failed he found that his political career was at an end. He was at this time suffering quite poor health as the result of a traffic accident in 1890 and his second wife had died of cancer during the elections campaign for King. Even in retirement he continued to rally for Federation on many fronts. He remarried again in the same year and then in the following year on 27 April 1896 died suddenly at his home Kenilworth, Annandale of heart failure after a bout of pneumonia. He was survived by his third wife and by five daughters and a son of the twelve children of his first marriage, and by four sons and a daughter of the second.


Parkes with his daughter Annie T. Parkes
Parkes with his daughter Annie T. Parkes

His legacy was immense and issues of Federation aside he was the author of no fewer than half a dozen books of poetry and prose. The endless time spent working on constitutional proprieties, educational reform and racial equality deemed him to be a person worthy of huge respect. His face on the Five Dollar banknote does not seem so much in the light of his achievements. None the less there are not so many places available on our currency and his is one that is well-earned.

The township of Parkes in New South Wales was founded in 1853 as the settlement of Currajong due to the large number of Kurrajong trees in the area. In 1873 it was renamed Parkes after Henry Parkes for his instrumental role in making Australia becoming a unified nation.

His literary works included:
Six volumes of verse:   Stolen Moments (1842),  Murmurs of the Stream (1857), Studies in Rhyme (1870), The Beauteous Terrorist and Other Poems (1885), Fragmentary Thoughts (1889) and Sonnets and Other Verses (1895)

His prose work includes Australian Views of England (1869) and Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (1892). Many of his speeches and personal letters home to England have also been published.






Noteworthy Collectibles offers a fine range of banknotes celebrating Parkes and the Centenary Of Federation here in our online store.


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