I had a schoolboy’s understanding of Sir Henry Parkes before reading his biography by Robert Travers.
He’s known as the “Father of Federation” but perhaps is better remembered as a master politician and orator.
His great achievements were free public education for all and reforming the colony’s governance to make it more democratic.
Perhaps his greatest failures (apart from personal bankruptcy) were the death of several policemen he sent on a spying mission to apprehend notorious bushrangers; and flaming religious tension between Catholic and Protestant for political purposes.Sir Henry was born in 1815 to middle class parents in England before the middle class was clearly established.
His family lost its comfortable existence when his father incurred substantial debts and was jailed for 12 months.
Sir Henry was apprenticed to a bone and ivory turner at Birmingham, married Clarinda and accepted passage to Sydney in 1839.
He quickly became enmeshed in the colony’s political scene, established a newspaper called the Empire and stood for parliament.
In Birmingham, Sir Henry had mixed with Chartists and attended their rallies, promoting social reform.
Although the squatters considered him radical, he was mostly a pragmatic politician, very flexible and ready to move with public opinion.
However, he did maintain reformist views on substantive issues throughout his life.
Much of the early political debate in New South Wales centred around self government and voting qualifications.
Sir Henry led the Sydney merchants and tradesmen in calls for a more open franchise, against the will of squatters (large landholders).
He became an arch enemy of William Charles Wentworth, who favored ongoing transportation of convicts and the creation of a colonial aristocracy to form an hereditary upper house modelled on the House of Lords.
I had heard of plans for a “bunyip aristocracy” but never realised how close it came to reality. The bill passed the New South Wales parliament, but was rejected in London.
Sir Henry organised public opinion against the Wentworth plans, including a large rally where noted satirist Daniel Deniehy let rip and coined the bunyip phrase.
Thanks to detailed press reports from the time we know that Deniehy wondered aloud about classifying the noble colonial families in a heraldic sense:
Here you all know that the common water mole is transformed into the duck-billed platypus; and in some distant emulation of this degeneracy, I suppose we are to be favored with a bunyip aristocracy.
Regarding my assessment of Sir Henry’s greatest successes, free public education for all is a wonderful legacy.
To achieve this he had to combat reactionary forces in the Catholic Church, who feared it would undermine religious schools.
Sir Henry also succeeded in reforming the parliament and extending the franchise, years ahead of European countries.
He always cultivated the Catholic vote and happily appointed Catholic ministers, but he never repaired relations with Sydney’s leading clerics. This was not entirely his fault.
Relations were further damaged when an Irish nutcase attempted to kill Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, while he was visiting Sydney.
Sir Henry wanted a scapegoat and suppressed evidence of the man’s lunacy to see him hang. Today that would be considered perverting the course of justice.
Sir Henry preferred to portray the would-be assassin as a Fenian rebel. His concealment of documents from the trial later became public knowledge and totally destroyed his relationship with the Catholic Church.
It’s possible sectarian divisions in Australia would have been less intense if harmony had been maintained through these formative years.
Sir Henry’s other big mistake was sending four police officers under cover as surveyors to capture the Clarke gang of bushrangers. It was a foolhardy mission and all were shot dead.
These specific issues aside, Sir Henry was a masterful politician who managed to form five governments at a time when personalities ruled the legislature, rather than parties or even policies.
He travelled overseas and was respected as an Australian statesman in London and Washington.
If he’d been born 10 years later he would have made a marvellous first Prime Minister of the new federated nation which he helped to form.
His name is remembered in the town of Parkes and the Canberra suburb of that name.
Robert Travers writes a wonderful book, which conveys the essence of Sir Henry the man, his strengths and weaknesses.
I liked the descriptions of New South Wales Governors as well, especially Sir George Gipps and Sir Charles Fitzroy.
Something you won’t find on Wikipedia, is that Sir Charles was a renowned womaniser.
Sir Henry did not have the same reputation, but he married his mistress Eleanor Dixon after Clarinda died. When Eleanor died of cancer he married his 23-year-old housekeeper Julia Lynch.
Sir Henry died of pneumonia on April 27, 1896.
I wouldn’t personally call Sir Henry the “father of federation” but I can’t see too many rivals for the mantle of Australia’s most influential and successful politician of the 19th century.