Parkes and Tenterfield

Speech by Ian Thom, Henry Parkes Foundation adviser, at the launch of the book Parkes’ Tenterfield Call to the People, by Ken Halliday. Tenterfield, NSW, 24 October 1999

As a great great grandson of Sir Henry Parkes and an adviser to the Henry Parkes Foundation I feel honoured to be asked to launch Ken’s book, Parkes’ Federation Call to the People.

The course of history is influenced by many things. Henry’s speech here 110 years ago is no different.

You may not know that, in England, Henry’s childhood was very hard. His family were poor. When Henry was eight years old, his father, a tenant farmer, had to leave his farm when the market for his crop collapsed. All the investment in money and years of labour were lost.

The family had to move from place to place trying to survive. Henry had to work in a brick pit, a rope factory and then manually crushing rocks to build roads. All very hard work for a boy trying to help support his family.

Later on, aged 12, when most of us would have been starting high school, Henry got an apprenticeship with a bone and ivory turner. He worked with his master for eight years.

Let me quote from one of Henry’s letters.

“My master gave me a trifle, weekly, above my wages, for pocket money, out of which, when I grew to the age of seventeen or eighteen 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.”1

Education, which Henry had to save for and pay for, at the Mechanics’ School of Arts, we take for granted today as the right of any Australian child. We should be grateful to Sir Henry, for it was his Public Instruction Act that secured that right for us.

Henry and his wife, Clarinda, arrived in Sydney in 1839 not knowing a soul and virtually penniless. He also had to support their daughter, who was born at sea two days before they arrived. How would you like to be broke, friendless, in a new country and with a tiny baby? From this start, by hard work and perseverance, Henry rose to become Premier of NSW on five occasions and over a century later still holds the record as the longest-serving Premier of NSW.

Politics, as you know, is a fickle thing. Henry was in and out of office over his forty plus years in Parliament. He sometimes lost his seat because he went bankrupt, concentrating more on public service than he did on his businesses.

Local members of parliament were not paid in those days and Henry was only paid when he held the office of Colonial Secretary or Premier.

I ask you: how many today would stand as unpaid members of Parliament? How many politicians do you hear of going bankrupt today? They all leave with gold passes and fat pensions.

Let me quote you from AB (Banjo) Paterson, well known as a poet but by practice a solicitor.

“The old man never had any money, though goodness knows he had opportunities enough of getting it ‘on the side’ had he been so minded. On various occasions he came into the lawyer’s office where I was employed, always full of dignity, in a frock coat and a tall hat, to discuss his pecuniary complications. But personal finance bored him. He despised money; he was Sir Henry Parkes” 2

Henry’s political ideals and commitment to public life were admired by many. Henry became the Member for Tenterfield when one of those admirers, Edward Whereat, stood aside to allow Henry to be elected unopposed to the seat. I wonder how different Australian history would have been, had Mr Whereat not been so generous.

I mention this as background so that when you read the book you may have a better understanding of the man and his time.

To Ken’s book, Parkes’ Federation Call to the People. Many a historian has tried to debunk the importance of the speech that Henry made at the School of Arts 110 years ago. Ken has been very thorough in his research and in this easy to read book, gives an even handed, honest appraisal of these events and the reason they happened. It also serves as a well documented local history of the area.

People of Tenterfield, I believe that your former member, Sir Henry Parkes, repaid his debt to Mr Whereat, to the people of Tenterfield and to the Mechanics’ School of Arts movement when he chose this location for his historic speech.

You can “Put up your hand for Tenterfield” and be proud that one of your own has left no stone unturned to document the complete story. You can “Put up your hand” again for the book is printed in Tenterfield.

Ken, I congratulate you and commend the book to you all.

1 Letter to Lord Leigh 30 December 1844. Parkes Papers – Mitchell Library of NSW

2 Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney by James Tyrrell, Page 65.