Henry Parkes: Life and achievements

Dame Marie Bashir on Parkes

Dame Marie Bashir explains the role of Sir Henry Parkes in the creation of the Australian commonwealth and his mandate of free and universal education for all Australian students.

NSW Department of Education – Learning Systems, 16 March 2017



Overview of Parkes’ life and achievements

Compiled by the Henry Parkes Foundation, for the first Primary Schools Citizenship Convention, October 1999.

His vision

To build a just, fair and egalitarian society through a democratically elected government with everyone educated and aware of their right and responsibilities and with equal opportunities to participate.

His life: 1815-1896

Child: 0-8 years
Born in 1815 at Canley, Warwickshire, near Coventry in England.
His parents were successful tenant farmers on Lord Leigh’s estate.
Although illiterate, they were thoughtful and far-sighted and made sure Henry had the opportunity to attend the local school as soon as he was able to manage the four-mile walk.
The industrial revolution in England changed society — his parents lost the farm and became destitute.
Henry had to help support his family at hard jobs: building roads, working in a rope factory and a brick works.

Young man: 9-23 years
Henry trained to become a skilled artisan, an ivory turner.
He became an enthusiastic reader of poetry and learned to write poems himself.
He extended his education by attending the Mechanics’ Institute.
He attended the great public protest meetings of the Chartists in Birmingham.
In 1836 he finished his apprenticeship and married Clarinda Varney.

Adventurer: 24-34 years
Clarinda and Henry settled in London looking for work.
In search of a better life, as migrants they took the long passage in a sailing ship to Sydney arriving in 1839.
Times were bad then and he had to work again as a labourer to support Clarinda and their new baby.
Education finally gained him a secure job in the Customs Department as a tide waiter.
By 1841 he wrote they had “a more comfortable home” then ever they could have had in England.

Man of ideas: 35-40 years
He started a newspaper The Empire and helped set up the Australian League to educate people about the rights and duties of citizens in a democracy.
He fought for jobs and fair wages by opposing the free labour of transported convicts and cheap ‘slave’ labour from other countries, mainly the Pacific Islands and China.
He argued for universal suffrage, i.e. every citizen to be entitled to vote.

Politician and political reformer: 41-81 years
“As a politician his skill as a parliamentary leader commanded respect and his integrity was unquestioned.” (Dr Allan Martin)

Some achievements of Parkes and his five governments

Development of democracy: All adult men were given the right to vote and the electoral system was reformed. (Women’s suffrage was not achieved until the turn of the century despite Henry’s earlier support.)

Federation: “Kinship, community, shared goals and dreams united all Australians”, said Parkes. From 1861 until he died, he worked towards his dream of Federation and is now called The Father of Federation.

Education: He recognised how education had helped him and made sure that every child in NSW would have access to a free secular public school education. He encouraged adult education; funded the first NSW public library; encouraged the NSW Art Gallery and such institutions as the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts.

Health and welfare: He introduced the training of nurses for public hospitals with the help of Florence Nightingale. He recognised the relationships between health, poverty and crime. He supported measures to relieve poverty and assist employment, reform prisons, and care for the disabled.

To meet the need for transportation of produce and people, and to encourage trade between the states, a wide network of rail services was established in NSW and the benefit of a standard interstate track gauge was promoted.

An efficient postal service was established with advice from the English postal expert Anthony Trollope.

He established public recreation areas such as Centennial Park and took a keen interest in the precursor to Taronga Park Zoo at Moore Park. He developed a love for the Australian bush and tried to regulate timber cutting by setting up the Forestry Branch in the Department of Lands in 1871.

Throughout his long life his own qualities of honesty, optimism and energy kept the support of many people of goodwill who shared his vision of a good society, believing it could be achieved through democratic political means, by reason and persuasion, without violence. They achieved a great deal and set the foundations for our present system of government which can work well if everyone understands and participates.