Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 8, 2014

Sir Henry Parkes, the Australian Colossus (2013), by Stephen Dando-Collins

Sir Henry ParkesAs many school teachers know, the history of Australian Federation is a bit of a dry and dusty topic for students, and it takes a great deal of skill to make it palatable.  Which is why I welcome this very readable biography of Henry Parkes a.k.a. ‘The Father of Federation’ because there are plenty of interesting titbits to liven up proceedings in the classroom.

He looks such a miserable old fogey, doesn’t he?  It’s probably just the way his shaggy beard grew, but the drooping moustache makes him look positively sour.  So it was a considerable surprise to discover that there was more than one young woman who took a fancy to him in his dotage: he had a mistress of long standing who was more than half his age and – aged 73 – Parkes married her very promptly as soon as his long-suffering wife Clarinda died.  And gosh! three months after Nellie died he whisked off her nurse, 23-year old Julia Lynch, to the altar!

I lost track of all his children but the bio has a handy family tree to remind me that he fathered 17 children altogether, which is all the more remarkable considering his propensity for getting into debt.  How they didn’t all end up in the Poor House or starving in a gutter is a minor miracle.  He was absolutely hopeless with money, starting one futile business after another, declaring himself bankrupt half-a-dozen times or so,  and finally dying with nothing more than a burial plot to his name.  Still, next time I’m in the Blue Mountains near Faulconbridge, I think I might visit to pay my respects, because for all his flaws, this man was the visionary who united the Australian States, and much more besides.

The book begins with some Notable Quotes (sic) from H.P., my favourite of which is this:

On Australians’ Obsession with Sport

‘One danger to a sound and healthy public spirit in Australia is the inordinate appetite for sports and amusements … Man in a civilised state has capacities for something more.’

There’s more to this comment than meets the eye.  (It’s from his book, Fifty Years of Australian History, 1892.)  Parkes was an entirely self-made man.  He emigrated to Australia with little more than hope and a wife (Clarinda), and through hard work, ambition and initiative he rose to become Premier of New South Wales when that was the highest political office in the land.  He was self-educated, incredibly hard-working, and had no time for self-indulgence with amusements of any kind.  So, reading between the lines, I suspect that he would have wished that there were more people like him at that crucial time in the colony’s history, more people of an ordinary background like his on the parliamentary benches, more people who understood the importance of improving the lot of ordinary people for the wealth of a nation.

The list of his initiatives is impressive.  Most notable is his championing of the rights of women.  At a speech in Adelaide in 1892, he said:

We cannot term ourselves a democracy as long as we exclude half the human race from the franchise… I have always favoured women’s franchise, and no one could be a democrat unless he also does so.  I admit women’s claim to the franchise because of their common humanity, as intelligent, responsible members of the community.  (p. 360)

And even though it doesn’t seem much of a big deal now, he put his beliefs into practice when he could.  When the husband of the husband-and-wife team who ran the parliamentary dining-room died, he terminated the advert for a replacement declaring that the widow Agnes Dettman, was perfectly capable of running it on her own.  Although unsuccessful, he also tried to have his daughter Menie employed as Australia’s first female journalist.

Among his other achievements, he also introduced the Public Education Act in 1866, requiring for the first time that teachers be properly trained, and was responsible for improvements in nursing standards when he asked Florence Nightingale to send nurse-trainers to the colony.

There were some less edifying aspects to his career.  Quite apart from his frequent insolvencies involving astronomical amounts of money, he seems to have been involved in some dubious practices with cheques, and he borrowed huge sums of money when he had no real prospect of ever repaying it.  What is remarkable about this is the extent to which his friends and supporters baled him out, time and again, because they recognised his remarkable leadership qualities.  What he needed was a good accountant!

With the benefit of a more inclusive age, we can now see also that his acts to limit Chinese immigration were racist, and so was the exclusion of Australia’s indigenous people from the Constitution.  (This latter omission is not something that is acknowledged by Dando-Collins, which it should have been.)

It was interesting to learn that elections in this turbulent period of NSW politics were almost constant, and they were not held for all electorates on the same day.  This meant that Parkes could stand in one electorate and if he failed to win, he could then stand in another electorate in the next round and get a seat that way.  On more than one occasion, after resigning his seat for one reason or another, he declined to stand, but his supporters nominated him in some country seat and he won it notwithstanding.  There was also a quaint custom that required anyone appointed to a cabinet position to resign his seat and go back to his electorate for reindorsement.  Imagine that today!

I hope schools invest in a copy of this biography: I’ve taken a look at the long, verbose and somewhat confusing entry for Henry Parkes at Wikipedia, and I think that students would be much better off using this book.  The author’s style makes light work of a complex career, and it humanises the man as well:

Henry found that he could relax at Helene [their home at Ryde, then a rural outpost of Sydney], although he was only there one day a week at best.  Setting up a camp bed in his new Empire office [where he ran his doomed newspaper], he spent six days a week there, only heading to Ryde by steam ferry most Saturday nights, returning to the city on Sunday nights.  At Helene he filled his study with the books collected over the years, while outdoors he began to build a collection of birds and animals which would grow more and more exotic over the years.  Every Sunday morning during 1855-56, Parkes would go for a tramp through Helene’s bushland, intent on trapping a wallaby to add to his collection.  Ryde’s wily wallabies were always much too quick for him, and he would never succeed in catching one.  Nonetheless, a wallaby would soon join his collection – in 1856, the master of Regentville, Robert Jamison, son of the late Sir John Jamison, Parkes’ first employer in New South Wales, would give Parkes one as a gift.

As comfortable as Parkes had made himself, and as happy as he had made his family, this new lifestyle was unsustainable.  It had been built on a mountain of debt, which only grew larger.  In late 1854, just as Parkes had been revelling in his first months in the legislature and planning the relocation to 173 George St and Helene, a recession hit the New South Wales economy, and advertising revenue at the Empire had halved.  Yet, instead of tightening the belt, Parkes had thrown the belt away.  It was a case of wishful thinking fogging reality, with Parkes seeing what he wanted to see. (p. 113)

The biography is also enjoyable reading for teachers who just want a bit of extra background to liven up their lessons about Federation!

The book includes B&W photos, an index, notes for each chapter, a bibliography and a family tree of Parkes’ wives and children. I would have liked a timeline too.

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.

Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Title: Sir Henry Parkes, The Australian Colossus
Publisher: Knopf, 2013
ISBN: 9781742757971
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Sir Henry Parkes: The Australian Colossus


  1. Perhaps you could have a go at tidying up the Wikipedia entry a little. Wikipedia should never be a substitute for reading a biography though. They perform completely different roles I think.

    Love your discussion of Parkes, and of his very true understanding of democracy and the rights of humans.

    BTW, is this a kids’ book?


    • Sorry, there’s no chance I’m wasting any more of my time at Wikipedia. I spent a lot of time on redressing the US/UK dominance of the LitBlog entry, adding blogs of all kinds from around the world, only to have it all removed by some moron who knows nothing about the litblogging scene. I put it back, he removed it again. For as long as the so-called Standards Experts can use their power to reflect their own bias and ignorance, Wikipedia will have to do without me.


      • That’s a shame … Then they just have their way. Their are dispute mechanisms for resolving issues of difference. As I recollect there’s a limit to how many re versions are allowed. I once called in adjudication on an article on an Australian poet. It was an interesting experience, but the end result was at the time a better article.


        • I see your point, but I have limited time and so I make choices about how I’ll spend it. I’ve let it go.


          • Fair enough …. just thought I’d let you know there are options.


            • Thank you, and I will remember that if something really bothers me in future. (I’m sorry, sometimes the typed reply looks a bit ungracious *rueful smile*)


              • Oh don’t worry … nothing you said offended. I perfectly understand about time and where we decide to put our effort and why!


  2. […] is the prolific author of many books, but the one I’ve reviewed here is his biography of Henry Parkes (2014).  And then of course there is former leader of the Greens Bob Brown whose many publications […]


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