Inside the Collection

Henry Parkes, Father of Australian Federation

Portrait of Sir Henry Parkes
Portrait of Sir Henry Parkes, Sydney, Australia, 1880-1896, Powerhouse Museum, 85/1286-481

Sir Henry Parkes was one of Australia’s more significant politicians and journalists. He is often referred to as the ‘father of federation’ due to his efforts advocating for the federation of the six individual colonies of Australia (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia). The Museum’s holds a varied collection of objects relating to Parkes. It includes objects representative of his years as a manufacturer of domesticware, toys and turned wood and ivory articles. Two of ivory handles included in this group were turned by Parkes in his shop at No. 9 Hunter street which he occupied from 1847 till 1852. Other objects, which also bear the mark ‘Henry Parkes and Co.’, were imported from overseas and retailed from the shops he ran throughout most of his career.

Another group includes objects such as inkwells and crockery once owned by Parkes and his wives. Lastly there are objects relating to Federation which have images of Parkes and a small number of portrait photographs taken by professional studios for commercial sale.

Australian Federation Mug with Henry Parkes picture
Australian Federation Mug, manufactured by Doulton & Co, Burslem, England, 1900, Powerhouse Museum, A2355

Born in 1815 he came to Sydney in 1839 and worked in Thomas Burdekin’s ironmongery and Peter Russell‘s brass-foundry. Parkes commenced business as ‘Henry Parkes, Ivory and Bone Turner’ in Kent Street between 1844 and 1845. He later moved to Hunter street where he displayed the collection of useful and fancy articles, most of which he had made himself. These included billiard and bagatelle balls, chess and backgammon men, card-counters and whist-markers, ivory and bone whistles, paper knives, ladies’ needle cases, eggcups, knitting pins, children’s rattles, humming tops, cups and balls, studs, buttons. In fact all kinds of little things which as turner in ivory and bone he manufactured day after day.

Ariel photograph of bone handles
Turned bone handles, made by Henry Parkes, 1844-1850, Powerhouse Museum, nn10142

He was 33 years old when he gave his first political speech in 1848 but quickly became involved in literary and political activities and honed his talents as a writer. By 1849 he was advocating universal suffrage and the transformation of the Australian colonies into a Great Federal Republic. He was also pivotal in organizing the Constitution Committee to oppose Wentworth’s constitution bill and won Wentworth’s old Sydney seat in 1854. The liberal leader, Charles Cowper, invited him into the council and Parkes’ election to the Chamber of Commerce was a mark of his acceptance into the liberal group.

In 1883 he was representing Tenterfield District but the loss of his ministerial office also meant the loss of his salary and he returned to business. After importing ivory goods from overseas he undertook to become the Australasian representative of the engineering firm of Latimer, Clark, Muirhead & Co. But he went back to politics when Jennings resigned in January 1887 and Parkes formed his fourth ministry. His slogan for the election was ‘good government and commercial freedom’.

For Parkes, the principal activity of these years was a campaign which resulted in the Federation Conference and the Australasian Federal Convention of 1890-1891. In January 1889 he announced his readiness to join ‘heart in hand’ to promote true Federation.

Statuette of Sir Henry Parkes
Statuette of Sir Henry Parkes, The Crimson Thread of Kinship, Sydney, Australia, 1890-1900, Powerhouse Museum, A7335

In the early 1890s he made efforts to retire completely from politics but continued to speak on Federation. His first wife died in 1888 and he married Miss Dixon a year later. Unfortunately she died in July 1895 and the fact Parkes was left with 5 daughters and a son to look may have been one reason he married Julia Lynch just a few months later. Unfortunately Parkes himself died six months later on 27 April 1896 of heart failure after an attack of pneumonia. He left virtually no provision for Julia and his children.

Geoff Barker, Curatorial, Jan 2013

Henry Parkes, A W Martin,
The Late Sir Henry Parkes, Northern Star, Lismore, New South Wales, 2 may 1896. p.7
Historic Site, Sir Henry Parkes Shop, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 february, 1922, p.14
Sir Henry Parkes, Old Shop To Be Removed, Singleton Argus, Friday 14 February 1930, p.1

6 responses to “Henry Parkes, Father of Australian Federation

      • You’re right! We’ve updated the post to explain why Parkes is often referred to as the father of federation.
        Sarah Reeves, MAAS

    • he is called the ‘father of Federation’ because he made a speech to try and join the six individual colonies in to Australia

  • Hi there,
    I have some very interesting memorabilia that i collected back in the 70s when we lived in Burwood NSW.

    I have his Common Prayer Bible dated August 12 1876 Ashfield and other pieces of interest.

    I can be contacted on my email.

    Kind regards,
    Brian Gordon

    • Hi Brian,
      Thanks for getting in touch. If you have an item you would like to consider donating to the Museum’s collection please email and your offer will be forwarded to one of our Curators for consideration. There is more information about donating to the Collection here. If you have any further questions, we will be able to answer them via the above email.
      Kind regards,
      Sarah Reeves, Powerhouse

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