Inside the Collection

Sir Henry Parkes: Not just the father of federation

Glass negative of 'Sir Henry Parkes'
85/1286-509 Glass negative, full plate, ‘Sir Henry Parkes’, unattributed studio, Sydney, Australia, c. 1880-1923. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Many Australians associate Federation with Sir Henry Parkes and his significant contribution in bringing Australia together in 1901, but he was much more than that. Parkes arrived in Sydney in 1839 with his wife and young child (Sir Henry would eventually father 17 children), finding work as a laborer and later in a foundry. He was also a bone and ivory turner and manufacturer, journalist, publisher, writer and politician.

Beakers (2) and lidded jug, electroplated silver / oak
A2349 Beakers (2) and lidded jug, electroplated silver / oak, maker unknown, England, [1850s], owned by Sir Henry Parkes, collected by Thomas Handcock Lennard. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
In 1845 he set up business in Kent Street, purchased a lathe and set to work on creating beautiful handcrafted objects. The Powerhouse Museum has a collection of objects relating to Sir Henry Parkes.

Spinning top, child’s toy
A7806 Spinning top, child’s toy, made by Sir Henry Parkes company, wood, Sydney, Australia, 1850-1890

Personally Sir Henry and his wife Clarinda were going through a difficult time, with the loss of a child. Professionally his business was prospering resulting in new premises at 25 Hunter Street and other branches opening in regional NSW and Victoria. By the end of the 1840’s Parkes was one of 14 other bone and ivory turner in Sydney, prompting him to broaden his business. He did this by expanding his store to included imported fancy wares[1].

Domestic ware, umbrella handle
A7800 Domestic ware, umbrella handle, supplied by Henry Parkes and Co., Sydney, 1850-1900. Cololection Powerhouse Museum

Sir Henry went on to have a career in journalism and as a publisher. Below is the Albion press (displayed in Technologies that changed our mind 2013-14) imported from England and used by Henry Parkes to produce the newspaper the ‘Empire’, of which he was proprietor and editor, from 1850-1856. This newspaper was the chief proponent of mid 19th century liberalism and its pages were a forum for the sharpest radical and liberal viewpoints of the day. The press was then purchased by Messrs. Craigie and Hipgrave of Armidale, when this firm issued the Armidale ‘Express’.

Albion hand printing press, iron
H3408 Albion hand printing press, iron, manufactured by A Wilson & Sons, London, England. Gift of Armidale Newspapers Ltd, 1929


He was elected to the legislative council in 1856 and Premier of New South Wales in 1872. He was 57 and robust with a shaggy beard- the iconic image of Sir Henry Parkes. His tenure lasted until 1875.

On 2 March, 1891 Sir Henry was elected president of the National Australasian Convention, in attendance were delegates from the colonies and New Zealand. At the opening dinner for the convention Parkes made a toast ‘One people, one destiny’ [2]. It appeared that he was ready for the colonies to join and make his mark in Australian history.

1. Sir Henry Parkes, The Australian Colossus, S Dando-Collins, Random House Australia, 2013

2.  Sir Henry Parkes, A.W Martin

Other posts related to Sir Henry Parkes:

Henry Parkes and the ‘crimson thread of kinship’

Henry Parkes, Father of Australian Federation

Written by Kate Clancy, Curatorial Volunteer

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