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Sir Henry Parkes: The Father of Federation

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A self-made journalist and writer, Sir Henry Parkes has the distinction of serving as the premier of NSW on five separate occasions during the late 1800s. As Harbour Trust volunteer Michele writes, the British expat was also instrumental in exposing the mismanagement of Cockatoo Island’s penal establishment and paving the way for at-risk boys to receive education aboard nautical school ships, including vessels moored off the island.
Early life and career

Henry Parkes was born on 27 May 1815 in Warwickshire, England. His formal education was limited, so took menial jobs to support his family, before being apprenticed to a bone and ivory turner. In 1836, Parkes married his first wife Clarinda Varney. He went into business as an ivory turner the following year but when this endeavour failed, he moved to London. After pawning his tools, Parkes left for the colony of NSW as a bounty migrant. He arrived in Sydney on 25 July 1839 with his first child, born two days earlier at sea. In the colony, Parkes worked as a labourer in a brass foundry and iron mongers and as a tidewaiter in the Customs Department. In 1845, Parkes resumed trading as an ivory turner and became an importer of fancy goods. Following an initial period of growth, Parkes’ business failed and he turned to literary and political activities for a living.

Parkes worked for several newspapers as a correspondent and also became involved with prominent radical patriots in the colony. He advocated for land reform, republicanism, and the extension of the voting franchise. In 1849, Parkes was a leading figure in the protest that accompanied the arrival of the convict ship Hashemy – he was amongst the 8,000 people who rallied at Circular Quay against convict transportation to NSW. In 1850, Parkes became the proprietor and editor of the Empire newspaper, which was promoted as a newspaper for the liberal and radical minded.

Exposing Cockatoo Island

Parkes was elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 1854, replacing William Charles Wentworth in the seat of the City of Sydney. In 1856, however, Parkes resigned to concentrate on The Empire, which was facing financial difficulties. While proprietor and editor of the newspaper, Parkes ran a campaign to expose what he viewed as harsh treatment of the convicts on Cockatoo Island and mismanagement by the prison’s superintendent, Charles Ormsby. The campaign resulted in several enquiries into the prison system on Cockatoo Island and a restructure of the management of the Island, which led to Ormsby’s departure as superintendent. At one stage Ormsby’s son Arthur, physically attacked Parkes for writing a negative article about his father and was convicted of assault and sentenced to 6 weeks gaol at Darlinghurst. Eventually, the publication of The Empire was suspended for a year due to its financial collapse and when it was relaunched, Parkes was no longer the publisher and proprietor.

An advocate for at-risk boys

Parkes re-entered parliament in January 1858 as the member for the North Riding of Cumberland but resigned 7 months later due to insolvency. By June 1859, Parkes was back in parliament as the member for East Sydney, having survived bankruptcy proceedings.

While still the editor of The Empire, Parkes was concerned with the reform of legislation concerning juvenile offenders. In particular, he crusaded for the relocation of at-risk children from unsatisfactory home and other environments to institutions where they could be reformed and trained, free of poor influences. Parkes envisaged the establishment of training ships where boys would be taught skills and trades, so that they could make a positive contribution to society. The placement of boys in the training ships would also avoid the need to house children temporarily in adult prisons, where they would be influenced by hardened criminals. In 1866, the Act for the relief of Destitute Children (known as the Industrial Schools Act), and the Act to establish Juvenile Reformatories were passed.  The Industrial Schools Act, allowed for the creation of the Nautical School Ships (NSS). The first of these ships, the NSS Vernon, was originally moored near Garden Island, but was moved to Cockatoo Island in 1871 and operated until it was replaced by The Sobraon in 1892.

Parkes’ political rise and true identity

Parkes became Premier of NSW in May 1872, a position he held at five different times. During his time in politics, Parkes represented a number of different parliamentary seats across the state.  Parkes commenced his fifth term of office as Premier on 8 March 1889 and delivered his famous pro‑Federation speech at Tenterfield on the 24 October of that year. Parkes lost office in 1892 and died suddenly at his home in Annandale four years later at the age of 80. Prior to his death, Parkes had instigated a number of conferences and conventions which would lead to Federation of the Australian colonies and the formation in 1901 of the Commonwealth of Australia, a name proposed by Parkes. 

Parkes was a controversial and complex figure. He was a great orator, but was viewed as often vain, arrogant, and rude. Although he received little formal education, he was widely read and published six volumes of poetry, books of prose and his speeches were widely publicised. Although at one stage he was a republican, his views mellowed due to conservative opposition, and he accepted a knighthood. Parkes was not a financial success, either personally or in his business dealings and often had to rely on monetary assistance from supporters and friends. Fortunately for NSW, Parkes’ governments were financially successful due to his efficient and effective treasurers. Some of his many accomplishments included compulsory school attendance, opening the Great Southern Railway, and the instigation of State Funerals, a tradition introduced to bury the predecessor of his first parliamentary seat, William Charles Wentworth.

Parkes married three times, and his last marriage – to Julia Lynch, his 23-year-old former cook and housekeeper – was the cause of much gossip and speculation. Parkes was survived by Julia and 11 of his 17 children.


  • Castrique, Sue, (2014) Under the Colony’s Eye.  Gentlemen and convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869. Anchor Books Australia.
  • Lee, David, Henry Parkes had a vision of a new Australian nation.  In 1901, it became a reality.  The Conversation 2020
  • Luke, Sarah, (2020) Like a Wicked Noah’s Ark.  The Nautical School Ships Vernon & Sobraon.  Arcadia, Melbourne.
  • Martin, W. W, Sir Henry Parks (1815-1896), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5 (MUO), 1974.
  • Shaw, Jeff. Sir Henry Parkes, Text of an address at the launch of the Henry Parkes Foundation, NSW Parliament House, 4 June 1999.

Article was originally published on 29 September 2022.


Parkes was a controversial and complex figure.


– Michele

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