Author(s): Stephen Dando-Collins
May 27, 2015 brings the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Parkes. After he died, the London Times described him as 'a colonial colossus.' Henry Parkes received little schooling and worked on a rope-walk, breaking stones, as an ivory and bone turner, ironmonger, labourer and on the wharves before trying business life and ultimately politics. He and his first wife travelled to Australia on an assisted passage. Parkes steadily educated himself, reading voraciously and widely, including all the great poets. There has never been anyone else like Sir Henry Parkes in Australian public life. Not only was he the father of federation. His friends included Thomas Carlyle, fellow poet Lord Tennyson and British Prime Minister Gladstone. He convinced Florence Nightingale to send trained nurses to Australia. He conceived the international rabbit competition which led to the Pasteur affair and put Australia at the forefront of microbiology. He encouraged talented men to enter politics. Yet he shunned the limelight, rarely attending social functions. Whenever he received begging letters, (which he did, daily), Parkes always wrote back enclosing money. No wonder he went bankrupt three times! Yet he was Premier of NSW 5 times, leaving its finances well in the black every time. He married three times, the last time to a 23-year-old beauty. Clearly, Parkes loved women, and they loved him. He encouraged women to attend political meetings, even though they didn't have the vote. NSW Parliament House dining room was managed by a husband and wife; when the husband died, Parliament wanted to fire his widow, but Parkes stood up for her, saying she was perfectly capable of managing the dining room on her own, which she did for years to come. But not everyone loved Sir Henry; he had a long-running feud with poet Henry Lawson's mother after Parkes wouldn't give young Lawson the help she demanded and he constantly wrestled with political aspirants chasing his seat.
Stephen Dando-Collins is the author of the acclaimed Captain Bligh's Other Mutiny and a successful series of popular histories about the legions of ancient Rome published in the US, UK, and Australia. Pasteur's Gambit was shortlisted for the science prize in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and won the Queensland Premier's Science Award. Crack Hardy, his most personal history, received wide acclaim. Mistaken Identity tells another episode of previously undiscovered Australian history. Sir Henry Parkes is his most recent history.