Parkes, taken from 'Eminent citizens [of] New South Wales, 1850-1900', published 1910.

Henry Parkes

1815 - 1896   |  New South Wales |  Publisher

Five times Premier of NSW, Parkes was one of many journalists who became senior political leaders. Among them, Parkes and Alfred Deakin made the greatest contributions to Australian journalism. Parkes was the son of an English farmer who trained as a bone and ivory turner before emigrating in 1839. After writing poems and articles for a number of publications, in 1850 he launched Empire, a newspaper that became the chief organ of mid-century liberalism and a rallying point for the sharpest radical and liberal minds of the day. Parkes became the “Father of Federation” and his reforms had a huge impact on the shaping of the nation.

“His huge figure, slow step, deliberate glance and carefully brushed-out aureole of white hair . . . A faraway expression of the eyes, intended to convey his remoteness from the earthly sphere.”

Alfred Deakin on Henry Parkes


Henry Parkes


On 14 December 1850, an advertisement signed by an ambitious though not widely known citizen called Henry Parkes appeared in the Sydney press announcing a new weekly journal of news, politics and commerce. It was to be called Empire, and its politics were declared to be Radical. Parkes was to be its founder and editor, though not its financier. The money would come from wealthy Sydney businessmen, whose support would turn out to be more like philanthropy than investment. 

At that time only The Sydney Morning Herald was publishing more than once a week but within five weeks Empire would break this monopoly by becoming a daily. Its political complexion could scarcely be more different from that of the conservative Herald.

Parkes had arrived in Sydney from Birmingham as an assisted immigrant in 1839. The colony was under great social pressure. High rents and food prices had created hardship for many settlers, and a few days before Parkes disembarked, a Benevolent Society had been set up by concerned citizens to relieve the distress of the poor. The political climate was ripe for change.

Parkes was a turner by trade but could find no work in the town. Instead he took a labouring job on the property of Sir John Jamison, a distinguished physician who had established a model farm at Penrith, inland from Sydney.

Parkes wrote bitterly about the hardships of farm life, but within two years Jamison had helped get him a job in the customs service. It was salaried, secure and town-based.

He lasted there about four years.  His departure from the public service was precipitated by a letter he wrote to the Weekly Register criticising the administration of the customs department. It was not received well. He was suspended then reinstated, but decided that the bureaucratic life was not for him.

In parallel with his work for Customs, Parkes had also embarked on a literary life. Although his religious affiliation was Nonconformist, poems of his appeared in a Catholic newspaper, The Australasian Chronicle. He also developed a warm friendship with the Chronicle editor, W. A. Duncan, and the currency-lad poet Charles Harpur, coming to regard them as intellectual mentors. Duncan stood against the pretensions of Sydney’s bunyip aristocracy and for the rights of ordinary people – attitudes that formed the basis of the particular brand of nineteenth-century Radicalism that developed in New South Wales.

Duncan eventually was dismissed from The Chronicle, and started The Weekly Register, where Parkes’ letter, so displeasing to his superiors in the customs service, appeared.

Parkes’ background as a tradesman from the English Midlands, his Nonconformist religious affiliation, his struggle to establish himself with only a modicum of help from the Establishment, his friendship with liberal-minded people such as Harpur and Duncan and his own idealistic disposition towards the making of a new and egalitarian society found expression in his attachment to Radical politics.

His political inclinations to some extent complemented the political temper of the day, but his conservative rival in the newspaper business, John Fairfax, shrewdly observed that the only people likely to be able to afford to buy a newspaper were the educated or commercial elite, who he speculated would tend to be conservative, not radical, in outlook.

Parkes created Empire from scratch, and his achievements were prodigious. Not only did he take it from a weekly to a daily in about five weeks, but within a couple of months he had established his own printing plant. Over the next 18 months or so he imported new machinery from England and set up a commercial printing works to help finance the newspaper.

Parkes was the editor; one of the leader writers was Charles Harpur’s brother, Joseph, and another was a Congregationalist minister, Barzillai Quaife. As with The Sydney Morning Herald of that time, Congregationalism was the religion of influence in editorial leadership.

However, for Parkes, newspaper publishing was a means to an end, not an end in itself. His view of the role of journalism, and his motive for starting the paper, were recorded by him 40 years later. Referring to his function as a journalist, he wrote: “I was myself intoxicated with the hard and exciting mission of the propagandist”. This rather startling view of the journalistic function was consistent with his motive for starting the paper: “A public organ was wanted by our young party, and I came forward to supply the want”.

Not that Empire was simply a propaganda sheet. It competed vigorously with The Herald for news and each paper had its boat and crew of oarsmen to race out to South Head whenever the signal station there announced the approach of a mail ship.

The paper provided Parkes with a springboard into public life. By 1854, he was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and a formidable politician. With political advancement came a change in outlook. His radicalism, with its focus on the creation of a fresh egalitarian society, metamorphosed into liberalism, a mixture of individualism, laissez faire economics and a decidedly elitist view of political leadership.

As a liberal, Parkes was also more philosophically in harmony with some of his wealthy Empire backers, notably the prominent Sydney pastoralist and entrepreneur Thomas Sutcliffe Mort. Mort shared with Parkes – and John Fairfax – a determination to put an end to convict transportation. In this endeavour, Parkes came to rub shoulders with many of Sydney’s most influential businessmen, including a merchant, Sir Daniel Cooper, whose role in the fate of Empire was to become pivotal.

As owner-general manager-editor of the paper, Parkes’s workload was superhuman. He was said to work at his desk for between thirty and forty hours straight, pausing only to make a scratch meal of bread, cheese and beer. His relentless supervision ensured, among other things, that the paper reflected his own convictions and interests.

His vision was set out in the paper’s first editorial, declaring that every man should “stand erect” as a free man entitled to the rewards of individual virtue and industry. The paper had two guiding principles. One was that Progress was both beneficent and inevitable; the other that in a colonial society, the working classes were the nucleus and makers of a democratic nation.

At Empire, though, there were challenges to his idealism. In 1853 when his printers went on strike, Parkes had them charged with conspiracy and they were sent for trial in the Supreme Court. It was a turning point in his attitudes to the colonial working classes, and he was later to import printers from India and England.

Parkes was consistent, however, in his opposition to transportation, on which Empire campaigned vigorously. Largely on the back of this campaign, Parkes’ status as a public figure rose to the point where he became de facto spokesman for the colonial press.

Severe financial stress was at hand, however. Towards the end of 1854, the economy went into recession. Parkes secured a large loan from Sir Daniel Cooper which he hoped would carry him through but in 1856, on the brink of bankruptcy, he resigned from Parliament. Cooper took possession of the company and its assets, and although the paper continued on through 1857 and into 1858, it was living on borrowed time.

Meanwhile, in January 1858, Parkes rode back into Parliament on a wave of radical support for land and electoral reform, in the teeth of editorial opposition from The Herald. His triumph was to be short-lived. On Tuesday 31 August 1858, with the collapse of  Empire imminent, the Speaker announced that Parkes had once more resigned.

The loss of Empire was a turning point in his life. Now aged 43, he abandoned journalism but harboured an ambition to return to politics. After chafing for a period in retirement on his rustic property in what is now the north-western Sydney suburb of Ryde, he returned to public life in the 1859 elections as a liberal-minded candidate for the seat of East Sydney.

His first public appearance as a candidate was on 23 May – and Empire was resurrected under new ownership that very day. It wrote generously of him, although taking care to declare its independence from him.

On 30 August 1859 Parkes took his new seat in Parliament. It marked the resumption of what was to become one of the monumental careers in Australian politics, and the start of a recurring pattern -- periods of political office interspersed with bankruptcies and consequent resignations.

He might have been a hopeless businessman, but each time he returned to public life he grew in capacity and prestige. In the chaotic and vindictive world of mid-nineteenth-century New South Wales politics, he occupied the office of Premier five times between 1872 and 1891. Perhaps his most far-reaching legislative achievement in that time was the Public Instruction Act, 1880, which established a system of compulsory, secular and free government schooling, and made provision for state aid to Catholic schools.

In 1880 Parkes participated in the first of a series of inter-colonial conferences that were to lead to the creation of the Australian federation. He proposed a federal council to take this idea forward and was treated by his peers as the colonies’ senior politician, pre-eminent in age, experience and prestige. By the time of the 1890 conference, he was recognised by Alfred Deakin as “first and foremost” in the federation project.

This is the Parkes that has come down to posterity as “the father of federation”. Deakin’s pen-portrait of him captures the image exactly: “His huge figure, slow step, deliberate glance and carefully brushed-out aureole of white hair . . . A faraway expression of the eyes, intended to convey his remoteness from the earthly sphere.”  

Denis Muller is a political scientist and Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. He worked as a journalist on The Sydney Morning Herald from 1969 to 1986 and on The Age from 1986 to 1993.

Further reading


'Parkes, Sir Henry (1815–1896)', A. W. Martin, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press.


Henry Parkes: A Biography, A.W.Martin, 1980, Melbourne University Press.


Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, 1981, Melbourne University Press.