Henry Parkes was born in Canley near Coventry and grew up in nearby Stoneleigh. He was the youngest son of Thomas Parkes, a tenant farmer on the Stoneleigh Abbey estate. After a brief move to Wales the family settled in Birmingham in 1825. Henry enjoyed little formal education and was obliged to go out to work to support his family, undertaking several casual labouring jobs. He then served an apprenticeship as a bone and ivory turner, later starting his own business in this field. At the age of seventeen he joined Thomas Attwood’s Political Union which campaigned for electoral reform. In his free time he read extensively, developing a love of poetry and at the age of twenty wrote poems to his sweetheart, Clarinda Varney.
He got married to her in 1836 and when his own business failed they moved to London. Unable to find suitable employment there, he and his wife decided to emigrate to Australia under the bounty migrant scheme. His poem A Poet’s Farewell expresses his bitterness at having to seek employment in a foreign land. On arrival in Australia he worked in a number of low-paying jobs before securing a job with the New South Wales Customs Department. After leaving this he went back briefly to his old profession and also for a time became a newspaper owner. He continued to write and in 1842 a volume of his poetry, Stolen Moments, was published in Sydney.
He held his first public office in 1854 and went on to become a dominant figure in Australian politics in the last quarter of the 19th Century, serving five terms as premier of New South Wales between 1872 and 1891. He was a leading figure in the instigation of an Australian federation for its six separate colonies and also played a prominent part in the passing of the Public Schools Act 1866, which established compulsory free education. He was knighted in 1877.
He published several volumes of poetry during the latter half of the Century: Murmurs of the Stream (1857), Studies in Rhyme (1870), The Beauteous Terrorist and Other Poems (1885), Fragmentary Thoughts (1889), and Sonnets and Other Verses (1895). His poetry reflects his down to earth, socialist roots and his love of his adopted country. He also wrote some prose works, Australian Views of England, and an autobiography, Fifty Years of Australian History. He died in 1896 and is commemorated by several busts and portraits in Australia’s public buildings.