The Canley Kid who Became Premier

At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac just off Charter Avenue in Canley is a hidden away timber framed cottage, similar to many across Warwickshire. Its private land, but if you are feeling bold you might take a look around the corner at this little piece of international history.

Moat House Cottage, Canley

You might meet an Australian student from nearby Warwick University taking a similar peek at his country’s history. For this is Moat House Cottage which was the birth place of Sir Henry Parkes who became the five-time Premier of New South Wales and a chief proponent of the federation of the Australian colonies. He is still considered by many Australians to be the ‘Father of Federation’.

He was described in a recent biography as someone who “steered a fractious country to nationhood, championed women’s rights, established secular state education and set a standard for honest governance.”

Parkes was born on 27 May 1815 the youngest child of tenant farmer Thomas Parkes and his wife Martha. At that time Canley was not part of Coventry, but was part of the Stoneleigh Estate, owned by the Leigh family. For at least a century the Parkes family had been tenant farmers there, growing wheat, barley, and other arable crops.

Henry was baptised at Stoneleigh’s St Mary the Virgin Church on July 2, 1815, just a fortnight after the Battle of Waterloo.

Not long after Henry’s birth, however, his father Thomas took the decision to move the family to a larger farm on the estate, near present-day Gibbet Hill. Since the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had been cut off from trade with much of Europe and consequently the price of food had soared. This, coupled with several years of drought sent crop prices ever higher – and Thomas Parkes saw his chance to cash in.

Henry and his six siblings grew up at the farm, and from there he would walk the two and a half miles to the village school in Stoneleigh.

When he was just eight years old, however, Henry’s formal education came to a sudden halt. The Parkes’ rental was quadrupled to reflect the increase in the price of wheat, but when the wars were over and crop prices fell dramatically, rental costs on the estate did not. When, in 1822, Henry’s father Thomas was incapacitated by an accident which left him on crutches, he was even less able to run his farm at a profit and a year later, in 1823, Thomas Parkes was removed from his farm, heavily in debt.

There followed a terrible time for the family, and by the age of 11 Henry was working in a rope factory for 4 pence a day and later in a brickyard in a rock-breaking gang. Aged 12 he was apprenticed to a bone and ivory turner, John Holding of Moseley Street in Birmingham, and made products such as knife handles, hair combs and toys.

Henry Parkes was a self-educated man, reading extensively and joining the Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute. By the age of 16 he was fired by an enthusiasm for radical politics, the Chartist Movement then being at its height. Between 1832 and 1838 he was associated with the political movements that aimed to improve living and working conditions for the working classes.

The young Henry Parkes

He also developed an interest in poetry and in 1835 he wrote poems addressed to Clarinda Varney, the daughter of a local butcher. On 11 July 1836 he married Clarinda and went to live in a single room home. Parkes commenced business on his own account in Birmingham and had a bitter struggle to make ends meet.

Henry and Clarinda lost two children at an early age and after a few unsuccessful weeks living in London, Parkes and his wife emigrated to New South Wales in 1839 on assisted passage. Their first surviving child was born on board just before arrival.

They arrived at Sydney on 25 July 1839. On arrival they had only a few shillings between them and had to sell their belongings as Parkes looked for work. He was eventually employed as a labourer with John Jamison, one of the colony’s wealthiest settlers, on the Regentville estate near Penrith. He was paid with £25 a year and food rations. After spending six months at Regentville, he returned to Sydney and worked in various low-paying jobs, first with an ironmongery store and then with a firm of engineers and brass-founders.

During Parkes’ early years in Australia, he took an interest in political issues. Most notably, he joined the growing movement in the colony for self-governance. This was already a major political issue; the New South Wales Legislative Council had been reformed in 1843 to include elected members for the first time. He also became an opponent of the transportation of convicts to Australia and a supporter of land reform and universal suffrage.

In December 1850, Parkes founded the Empire newspaper. At first a broadsheet only published weekly, it soon became a daily.

In 1854 Parkes was elected as representative of the City of Sydney on the New South Wales Legislative Council. Parkes in his election speeches had advocated the extension of the power of the people, increased facilities for education and a bold railway policy.

Over the coming decades Parkes grew in political power. He led his first Parliament in 1872 and went on to be premier on five occasions. In later years he placed much of his time into the creation of the Australian Federation, convening the first conference in 1890. The Federation came about in 1901, five years after his death.

Sir Henry Parkes

Henry Parkes was knighted in 1877 and died on April 27th, 1896.

Sir Henry Parkes is commemorated in Coventry by a street name and the name of a Primary School. In New South Wales they have named the town of Parkes after him (which is twinned with Coventry) and his image is reproduced on banknotes and coins. A replica of Moathouse Cottage has been constructed at the museum in Parkes, New South Wales.

The Replica Moat Cottage at the Henry Parkes Centre in Parkes, NSW


2 thoughts on “The Canley Kid who Became Premier

  1. A really interesting article, have worked at Sir Henry Parkes School, perhaps the city council could do more to celebrate this great man who achieved so much although coming from a very humble back – ground


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