Sitting at the impressive polished table in the School of Arts building in the New England town of Tenterfield, I wondered just how this remote country town, straddling the train line between Sydney and Brisbane, became a crucial link in Australia’s journey to nationhood.
I discovered it has to do with one strong-minded man – Henry Parkes. Right where I was sitting was the spot from which the feisty, five-time Premier of NSW first gave a rousing speech, which he then repeated fifteen times in other locations. This gave serious momentum to the push for federating the six states. Professor Marie Bashir, the recent Governor of this state, declared “…his stirring words of exhortation and unity to the crowd of citizens who loved him – ‘One people, one destiny’ – will continue to inspire.”
Henry Parkes’ capacity for resilience was legendary. It’s estimated that his repeated business disasters added up to $20M in debts. He often shifted alliances, put friends offside and repeatedly failed at the election booths. Yet, even his opponents admired his tenacity – fighting on at 80 years old.
Parkes has been called ‘a colossus’ – a giant of the 19th century political landscape. However, as with many successful leaders, standing in his shadow was a remarkable range of men and women, many with an active Christian faith, whose counsel deflected Henry’s energies in the right direction. For example, wealthy philanthropist, Thomas Holt, was not afraid to offend the premier by advising him wisely, that his gifts were best used in parliament, not in the business world.
Henry always carried a miniature portrait of his much-loved daughter Menie. Historian Stuart Piggin observed that he ‘came to value her emotional perspicuity and her opinion on matters political and literary.’
Parkes appears to have had mood swings. In 1869, weary of political wrangling, he fell into depression. Menie wrote to him, pointing him to the larger vision offered by the most successful leader in human history.
“Father dear, I don’t think satisfaction of soul is to be got in any earthly joy…But if you said once ‘I leave my future in the hands of Jesus Christ, and rest my every hope on him for salvation’ then I say yours has been no wasted life, no, but the brave beginning of a holy eternity.”
Menie wrote warmly of her native land; “I love it and pray and hope for it. God bless and govern it.” She and Thomas Holt were typical of the Christians in the late 19th century who believed that vital faith made the best of both worlds. They may well have been part of a ‘secret service’ that brought out the best in Henry Parkes and made him the champion who gave us the vision of ‘One nation, one destiny.’
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.