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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Parker, Sir Henry Watson (1808–1881)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Henry Watson Parker (1808-1881), by unknown photographer

Henry Watson Parker (1808-1881), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09906

Sir Henry Watson Parker (1808-1881), civil servant and politician, was born on 1 June 1808 at Lewisham, England, fourth son of Thomas Watson Parker and his wife Mary, née Cornell. Educated privately by Dr Waite, he was prevented by delicate health from joining the army and was recommended to undertake sea travel. He entered the East India Co. and visited India, China and the Cape of Good Hope. He then toured France, Holland and Belgium, and was unemployed until 1837 when he was appointed private secretary to Governor Gipps. On 24 February 1838 with Gipps he reached Sydney in the Upton Castle. On 21 November 1843 his marriage to Emmeline Emily (d.1888), youngest daughter of John Macarthur, linked him to powerful and conservative colonial groups. He bought and improved a large house, Clovelly, at Watson's Bay.

Parker's 'precise and methodical mind' soon adjusted to the problems pressing on the governor from 1838 and he developed into a proficient and shrewd official. He was appointed to the Legislative Council on 11 May 1846 and was chairman of committees until 29 February 1856, at a salary of £250, raised to £500 on 1 January 1853. Parker performed his duties meticulously as imperial control of New South Wales gave way to responsible government, meanwhile 'cautiously, but in a progressive spirit, examining principles, and forming to himself a political creed'. In 1855 he was on a council committee that inquired into the powers and duties of the chief officers of the new executive government. On 29 March 1856 he won the seat of Parramatta at the first general election and in May was defeated as Speaker by one vote. In June the Empire reported that Parker 'pulls down the waist of his coat before commencing to speak, calls the attention of the Speaker by a sharp little cough [and] uses language as finely drawn and involuted as a cobweb', in contrast with the rugged candour of John Robertson, a leader of the liberal reformers. On 5 August in the precincts of Parliament House he was attacked with a riding whip, but the affair was hushed up.

By October two ministries had fallen in the confusion caused by the parliamentarians' inexperience and their inchoate division into a conservative group, representing the officials of the old order and wealthy landholders, and a nascent liberal group speaking for city and country progressives. In an attempt to achieve some political stability by fusing the two groups Governor Denison commissioned Parker to form a ministry. Charles Cowper, the Liberal leader, refused to join, but Stuart Donaldson, the Conservative leader, agreed, and on 3 October Parker's cabinet was sworn in. The ministry included three officials of the old order and met with persistent opposition, but it lasted until 7 September 1857 and attempted to repair legislative deficiencies. In the 1856-57 session Parker carried four of the five public bills he introduced, including the Sydney Municipal Council Act. But his government fell on the electoral bill, amid indications that the liberals were gathering strength. In 1858 he was knighted and returned to England.

In 1848 Parker was a Crown trustee of the Australian Museum and an official trustee in 1856-57. He had fitted nicely into colonial society and politics in the pre-responsible government era, but his style was not suited to the novel kind of democratic government from 1856. His accession as premier that year reflected a fleeting period in which the new breed of politicians had not had time to emerge and the experience and status of colonial conservatives were attractive and useful to the governor. In England Parker lived at Stawell House in Richmond. In 1868 he opposed Gladstone at Greenwich. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1877. He was a commissioner for the Sydney and Melbourne Exhibitions in 1879 and 1880. Survived by his wife, he died on 2 February 1881. His estate was proved at under £140,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 25
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • J. N. Molony, An Architect of Freedom: John Hubert Plunkett (Canberra, 1973)
  • Empire (Sydney), 8 Apr, 24 June, 6 Aug 1856
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 5 Feb 1881, p 8
  • Bulletin, 9 Apr, 16 July 1881
  • CO 201/494.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Parker, Sir Henry Watson (1808–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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