Supporting the father of federation – Sir Henry Parkes
A pivotal moment in the story of our nation occurred on 1 January 1901. It was the day six British colonies united to become the Commonwealth of Australia. Much of the credit goes to Sir Henry Parkes, who inspired the people of Australia to unite under a central government. Unfortunately he didn't live long enough to see it. He died in 1896.
Sir Henry was a longtime friend of the Allen family. A document from 1887, still held by the firm, is testament to the support the firm showed Sir Henry. Partner Sikeli Ratu has been helping uncover details of the contract, which provides interesting insights into one of Australia's most influential politicians and legal documents of the time.
Sir Henry dedicated much of his life to improving Australian society, as did our founder George Allen. Among their shared passions was the improvement of education in the colony of New South Wales. When the Public Schools Act was passed in 1866, introducing compulsory free education, both men were appointed inaugural members of the Council of Education.
George Allen was fortunate to receive a good education. He attended school in England before completing five years of legal training in Sydney. Sir Henry was largely self-taught but he read widely and developed a love of writing and politics. He trained as a bone and ivory turner before boarding a boat to Sydney, aged 24, in search of new opportunities.
Upon arriving in the colony, Sir Henry undertook a variety of jobs and business endeavours, including publishing the Empire newspaper. He was, however, largely unsuccessful in his business affairs and became bankrupt on several occassions. It didn't stop his political drive and he was elected Premier of New South Wales five times. In 1870, after he had again been declared bankrupt, Sir Henry wrote to his sister and said, 'I am wholly unfit for business, but the fittest of men for Parliament'. He was one of the most highly regarded people of his time.
In 1882 Sir Henry became gravely ill. He was 67. Many people called on him but only Sir George Wigram Allen (George Allen's son) was allowed to enter the ailing man's room. Sir Henry was then taken to Toxteth House, Sir George Wigram's home, to convalesce. Sir Henry recovered but Sir George Wigram died suddenly three years later, aged 61.
In 1887 Sir Henry's monetary affairs began to unravel once again. To prevent a further bankruptcy our firm – then known as Allen & Allen – drew up an 'assignment for benefit of creditors'. Under legislation passed in 1841 (and now known as the Advancement of Justice Act 1841 (NSW)), ownership of assets could be vested to appointed trustees as a way of dealing with debts. This approach avoided Sir Henry's estate becoming insolvent, which would have immediately disqualified him from sitting in the parliament.
Three trustees were appointed, Reginald Allen (Sir George Wigram's son and senior partner at the firm), Charles Palmer (manager at the Sydney head office of the Bank of New South Wales) and Fletcher Dixon (manager of the New South Wales branch of the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank). The two banks and the Allen family were major creditors of Sir Henry, with £9,344 plus interest owing on a loan given by Sir George Wigram. The assignment gave the trustees authority to sell Sir Henry's property and distribute the proceeds to the creditors on a pro rata basis. The list of creditors contained in the document is a veritable who's who of Sydney's commercial and political circles at the time.
The assignment for benefit of creditors prepared for Sir Henry Parkes in 1887. Allens archives.
Under the legal requirements for this assignment, Sir Henry had to publish a notice in the Government Gazette informing the public and providing details of where the assignment could be inspected. Despite being advised by 'most eminent legal authorities' of his right to retain his seat, Sir Henry resigned his position as the member for St Leonards once news of his financial distress hit the media. There was a strong outpouring of sympathy for the man who had devoted much of his life to the people of Australia, and a public meeting was held to raise financial support for him. The Evening News noted, 'there is no public man in the colonies whose name is more familiar, and whose career has exercised a larger influence than Sir Henry Parkes'.
Despite his challenging financial situation, Sir Henry continued to promote the advancement of the colonies. In 1889 he delivered his now famous address at Tenterfield in rural New South Wales in which he called for the Australian colonies to federate into one nation. Sir Henry recommended a convention be held with delegates from each colony to draw up a constitution. The first of these took place in Melbourne in 1890. The rest, as they say, is history.