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One of the most prominent figures in 19th-century Australian politics. Parkes was born at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, England in 1815. He had little formal education and apprenticed as a bone and ivory turner. He married in 1836 and started his own business, which failed. He travelled to Sydney in 1838 and came to prominence in public life despite his failure in business. In 1850 he established Empire a liberal magazine that espoused his secular political views.

Parkes was elected to the legislative council in 1854 and the first New South Wales legislative assembly in 1856. He survived extensive ridicule for his business failings (he was twice declared insolvent, in 1858 and 1870) to become premier of New South Wales in 1970, a position that he held on a number of occasions before his death in 1896.

Parkes was an enigmatic figure-his imposing stature and silver tongue contradict the images of his business failure and his humiliation at the hands of financiers. As one of his many critics, Alfred Deakin said of Parkes "no actor ever more carefully posed for effect," and Astley described him as "a master of the art of seeming great."

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