Henry Parkes and the ‘crimson thread of kinship’

Powerhouse Museum Collection object A7335. Gift of Stanley Lipscombe, 1980.
Powerhouse Museum Collection object A7335. Gift of Stanley Lipscombe, 1980.

In a speech to a Federation Conference banquet in 1890, Henry Parkes coined the term crimson thread of kinship to describe the ties that bound the Australian colonies. The reference was to shared Anglo-Celtic bloodlines, to the exclusion of Indigenous, Asian and other contributors to nation-building and the nation’s gene pool. This statuette celebrates his stirring speech, which was to resonate at least until 1914, when the ‘crimson thread’ was used as a call to arms.

Sculptor Nelson Illingworth made the original statuette, from which several bronzed terracotta copies were made, in 1898. The Sydney Morning Herald noted at the time that the phrase emblazoned on its base was ‘now of world-wide currency’.

Powerhouse Museum Collection object C2807. Gift of Nelson Illingworth, 1896.
Powerhouse Museum Collection object C2807. Gift of Nelson Illingworth, 1896.

Illingworth also sculpted this terracotta medallion and a full-size bronze statue of Parkes, whose large head, wild hair and full beard made him an impressive subject. Parkes had risen from humble origins in England to become a brilliant orator, energetic reformer and the ‘Father of Federation’. The colonies were reborn as Australian states on 1 January 1901, but Parkes did not live to see the dawning of the new century and the new nation.

PowerhouseMuseum Collection objects A2368 (teapot) and A7796 (beaker). Gifts of Thomas and Martha Lennard, 1921 and the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1981.
PowerhouseMuseum Collection objects A2368 (teapot) and A7796 (beaker). Gifts of Thomas and Martha Lennard, 1921 and the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1981.

Blood ties also rate a mention on these Federation souvenirs, along with Queen Victoria, Sir Henry Parkes and Lord Hopetoun (Australia’s first governor-general), plus two generic soldiers and the Duke and Duchess of York. The soldiers represent Australians who served in the Boer War. The quote, from a speech made by Joseph Chamberlain during the 1900 British election campaign, refers to colonial blood spilled in that war.

May the union between the colonies and the mother-land, now cemented by their blood, be for ever maintained.

In 1914 Australians again volunteered to serve in a distant war, for Britain and for Empire. Writers co-opted the crimson thread as a call to arms; some stretched the metaphoric thread into a stout cord or a steel chain, binding Australians to the mother-land, the dauntless little heart of Empire. Two days after war was declared, the Adelaide Advertiser stood out from the crowd by stating that appreciation of the benefits of British culture and institutions was more important than blood ties. Here is a quote from that article.

Our Empire – apart from the millions of subject races – is of a composite character, in which many nationalities are living under a common flag…Not alone “the crimson thread of kinship” vibrates and quivers when the tocsin sounds. The French Canadian and the German-Australian join hands with English, Scotch, and Irish in their solemn resolve to stand or fall together.

What actually happened was more complex. Indian, Caribbean and African troops, most of them members of ‘subject races’ also served. The AIF included over 400 Indigenous men plus Australians of Asian descent, while many of German or Italian descent were interned as enemy aliens, including some with Anglo-Celtic blood flowing in their veins. And Australia’s greatest wartime leader, General Sir John Monash, was certainly not the type of citizen Parkes had in mind when he coined his memorable phrase, as his parents were German Jews.

Written by Debbie Rudder

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One response to “Henry Parkes and the ‘crimson thread of kinship’

  • I have my grandmother’s henry parkes teapot same as shown here in this article.
    In good condition roughly how much is it eorth.

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