Sir Henry Parkes 1890 Brief Case

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Federation Government Indigenous Relations Labour Movement Settlement

Sir Henry Parkes Brief case c.1890
Sir Henry Parkes Brief case, c.1890. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, Canberra, Australia

Object Name
Brief case lettered Sir Henry Parkes, G.C.M.G

Object Description
Brief case lettered Sir Henry Parkes, G.C.M.G. Red and Blue leather. Dimensions: 790mm long x 395mm wide 79mm deep.

Before 1900, there was no actual country called Australia, there were six colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia that existed on the Australian continent and Tasmania the island colony. While the six colonies were on the same continent they were governed like six separate countries. Up until the 1880s, there was limited interest in the idea of uniting the colonies into one country and the influential businessmen in the colonies seemed more interested in protecting their own economic interests. Things began to change in the 1890s. There was a severe drought that resulted in violent industrial strikes. By 1888, 70% of people in Australia had been born here and there was a growing nationalist sentiment. Communication had improved and all the colonies were linked to each other and the world by the overland telegraph and submarine telegraph. Germany, France and Russia were expanding in the Pacific and the colonies could better defend themselves with a single army and navy. Thousands of Chinese migrants came to Australia during the gold rush. People wanted to restrict the economic competition of migrants from Asia. The best way to do this was for all the colonies to act together and work out a common immigration policy.

Uniting the six colonies was not easy and there were many fights and walkouts in negotiations along the way. After a series of conferences and meetings, a draft Australian Federal Constitution was drawn up. Then a series of referendums were put to the people, until finally, in 1900, there was a majority agreement for Federation. The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1st January 1901 at a grand ceremony in Sydney’s Centennial Park. In 1901 most people in Australia were proud to be Australians. They thought their country was the land of opportunity. But, while Australians elected their own parliament that made Australian laws, they did not control their own foreign policy or defence. Australia did not have its own Navy and it could not make treaties with other nations. The ‘mother country’, Britain controlled these.

Australia was part of the British Empire. In 1907, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand became known as Dominions. While Britain arranged conferences to hear the views of the Dominions, Britain kept a firm control over defence and foreign policy.

But Australia was getting ideas of its own. It was especially concerned that Britain did not have strong military bases in the Pacific area and Britain had signed a treaty with Japan who Australia feared. As a result, Australia began to build up its own navy in 1909.

In 1901, 98% of people in Australia were white. Australia wanted to remain a country of white people who lived by British customs. Trade unions were keen to prevent labour competition from Chinese and Pacific Islander migrants who they feared would undercut wages. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. Now known as the infamous White Australia policy it made it virtually impossible for Asians and Pacific Islanders to migrate to Australia. This Act stated that if a person wanted to migrate to Australia they had to be given a dictation test. The dictation test could be in any European language. So a person from China or Japan who wanted to live in Australia could be tested in one or all of French, Italian or English languages. In 1905, the Act was changed so it could be given in any language at all. Of course, most Asians failed the tests and were not allowed to migrate to Australia unless they were able to enter the country under very strict exclusion rules and fortunate enough to have well connected sponsors.

Anti Federation cartoon 1899
‘New South Wales and her duty to restrict’, The Daily Telegraph, June 20 1899. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

Anti Federation cartoon 1899
Federation Badge, c.1890s. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Anti Federation cartoon 1899
Federal Referendum Certificate, 1899. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Anti Federation cartoon 1899
Hon. Edmund Barton addressing open air meeting in Martin Place, Sydney, 1901. Courtesy National Library of Australia

The Henry Parkes brief case has historic significance because it has direct links to Sir Henry Parkes, Federation and the drafting of the first Australian Constitution. Sir Henry Parkes carried his working papers on draft for the Federal Constitution and Acts of Parliament to the Inter- Colonial Conferences for Federation in the 1890s in this brief case. Sir Henry Parkes is considered one of the founders of the Australian Federation.

The Henry Parkes brief case has intangible significance for migrant communities especially Chinese and Pacific Islanders who were largely the target of the racist nature of the Immigration Restriction Acts drafted by Parkes et al in the Australian Constitution.

The Henry Parkes brief case was made by Hobbs & Co., London, circa 1890. The brief case is in the National Library of Australia collection. The brief case has been displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum during the Smugglers: Customs & Contraband Exhibition in 2001.

The Henry Parkes brief case is rare as it is one of the few objects directly associated with the people who drafted the Australian Constitution.

The Henry Parkes brief case represents the adoption of Australia’s racist Immigration Restriction Acts that grew out of racist 19th century Colonial policies and community attitudes.

The Henry Parkes brief case is in excellent condition.

The Henry Parkes brief case has the potential to interpret the main themes of Federation. This is namely the drafting of the Federal Constitution that governed immigration, customs, defence, trade, taxation and finance and industrial relations and the creation of a new Australian nation in 1901. The brief case has the potential to interpret the racist attitudes to Asians and Pacific Islanders and the subsequent laws and polices adopted by the Federal government to restrict these groups migration and work in Australia.


Andrews, M & Coupe, S 1992, Their ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire.

Andrews, M & Coupe, S 1992, Was it only yesterday: Australia in the twentieth Century, Longman Cheshire.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Jones, K, Mellefont, J, Sedgwick, S, & Thompson, S 2001, Navigating Federation, feature article, Signals, No 53. Australian Nation Maritime Museum January, pp. 4-7.



Edited by S Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
2006 – updated 2011 

Crown copyright 2006 ©

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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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