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Joseph Parkes (1796-1865)

This article was written by Graham Wallas and was published in 1895

Joseph Parkes, politician, born in Warwick on 22 January 1796, was younger son of John Parkes, manufacturer, an intimate friend of Samuel Parr and Basil Montagu. Like his elder brother, Josiah Parkes, he was educated at Greenwich at the school of Dr. Charles Burney, but speaks of himself as having been ‘miseducated’. After leaving school he was articled to a London solicitor, and became one of the young men who surrounded Jeremy Bentham. His name first occurs in the Bentham MSS. in the British Museum, under the date July 1822. Three affectionate letters from him to Bentham, written from Birmingham in 1828, are preserved.

When his apprenticeship was finished he returned to Birmingham, and worked as a solicitor from 1822 to 1833. At the age of twenty-eight he married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Joseph Priestley. In January 1828 he was secretary to the town's committee for getting the East Retford seats transferred to Birmingham, and during 1830 spent a month in opposing a scheme for Birmingham grammar school, which had been introduced in the House of Lords. From the introduction of the Reform Bill he took an extremely active part in Birmingham politics, though he did not at first openly join Attwood and the Birmingham Political Union. He kept up a constant correspondence with Grote, Place, and the other radicals in London, while the government found it convenient, during the excitement which followed the first rejection of the Reform Bill (8 October 1831), to use him as a means of communication with the avowed leaders of the union in Birmingham. On 26 October 1831 he wrote to Grote: ‘I have been honoured with unsought letters from Lord Althorpe and Lord John Russell;’ and he often mentions his own letters to them.

He drafted resolutions for the union, and calls them ‘as strong a dose as the patient will swallow.’ He seems, even at this time, to have thought civil war not improbable. He told Grote, for instance, on 4 October 1831: ‘I shall go and spend Sunday with Arthur Gregory if we are not doing duty as national guards.’ When Lord Grey's ministry resigned (9 May 1832) he became a member of the Birmingham Political Union, and on 12 May addressed a common hall meeting in the city of London as a delegate of the union. He was now making active preparations for an armed rebellion. Writing afterwards to Mrs. Grote, he says: ‘I and two friends should have made the revolution, whatever the cost’. He was in correspondence with Sir William Napier, who was to have been offered the command at Birmingham; but Napier afterwards ridiculed the idea that he would have ‘co-operated in arms with a Birmingham attorney [Parkes] and a London tailor [Place] against the Duke of Wellington’.

In 1833 the government made him secretary of the commission on municipal corporations, and he moved to 21 Great George Street, Westminster, where he built up a considerable business as a parliamentary solicitor. His house was much used as a meeting-place for the whig members of parliament. When the Municipal Reform Bill of 1835 was introduced into the House of Lords, Lord Lyndhurst strongly attacked the commission on the ground of Parkes's former connection with the Birmingham Political Union. In 1847 he became a taxing-master in chancery, and retired from active political work. He died on 11 August 1865. His daughter, Bessie Rayner, married in 1868 M. Belloc, and was a writer on literary and social subjects.

He published in 1828 a ‘History of the Court of Chancery,’ and collected the materials for an elaborate memoir of Sir Philip Francis, which was completed by Hermann Merivale, and published in 1867. He claimed to prove Francis's pretensions to identity with Junius.

Parkes's letters are those of a busy, enthusiastic, not very able man, but his position of intermediary between the radicals and the whigs enabled him to play an important part in a critical period of English history.

The ‘Times’ article on his death says: ‘Perhaps no man was better acquainted than he with the secret history of politics during the last thirty or forty years. … He held in the great whig army a place, if not of command, yet of trust and influence.’

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