Parkes was born in England in 1815 and migrated to New South Wales in 1839. He became politically active early in his life in Australia, his first major concern being to stop the transportation of convicts from Britain. He also started a newspaper that supported a stronger role for Australians in governing their colonies.
In 1858, Parkes became a member of the New South Wales parliament. His career as a politician spanned about 40 years and he was elected premier of the colony five times.