Mary Cameron Murray Parkes wedding ensemble

Contributed by: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Wedding dress front Wedding dress Wedding dress side view Wedding dress back Left hand sleeve detail with lace and orange blossom spray orange blossom spray detail Lace flounces on skirt front Front fastening of glass pearl buttons Silk satin shoes imported from Paris Silk satin shoes with double bow and Louis heel Construction detail
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

  • Place of origin:

    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

[Collapse all]

Object information

Significance statement

This wedding ensemble comprising dress, kid gloves, shoes and orange blossom wreath was worn by Mary Cameron Murray at her wedding on March 21st, 1883 to Varney Parkes, architect, businessman, politician and son of New South Wales Premier and 'Father of Federation', Sir Henry Parkes. The four components, held within the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, are well provenanced and enable us to gain considerable insight into wedding fashions and practices in Sydney in the 1880s. Their provenance also reveals the intricacies of family relationships within the Parkes family. 

The style of the dress with its fitted bodice and extravagant train was popular in Britain in the early 1880s and shows that Australian brides were able to keep up with trends of the 'old world'. The high quality of the fabrics and exquisite tailoring and finishing reflect the bride's social status, as do the fine kid gloves purchased from Farmer's Department Store and the Parisian shoes, also bought in Sydney. The dress' miniscule dimensions provide insight into the manner in which populations have changed physically since the 1880s. The gown is too small to fit any commercial mannequin, necessitating a custom-built mannequin to be constructed for exhibition.

Investigation into the provenance of the ensemble and related items reveals a fascinating story of tangled family relationships between the Parkes and Murray families. Mary's father, George Murray, a Scottish immigrant who owned a successful paper mill in Liverpool, New South Wales, was a widower when he moved to Australia. In the early 1880s, he married Mary Parkes, Varney's sister. Therefore, Mary Cameron Murray's sister-in-law was also her stepmother. Unfortunately, Mary Cameron Murray died suddenly from a TB lung haemmorhage after only five months' marriage. Soon after Isabella's return, Varney proposed to her and they were married on Christmas Eve, 1884. The marriage was not a happy one, and although they sought a divorce and endured intense media publicity throughout the trial, divorce was not granted. Subsequently, Isabella lived with her children in Waverley, Sydney. She found employment and brought her children up successfully.   

Due to the connection to Sir Henry Parkes who had a profound influence upon Australian Federation and to his son Varney, who is now best remembered for designing the Marble Bar in Sydney's Hilton Hotel, this wedding ensemble opens a unique window into Australian history.    



Author: Julie McFarland, 2/2/2017.


Wedding gown, cream satin and lace, princess style with three quarter sleeves, high round neck, front fastening of glass pearl buttons to hips. Satin arranged on front hips in five horizontal folds descending to five 140 mm lace flounces with band of ruched and pleated satin loosely gathered and ruched down train, caught by two tapes beneath. Sleeves and neck trimmed with gathered lace and net, small lace fall at neck, orange blossom spray in lace on left hand sleeve. Bodice lined with white chick, boned at sides and front darts, waist band with hook fastening. Skirt has multiple linings of stiffened muslin and double row of finely pleated lace edged muslin visible under hem.

Pair of three quarter length fine cream kid gloves, fastenings through to wrist with small glass buttons. Rolled edges with tape reinforcement under buttons. One seam to little finger, gusseted fingers, three darts over hand. Ends scalloped and pinked.

Pair of cream satin shoes with covered Louis heel, round toe and double satin bow. Fine leather sole, heavier leather capped heel. Interior sole and back half of shoe lined with white kid. Front half of shoes lined with canvas, edge reinforced with silk ribbon.

Three pieces of orange blossom wreath. Buds of wax over paper and cotton base, leaves of stiffened and painted fabric and fine white blossom, all bound on wire, padded with cotton in parts, with green paper and thread covering.

History and Provenance

Varney Parkes was a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly for the seats of Central Cumberland (1885-1888), East Sydney (1891-1894), and Canterbury (1894-1900, 1907-1913). In 1898 he was appointed Postmaster-General, a role in which he remained until 1899. He also had a career as an architect; his most well-known work being the Marble Bar at George Adams' Hotel in Pitt St, Sydney. This bar was later transferred to the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, where it remains. 

Mary Murray Parkes and her sister Isabella Murray Parkes had a complex relationship with the Parkes family. Mary died unexpectedly after only five months of marriage. During Mary's brief marriage to Varney, her sister Isabella was acting as a travelling companion and assistant to Varney's father, Sir Henry Parkes, on a business trip to Europe and the USA. Soon after Isabella's return, Varney proposed to her and they were married on Christmas Eve, 1884. 

Although Varney and Isabella had five children, three of whom survived, the marriage must have been strained, as contemporary tabloids indicate Varney was a womaniser. In 1899, Isabella went to live in Scotland. Three years later, in 1902, Varney filed for divorce, citing Isabella's adultery with the much older William Billerwell. The divorce was not granted, despite accusations of adultery by both parties. Subsequently, Isabella lived with her children in Waverley, Sydney. She found employment and brought her children up successfully.  

Varney Parkes' father, Sir Henry Parkes was a self-made man who is remembered as the "Father of Federation". His family were forced off their farm in Warwickshire, England when Henry was eight years old. They then went to the industrial city of Birmingham, where his father sought manual jobs, and Henry received a rudimentary education. Working as a labourer from a young age, and then as an apprentice bone and ivory turner, Henry continued to educate himself and became interested in politics. He married Clarissa Varney at the age of 21 and migrated to Australia on an assisted passage in 1839. Despite enduring several business failures in Sydney, Parkes became influential in politics, becoming Premier of New South Wales five times. His political career enabled him to play a major role in the cessation of transportation of convicts to New South Wales, introduce the Public Schools Act and the Hospital Act and promote the federation of Australian colonies.         

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Varney Parkes (1859-1935) was born at Ryde, Sydney. He was the seventh child of Sir Henry Parkes and his first wife Clarinda (nee Varney).

On 21st March 1883, Varney Parkes married eighteen year old Mary Cameron Murray who died five months later of a TB lung haemorrhage. In December 1884, Varney married Mary's older sister, Isabella Murray. They had five children, of whom three survived. (Mary, Murray and Norman).

In 1902, according to newspaper reports of the time, Varney filed for divorce from Isabella on the grounds of infidelity, but the divorce was not granted.

After a chequered career as an architect, businessman and politician, Varney Parkes was admitted to the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville in 1934 and died there on 14th May, 1935. 

Mary (1864 - 23.8.1883) and Isabella Murray (19.8.1862 - 27.2.1927) were daughters of George Murray (born 1832 in Edinburgh, Scotland, died 1898 in Liverpool, New South Wales), a printer and stationer, and his cousin, Isabella Cameron of Edinburgh. There was also a third daughter, Georgina, known as Tot (1868 - 1955). Georgina was only six months old when her mother died. George immigrated to New South Wales after discovering he had TB. His second wife was Mary Parkes, second daughter of Sir Henry Parkes, the "Father of Federation". George Murray and Mary Parkes were married in the early 1880s. Marriage to a 32 year old initially caused considerable discontent on the part of George Murray's three daughters who felt that their father's new bride was too young for him. 

Sir Henry Parkes was born in Canley, Warwickshire, England on 27th May, 1815. He died on 27th April, 1896 in Annandale, Sydney, New South Wales. He married Clarinda Varney (1836 - 1888) in Birmingham, England. They had 12 children. In 1889, Henry Parkes married his mistress, Eleanor Dixon, with whom he already had two children. After Eleanor's death in 1895, Parkes married Julia Lynch, who nursed him unitl his death in 1896.   


Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

The colonial towns of Sydney and Liverpool experienced rapid expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Sydney's population exploded from 39,000 to 200,000 in the twenty years following 1851, when gold had been discovered near Bathurst, New South Wales. The 'gold rush' attracted many fortune seekers to goldfields in Victoria and New South Wales. They came from around the world, but most were from England and Scotland, followed by immigrants from China. When it became clear that few speculators would make fortunes in the goldfields, most moved to cities and towns seeking jobs in new manufacturing enterprises. Women as well as men were employed in industry, finding that factory work was more lucrative than domestic labour, as conditions and pay were often less exploitative. The economy was booming throughout the 1880s, but starting in 1890, a four year period of depression began, due to drought. The poor economy saw much poverty and strike action, providing the conditions that led to the birth of the Australian Labor Party in 1891.  

This period of population growth saw many new suburbs emerge in Sydney. Inner city areas became crowded and faced public health issues.

Liverpool, where the Murray family lived after moving from Scotland, was the fourth town to be settled in Australia, after Sydney, Parramatta and Hobart. The first land grants in the area were made in 1798, followed by the foundation of the town as an agricultural centre by Governor Macquarie in 1810. In the early years, fruit growing, timber-getting, rabbit trapping, poultry and dairy farming were pursued by small landholders, while those with large acreages focused on growing grain and raising cattle, sheep and horses.

The opening of the railway from Liverpool to Sydney in 1856, followed by the telegraph in 1858, encouraged the growth of businesses in the area, transforming Liverpool into a major regional city. Businesses included slaughter yards, wool scouring and the first large scale paper mill in Australia, The Australian Paper Company. George Murray, father of Mary and Isabella Cameron Murray Parkes went into business with a Mr Williams and opened up a high quality paper mill, the Liverpool Paper Mill. This became the Sydney Paper Company after William's death in 1884.

Sir Henry Parkes of Sydney and George Murray of Liverpool became friends, with Murray supporting the financially struggling Parkes in various business ventures. 



How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Prior to 1901, Australia was not a nation. Rather, it consisted of six British colonies that were partly self-governing but ultimately subject to the law of Great Britain. The colonies all had their own laws, governments, postal and railway systems as well as taxes and tariffs. Due to the problems this caused, people began to think about the benefits of uniting under the one government. After Canada federated in 1867, Australian Federation gained support amongst official circles in both Britain and Australia.

Henry Parkes had been a supporter of Australian Federation for some time before 1867. According to notes in the Powerhouse's object file, written by Parkes' great-granddaughter, Jane Grey, Federation had been on Parkes' agenda since 1847. By 1882 "a deep ambition to federate Australia" was always on his mind. However, when a federation convention was held in Sydney in 1883-4, Parkes was on his trip with Isabella and because of Parkes' absence, New South Wales "stood aloof".  In 1889, Parkes and his supporters had federation as a "rather hidden agenda" when he was re-elected Premier - along with open support for local government and votes for women.

After Parkes gave a speech in Tenterfield, New South Wales, in 1889, momentum for Federation increased. Conventions, attended by state delegates were held throughout the 1890s in an attempt to agree on how to run the federation of Australia and write a federal constitution. The people of each colony voted in a series of referendums to accept the Constitution of Australia. This Constitution was then passed by British Parliament as the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in 1900. It came into effect on January 1 1901, and established a federal parliament.


Where did this information come from?

Argus, Melbourne, 11th December, 1902, Sydney Divorce Case, Mr Varney Parkes the Petitioner,

Clarence and Richmond Examiner, Grafton, Tuesday 30th December, 1902, Sympathy with Mrs Varney Parkes, 

Liverpool City Council

Migration Heritage Centre

My Place for Teachers:

New South Wales Government,

Parliamentary Education Office,

Powerhouse Museum,

Powerhouse Museum object file. Notes from Jane Gray, a descendant of Isabella Murray Parkes.

Raine, Louise and Reynolds, Peter, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

This garment has been exhibited

The dress was exhibited in the "People" room in the Mint Building in Sydney for approximately six months prior to May 23, 1983. The dress was on open display, and although there were no visible changes to the garment, according to the condition report conducted by the Powerhouse after the exhibition, the tulle and lace were dry and brittle. The accessories were also on display, in an enclosed display case. 

Exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum exhibition, Love Is - from May 11th 2017. Because of the tiny dimensions of the garment, it was necessary to have a custom made mannequin built for the dress.

  1. Place of origin:

    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Mary Cameron Murray, second daughter of George Murray Esq, J.P.

  3. Worn by:

    Mary Cameron Murray Parkes.

  4. Occasion(s):

    Wedding of Mary Cameron Murrary to Varney Parkes, only son of Sir Henry Parkes, March 21st, 1883.

  5. Place:

    Presbyterian Church. Liverpool, New South Wales.

  6. Made by:

    Probably made by a dressmaker in Sydney.

Trimmings / Decoration

Orange blossom spray in lace on left hand sleeve. Small pearl glass buttons fasten the front from neckline to hips.

Cream kid gloves have eight small glass button fastenings through to wrist. Rolled edges with tape reinforcement under buttons. Ends are scalloped and pinked.

Pair of cream satin shoes feature double satin bows on vamp.



Sleeves and neck trimmed with gathered lace and net, small lace fall at neck. Five lace flounces on skirt. Double row of finely pleated lace edged muslin visible under hem.


Satin arranged on front hips in five horizontal folds descending to five 140 mm lace flounces with band of ruched and pleated satin loosely gathered and ruched down train, caught by two tapes beneath.

Fibre / Weave

The dress is cream satin and lace, the gloves are fine kid and the shoes have a cream satin exterior, are lined with white kid and have a stronger leather sole with a suede type finish. 

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


The gown was probably made in Sydney by a dressmaker or small drapery establishment. It is beautifully tailored and finished. The fine quality of the fabric is matched by the hand made gloves and shoes. The gloves were purchased from Farmer's Department Store and the shoes imported from Paris and bought in Sydney.

The bodice of the cream satin gown buttons down the front from the high round neck to the hips. There are five upward pleats of satin falling 170 mm and extending beyond the hip line. Five flounces of cotton lace are sewn onto a four gored skirt. This has a low draped bustle of satin trimmed with lace, set into the back which extends into a long train.

The bodice is designed to be tight and perfectly fitted to the body. The front of the bodice is made in two pieces with nineteen pearl glass shank buttons and hand sewn button holes down the front. The bodice back is made in six pieces. All seams inside are machine sewn and hemmed with ribbon or slip stitched to avoid fraying. Some seams and darts are reinforced with metal strips. An inner waist band of linen tape (30 mm wide) hooks together and measures 510 mm.

The train is edged with 170 mm wide satin pleating, beneath which there is a layer of satin cut on the cross, beneath that is an edging of finely pleated muslin decorated on both sides with lace. Stiffly dressed fine cotton fabric lines the bustle and all the satin edgings.  

The cream satin wedding shoes have large cream satin bows on the toes. The soles are soft leather with a suede type finish. The heels are low and slope inwards and have a harder, thicker piece of leather covering held in place with eight small shoemaker's tacks. The shoes are lined with kid on the bottom and the back sides. The rest is lined with a cream cotton fabric. There is a reinforcement strip of cloth running around the top rim of the shoes covered by a strip of satin cloth.     



The lining on the left side of the bodice has been signed "Miss Murray" probably by the maker as the button reinforcing strip has been sewn over the top. 


The three-quarter sleeves and high neck make the gown appropriate for wear at dinner and formal afternoon occasions. It was practical and customary for the bride to wear her wedding dress in the first year of marriage. This gown, however, shows little wear. Within six months of her wedding, Mary died of a lung haemorrhage.  

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring


This ensemble is currently on display in "Love Is...Australian Wedding Fashion" at the Powerhouse Museum until 22nd April, 2018. We will be able to take measurements of the garment when it is no longer on display.  

It is interesting to note that the dress is so small that a custom made mannequin had to be made to accommodate the dress.  

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

Newspaper reports such as the article, ' Sydney Divorce Case' published in the Melbourne Argus of December 2, 1902, state that Varney Parkes was the petitioner in the case between himself and his second wife, Isabella Cameron Murray Parkes. According to the article, both parties accused the other of adultery. This conflicts with information provided to the Powerhouse by Jane Grey, Isabella Cameron Murray Parkes' grand-daughter. Drawing upon family recollections, she states that it was Isabella who filed for divorce after living in Scotland without Varney for three years.           

Other related objects

Several objects related to Mary Cameron Murray's wedding ensemble were donated to the Powerhouse by Mary's great-niece, Jane Grey. They are also well provenanced and provide insight into the life of Isabella Parkes (Mary's sister) and the way she brought up her children after separating from Varney Parkes:

85/948-3: Valance mantle drape of embroidered silk made by Isabella Murray, 1885-95.

98/103/1 Home-made doll's clothes (9) of cotton, velvet, straw and silk, belonging to Mary Parkes, Isabella's daughter and Henry Parkes' grand-daughter,1890-1900.

85/977: Doll wearing a home-made night-shirt made by Isabella Parkes, used by Mary Parkes, 1890-1900. The doll is expensive and German made. Perhaps the family's fluctuating fortunes explain why the doll is not wearing any of the clothes and accessories commonly sold with such dolls. Mary's father, Varney Parkes' career as an architect and politician was somewhat chequered. Although there were periods of success, he was declared bankrupt in 1895.      


Evidence of repairs

Structurally sound over all. There is general discolouration over the entire garment. Large brown stain/discolouration visible on the train's lining. Along the edge of the train, staining on the lace is visible. The tulle found at the opening of the sleeves cuffs are fragile and brittle.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Discolouration
  2. Brittle
  3. Crease
  4. Stained
[Collapse all]