It’s been 150 years since Prince Alfred’s tour of Sydney came to an abrupt halt on 12 March 1868 when an attempt was made on his life during a picnic in the harbourside suburb of Clontarf.
Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, was the second son of Queen Victoria and on a world tour aboard HMS Galatea when he arrived in Sydney on 21 January 1868.
On 12 March, the Duke had agreed to attend a picnic at Clontarf. The event was a fundraiser for the Sydney Sailors’ Home, organised by Sydney barrister and politician William Manning.
As the Prince walked across the park at Clontarf with Manning, two shots were fired. His would-be assassin was Henry James O’Farrell, an Irishman, who, it eventuated, had some serious mental health issues. O’Farrell initially claimed to be a member of a secret Irish republican movement, more broadly known as the Fenians, but no evidence was found to substantiate this claim and he later retracted.
Newspapers of the time were full of the reports of the wild scene.
The Empire newspaper published one eye-witness account that detailed how, despite cries of ‘The Prince is shot! The Duke is killed!’, the crowd did not immediately react:
‘They could not believe that in such a scene of innocent gaiety and enjoyment any human being could be so diabolically wicked as to commit so dreadful a crime’.1
Soon afterward though a scene of ‘indescribable confusion and distress’ unfolded as the crowd realised the Prince had only narrowly avoided a fatal shots. One of the bullets had glanced off the Prince’s ribs, inflicting only a slight wound.
O’Farrell escaped the crowd’s calls for an on-the-spot lynching, but was arrested on the spot, and later convicted of attempted murder. Despite pleas for clemency he was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 21 April.
The incident had far-reaching consequences, fuelling anti-Irish sentiments and sectarian tension, with an outpouring of prejudice and racism towards Catholics and Irish in Sydney and the around the country.
Sydney’s citizens also opened a subscription fund to build a new hospital in the Prince’s honour – the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
Today, a plaque under a Norfolk Pine at the eastern end of Clontarf Beach marks the spot where the infamous incident occurred.
1 An Account by an Eye-witness. (1868, March 13). Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1875), p. 2. Retrieved
March 12, 2018, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article60851231
Read the Dictionary of Sydney entry on the assassination attempt here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/assassination_attempt_on_prince_alfred_1868
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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