Last week we talked about the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the Australian Museum and Henry Parkes’ mongoose. It was quite an eventful tour for Prince Alfred, who was the second son of Queen Victoria. His visit to Sydney was part of a world tour on his steam frigate HMS Galatea and marked the first visit of British royalty to our shores.
In the Australian colonies he visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart and Brisbane, as well as coming twice to Sydney. He received a warm reception and there were many events hosted in his honour, including an impromptu fight between a snake and a mongoose at the Australian Museum.
But it was during his second call into Sydney that things hotted up. This was a time of simmering sectarian tension in the colonies, between Irish Catholics and non-Catholics. On the Prince’s visit to Melbourne, there had been a shooting incident between Orange and Catholic factions, as well as a riot at a free public banquet.
Despite rumours in Sydney of possible sectarian strife, he agreed to attend a picnic at Clontarf, a popular picnicking spot, on 12 March 1868. The picnic had been organised as a fund raiser for the Sydney Sailors’ Home by Sydney barrister and politician William Manning.
During the event, an Irishman who had suffered considerable mental illness, Henry James O’Farrell, attempted to assassinate the Prince. Although O’Farrell fired his pistol at close range, the bullet, on striking the prince’s back, glanced off the ribs, inflicting only a slight wound.
William Vial, a coach-maker from Elizabeth Street who was standing nearby, wrestled the gunman to the ground, preventing further shots from being fired. For valiantly saving the Prince’s life, he was presented with the Prince’s fob watch (which is now in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales). The perpetrator, Henry O’Farrell, only narrowly escaped lynching by the crowd, and was immediately arrested. The wounded prince was nursed by the newly arrived Lady Superintendent of Sydney Hospital, Lucy Osburn.
An assassination attempt on the Prince was a national scandal and wounded colonial pride. We almost killed the Prince! There was an outpouring of prejudice and racism towards Catholics and Irish. The day after the attempted shooting, 20,000 people attended a meeting in Sydney to express outrage at the assassination attempt. By the following week, there were daily ‘indignation meetings’ everywhere.
Anti-Irish sentiment boiled over, even in Parliament: the New South Wales Government, including Henry Parkes, passed the Treason Felony Act on 18 March, making it an offence to refuse to drink to the Queen’s health, and tried unsuccessfully to uncover a conspiracy.
To atone for the sin of a madman, citizens of New South Wales opened a public subscription fund to build a hospital as a memorial to his safe recovery. The Prince authorised his coat of arms to be used as the crest for the Prince Alfred Hospital (later Royal Prince Alfred Hospital), in Camperdown. Prince Alfred Park, on Cleveland Street, city park and Alfred street at Circular Quay were also named after Prince Alfred.
Prince Alfred made a full recovery by the end of March 1868, left for England on the Galatea in early April and arrived on 26 June.
And what was O’Farrell’s fate? Clemency for O’Farrell was refused, despite the prince’s own proposal to refer the sentence on O’Farrell to the Queen. He was convicted of attempted murder, despite his evident mental instability, and hanged on 21 April at Darlinghurst Gaol.
Assassination attempt on Prince Alfred 1868, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008
‘Attempt to assassinate HRH Prince Alfred, at Clontarf’, The South Australian Advertiser, 28 Mar 1868, p 2
You can listen to the podcast of Lisa’s segment on 2SER Breakfast with Mitch Byatt this morning here.