ON 31 OCTOBER 1867, Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, arrived in Adelaide, South Australia. As the first member of the British royal family to visit Australia, he attracted huge crowds wherever he went.The tour was marred by rioting, farce, tragedy and Australia’s first political assassination attempt, which saw the Prince being wounded at a Sydney picnic.
In January 1867, HMS Galatea, with Prince Alfred at the helm, set sail from Plymouth on a round-the-world voyage.The Prince docked in Glenelg, SA, on 31 October and crowds lined the road all the way to Adelaide.
As darkness fell, 40,000 gas lights illuminated the colony’s public offices and huge portraits of the Prince adorned many of the buildings. Alfred spent three weeks in SA, and left with a very positive impression, saying in a letter to the press, “I have noticed in Adelaide an absence of the poor and rowdy class, so numerous elsewhere”. Considering the SA Parliament had just legislated to keep the colony convict-free, his comment met an appreciative audience.
On 24 November, the Prince arrived in Melbourne to more eager crowds. But tragedy was to follow.
The facade of the Protestant Hall in Stephen Street was decorated for the Prince’s visit with an image of William of Orange, the 17th-century English king, defeating Catholic armies at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. It was a provocative gesture, given the ongoing tensions between Australian Catholics and Protestants. Crowds of Irish Catholics gathered outside the hall, singing Irish republican songs and throwing stones at the building.
As the group was dispersing, people inside the hall opened windows and fired shots into the mob. A Catholic boy was killed, and a riot broke out.
There was more mayhem on 27 November at a free public banquet the Prince was scheduled to attend. The organisers planned for 10,000 people – but 40,000 arrived expecting free food and wine. When the Prince pulled out due to safety concerns, the angry mob charged the barriers and another riot broke out as thousands fought over the food and wine.
The catastrophe-dogged royal visit went from bad to worse. In Bendigo, there was to be a fireworks display centred around a model of the Prince’s ship Galatea. Tragically, three boys climbed into the model and set off the fireworks.They were trapped inside and burnt to death.
Two days later, a ball was planned at the newly built and named Alfred Hall. Unfortunately, it was a timber building lit with gas lamps, and some calico sheeting inside caught fire. The hall burnt to the ground.
In March 1868, after months of unrelenting public engagements,
Prince Alfred’s staff requested a less demanding schedule.
The royal tour committees concurred, but one event the Prince had agreed to attend was a picnic to raise funds to build a sailors’ home. It was scheduled for 12 March at Clontarf on Sydney’s North Shore.
Yet again, larger than expected crowds appeared early at the scene. During a post-picnic walk a man approached from the crowd, pulled out a pistol and shot the Prince in the back at close range. Alfred fell to the ground, crying out, “Good God, I am shot… My back is broken.”
The assailant, Henry O’Farrell, an Irish Catholic, was tackled by a bystander who wrested the weapon from him as he tried to fire a second round. A medical examination confirmed the Prince’s injury was not life-threatening and he was escorted back to his launch.The predominantly Protestant crowd almost lynched O’Farrell on the spot.
Prince Alfred made a full recovery and O’Farrell was convicted of attempted murder, even though he exhibited signs of mental instability. The Prince asked for clemency but the request was ignored. Alfred sailed for England on 4 April and O’Farrell was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol on 21 April 1868.
Concern for Prince Alfred and the relief felt when it was known he would survive saw the public contribute large sums to funds that were established to build hospitals in his name.
Prince Alfred joined the Royal Navy at 14 and by 1866 had attained the rank of captain, in command of HMS Galatea, a steam-powered sail-equipped frigate.