Australia’s very first royal visit was full of controversy, tragedy and huge crowds – both in support and in riot.
On 31 October 1867, Queen Victoria’s second-eldest son Prince Alfred embarked on the first British royal tour of the new land down under.
After joining the Royal Navy at 14, Prince Alfred attained a captain rank and was made Duke of Edinburgh by 1866. Set to commence commonwealth royal duties, Alfred commanded the HMS Galatea off on a worldwide voyage in January 1867 – from the Mediterranean to Brazil. Alongside his ship crew and royal companions, Alfred spent eight weeks in South Africa’s Cape Colony, and then made his way to Australia across the Indian ocean.
Prince Alfred docked in Glenelg, South Australia, on 31 October 1867, where he was warmly greeted by huge crowds lining the streets, eager to greet the royal. While these sentiments continued in Melbourne three weeks later on 24 November 1867, Alfred’s arrival caused tension in the midst of the colony’s growing Irish Catholic and Protestant conflicts. An image of William of Orange, a 17th century king who defeated the Catholics in Ireland during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, was plastered on the local Protesant community hall. This no doubt caused chaos as crowds of Irish Catholics gathered outside the hall. Shots were then fired from the hall and into the crowd, killing a young Catholic boy and causing a riot.
The disasters continued as another riot ensued when the Prince cancelled an appearance in Melbourne, and in Bendigo, three young boys died when setting off fireworks on a replica model of the HMS Galatea.
Despite the tragedies, Prince Alfred’s trip saw him then successfully visit Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland during January and February of 1688. That March, Alfred returned to Sydney for more royal engagement, including a picnic to raise funds to build a sailors’ home on the north shore. On March 12, just after the picnic had finished, a man approached Alfred and his companions from behind and shot the prince at close range.
Thankfully, the prince was left without life-threatening injuries, and was able to return to England after a month-long stay in hospital. The shooter was Catholic Irishman Henry James O’Farrell, who was convicted of attempted murder and hanged on 21 April 1868. Despite being shot, Alfred apparently asked that the judge grant O’Farrell clemency – a request that was denied.
In the wake of Prince Alfred’s tumultuous royal visit to Australia, several hospitals, schools, streets and parks were named after the royal. Most notably, the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.