Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


Prince Alfred’s ill-fated tour

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on September 17, 2014. [No comments]

HRH Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh 1867-8. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales a4157018 / P1/18, Mitchell Library

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.

O'Farrell in Darlinghurst 1868. By Francis Charles Needham Newry. Viscount. Contributed by National Library of Australia nla.pic-an6332101

O'Farrell in Darlinghurst 1868. By Viscount Francis Charles Needham Newry. Contributed by National Library of Australia nla.pic-an6332101

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.

Further reading:

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.


Mr Parkes’s mongoose

Posted by lindabrainwood in Blog on September 5, 2014. [No comments]

Ceylon mongoose 1868

Parkes's Ceylon mongoose, Sydney Punch 22 February 1868

Earlier this week the Australian Museum’s excellent blog referred to Prince Alfred’s visit to the Museum in 1868 when he was entertained by fights between snakes and mongooses, which reminded us of this cartoon we came across last year in Sydney Punch of Henry Parkes titled ‘The Modern St Patrick; or, Parkes’s “man-goose” at the Museum’.

As St Patrick is traditionally credited with the removal of all the snakes from Ireland, we’d initially wondered if casting the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Parkes in that role referred to him driving out some kind of metaphorical political or religious snakes from New South Wales (especially given his government’s recent unpopular declaration that St Patrick’s Day would not be proclaimed as a public holiday), and if the “man-goose” reference was a rude one to some kind of other controversy (possibly involving the Australian Museum’s curator and snake-expert Gerard Krefft and the theories of Charles Darwin which he was disseminating in the 1860s), but no – the cartoon is a far more literal interpretation of events.

During Prince Alfred’s visit to Sydney in 1868, he made a formal visit to the Australian Museum at 3 pm on Friday, 14th February (well before the assassination attempt on him on 12 March). He was accompanied by the Earl of Belmore, Mr Haig & Mr Brierley and was received there by Henry Parkes, the Colonial Secretary, Gerard Krefft, the Curator of the Museum and  Dr Cox, Dr Bennett & E Deas Thomson.  There were, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald the next day, “but few visitors in the museum at the time, and these had the good taste to leave the Prince and party to themselves; consequently his Royal Highness was enabled to spend a quiet hour looking through the building”.

The Modern St Patrick: or, Parkes's 'Man-Goose' at the Museum, Sydney Punch, 22 February 1868, p 95 (courtesy State Library of NSW)

The Modern St Patrick: or, Parkes's 'Man-Goose' at the Museum, Sydney Punch, 22 February 1868, p 95 (courtesy State Library of NSW)

After the Prince and his party had wandered around the museum for a while, examining some of the highlights of the collection and asking questions about Australian animals, Krefft produced a case of live snakes, took one out and placed it on the floor.

Krefft then brought out a tame “Timor mongoose”, which walked around the snake, sniffed it and left it alone. At this point, Parkes produced from a bag that he had brought with him a “Ceylon mangouste”, which, after initially trying to escape the room (the bag was, again according to the Herald, “a mode of locomotion to which it was not accustomed”) fought with and killed the snake.

The stunt received wide coverage in the Australian press, and is a great example of the showman-like styles of Parkes & Krefft. It is certainly difficult to imagine an Australian prime minister or New South Wales premier today carrying round a big bag of mongoose when accompanying a Royal Visitor on a formal visit of one of Sydney’s major institutions.

The Ceylon mongoose itself was presented to the Prince and went with him, part of a “large and varied collection of colonial birds & animals”, when he departed the colony on the Galatea in May 1868.  The mongoose was described as “docile and playful as a kitten”.

Parkes had a long term affinity with the mongoose family, to the point where the species became known coloquially as Mr Parkes’s Mongoose.

In 1883, he was recommending the gentle natures of the mongoose in parliament when the possibility of them being imported as a possible solution to the rabbit problem was being debated. His family kept a pet mongoose at their home in Balmain until at least the 1890s, and it was said to have been particularly fond of his wife Lady Parkes. (The animal’s ability to clear the house of the deadliest of reptiles was undisputed.)

The same article (Sir Henry Parkes at Home, Australian Town and Country Journal 31 January 1891, p31) give another insight into Parkes’s character:  “It may not perhaps be generally known that the Premier has a passion for pets, chiefly of the feathered tribe.” In the grounds surrounding Hampton Villa, he had a Brazilian macaw, several silver pheasants, English blackbirds  and thrushes, a golden opossum, three ibis, some curlews, a cage of pretty little birds from north Queensland and a kangaroo.

Listen to Mitch & Lisa talk about Parkes’s mongoose on 2SER Breakfast podcast here!


History Week

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on September 4, 2014. [No comments]

This week on 2SER Breakfast, we talked about one of our favourite times of the year here at the Dictionary of Sydney. History Week. And it’s just two sleeps to go!

History Week happens 6-14 September and all around NSW historians, community groups and libraries and museums will be putting on events, talks and displays. The calendar of events is coordinated by the History Council of NSW.

Each year there is a theme. This year’s theme is ‘The Great War’ to commemorate the outbreak of World War One – an event that left an indelible impact on our society .

History Week


As Richard Waterhouse, the president of the History Council, explains: “Australia’s entry into the War took place in a spirit of optimism and intense Imperial loyalty. When the War ended the nation’s mood reflected disillusionment and distrust.” The cost of war was immense. More than 60,000 soldiers were killed, while many of those who returned suffered seriously from physical and psychological wounds. The conscription debates left Australia bitterly divided along sectarian lines. The financial cost was also great. The optimistic young and free Australia of the federation era was gone.


There are lots of events happening in History Week. Here are my picks:

And I’m speaking at a couple of events:

Finally, the Premier’s History Awards is held on the eve of History Week and marks the launch of our week of historical focus. I’m going along to the event and there are some great authors that have been shortlisted, several of whom are also Dictionary of Sydney authors and we highly recommend these books and documentaries to you.

Community History Awards

Multi-media prize

A full list of the shortlisted authors is on the State Library’s website. Congratulations to all the short-listed authors

For more on community history awards, go here.
For more on multi-media prize, go here

If you missed this morning’s podcast about History Week on 2SER Breakfast, you can catch up here.


Arthur Phillip

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on August 27, 2014. [No comments]

This morning on 2SER, Lisa & Mitch talked about Arthur Phillip, the British naval officer who led the First Fleet and became the first governor of New South Wales as this Sunday, the 31st August, marks 200 years since his death.

His name probably rings a bell for most Sydneysiders – especially if you went to school in Australia. But how much do you really know about him?  Here are some fast facts about Governor Phillip:

Captain Arthur Phillip, 1786, by Francis Wheatley, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (a928087 / ML 124)

Captain Arthur Phillip, 1786, by Francis Wheatley, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (a928087 / ML 124)

    • He was born in London on 11 Oct 1738
  • HMS Sirius was the flagship of the First Fleet, which transported convicts and their guards from England to the new colony of Botany Bay in the late 1780s. The Sirius was commanded by Captain John Hunter and carried Arthur Phillip, the governor of the colony. The Sirius was wrecked off Norfolk Island in 1790. Its anchor and cannon were retrieved and were placed in Macquarie Place down near Circular Quay in 1907.
  • Arthur Phillip governed the penal colony of NSW for its first five difficult years. He ruled the colony and its 1500 inhabitants with absolute power and responsibility for its survival.
  • He laid the foundation for the first Government House only three months after the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove.
  • the site of Sydney’s first Government House is where the Museum of Sydney now stands. One of the most significant items in the Museum of Sydney collection is an inscribed copper Foundation Plate that was laid on 15 May 1788 by Governor Arthur Phillip during the construction of Australia’s first Government House. Remarkably the plate was discovered between two sandstone foundation blocks by a telegraph line worker in 1899.
  • Governor Phillip tried to obtain information about the Aboriginal people, their country, life and language by abducting men. Arabanoo was the first, but he died of small pox. Bennelong and Colebee were next. Bennelong travelled to England and back, and taught the settlers much about Aboriginal language and culture. Colebee became familiar with the Europeans but disappeared after 1806.

Arthur Phillip named many bays and suburbs around Sydney.  Here are just a few:

  • Field of Mars (around Ryde and Eastwood)
  • Looking Glass Bay – after giving a looking glass (mirror) to an Aboriginal man they met there in the bay, whilst exploring the Parramatta River
  • Manly – The first official dispatch in 1788 from Arthur Phillip, governor of the newly founded imperial outpost in New South Wales, noted the ‘confidence and manly behaviour’ of the Aboriginal people encountered on the northern side of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Thus Manly derived its name.
  • Neutral Bay – Neutral Bay was named by Governor Phillip, when he decreed in 1789 that all non-British ‘neutral’ ships visiting Port Jackson were to anchor there.

But wait – there’s more!

On 5 September the Museum of Sydney is hosting a full day symposium about the life and times of Governor Arthur Phillip. You can hear from some of Australia’s most significant scholars of colonial history, including Dictionary of Sydney board member and author Grace Karskens, on Phillip and the Eora. More info about this and other events marking the bicentenary here: http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/arthur-phillip-bicentenary

If you missed this morning’s broadcast, you can still listen to the podcast here:


Arthur Phillip Bicentenary events at Sydney Living Museums


Major Government