5 Surprising Facts from Australian History

‘Australian history… is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’ Mark Twain

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I read the above quote as a fairly accurate description of our hurly-burly, courageous, messy, spectacular and sinister history. Below are five snippets of that history that I have come across in my reading that have both surprised and amused me.

 

Royal Assassination Attempt

 

While Queen Elizabeth II is the only reigning monarch to have visited Australia, there have been plenty of visits from members of the British royal household in the history of Australia. The first was made by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh in 1867 and included an attempt on his life. Queen Victoria’s second son was picnicking on the beach at Clontarf (Sydney) when he was shot by Henry James O’Farrell, an impoverished Irishman suffering from mental illness.

henry-james-ofarrell
Henry James O’Farrell. There were rumours of a Fenian conspiracy after the Irishman’s attempted assassination attempt.

The Duke was wounded but not fatally, and hospitalised for two weeks. Prince Alfred tried to have the life of Henry O’Farrell spared, but the latter was executed in April of 1868.

 

Franco-Prussian Media War

 

Vietnam has often been referred to as the TV war, but the Franco-Prussian War has been dubbed ‘the first media war’. This conflict erupted in Europe in 1870-71, the first major conflict to break on European soil since the end on the Napoleonic wars, and the first to take place after Europe and America were connected via the telegraph. For the first time, people in Britain and America could know the outcome of a battle on the same day it had been fought.

franco-prussian
The Franco-Prussian war: the first media war.

The Australians had yet to be so closely connected to Europe as the Americans, and the quickest way to receive up-to-date information on the war was via the fastest mail boats from the US. This caused quite an air of anticipation as the people of the colonies awaited each fresh snippet of information.

‘The entire population was in upheaval until the whole town was in possession of the news. The War Intelligence was the subject of animated discussion in the business marts and under the veranda in the afternoon, and in the evening the clubs, cafes and bars resounded with varied comments on the credibility of the telegrams.’

Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis. Susan K Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi

 

Russian War Ships in Adelaide

 

The ‘Russian threat’ was a very real concern in nineteenth century Australia. There was a feeling in the late 1870s that war was imminent between England and Russia, and the Australian Colonies were terrified of becoming a victim of this potential conflict, lying vulnerable, undefended and wealthy at the bottom of the globe. Therefore, when the residents of the seaside town of Glenelg in South Australia awoke to find a Russian fleet anchored on their doorstep in February of 1882, the initial reaction was one of panic.

ships-in-adelaide
Port Adelaide in 1888 from The Picturesque Atlas of Australia 1888

The Civic Authorities, however, were in a pickle. War between Britain and Russia had not been declared, so they had no choice but to invite the unwelcome visitors ashore, and throw a ball in their honour.

As the Russians sailed away a few weeks later (without having plundered Adelaide) it was decided that perhaps some defence measures ought to be put in place along the South Australian coast.

 

The Block

 

It seems incredible to any twenty-first century resident of Melbourne, but in the late nineteenth century, the Saturday AFL game took second place to another social institution. This was known as ‘the Block’.

‘Doing the Block’ was a social must for the upper classes of Colonial Melbourne, and took place on Thursday and Saturday afternoons between two and four o’clock.

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‘Doing the block’ c1905 from The Streets of Melbourne by Joe Murray and Peter McIntosh

 

The Block was essentially a promenade that was enjoyed along the North side of Collins street, between Elizabeth and Swanston streets, and one ‘did the Block’ in order to see and be seen (preferably arrayed in the latest fashions) and to meet friends and beaux (under the strict eye of a chaperone of course). The beaux even had a fashionable lamppost, on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets, that they gathered under as they appraised the fair parade that passed by.

Japanese Invasion Currency

 

In the museum of the small Northern Victorian town of Benalla, I came across a Japanese Australian one shilling note. This money formed part of what was known as the ‘Japanese invasion currency’, currency issued by the Japanese Military Authority as a replacement for local currencies after conquest was achieved during the second world war. According to the Australian War Memorial website, the philosophy behind the currency was ‘to maintain stability within the occupied country and to abolish all traces of Western influence and establish Japan as the dominant economic influence’.

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Japanese Invasion Currency: Japenese-Australian one shilling note

I must admit, I was impressed by the confidence and organisation of the Japanese, even while being grateful that the currency, in Australia at least, never got the chance to be used.

 

This list could be a whole lot longer.

The history of Australia is nothing if not interesting. If you have any facts of your own that you’d like to add, post them in the comments below, or let me know on Facebook or Twitter.

Next week on the Blog

I’ll be sharing some more research with you-this time on the limitations and restrictions of life in Nazi occupied Rome. To make sure you don’t miss this, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to the blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Happy Australia Day everyone, I’ll see you next week!

 

 

5 thoughts on “5 Surprising Facts from Australian History

  1. Very interesting. I think I could handle doing ‘the block’ – I bet it would have made for great people watching and I can picture a novel based on the this concept. I can visualise intrigue, conflict, gossip, clandestine meetings… all set in historical Melbourne.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awefully decent of Alfred to plead clemency for the Irishman after taking a bullet. Don’t think I’d be so charitable,

    And imagine waiting 3 months for news. Searching Archives I found a Tasmanian lad killed at the Gallipoli landing. Initial telegrams to parents said wounded- not severe, then later missing, then about two montha later, killed in action.

    Liked by 1 person

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