Sydney’s Republican Riot

Eric Fry

In 1887 the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, crowned fifty years earlier, was celebrated throughout the Empire.

In Sydney the Mayor called a public meeting at the Town Hall to plan a fete for school children in honour of the occasion. To the Mayor’s astonishment an amendment was carried by a large majority of those present declaring that the proposal to impress upon the children of the colony the value of a Jubilee year of a Sovereign was unwise and calculated to injure the democratic spirit of the colony.

The Mayor called a second meeting the next week to rescind this amendment, issuing tickets giving early admittance to approved loyalists. Before the appointed time for the ticket holders to present themselves the Town Hall was, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, for fifty years the voice of respectable opinion. besieged by dense crowds of excited and gesticulating men loud in their clamouring for immediate admission and equally earnest in insisting that every man was as good as his neighbour and that no tickets were needed. Furthermore, the newspaper alleged, several hundred forged tickets had been issued. The mob swept in a mass into the vestibule, the hall was crowded to suffocation. the police could not keep order, the Mayor was booed and shouted down, fighting broke out in all directions, the crowd not dispersing until after an hour of turmoil. The Herald described it as an absolute chaos of uproar, confusion, faction-fighting and ruffianism of a most disgraceful and unprecedented character in the history of New South Wales. This occasion became known as the Republican Riot.

The Bulletin, a brash, satirical nationalist weekly also described the scene as extraordinary but rejoiced that the voice of the people – fully five to one against the boasted object of the promoters – had prevailed in defending the rights of public meetings.

When the second meeting became uncontrollable the Mayor and about forty leading citizens retreated to the Mayor’s reception room where they determnnined to stamp out this sedition at a third meeting the next week. They would mobilise overwhelming forces, leaving nothing to chance, and repudiate the disloyalists.

The battle ground for the third encounter would be the Exhibition Building in Prince Alfred Park, Redfern. The organisers summoned a task force drawn from the Naval Brigade, the Volunteer Naval Artillery, the Lancers, the Loyal Orange Institution, the Primrose League, football clubs and undergraduates of Sydney University led by the professor of medicine, to support three hundred police.

Some fifteen to twenty thousand people turned up. This time the procedure of early admission by ticket worked effectively. Within the building those who could gain entry were directed into six separated squares, each surrounded by the forces of law and order, who also guarded the raised platform. There the official party included the Mayor, Sir Henry Parkes as Premier, prominent politicians, leaders of the bench. bar and business, amongst the protestants some catholics to claim the endorsement of Irish Australians, whose fidelity to Crown and Empire was often suspect.

The Mayor read the notice of the meeting, although few of the multitude could hear him, and called on Parkes to move the first resolution. Sir Henry declared they were met to tread disloyalty into dust and assert their loyalty and devotion to the throne and person of the Queen and the laws and institutions of the Empire.

The band played patriotic airs, the crowd joining in “Rule Britannia”. Despite the din the Mayor declared the motion carried, on a show of hands, unanimously. But finally the force of the crowd, like an irresistible wave, forced back the guardians of the platform, the chairs and tables there being crushed and broken into splinters. The arrival of Lord Carrington, the popular Governor, permitted the Mayor to propose a resolution that a Queen’s Fund be established in aid of destitute women of New South Wales.

Even the Bulletin had to admit that the monarchists had won the day at last, although at a sham public meeting manipulated by every available engine of cunning and violence: Orangemen had been massed by password; four hundred footballers wearing heavy boots were placed where they might kick to the best advantage; the University, an aristocratic institution run by a well-paid crowd of English Tories, sent a hundred and fifty rowdy youths. The conservatives of the Primrose League had rubbed shoulders with a gang of professional prize fighters; the entire police force of Sydney was pressed into service; naval reservists, the volunteer artillery, the Sydney Lancers and a large number of bluejackets from the British men-of-war in the Harbour had been marshalled for the occasion.

So the loyalty of the colony was reasserted and the name of the Queen was coupled with an unimpeachable charity. The republicans had been repulsed. Yet one of them, a rebellious adolescent, poor and unknown, had the most lasting word. Henry Lawson, nineteen years old and come to Sydney from the bush, was stirred by these events to pour out his anger and hopes in A Song of the Republic:

Sons of the South, make choice between
(Sons of the South, choose true)
The Land of Morn and the Land of E’en,
The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green,
The Land that belongs to the lord and Queen,
And the Land that belongs to you.

Sydney Morning Herald. 4 June, 11 June, 16 June 1887
Bulletin 18 June, 25 June 1887
Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson
MaIjorie Pizer, The Men Who Made Australia.