To celebrate the first royal visit to Australia, by Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, a public banquet was held on 28 November. Instead of the anticipated crowd of 10,000, some 40-50,000 arrived. When the prince was late, crowds broke the barriers and carried off the food and drink. The royal banquet ended in what The Argus called “one of the most tremendous and utter failures we have ever known”.
The royal visit of 1867-8 was plagued by misfortune. The disastrous royal banquet on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River was just one of many debacles. Others included a similarly failed picnic in Geelong, the fiery death of three children at a planned fireworks display in Bendigo, the destruction by fire of the newly built Bendigo Prince Alfred Hall and a sailor having his hand blown off at a military display at Flemington Racecourse. The disasters culminated in the shooting of the prince by an Irish would-be assassin at a picnic in Sydney.
The free royal banquet in Melbourne was originally meant to benefit the poor, but plans became more ambitious. It took place at the former Zoological gardens, adjoining Yarra-park (otherwise known as Richmond Paddock). The committee sought public support and, according to The Argus: “Meat, bread, vegetables, wine, beer, eatables and drinkables of every description, and money beside, were profusely provided”. These provisions included 600 gallons of wine and “a proportionably enormous quantity of ale”. By one o’clock the tables, nearly half a mile of them, were laden ready for the feast.
Unfortunately, the 23-year-old prince, who was to declare the banquet open, was late. The day was hot and dusty and the impatient crowd began to press in on the barriers. At half past two, the mob rushed forward and devoured everything on the tables, later descending on the wine and beer. Much of the food and drink was wasted in the melee, the committee tent was demolished and their champagne carried off. The prince’s party, approaching at around three o’clock, was advised to turn around and avoid the event altogether.
Once the liquor was all gone the crowd finally dispersed. The Argus concluded, that despite the lack of violent behaviour among the crowd:
“… it was certain from the beginning that the project, assuming the shape it did, must end in failure; for the vast majority of the public could never be made to regard the banquet in any other light than they did. It is doubtful if, after the experience of yesterday, this generation of Victorians will see another free banquet in Melbourne.”