Mysterious “Mr Thorn” – Unsung Saviour of Nobbys and Princes

Mysterious “Mr Thorn” – Unsung Saviour of Nobbys and Princes

By Gionni Di Gravio

In 1853 the Government hatched a plan to blow up Nobbys island in order to build a lighthouse.

Newcastle in 1853 from The Illustrated Sydney News 26 November 1853 p.60

Lieutenant Colonel Barney and Gother T. Mann on the 4 March 1853 agreed and embraced the idea of blasting the rock. By April 1853 Barney reports that work was underway to drive galleries into the headland for the planting of the explosives for the ‘demolition’ of Nobbys Island. Colonel Barney & Mann had planned three tunnels, and thought they may have needed a fourth.  However, it seems that only two tunnels were actually dug, both to a distance of 24 metres into the island.

William Keene (Examiner of Coal Mines) Nobbys detail from Copy of Stratigraphic sketch from Nobby’s Island Newcastle to Burwood, showing coal seams and their Order of Superposition. 31 May 1854. Photographed by Bruce Turnbull. Archives Authority Map No. SZ325

This angered the wider Newcastle community who rallied under the leadership of John Bingle to save the Island from destruction. The tunnel excavation was eventually stopped after Newcastle residents protested to the Government.

On what is perhaps the birth of the environmental movement in Newcastle (if not Australia in general according to Dr Glenn Albrecht), on the 22 November 1853, 49 citizens sent a Memorial to His Excellency Sir Charles Fitzroy, the Governor General of the Australian Colonies calling for him to intervene and protect Nobbys Island.

All this, according to John Bingle was to no avail. He attributes the success to another figure, known simply, as ‘Mr Thorn’, who after hearing the details from Bingle, traveled to Sydney and is credited with finally convincing the Governor’s mind.

“The Government at one time acting upon the suggestion of Col. Barney, of the Royal Engineers, intended to remove Nobby’s by blasting, but the citizens becoming aware of their design a public meeting was held in the Court House, on the 21st June, 1854, to petition the Legislative Assembly, to inquire into the particulars of the intention of the promoters, and with a prayer that the ill-advised measure be frustrated. The citizens having taken this public step considered that their prayer would receive the attention it demanded. However, it was a false delusion, for Col. Barney, the promoter of the scheme, was not to be daunted, but pushed on the excavation of the chambers for destroying the ill fated Island, as it was called, and throwing it into the sea. Several of these chambers were completed, and filled with (I am afraid to say how many tons of) gunpowder sufficient not only to blow up Nobby’s, but to seriously injure the city, and a day was fixed for the great display. Fortunately for the citizens the intention was known, but only a few days before it was to have been an accomplished fact, Mr. Thorn, of Prince Alfred notoriety, visited the writer, and entered fully into his views on the matter and on his return to Sydney, at his request, called upon the Governor, inducing him to postpone the day. By this at first sight trivial incident the destruction of Nobby’s -was abandoned, and It remains in the position and beauty that nature assigned it.

John Bingle Past and Present Records of Newcastle, New South Wales (1873) pp. 14-15 .

Bingle states that the meeting in the Court House occurred on the “21st June, 1854”. This could be a misprint in the date for 1853, as according to documents obtained from the New State Wales Parliamentary Archives the matter appears to have been resolved by the 31st December 1853.

See: 18 July 1854. New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council. Nobby’s Island. Laid upon the Council Table by The Colonial Secretary, and Ordered by the Council to be Printed, 18th July, 1854. Papers relating to the blowing up of Nobby’s Island [745 KB PDF file] Thanks to the New South Wales Parliamentary Archivist.

Please also see the original manuscript of the above printed papers. The papers include the tabling letter, a schedule, and some 30 pages of letters numbered 1 – 18 dated from 31 January 1853 to 10 January 1854. Kindly located and digitised by Kate Wilson, Processing Archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Archives:

1854. Nobby’s Island Return to Address, – Mr Cowper Ordered to be printed 18th July 1854

The original Petition signed by the 49 residents of Newcastle and dated 22 November 1853 does not appear to have survived.

“Mr Thorn”

After wondering about this “Mr Thorn” for years, on the weekend of the 10/11 September 2011,  I focused on John Bingle’s allusion to “Mr. Thorn, of Prince Alfred notoriety”.  Who was Prince Alfred? And how was our Mr Thorn, who in 1853 was responsible for convincing the Governor Fitzroy to refrain from blowing up Nobbys in Newcastle, connected to him.

It is with great honour that we reveal that the mysterious “Mr Thorn” was Mr George Thorne, of Claremont House, Rose Bay, a Sydney business man and merchant who had a number of business interests in Newcastle.

Besides saving our Nobbys Island from destruction, his other claim to fame came later in March 1868 when he took a bullet in the right ankle and thwarted an assassination attempt on the visiting Duke of Edinburgh Prince Alfred by an Irish assassin by the name of Henry James O’Farrell.

This was an important occasion for the Australian Colonies, the first Vice Regal visit to the country. As beautifully portrayed in the pages of The Illustrated Sydney News, The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred arrived with great fanfare.

Harbour Illumination in honor of the Visit of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred to New South Wales (The Illustrated Sydney News 22 February 1868)
Visit of H.R.H. Prince Alfred to New South Wales – Harbour Reception (The Illustrated Sydney News 22 February 1868)
Supplement to The Illustrated Sydney News 23 March 1868 p.1
Supplement to The Illustrated Sydney News 25 March 1868 p.2

On the Wednesday 4th March 1868 The Prince embarked on the Steamer Morpeth, rounding Nobbys at 10 minutes to 11 o’clock that evening. They were greeted by thousands of people waiting at the wharf, with a Royal salute fired from the hill before and again after the landing at Newcastle along with rockets launched. The Royal party proceeded to the Great Northern Hotel to retire for the evening.

The formal public landing with reception and procession through Newcastle took place on the following day, Thursday 5th March 1868, then onto Morpeth and Maitland. Here is the transcription of his journey from Sydney to the Hunter River District from The Illustrated Sydney News:

 At 3 p.m. the following day, the Prince, accompanied by Earl Belmore, Commodire Lambert, Lord Newry, Lieutenant Haig, and Mr Martin, Mr Wilson, and Mr Docker, embarked aboard the H.R.S.N. Co.’s steamer Morpeth, which had been placed at the disposal of the Prince, and specially fitted up for the occasion. The vessel at once proceeded on her voyage to Newcastle, where she arrived about eleven o’clock. A royal salute was fired. The voyagers landed and proceeded to the Great Northern Hotel. The official landing took place at 10 a.m. on the 4th (should read 5th – Ed).

The Prince, accompanied by His Excellency Earl Belmore, Viscount Newry, Lieutenant Haig, Captain Beresford, the Hons J. Martin, J.B. Wilson, J. Docker, W.M. Arnold, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and Commodore Lambert, were received at the vessel’s side by the Mayor and Aldermen of Newcastle; the Right Rev. Dr Tyrrell, Bishop of Newcastle; The Right Rev. Dr Murray, R.C. Bishop of Maitland; Mr Dodds, M.L.A., Mayor of East Maitland; Mr Lee, Mayor of West Maitland; Mr Jaques, Mayor of Morpeth; Mr Munro, Mayor of Singleton; Messrs. Cooper, Wisdom, Eckford, and Lee, members of the Legislative Assembly; the Revs. Mr Selwyn, Mr D. Boyd, Mr Millard, Mr Chapman, Mr Simon, Mr J. Spicer Wood, Mr Coutts, Mr Sterton, Mr Bain, Mr Nairn, Mr E.C. Pritchard, and Mr Canon C. Walsh. On reaching the arch formed by the coal trophy the mayor of the city Mr Hannell, read the address

To His Royal Highness Prince Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, Knight of the most honorable Order of the Garter, &c., &c., &c.

We, as the mayors, aldermen and burgesses of the respective boroughs of Newcastle, East Maitland, West Maitland, Morpeth, and Singleton, and on behalf of the warden and members of the Maitland District Council and the inhabitants of the Hunter River District generally, beg most respectfully to bid your Royal Highness welcome to this important portion of the colony of New South Wales.

We can assure your Royal Highness, that in no part of the British dominions has her Most Gracious Majesty more loyal and devoted subjects than the inhabitants of this district, and that by none of the many virtues of the late Prince Consort, your Royal Highness’s illustrious father, held in more esteem and affectionate remembrance and admiration.

We further desire that your Royal Highness will accept of our assurance that, not only as the son and representative of our beloved Queen, do we rejoice in your presence among us, but that we heartily welcome you personally as the Sailor Prince of our country – a character always dear to Britons – and for the many estimable qualities we have already learn’t to recognise in your Royal Highness.

We trust that your Royal Highness will be gratified with the inspection of our district, rich as it is in mineral, agricultural, and pastoral resources, and that you will carry back with you to our distant fatherland a pleasant recollection of your visit to the Hunter River and to this colony.

JAMES HANNELL, Mayor of Newcastle,
ALEXANDER DODDS, Mayor of East Maitland,
JOHN LEE, Mayor of West Maitland,
CHARLES E. JAQUES, Mayor of Morpeth,
ALEXANDER MUNRO, Mayor of Singleton.

Coal Arch at Newcastle – Landing of His Royal Highness (Events of the 5th March 1868 from The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868 p.349)

His Royal Highness read the following reply:-

Gentlemen, the cordial unanimity and kindly feeling towards me which seems to prevail among you has very much increased the pleasure I experienced from the hearty welcome that has greeted my arrival on the shores of the Hunter.

The universal assurances of loyalty to which my arrival in these colonies has given occasion will be the source of sincere gratifications to the Queen, and this gratification will be very considerably increased by observing how general and how deep is the reverence in which the memory of my dear father is held by the people of Australia.

I am well aware that this is one of the wealthiest and most important portions of New South Wales, “rich in mineral, agricultural, and pastoral resources,” it is, therefore, with no small interest that I have looked forward to this visit, nor have I any doubt that I shall carry away with me as pleasing an impression of the country as I have already received of its inhabitants.

ALFRED.

To the mayors, aldermen and burgesses of the respective boroughs of Newcastle, East Maitland, West Maitland, Morpeth, and Singleton, and on behalf of the warden and members of the Maitland District Council and the inhabitants of the Hunter River District.

The Prince took his place in his carriage, and the procession having been formed in the following order:-

The Fire Brigade,
The Band,
The M.U. of Oddfellows, 6 abreast,
The G.U.O. of Oddfellows, ditto,
The Ancient Order of Druids, ditto,
The Ancient Order of Foresters, ditto,
The Band of the Sons of Temperance, 6 abreast,
The Guard of Honour.
The Carriage of His Royal Highness and Suite.
The Clergymen, Magistrates, and Vice Consuls of the District, 6 abreast,
The Mayors and Aldermen of the various Boroughs of the Hunter River District, 6 abreast,
The Citizens, 6 abreast,

proceeded along Hunter-street, to the Australian Agricultural Company’s Bridge, then back along into Bolton-street by Church-street, and down Watt-street to the Great Northern Hotel, where the Prince soon afterwards appeared on the balcony. School children in large numbers, drawn up in front of the hotel, commenced to sing the National Anthem from the boundary of their establishment in Church-street.

Shortly after eleven o’clock the Prince and party went by special train to the Mine of the Australian Agricultural Company, where they were received by Mr Merewether, the general superintendent. After watching the process of raising the coals the Prince, the Governor, Lord Newry, and Captain Beresford, went down the shaft, when Mr. Winship shewed and explained the process of getting out coals from the seam. Having examined a considerable portion of the mine, the party returned to the surface, and were speedily back to Newcastle.

At one o’clock His Royal Highness held a levee, when a considerable number of residents of the district paid respects to the Prince.

At three o’clock His Royal Highness and party embarked on board the Morpeth, and proceeded up the river, followed by the Coonanbara and City of Newcastle, both of which were crowded with passengers. The people assembled on the banks of the river exhibited their loyalty by the firing of guns, &c. His Royal Highness gracefully acknowledged the cheers with which his appearance was greeted. At about half past five o’clock the steamer hauled alongside the wharf at Morpeth, where an immense number of people were awaiting her arrival. When His Royal Highness stepped on the wharf the Mayor of Morpeth, welcomed him. The party then proceeded to the carriages which awaited them. As soon as the procession commenced to move, a salute of twenty-one guns was fired by the members of the Newcastle Naval Brigade. When the Prince reached the arch opposite the Courthouse the school children sang a few bars of the National Anthem. A few minutes afterwards the railway station was reached, and  on the visitors taking their seats the train moved off to East Maitland. Here another crowd had assembled, and manifestations of loyalty as enthusiastic as those of Morpeth and Newcastle were displayed. The train soon after drove back to Newcastle, where the royal party passed the night.

In the evening, Newcastle, East and West Maitland, and Morpeth, were brilliantly illuminated. At Newcastle the police office, the bank, hotels, and large houses of business exhibited large gas illuminations. On the North Shore three large bonfires were burning nearly all night, and at intervals there were displays of rockets.

The steamer Coonanbara, which had followed the Morpeth from Newcastle, was illuminated with lanterns, the line of her hull and paddle boxes being marked by red and green lamps, producing a most pleasing effect; and she also had a good display of rockets and blue lights.

At an early-hour on Friday morning the Prince and suite left Newcastle by train for Singleton, where they arrived about half past nine o’clock. His Royal Highness, accompanied by the Governor, entered the carriage of Mr W. J. Dangar, and the procession at once moved through the town. On reaching the Mechanics’ Institute a number of children sang the National Anthem very creditably. At the termination of the singing the Prince and party alighted and went into the Mechanics’ Hall, where they partook of some refreshments, inscribed their names in the visitors’ book, then drove back to the railway station, and left for Maitland.

The train stopped opposite the Court House in East Maitland, and on stepping on the platform His Royal Highness was received by the Mayor, who, on behalf of the inhabitants, offered his congratulations on the occasion of the royal visit. A salute of twenty-one guns was fired by the Naval Brigade, and His Royal Highness entered his state carriage. The procession then moved through East Maitland to High-street, West Maitland; entering the latter, hundreds of people lined the roadway, and cheered the royal visitor. On reaching the triumphal arch in West Maitland, the Mayor welcomed His Royal Highness to the town, and then took part in the procession, which was arranged in the following order:-

Vounteer Fire brigade.
Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows.
Grand United Order of Oddfellows.
Ancient Order of Foresters.
Druids.
Sons of Temperance.
Guard of Honor.
H.R.H. THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH AND SUITE.
Guard of Honor.
Bishops and Clergy of all denominations.
Mayors and Aldermen of East and West Maitland, Newcastle and Morpeth.
Members of Reception Committee.
Carriages with two horses.
Carriages with one horse.
Horsemen.

Triumphal Arch at Maitland – The Mayor Reading Address (Events of the 6th March 1868 from The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868 p.348)

Ranged along High-street were a large number of school children evidently delighted to see the Prince, whom they cheered heartily. When the Prince’s carriage reached the Northumberland Hotel, His Royal Highness entered for refreshments, and shortly after arrived at the racecourse to open the Agricultural Show. He was received y the President of the Agricultural Association, Mr. Wyndham, who pointed out to the Royal visitor the principal exhibits. At the invitation of the committee, the party then proceeded to the large marquee and took luncheon. The Mayor of West Maitland, Mr. John Lee, on behalf of the residents, presented the Governor with an address expressive of loyalty to the Queen and respect for his Excellency personally. His excellency responded in appropriate terms.

having an engagement in Sydney for the evening, His Royal Highness left a two o’clock, returned to the railway station, and was conveyed back to Newcastle.

At 3 p.m. the party re-embarked on board the Morpeth, which at once started for Sydney, where she arrived at half past eight, and enabled the prince to attend the complimentary concert given to Mrs. Meillon at the Exchange.

Corroboree held in South Australia in the presence of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh (The Illustrated Sydney News 25 March 1868 p.4)

From the 4th to the 6th March 1868 the Prince visited Newcastle, Morpeth, Maitland and Singleton on his journeys throughout the Colony. An illustration of the Arches erected in his honour at Maitland and Newcastle were published in The Illustrated Sydney News.

Coal Arch at Newcastle – Landing of His Royal Highness (Reported after the event in The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868 p.348-349)

The assassination attempt occurred on the 12 March 1868 at the Sailors’ Home Picnic at Clontaaf. The Prince had left the Royal Tent to hand over a cheque to Sir William Manning as a donation towards the Sailors’ Home.

Plan of Clontarf (The Illustrated Sydney News 25 March 1868 p.325)
The Recent Attempt on the Life of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh (The Illustrated Sydney News Supplement 25 March 1868)
Attempted Assassination of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf, Middle Harbour (The Illustrated Sydney News 25 March 1868 p.329)

The assassin fired once, striking the Prince in the back. The Prince fell to his knees, saying “Good God, my back is broken”.  According to William Vial’s Testimony the assassin aimed again at Manning, who was in line with the Prince, Manning falls to the ground, but the gun did not discharge. Mr William Vial then comes forward to restrain the assassin, and a struggle begins and pandemonium breaks out. The assassin fires again hitting George Thorne, who had rushed to the aid of the Prince and placed himself inadvertently in the firing line.

The Wounding of Mr Thorne (Sydney Morning Herald 27 March 1868 p.7)
Thorne family of Claremont, Rose Bay, Sydney, around 1877 (Courtesy of the Historic Houses Trust)

The photograph above was located through TROVE on the Historic Houses Trust website. “Family group photograph of George and Elizabeth Thorne of Claremont, Rose Bay, and Darcey Hey, Castle Hill, and their six daughters. The daughters are Annie Bisdee Pain (1843-1920), Gertrude Mary Naish (1845-1910), Rosalie Ann Watkins (1850-1927), Emily Nuttall Thorne (1851-1903), Melina Julia Thorne (1852-1887) and Ellen Elizabeth Thorne (1855-1938).”

An eye witness account by Emily Nuttall Thorne (1851-1903) sixth child of George Thorne has survived, and is preserved in the Library of New South Wales. A transcription of the account is here.

Another account, by Mr George Thorne’s wife Elizabeth, has recently also come to light, and donated to the University Archives by Newcastle Herald journalist Mr Greg Ray. This is a twelve page manuscript relating to the history of the family, to which is appended a cover note with Elizabeth Thorne’s account of the assassination attempt.

Elizabeth Thorne’s account

In March 1868 on the occasion of the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Sydney a picnic was given to him at Clontarf, we were all at it and just after lu[nch] the Prince was walking in [the] grounds, when a man named “O’Farrel rushed out from the crowd and shot at him, my husband was walking with two of my daughters, seeing the Prince fall ran to assist him and a second shot fired at the Prince entered my husband’s foot, he did not feel it but saw the blood trickling out, he was carried on board a yacht and landed at our wharf, the bullet being extracted next day. The Queen expressed a wish to see the bullet it was sent home to her and returned to me afterwards.

Read the full manuscript here:

[Manuscript] Bisdee and Thorne Family History by Elizabeth Ann Thorne (nee Bisdee) (10.3 MB PDF)

On the 14th March 1868 the bullet (or ball) was extracted from the Prince by doctors Watson and Young of the Challenger and Gallatea. 

It was found that the bullet had penetrated the back about half an inch to the right of tho vertebral column, on a level with the ninth rib, and, traversing the course of the ribs round by the right, had lodged in the flesh, not far below the surface, within two inches of the breast bone. (ISN 2 January 1869 p.5)

From the West Coast Times (2 April 1868) via the Sydney Morning Herald March 14:

An examination of the pistols has set at rest all doubt of the number of shots fired. After the first discharge, which inflicted the injury on His Royal Highness, there was a second attempt, but the pistol missed fire, the bullet remaining in the chamber. At the third attempt the cartridge exploded, and the bullet entered the foot of Mr Thorne. The pistol is not a Colt, but it is supposed to be of French manufacture. The barrel works on a hinge.

With reference to the injury to Mr George Thorne, this gentleman immediately after the occurrence, was conveyed on board one of the yachts, which took him to his residence, Claremont, Rose Bay, where he was attended by Dr Bennett and Dr Milford. It appears that Mr. Thorne had taken up a position which would enable him to obtain a good view of the Prince, and he was observing His Royal Highness and Sir William Manning, when the assassin stole up behind them and fired the shot. The Duke immediately fell to the earth, and Mr Thorne ran to his assistance. It was when standing at the side of the Prince that he was struck by the ball, aimed (as Mr Thorne thinks) at His Royal Highness, who then lay on the ground. The ball passed through Mr Thorne’s trowsers and the elastic of his boot into the inner side of his right foot, and taking an oblique course, lodged in the muscles of his heel, near the os calcis. The wound has been probed for three inches, but the ball is so placed that it cannot at present be extracted. During Thursday night Mr Thorne suffered the most acute pain, but we are happy to be enabled to state that he was yesterday much better. Dr Bennett saw Mr Thorne again yesterday. The patient is progressing exceedingly well, the foot is not much swollen, and a confident hope is entertained of a speedy and a favourable cure. Much sympathy is very generally felt throughout the community with Mr Thorne in the unfortunate occurrence which has befallen him.

The assassination attempt brought much shame to the wider Australian public that saw themselves as British subjects first and foremost. Australia was portrayed both as revengeful wraith as well as suppliant dame.

Australia, Vindex – Remember the Ides of March “More than thy flesh, our honor felt the wound” – The Illustrated Sydney News 25 March 1868 p331
Australia Supplex – The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868

AUSTRALIA SUPPLEX. New South Wales (loquitur) –
“I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall this unlucky deed relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.”

“All Right Again” – The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868

On the 20th March 1868 a public meeting was held at the Exchange to begin raising funds for the establishment of “Alfred Memorial Hospital” in Sydney, with around £4,000 already raised. The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, especially founded to commemorate this thwarted assassination attempt, was officially opened in 1882.

By at least 1930 Thorne’s role in saving the Prince had been all but forgotten.

Clontarf Tablet – Sydney Morning Herald 4th July 1930 p.8

It is with great pleasure that we restore this unsung hero back into the Australian Story.

Gionni Di Gravio
September 2011

Related digitised documents:

The Attempted Assassination of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh (The Illustrated Sydney News 25 March 1868 pp.322-323)
‘The Prince’s Visit to Australia’ – The Illustrated Sydney News p.347
“The Trial of Henry James O’Farrell for the Attempted Murder of His Royal Highness Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Edinburgh” – The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868 p.350
“The Trial of Henry James O’Farrell for the Attempted Murder of His Royal Highness Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Edinburgh” – The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868 p.351
“The Trial of Henry James O’Farrell for the Attempted Murder of His Royal Highness Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Edinburgh” – The Illustrated Sydney News 20 April 1868 pp.354-355
“Execution of O’Farrell for the Attempted Murder of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh” The Illustrated Sydney News 16 May 1868 p.363
Farewell to the Prince – The “Galatea” Passing the Heads (From The Illustrated Sydney News May 1868 p.369)

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