King William IV was not popular with the British public when he attended Ascot Races on Tuesday, June 23, 1832, known as The Royal Meeting.
He was interfering with political movement for reform at the time, which challenged the wealthy and included demands for extension of the franchise.
He was known as the “Sailor King,” having served in the Royal Navy since the age of 13 when he started as a Midshipman. He had been in battle and retired as a Rear Admiral.
There was at least one other Naval man there, a one-legged sailor from Cork who was not happy with the King.
After the first race finished, the King was standing at the window of the Royal Stand when he suddenly shouted: “Oh my God, I am hit” and staggered back with his hand to his forehead. As he struggled to his feet another stone crashed into the Royal Box. It was thought that he had been shot, but examination showed he had been hit by a stone and the rim of his hat had cushioned the blow.
The King struggled to his feet and waved at the crowd below the box to show them he was alright. A struggle was going on as some of them grappled with the person who had thrown the stones.
Bow Street Runners, then the police, detained the man.
“The prisoner was wretched, wearing the tattered garb of a sailor and propped on a wooden leg of the most rude construction. In answer to questions he said his name was Dennis Collins and that he was a native of Cork,” they said.
Investigations showed that Collins lost his leg aboard HMS Atalanta. He had been invalided as a Pensioner to Greenwich Hospital, with a pension of £10. After four years he had become an outpatient, obtained a job but lost it for misconduct. He returned to Greenwich, where he was often in trouble and accused of “riotous and disgraceful conduct.” After four incidents of expulsion and return, on the fifth occasion, Collins was turned out permanently without a pension.
“He petitioned the King to have it restored, but was without means of support, became desperate and determined to be revenged on the King,” said the police.
Attacking the King was High Treason.
Charged at Berkshire Assizes, Collins said he was sorry and “hoped his Majesty would have mercy on him.” He was sentenced to death. This was commuted and, having been given a new wooden leg, he was transported to Port Arthur, the harshest prison location in Van Diemen’s Land.
There he several times refused to do convict labour and was put into solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water. He was said to have told prison authorities he “would neither do the King’s work nor eat the King’s bread.” At the age of 58, he died a convict on November 1, 1833.
His story was told to me by author and historian, Cormac Lowth, who said that reports of the time gave Collins’ place of birth as Kilgarrow, Co. Cork.
“It seems likely, in view of his strong Cork accent, that he was misunderstood and his address was more likely Kilgarriiff, a townland near Clonakilty. It is interesting to speculate whether he could be distantly related to a namesake of his from Co. Cork who, in later times, would also cause headaches to the British Empire – Michael Collins!”