Francis de Groot: Wikis

  
  

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Captain de Groot declares the Sydney Harbour Bridge open.

Colonel Francis Edward de Groot (24 October 1888 - 1 April 1969) holds a notorious place in Australian history for his high-profile upstaging of New South Wales Premier Jack Lang at the official opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932.

Contents

Life

Francis de Groot was born and died in Dublin, Ireland. He served in the 15th Hussars on the western front in World War I, where he was awarded a ceremonial sword. Moving to Australia, he was an antique dealer and furniture manufacturer in Sydney. One of his clients was the Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs, for whom he made a ceremonial chair. He joined a right-wing paramilitary organisation called the New Guard, which was politically opposed to the rather more left-wing government of the Premier, Jack Lang.

Sydney Harbour Bridge incident

He became famous when on 19 March 1932, he upstaged Lang at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He was not a member of the official party, but dressed in his military uniform he was able to blend in with other soldiers on horseback who were guarding the dignitaries. Lang was about to cut the ribbon to formally open the bridge, when de Groot rode forward, drew his ceremonial sword and, reaching down from his mount, flamboyantly slashed the ribbon, declaring the bridge open "in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales."

He said this was in protest that the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game, had not been invited to perform the ceremony. The Mayor of North Sydney, Alderman Primrose, an official participant at the opening ceremony, was also a member of the New Guard, but whether he was involved in planning de Groot's act is unknown.

De Groot was arrested, and his ceremonial sword confiscated. He was sent to the Reception House, but legal intervention soon had him released. He was then charged in the Supreme Court with carrying a cutting weapon, but when he was able to show that he was an officer in the military reserve and entitled to wear his uniform, which included his sword, that was soon dropped. Then he was charged with offensive behaviour. At the time this charge only applied to public property, and the law case then depended on whether the unopened bridge was public or private land. If private land, the charge had to fail, and if public, it meant that the road across the bridge was part of the King's highway, and under common law any of His Majesty's subjects was entitled to remove any obstacle, including ribbons, barring free progress along the King's Highway. In the end the court fined him £5 for trespassing. A large part of the plan to humiliate Lang was for all of de Groot's acts to be legal.

After the court case he sued for wrongful arrest on the grounds that a police officer had no right to arrest an officer of the Hussars. An out-of-court settlement was reached, and de Groot's ceremonial sword was returned to him. He later returned to Ireland where he died.

Before his death, de Groot indicated he would like to see the sword returned to Australia. In 2004, the sword was found on a farm in County Wicklow, in the possession of de Groot's nephew. Plans were announced to have it valued and returned to Australia, possibly as a display at the National Museum of Australia. However, the Museum was outbid by the owner of the business that conducts tours of the bridge.

The horse ridden by de Groot at the opening ceremony was a 16.5-hand chestnut named "Mick". The horse belonged to a Turramurra schoolgirl, Margo Wishart, and was borrowed by the leader of the New Guard, Eric Campbell, from her father. The horse, which was returned to its owner after de Groot's escapade, lived to an old age.

Sources

  • In the Name of Decent Citizens: The Trials of Frank de Groot by Brian Wright, ABC Books, Sydney 2006.
  • Francis De Groot: Irish Fascist Australian Legend by Andrew Moore, ABC Books, Sydney 2005.

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