Francis de Groot

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Francis de Groot
Francis Edward de Groot

(1888-10-24)24 October 1888
Died1 April 1969(1969-04-01) (aged 80)
OccupationParamilitary member, antique dealer
MovementNew Guard
Spouse(s)Mary Elizabeth Byrne

Francis Edward de Groot (24 October 1888 – 1 April 1969) was an Irish-Australian army officer and zone commander of the right-wing paramilitary, the New Guard. He is most notable for upstaging former New South Wales Premier Jack Lang at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 where he, under command of New Guard leader Eric Campbell, opened the bridge on horseback before Lang could. This was in protest of Lang’s staunch anti-monarchism, where at the opening ceremony he refused to allow the New South Wales Governor Sir Philip Game to open it on behalf of King George V.

A Dubliner born into a family of artisans, de Groot enlisted into the British Army at age 13, first into the Merchant Navy and then into various Irish regiments until 1910, where he moved to Australia after completing a five-year apprenticeship with his uncle. Establishing connections with publishing company Angus & Robertson in their antiques trade, de Groot returned to Ireland to serve on the Western Front during World War I, attaining the rank of Captain. After the war he moved back to Australia with wife Mary Elizabeth Byrne, establishing a furniture company in Sydney servicing large companies such as David Jones.

Due to worries concerning the changing political landscape during the Great Depression, de Groot joined the New Guard in September 1931 and attained the rank of zone commander, where six months later he would cause controversy at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March 1932. De Groot, carrying on the orders of Eric Campbell, prevented Premier Jack Lang from cutting the ribbon, slashing it himself with his ceremonial sword. De Groot was pulled down from his horse and initially charged for insanity, later receiving the charges of damaging government property and hooliganism. Following a lawsuit for wrongful arrest, de Groot was awarded an out-of-court settlement and the return of his ceremonial sword.

After the incident, de Groot returned to his furniture business, continuing his high-profile services including refurbishing the New Australia Hotel and carving a suite of furniture for Governor-General Isaac Isaacs. De Groot would serve in World War II in several posts around Australia and abroad, later returning to Dublin in 1950 with his wife. He passed away in a nursing home on 1 April 1969.

Early life and military service[edit]

Francis Edward de Groot was born in Dublin, Ireland on 24 October 1888,[1] as the youngest son of sculptor Cornelius de Groot and wife Mary, née Butler. His family were the descendants of the de Groots of Antwerp, who were famous wood carvers in the region, and in fact Cornelius was among those who received medals for their wood carving during the Great Exhibition of 1851. De Groot received his education at the Blackrock and Belvedere colleges in Dublin, thereafter joining the British Merchant Navy at the age of 13. De Groot in 1907 enlisted in the South of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry, and later in 1909 spent six months living in army barracks with the 5th Dragoon Guards. He later moved to Australia in 1910 after completing a five-year apprenticeship with uncle and antique dealer Michael Butler.

Due to his connections with the antiques business in the British Isles, de Groot was able to partner with publishing company Angus & Robertson in the opening of an art gallery at their Castlereagh Street store. According to de Groot the company gave him an allowance of £10,000 to procure British antiques for the gallery, one being an 1851 wine cooler carved from yew wood which is thought to be the same one currently in the hands of the National Trust of Australia. De Groot would enjoy a steady career as an antiques dealer.

The outbreak of World War I, however, prompted him to move back to Ireland in 1914, where he would enlist in the 15th Hussars to engage in combat on the Western Front. He was later transferred to the 15th Tank Battalion as acting captain, being awarded a ceremonial sword. After the end of the war, he married Galway native Mary Elizabeth Byrne and moved to Sydney with her in May 1920. Using his experience with Angus & Robertson, he opened his own furniture manufacturing company at Rushcutters Bay. Specialising in Queensland maple, he employed 200 artisans by 1927 according to de Groot’s own metrics, engaging in significant projects such as the refurbishment of all David Jones department stores.

The New Guard and Sydney Harbour Bridge incident[edit]

Captain de Groot declares the Sydney Harbour Bridge open.

By 1929, the Great Depression had begun and Australia suffered tremendously, being hit by years of high unemployment, poverty, low profits, deflation, plunging incomes, and lost opportunities for economic growth and personal advancement. The handling of this economic depression by New South Wales Premier Jack Lang unsettled de Groot, fearing that he and his premiership would endanger Australia and turn it towards embracing communism. De Groot, a passionate loyalist to the British Empire, joined the New Guard in September 1931, and would climb the ranks as a respected member of the movement. His influence within the New Guard reached its apex in February 1932, now being both a zone commander and a senior member of the movement’s council of action. He had been a veteran of street battles between the movement and the police, and a trusted intermediary between Eric Campbell, the movement’s leader, and Attorney-General John Latham.

Campbell, an ardent and militant opponent of Lang, vowed that he should not perform his duties in opening the newly constructed Sydney Harbour Bridge. Upholding his vow, de Groot mounted a chestnut horse borrowed from the daughter of New Guard fellow Albert Reichard, and on 19 March 1932 rode to the opening ceremony of 300,000 people[2] where, on horseback and dressed in his military uniform, he was able to blend in with the escort party of New South Wales Lancers. Before Lang could cut the ribbon to formally open the bridge, de Groot rode forward and drew his ceremonial sword, making to cut the ribbon and declare the bridge open "in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales".[3] While many accounts say de Groot succeeded in slashing the ribbon, at least one eyewitness has disputed the claim and suggested it was probably broken by the hooves of his rearing horse.[4]

De Groot declared that the act was in protest of the New South Wales Governor, Sir Philip Game, not being invited to perform the ceremony on behalf of King George V as per tradition. The Mayor of North Sydney, Hubert 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.

William Mackay, Chief of the New South Wales Police Force pulled de Groot from his horse, arrested him, and confiscated his ceremonial sword. Initially he was taken to a small police station attached to the toll house on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Later in the day he was sent to the Lunatic Reception House at Darlinghurst, where he was formally charged with being insane and not under proper care and control.[5] On the same afternoon de Groot was examined by Dr. Eric Hilliard, psychiatrist and medical superintendent of Parramatta Mental Hospital, who determined that de Groot was not insane. The following day de Groot was examined by Professor W.S. Dawson, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Sydney, and by Dr. John McPherson. Both doctors found him to be completely sane.[6]

On Monday 21 March 1932 de Groot appeared before stipendiary magistrate Mr. McDougall, for the hearing of the charge of insanity. Chief MacKay gave evidence to the effect that de Groot's actions on the Bridge were those of an insane man. Subsequently Dr. Eric Hilliard gave his opinion, based on his examination of de Groot, that de Groot was sane. The magistrate subsequently ordered de Groot's discharge from the Reception House.[7]

De Groot was subsequently charged with three offences. The three charges brought against him were:

  • Having maliciously damaged a ribbon which was the property of the Government of New South Wales to the value of £2;
  • Having behaved in an offensive manner in a public place; and
  • Having used threatening words to Inspector Stuart Robson in a public place.[8]

The charges were heard on the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th of April 1932 in the Central Police Court before Mr. John Laidlaw, Chief Stipendiary Magistrate of New South Wales.[9] While the first and third charges laid against him were dismissed, the Magistrate did find de Groot guilty of offensive behaviour in Bradfield Highway – a public place. He was fined the maximum penalty of £5, with £4 in costs. The Magistrate found that "... the actions of the defendant were grossly offensive, provocative, and clearly unlawful.[10]

Later life[edit]

After the court case was finalised, de Groot sued the New South Wales police 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. After Jack Lang was dismissed from his premiership in May of the incident, de Groot in November broke ties with Campbell and intended to persuade members of the New Guard to join the League of National Security, of which he had begun to establish ties with – though whether he acted on this is unknown.

Thereafter, de Groot returned to his manufacturing and refurbishing business, where he continued to enjoy financial success in Sydney servicing high-profile clients. One of his clients was the Governor-General of Australia at the time Sir Isaac Isaacs, for whom he made a suite of furniture, one of the pieces being a ceremonial chair now in the care of the The Mitchell and Dixson bequests (1900–1929). As World War II erupted, de Groot held several postings including being commandant at the Greta Army Camp. De Groot’s previous connections with the New Guard drew uneasiness from his men, as Campbell’s alliance with Mussolini’s Italy during this time made de Groot appear to be a fascist sympathiser. Other posts included those in Tamworth and at the Sydney Showground at Moore Park, later joining a six-month attachment to the United States Army in the South Pacific Area.

After the war’s end, he would return to Dublin once more, being active in the Irish Australian Society. He died on 1 April 1969 in a Dublin nursing home. Before his death, de Groot indicated he would like to see his ceremonial sword used in the Sydney Harbour Bridge incident 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 Paul Cave, the founder and chairman of BridgeClimb Sydney, the tourism company that conducts climbs across the Harbour Bridge.


  1. ^ Moore, p. 13
  2. ^ "Harbour Bridge Opening". One Hundred Objects Exhibition. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  3. ^ Moore, p. 97
  4. ^ W.S.Hamilton, "Big day on the Bridge", The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1972
  5. ^ Wright, p. 101
  6. ^ Wright, p. 103-104
  7. ^ Wright, p. 108-109
  8. ^ "De Groot Charged". The Sydney Morning Herald. 23 March 1932. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  9. ^ Wright, p. 127-130
  10. ^ "De Groot. Maximum Penalty". The Sydney Morning Herald. 7 April 1932. Retrieved 23 April 2013.

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