Francis (Frank) de Groot is known for his actions at the Sydney Harbour Bridge in which he upstaged the then Premier of NSW, Jack Lang, by cutting the ribbon of the bridge himself.
Born of Irish stock on 24 October 1888 in Dublin, Ireland, Francis’s political views were heavily influenced by his father. He joined a conservative paramilitary group called the “New Guard” which was formed in Sydney, Australia in February 1931. He was the youngest son of Cornelius de Groot and Mary nee Butler.
When de Groot was 13 he joined the Merchant Navy and then completed a 5-year apprenticeship with his uncle Michael Butler, who was an antique dealer. This work experience would serve him well in the future as it would form the basis of his future career.
Soldiery also formed a part of his career. Frank’s time in the Navy then progressed to a career in the Army. In 1907 he joined the South of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry. In 1909 he completed 6 months in the barracks of the 5th Dragoons. When WWI exploded onto the international scene, Frank was in Ireland where he enlisted in the 15th Hussars and saw battle on the Western Front. Frank then transferred to the 15th Tank Battalion where he held the rank of acting captain.
Frank was described by his Commanding Officer as an “Excellent disciplinarian and leader of men, a very determined officer with plenty of dash”. His time in the field was marked with distinction. He enjoyed his time as a soldier so much so that there is evidence that indicates his willingness to volunteer his services to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia.
If this is true, it would not be surprising as Frank had joined a conservative paramilitary group determined to undermine and oust the Labor Premier Jack Lang who they perceived to be implementing communism by stealth.
Many of the members of the New Guard were soldiers who had fought in WWI, thus their loyalist nationalism dictated their actions and informed their beliefs.
Furthermore, they had seen the communist revolution of 1917 in Russia and many believed that if “it could happen down there, it could happen here”. This, combined with the perceived communist sympathies and socialist tendencies of Premier Jack Lang, led to the formation of the New Guard.
Frank’s career in the furniture business came about as a result of a combination of luck and expertise. The bookshop chain Angus and Robertson was established in 1886 in Australia. George Robertson had built a lending library called the “Sydney book club” in 1895. In 1909 he decided to expand the library by adding an art gallery. It is at this point in time where the “luck of the Irish” rang true.
A young newly-arrived and job-seeking de Groot had entered the library in 1910 and had by chance encountered the director of the library Fred Wymark. The conversation materialised to the point where Fred realised just how knowledgeable young de Groot was when it came to antiques and furniture. This knowledge largely stemmed from his 5-year apprenticeship during his time in Ireland.
De Groot was given the opportunity to become the “Specialist manager” on the art and furniture aspect of the art gallery, given his wealth of knowledge on the subject as well as his entrepreneurial connections.
It was agreed that he would contact his brother Cornelius in Ireland who would supply valuable products to Sydney along with a monthly shipment. Cornelius responded positively and so began de Groot’s career in the furniture trade in Australia. According to de Groot, Robertson wrote a cheque to him in the sum of 10,000 pounds in payment of this business relationship.
Prior to de Groot’s political activism in the thirties, he married Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Byrne on 25 October 1919. Almost a year later, in May 1920, Francis and Bessie migrated to Australia. It is in this period of time where he earned his entrepreneurial reputation as a businessman and cultural pioneer. He created his own business which designed and produced furniture of the highest quality.
By 1927 he was able to boast that he employed over 200 artisans at his Rushcutters Bay factory. In 1920 he was at the forefront of cultural life in Sydney due to his reputation for promoting and distributing antiques and other furniture.
He described his business as “antiques of the future” and they certainly were as the richest customers lined up to purchase de Groot’s furniture. He had at this point in time not only established his business but also his reputation and unofficial entrance into the “worthy class” of Australia. “Worthies” would often ask for his opinion and he certainly enjoyed basking in the limelight of attention. For instance, Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs requested a ceremonial chair to be produced by de Groot. Furthermore, David Jones retailer was refitted using de Groot’s furniture. It is this entrepreneurial aspect of de Groot’s life that is often ignored and overshadowed by his controversial political activism.
According to records by the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) on Francis de Groot in 1932, he was considered a highly respectable and fascinating individual. It was found that he descended from a family of Dutch Huguenots who had settled Dublin some 300 years earlier due to the persecution of the Protestants in various parts of Europe. The Huguenots in Dublin embedded themselves into the elite Irish classes.
In de Groot’s autobiography, he does lightly reference his Huguenot ancestry. It seems odd that while descended from persecuted Protestants, Frank was baptised a Catholic and assimilated into the Irish identity given that he sympathised with the Irish nationalism espoused by John Redmond, yet he was simultaneously a fervent Empire loyalist.
On 19 March 1932, de Groot became the talk of the nation after he upstaged NSW Jack Lang at the official opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In front of a crowd of 300 000 people, de Groot rushed forward on horseback and cut the ribbon of the bridge right before Premier Jack Lang was poised to do so. He unofficially opened the bridge on behalf of the “decent and respectable people of New South Wales”. De Groot had managed to admix with military officials who were present which is why no one noticed his presence and he was able to execute his scheme.
As a result of his daring act, W. J. Mackay, then chief of the Commonwealth Police pulled Frank off his horse, arresting him and confiscating his sword. He was immediately sent to a local police station and later on in the day, to the Lunatic Reception House in Darlinghurst.
In the days that followed he was examined by three doctors, including Professor W. S. Dawson, Dr John McPherson and Dr Eric Hillier. All the doctors ruled that Francis was indeed sane. At the court hearing on 21 March 1932, Detective Superintendent Mackay presented evidence which sought to paint de Groot’s actions as those of an insane man. Dr Eric Hillier however presented his evidence and Frank was subsequently released from the Lunatic Reception House.
Despite this small victory, de Groot was subsequently charged with three offences including offensive public behaviour, the use of threatening words to a member of the public, and damage to Commonwealth property. The court determined that “the actions of the defendant were grossly offensive, provocative, and clearly unlawful.” He was therefore charged with offensive behaviour while the other two charges were dismissed.
He was fined a total of 5 pounds with 4 pounds in costs. De Groot eventually sued the government for wrongful arrest on the grounds that it was illegal to arrest an Officer of the Hussars. An out-of-court settlement was reached. In the final analysis, de Groot actually made a profit from the whole saga.
His sword was also returned to him as a result of the court case. Francis then returned to Ireland where he passed away, however before his death he did wish to see the sword return to Australia. It was found in the hands of his nephew on a farm in County Wicklow. The sword was fittingly bought by Paul Cave the founder of Bridge Climb Sydney, which is the business that conducts climbs across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.