Francis Edward de Groot (24 October 1888 – 1 April 1969) was a member of the right-wing New Guard of Australia, who was most famous for the protest when he "opened" the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, before the New South Wales Premier Jack Lang could do so.
Francis de Groot was born in Dublin, Ireland on 24 October 1888. 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 more left-wing government and the socialist views of the Premier, Jack Lang. Many of the members of the New Guard were men who had served in World War 1.
He became famous when on Saturday 19 March 1932, he upstaged Lang at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, before a crowd of 300,000 people. He was not a member of the official party but, on horseback and dressed in his military uniform, he was able to blend in with the escort party of NSW Lancers. Lang was about to cut the ribbon to formally open the bridge, when 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". 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.
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.
W.J. Mackay, Chief of the CBI 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. 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 Sydney University, and by Dr. John McPherson. Both doctors found him to be completely sane.
On Monday 21 March 1932 de Groot appeared before Mr. McDougall, Stipendiary Magistrate, for the hearing of the charge of insanity. Detective Superintendent 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.
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.
The charges were heard on the 1st, 4th, 5 and 6 April 1932 in the Central Police Court in Liverpool Street, Sydney before Mr. John Laidlaw, Chief Stipendiary Magistrate of New South Wales.
Whilst 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."
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. De Groot managed to make a profit out of the whole charade. 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 Paul Cave, the founder and chairman of Bridge Climb Sydney, the tourism company that conducts climbs across the Harbour Bridge.
The horse ridden by de Groot at the opening ceremony was a 16.2-hand chestnut named "Mick". The horse belonged to a Pymble schoolgirl, Margo Reichard, and was borrowed by the leader of the New Guard, Eric Campbell, from her father Albert Reichard. After the escapade, the horse was initially taken to the Mounted Police Barracks before being returned to its owner. In about 1933 the horse had a fall whilst being ridden by Albert Reichard, and had to be put down.