Saturday, 19 March 1932, the day of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the most significant occasions in the history of the city of Sydney. The public mood, however, was apprehensive more than it was festive. As one senior journalist later reflected, ‘the city was jumpy, jumpy as I’ve never known it since’. For one thing, the leader of the right-wing New Guard had vowed that Premier Lang would not open the Bridge. The police and security authorities were concerned that the New Guard might kidnap the premier, and stage a coup d’etat. All eyes scanned the horizon, awaiting the approach of an angry right-wing mob.
Into these confused and tense circumstances rode a lone horseman, wielding an ex-cavalry sword. He was Captain Francis De Groot, a former Hussar and Irishman- also a senior member of the New Guard. Slashing the ribbon with his sword he declared the Sydney Harbour Bridge open ‘in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales’.
Relying upon hitherto unused archival material, as well as manuscripts found in Ireland, Andrew Moore tells the story of the Bridge opening in all its colourful detail. This sheds fresh light on the bizarre circumstances that had brought New South Wales to the brink of civil war.
Irish Fascist. Australian Legend is also the first biography to be published of Francis De Groot. The handsome, enigmatic Irishman grew up in Dublin, a member of an elite Irish Huguenot family. Prior to World War One he worked as a merchant seaman, coal lumper and antique dealer. After serving on the Western Front, he returned to Sydney to manufacture reproduction furniture of the finest quality.
Captain De Groot became part of Australian folklore for his part in the Harbour Bridge opening. Yet, through furniture and antiques, his contribution to the cultural life of his adopted city and country was as profound as his celebrated role in opening Sydney’s famous ‘Coathanger’.
Shortlisted for THE STATE RECORDS NSW – JOHN AND PATRICIA WARD HISTORY PRIZE 2006 (New South Wales Premier’ s History Awards).
A NSW Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government publication.
This book is a fascinating read, meticulously researched and offering fresh insights into the social and political environment inhabited, and to an extent shaped, by one individual. - Australian Historical Studies, Vol 129, 2007
Moore shows with his excellent research in Ireland and Australia, [that] the De Groot incident is part of an absorbing wider story involving the first dismissal of an Australian head of government, half-baked attempts to kidnap a premier, pitched battles in the suburbs of Sydney and plans to install dictators of NSW. - Baron Alder, The Australian 21-22 January 2006
Many people remember [De Groot] as a fanatic, an eccentric, or a joke. But this gracious, scholarly and surprisingly tender book reveals that there was a great deal more to Frank de Groot – and a great deal to be admired. The author is Andrew Moore, the leading authority on Australia’s conservative militias of the 1920s and 1930s. And make no mistake, Moore still sees these groups ... as having a dangerous fascist potential.
But here’s the surprise. According to Moore, De Groot’s famous protest helped to keep that very potential in check. The blow he struck against Jack Lang was a blow for democracy. ...
Moore’s great insight is that ... [De Groot] performed a feat so potent, so symbolic and so peaceful that honour was satisfied – and violence was spared. ...
Gerard Henderson ... ridiculed this book as “the fascists the left would have us believe in” and suggested that Moore had parodied De Groot as some kind of Nazi. In fact, Moore writes of De Groot with respect as a punctilious, brave and principled King-and-Empire man. Far from being a book of predictable left-wing judgments, this is a dignified work of patient scholarship and unexpected insights. It deserves to win awards. - Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol 52 (3), September 2006
The refusal of Harry Greatrex to blow the whistle on Francis de Groot as he charged the 1932 Sydney Harbour Bridge opening ceremony is advanced by Andrew Moore as one possible reason why the right-wing New Guard leader accomplished his extraordinary snub to NSW Premier Jack Lang so smoothly. ... Such details make Moore’s new book an important milestone. Antique aficionados wiill not be disappointed by the coverage of Australia’s antique-dealing history as well as its politics. - Terry Ingram, Australian Financial Review, 15 December 2005
Moore’s rousing and thoroughly researched biography is highly recommended. ... Rest assured, De Groot was neither insane nor a clown, he was an obsessed and “get-it-done” fascist taking on bolshevism and the restless unemployed. - Peter Kiernan, Taïn, No 43 2006
... in this impressively researched, delightfully written and entertaining book, Andrew Moore comes as close as is possible to telling us everything we need to know about this man on horseback. Moore demonstrates rare skill in distinguishing facts from fictions (including some spread by De Groot himself). ...
Moore’s analysis shows a sure grasp of the realities of political life that is sometimes missing among political historians. ...
Moore skilfully evokes De Groot’s personality and his time but without the excesses of empathy that marks some recent Australian political historiography, and we finish this book with an awareness of how far De Groot went and how much further he, an ordinary man of Australian fascism, might have gone. This is an excellent book and could be recommended to students as an example of historical writing. - Geoff Robinson, Labour History No 91, November 2006
This fascinating book ... the myth-like statutes still surrounding the story of De Groot and his unofficial ‘opening’ of the Harbour Bridge is similar to that of Simpson and his donkey. - Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney Morning Herald, 21-22 January 2006
It’s one of the most famous larrikin acts in Australian history, the cutting of the ceremonial ribbon to open the Sydney Harbour Bridge by some coot on horseback before the official party could do the honours. But most of us little or nothing about who did it.
This portrait of a right-wing reactionary figure named Francis De Groot seeks to redress that state of affairs. From his Irish origins – Dutch Huguenot family – we are given the tale of someone who went to sea in his teens, saw much of the world and settled in Sydney.
He may have become one of Australian history’s nuts, but this is an excellent political biography. It is a sympathetic and detached story about an intelligent and charming fascist with a lot of go, impressive enough to become a noted furniture manufacturer who moved in Sydney’s best circles. - The Age, 10 December 2005
The book is a complete history of this extraordinary life, De Groot’s marriage, his participation in Sydney’s cultural life and particularly his involvement with the New Guard. ... The book has been well researched and notated. - History No 89, Sep 2006
This book is a thorough, fair-minded account of both the bridge melodrama and its perpetrator, as well as much of the political background, using press reports, police material, interviews with eyewitnesses and especially the relentless flow over half a century of reminiscences, including De Groot’s own.
Its importance is as a snapshot of the upsurge of fascist-like activity in the alarmed Australia of the Great Depression, when a third of the workforce was unemployed, the ‘dole’ was a meagre handout of rations, and continued brawling between extremes of Right and Left seemed to threaten civil war, especially in hard-hit Sydney. To this extent there was a resemblance with the rise of Hitler’s Nazism in Germany. Moore also says the NSW “establishment” families, those established with wealth before responsible government in the 1850s, were still uneasy, three-quarters of a century later, about raw, messy democracy -The similarities soon ended, though.
The most important difference was that the fascist drive was weak and quickly fizzled out, with hardly the remotest chance of success. And it also, as Andrew Moore points out, lacked the anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist character of European, particularly German fascism. The local Right had Jewish members. Such minor distinctively Australian nationalism and anti-Semitism as there was was on the Left. The Right’s cause was Empire loyalty. ... - Robert Murray, Quadrant, April 2006, 90
Andrew Moore’s interesting volume reveals the significance of the New Guard movement with de Groot was associated. - Journal of Australian Political Economy
Table of Contents
Abbreviations Acknowledgements Foreword
A Dublin Childhood
Street Fighting Man
Opening the ‘De Groot Bridge’
Debating the Legend
Toast of the town
Among the Reds