March19th,1932 was a beautiful day in Sydney. The sky was cloudless, the sea was still and a million people gathered on the city’s streets. Six years of toil had reached its climax. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was to be finally opened.
Captain Francis De Groot
Captain Francis De Groot was one of the million spectators. He was an Irishman who had served in World War I and come to Australia in 1920. He worked in Sydney as an antique dealer and valuer and at one stage had worked for the government.
De Groots politics were far to the right. He believed that the Labor Party Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang, was a communist. Lang had decided to default on foreign loans during the Depression. As most of those loans were from English banks, the royalist De Groot saw this as evidence of unacceptable red leanings.
De Groot infiltrates the official party
That beautiful day, De Groot, wearing his Hussars uniform was mounted on a horse outside Government House in Macquarie Street Sydney. He watched as the official opening party of the Bridge made its way out the gate. De Groot, hanging back, joined the rear guard and followed the parade to the Harbour Bridge.
When they reached their destination, the Captain mingled with the mounted police, then rode his horse back and forth, looking for the ribbon which would be cut to mark the official opening. De Groot saw it, mixed again with the official crowd and hid near a cinesound truck, watching the ribbon being stretched across the road.
Sydney Harbour Bridge – The Unofficial Opening
De Groot listened to the Governor’s speech and watched the official party on the platform as the national anthem played. He was disgusted with their attitude. They remained seated and smoking as “God Save the King” floated in the air. After the last notes faded, the Captain, bristling with anger, unsheathed the sword by his side and lunging forward, cut the ribbon, declaring the bridge open.
He was immediately detained by police. The ribbon was tied back together and Premier Jack Lang officially opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge, re-cutting the ribbon.
De Groot was taken to a reception centre for the insane, where he was examined by a doctor. It was determined that he was of sound mind and he was released on bail.
The De Groot incident caused a sensation. He was charged with several offences including damaging a ribbon and threatening the police. Riotous crowds greeted his appearance in court and the street outside was filled with a cheering and jeering throng. The boisterous scenes were filmed, but never shown due to censorship by the government.
The Captain had a strong defence. He pled not guilty and was eventually convicted of offensive behaviour in a public place. He was fined 5 pounds.
In retaliation De Groot counter-sued for wrongful arrest and was awarded compensation.
Francis De Groot died in Ireland in 1969. The horse he rode that day died in 1933, but De Groot made a bronze for the owner as a souvenir. The sword he used to open the bridge is in the possession of the Bridge Climb museum in Sydney and pieces of the ribbon are reportedly at the city’s library.