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De Groot, Francis Edward (Frank) (1888–1969)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Francis Edward (Frank) De Groot (1888-1969), antique dealer and member of the New Guard, was born on 24 October 1888 at 23 Upper Liffey Street, Dublin, youngest son of Cornelius De Groot, a sculptor of Dutch Huguenot descent, and his wife Mary, née Butler, from a Clonmel family of Norman Irish background. After a pre-emptory and unhappy schooling at Blackrock and Belvedere colleges, Frank joined the merchant navy, aged 13. He completed a five-year apprenticeship to his uncle Michael Butler, an antique dealer, before migrating to Australia in 1910.

When the booksellers George Robertson and Fred Wymark opened a city art gallery that also sold antiquities, De Groot's knowledge and connections with the trade in Dublin and London proved invaluable. He claimed to have been advanced £10,000 by Robertson to purchase antiques for resale in Sydney and quickly became a minor celebrity as a purveyor of fine, antique furniture.

Soldiering was De Groot's other passion. In 1907 he had joined the South of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry and in 1909 spent six months in barracks with the 5th Dragoon Guards. In 1914 he was in Ireland, where he enlisted in the 15th Hussars. He served with distinction on the Western Front, later transferring to the 15th Tank Battalion with the rank of acting captain. His commanding officer described him as an 'Excellent disciplinarian and leader of men, a very determined officer with plenty of dash'. There is some evidence that early in April 1919 he volunteered to serve in Russia to fight Bolsheviks. On 25 October at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church, Donnybrook, Dublin, he married Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Byrne of Portumna, Galway.

The couple came to Sydney in May 1920. De Groot enhanced his reputation when, specializing in Queensland maple, he opened a business designing, manufacturing and marketing reproduction furniture of the highest quality. This was his most profound contribution to the city of Sydney. By 1927 he claimed to employ a staff of 200 artisans at his factory at Rushcutters Bay. Major commissions included a lavish refit of the retailer David Jones Ltd's department stores.

De Groot's politics were conservative. While he claimed sympathy with the conservative Irish nationalism of John Redmond, in essence he was an ardent Empire loyalist. As the Depression hit Australia, he became increasingly concerned about the depredations of the Labor premier J. T. Lang and communists, and joined the proto-fascist New Guard of Eric Campbell in September 1931. By February 1932 he was a zone commander, a senior member of the council of action and a veteran of many street mêlées. Campbell regarded him as a trusted intermediary in dealing with the Commonwealth attorney-general (Sir) John Latham.

On 19 March 1932 De Groot became the unofficial central actor at the ceremonial opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, which Campbell had vowed that Lang would not perform. Either to prevent his leader from losing face or to deflect him or others from more militant action, De Groot insinuated himself into the vice-regal entourage. Mounted on horseback, at the crucial moment he slashed the opening ribbon with his sword, declaring the bridge open 'in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales'. Dragged from his horse by irate police, he was escorted to the Darlinghurst reception centre, where he survived the suggestion that he was insane. Though convicted of offensive behaviour, De Groot served a writ on the New South Wales police alleging wrongful arrest, ultimately securing a tidy out of court settlement.

In a polarized society De Groot basked in both public adulation and condemnation. Poems and songs eulogized his 'gesture of contempt, with a humorous flavour'. The minutiae of the incident, irregularities in his uniform and the choice of horse (an apparently inelegant steed) commanded obsessive attention, while the presence of a Cinesound news camera in close proximity helped the event to secure an enduring niche in Australian folklore. Pranksters 'doing a De Groot' became a frequent accompaniment to the opening of roads and bridges in New South Wales. Despite his legendary position in the New Guard, De Groot possibly provided information to Military Intelligence. In November 1932 he broke with Campbell and considered linking 'a considerable number of men' with the Melbourne-based League of National Security, having already maintained high-level contact with that secret organization's leaders.

A compact, trim, dapper man, De Groot returned to his manufacturing business, which flourished. As well as furnishing the extension of the New Australia Hotel, in 1935 De Groot provided for Sir Isaac Isaacs a suite of furniture that included an elegant ceremonial chair, later acquired by the Mitchell Library, Sydney. During World War II, assisted by the patronage of Major-General Gordon Bennett , Major De Groot held postings with the Citizen Military Forces and the Australian Imperial Force. In 1942-43 he was commandant at Greta army camp, where his 'fascist' past became the subject of controversy. Further stints with the army at Tamworth and at the Sydney showground in charge of courts of inquiry into escapes from detention preceded a six-month attachment to the United States Army in the South Pacific Area Command. He was placed on the Retired List in January 1944.

In 1950 De Groot and his wife returned to Dublin, where he dabbled in antiques and was active in the Irish Australian Society. He died on 1 April 1969 in a Dublin nursing home. Childless, he was survived by his wife. The bridge opening remained a talking point among Sydneysiders. In 2005, sections of the ribbon were in private hands, in the Mitchell Library and in the Australasian Pioneers Club, and De Groot's sword was held privately in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Amos, The New Guard Movement 1931-1935 (Melb, 1976)
  • A. Barker, George Robertson (Brisb, 1982)
  • A. Atkinson (ed), Footnote People in Australian History (Syd, 1987)
  • A. Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Syd, 1989)
  • Australiana, 22, no 1, Feb 2000, p 19
  • A. Moore, ‘Another Wild Colonial Boy’ in Australian Journal of Irish Studies, 2, 2002, p 135
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Mar 1932, 24 Mar 1992, p 1, 7 Aug 2000, p 5, 1 May 2004, p 3
  • MP742/1, item D/2/306 (National Archives of Australia)
  • De Groot papers and autobiography (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'De Groot, Francis Edward (Frank) (1888–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-groot-francis-edward-frank-12881/text23267, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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