Written on the 85th Anniversary of the Opening of the Sydney Harbour BridgeFrom WBro Damien of Lodge Devotion
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was a great undertaking, linking the city’s CDB to its North Shore. The official ceremony to mark the "turning of the first sod" occurred on 28 July 1923, and the bridge was formally opened on Saturday 19 March 1932 and is now a worldwide icon of Australia.
Did you know that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened by two Freemasons?
Before we get to that, let’s mention Dr. John Jacob "Job" Crew Bradfield CMG (1867-1943). Bradfield was a prominent Australian engineer, best known for his work overseeing the design and building of the Bridge. He is not on my Famous Australians list, nor did he appear in the recent book “300 Famous Australian Freemasons” by WBro Kent Henderson, however, several web sites do list him as a Freemason; Initiated in United Tradesman’s Lodge (Ipswich) in 1889. In any case, his involvement often sees him described as “father” of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
What we do know is the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened at both ends. At the southern end, NSW Premier Jack Lang (1876-1975) was to cut the ribbon in an official ceremony. At the northern end of the Bridge North Sydney's Mayor, Hubert Leslie Primrose (1880-1942), ceremoniously cut another ribbon. The Australian Dictionary of Biography and other sources record that Primrose was a Freemason. Hence, a Freemason opened the Northern end of the Bridge.
Premier Jack Lang was very unpopular in certain circles and his unpopularity was close to its zenith around the time the Bridge was opened. Controversially, he’d decided to open the Bridge himself rather than to invite a member of the Royal Family, or their representative, to perform the ceremony. Further, in the post WW1 world, particularly that of the Great Depression (1929-39) causing poverty and distress, there was great social unrest. In Australia, the end of the Great Depression is often noted as 1932 rather and ’39; rising commodity prices helped our economy recover before others such as the USA. Hence in Australia, the year of the opening of the Bridge, marked three years of economic hardship, with the end not yet in sight.
In 1930, more than one in five adult males in New South Wales were unemployed. Domestic governments responded by cutting spending including reducing civil service numbers and their salaries while also cancelling public works. Claiming these measures made matters even worse and vigorously opposing them, Lang was elected in the landslide NSW election of October 1930.
At an economic crisis conference in Canberra in 1931, Lang announced his own programme for economic recovery. The "Lang Plan" advocated the repudiation of interest payments to overseas creditors until domestic conditions improved, the abolition of the Gold Standard and, what we would described today as a stimulus package by Commonwealth Bank, then in the hands of the Federal Government, extending £18 million in credit. The Prime Minister and all other State Premiers rejected the plan. A great orator, Lang attracted huge crowds and vitriolically denounced opponents. His followers promoted the slogans "Lang is Right" and "Lang is Greater than Lenin." Lang was not a revolutionary or even a socialist, and he loathed the Communist Party, which in turn denounced him as a social fascist, while the “right” of politics denounced Lang as a socialist with red leanings.. Political types do love name calling,
In reaction to the social conditions and Lang’s “Leftism”, the “New Guard” was formed in Sydney in February 1931. This was a paramilitary group, comprising many WW1 veterans supporting loyalty to King and Empire, sound government, law and order, individual liberty and property rights. Led by Lt. Colonel Eric Campbell DSO, a First World War veteran, it might be of interest to note Campbell was also a Freemason. The casual reader might infer some great Masonic Conspiracy, however our prohibition on political discussion (much less political action) within lodges; means that Freemasons engaged in any political activity must separate it from the lodge. Indeed some of Australia’s great leaders, Conservatives, Unionists and Labor Leaders have also been Freemasons; our organisation cuts across traditional divides like Religion and Politics – both of which we are specifically prohibited from discussing in Lodges.
The New Guard declined rapidly following Lang's dismissal in May 1932, with its remaining members becoming increasingly inclined towards fascism. Still led by Campbell, the movement unsuccessfully ran in the 1935 state election (as the Centre Party), but failed and disbanded completely shortly after. It was certainly one of Australia’s most politically tumultuous times, especially in NSW. The “Lang Plan” contrasted to the “Melbourne Agreement” of fiscal conservatism and this conflict led to Australia’s first great Constitutional Crisis. In 1928, the Federal Government had become responsible for State debt, on which Lang’s Plan called for a default. The Financial Agreement Enforcement Act 1932 was passed to extract payments from NSW for debts, and Lang withdrew all money from the Treasury and Banks and held it in cash in Trades Hall so the Federal Government could not access the money. A few months following the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Governor Sir Philip Game, seeing the cash withdrawl and default on loans as illegal, dismissed Lang on 13 May 1932 calling an election which Lang lost heavily in reverse of the landslide which had seen him elected in 1930. Australia would not see such a Constitutional Crisis until The Dismissal of 1975. These two crises are the only two times a Governor in Australia has exercised their reserve powers to sack a Government.
So, a controversial NSW Premier who would be dismissed within two months was to open the Bridge; as Premier Jack Lang was about to cut the ribbon and open the Sydney Harbour Bridge in front of 300,000 people, a man in military uniform rode up on a horse, and beat him to the punch; slashing the ribbon with his sword and opening the Bridge “"in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales”.
He became famous and entered Australia’s history for his unofficial “opening” of the Bridge. Arrested, he said his action was in protest for Governor Game not being invited to perform the opening.
The man was Captain Francis de Groot (1888-1969), WW1 veteran of the Western Front, antique dealer and furniture manufacturer. Like Mayor Primrose, de Groot was another member New Guard. While that two New Guard members opened the Bridge at either end is often noted, what is not noted is that like Primrose, according to Ken Henderson’s research, de Groot, again, was also a Freemason. He was Initiated on 11 September 1940 in Army and Navy No 517 GLNSW&ACT, some 8 years after the Bridge was opened.
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. It would seem the Freemasons who accepted him as brother either saw the conviction as minor, under extenuating circumstances, or de Groot was a changed man. The ambiguity in this situation is perhaps why many choose to skip over de Groot as a Freemason.
The moment was caught on film and was widely reported globally with the title “Mounted Officer causes World sensation at official opening ceremony." This helped cement de Groot in our history and has inspired may copycats. You can watch the video via the below.