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For sale: Berrima Gaol and a slice of coup d’état

The bizarre plot to install a fascist state

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

Whoever buys the Berrima Gaol will not only acquire a dark slice of history and a host of ghosts, but may also experience the belated frisson of a thwarted political coup.

The year was 1932. As the Great Depression gripped, the NSW Labor government refused to pay interest on British bonds. The Commonwealth took over the payments but then engaged in a bitter legal and political battle with the premier, Jack Lang, to get the money back.

Disillusioned former soldiers from World War I joined groups including the New Guard, which trained as a para-military force to uphold ‘loyalty’ to the Empire and fight communism. It opposed the Lang government and wanted it replaced by a commission of ten men, with Parliament only meeting when absolutely necessary for one or two weeks a year. While most members of the New Guard were conservative, some veered towards fascism and openly supported dictatorship. This was indicated by its use of the raised arm fascist salute.

The New Guard was not only prepared to fight for its beliefs, but trained and drilled regularly to ensure it would win a future confrontation. It was commanded by former military officers and organised on a military basis. The written training instructions dealt with weapons handling, discipline and the use of military formations to crush the anticipated opposition of ‘mobs of rioters and hooligans’. They focused particularly on ‘street-fighting’, planning to take Sydney block by block. Revolvers, rifles, tear gas and grenades were to be used to clear strongly held buildings and corner building were to be used for observation and fire command. The New Guard even had engineer units, so that advances could be made from building to building by breaching internal walls.

A key flashpoint was the decision by Lang that he would open the new Sydney Harbour Bridge, rather than the governor or governor-general. This was seen as an insult to the king and a direct challenge to those loyal to the Crown and Empire. The New Guard vowed that Lang would not open the Bridge.

Rumours abounded that Lang would be kidnapped to prevent it. Bookmakers even offered odds of six to one against the New Guard succeeding in preventing Lang from opening the Bridge. The police responded by placing the highest level of protection around the Premier to foil any plots and ensure he got to the Bridge.

The New Guard moved to Plan B.  One of its members, Francis de Groot, borrowed a horse called ‘Mick’ and tacked himself on to the back of the mounted escort at the ceremony. Before Lang got near the ribbon, de Groot charged forwards and slashed at it with his sword, declaring that he was opening the Bridge ‘in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales’.

But what of the plot to kidnap Lang?  Were the New Guard no more than fantasists and big-noters? Some, at least, were also thugs. On 10 May 1932 eight of their members were convicted and jailed for a violent attack upon an alderman.

More sensationally, however, the police commissioner announced on the same day as the conviction (perhaps not wanting to disrupt the trial) that the police department had earlier received intelligence about a plot to kidnap Lang, other ministers and high-ranking police officers before the Bridge opening and to incarcerate them in the disused Berrima Gaol. It was alleged that they planned to pressure the governor, Sir Philip Game, to appoint an emergency interim government, in the absence of any ministers to advise him, and then to hold an election.

When the police raided the offices of the New Guard, they discovered copies of the plans of Berrima Gaol. The documents included details of how the political prisoners would be accommodated until after the election and how the gaol could be fortified and defended, using riflemen and machine-gunners. Machine guns mounted on the central tower would allow them to cover the whole of the gaol and the open area around the gaol would prevent surprise attacks.

The police also seized documents recording the movements of Lang government ministers and senior police officers, who had been under surveillance by the New Guard for months. Further raids showed plans and details of ammunition and firearms held by the military at various locations in the state, which the New Guard intended to use. This suggested that there might have been collusion with people in the defence forces, resulting in a formal inquiry by the Commonwealth.

The Labor Daily, adding its own colourful spin, gave the following description of the plot: ‘The centre of the fantastic scheme for the overthrow of the Government was the picturesque old gaol, rotting in disuse, at Berrima, and here it was proposed to keep the Premier, responsible members of the Government, leaders of the Labor Party and trade union movement and the Chief of the CIB, Mr Mackay, under armed guard, while storm troops, headed by seized tanks, terrorised the citizens of Sydney and established a Fascist regime.’

Major Beveridge, the chief of staff of the New Guard, later publicly admitted in a speech in Grafton that the New Guard had the plans to Berrima Gaol and several other important places (including a brewery), but he argued that if they had wanted Lang they could have got him twelve months earlier. Besides, if they kept him in gaol they would have to feed him and they ‘could find better use for good food than that’.

The plot to kidnap Lang was later discussed in the Commonwealth parliament. Senator Dunn read an affidavit from a member of the New Guard who swore that he was one of the men who had been allocated the job of guarding Lang and others at Berrima Gaol and that all aspects of the defence of the gaol had been considered, including ‘machine guns, riflemen, numbers of men it could accommodate, water supply, and every military detail’. Dunn was cut off from giving further details after the government argued that the matter was subject to court proceedings.

While there was certainly a plot, it was unclear whether it was all talk or any action had been taken to implement it. The police had informants from within the New Guard and had been made aware of the plans to seize Lang from his official car as he was being driven on his regular route home along Parramatta Road.  According to Lang, he was warned by the police about the day on which the kidnap attempt would occur. Rather than receive additional protection, he insisted on driving himself home in his private car, knowing that the New Guard was watching for his official vehicle. He made it home without mishap.

Whether the New Guard would have acted if Lang’s official car had made the journey that day remains a mystery. Lang speculated that they realised their plans had been leaked and retreated from the kidnap plan. Others argued that there was dissent from within the New Guard which killed off the execution of the plan.

On 13 May, just three days after the police first publicised the kidnap plot, Lang was dismissed as premier. He had issued a circular which instructed public servants to act contrary to a federal law. The governor asked for legal advice that Lang’s actions were valid, but Lang refused to give it or defend the legality of his action. He also refused to withdraw the circular. The governor, Sir Philip Game, then dismissed Lang and appointed an interim government pending an election. It was not the New Guard, but Lang himself, which caused this result. But it did have the incidental effect of destroying the New Guard because there was no longer any point in its existence once Lang was defeated in the ensuing election. Without an enemy to oppose, its members drifted away.

As for Berrima Gaol, instead of being seized to house political prisoners in a coup d’état, the daughter of the local police sergeant used it to hold a dance in July 1932, to raise money for the ambulance service.  Civil society prevailed over civil disorder and the dance to the music of time played on.

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Anne Twomey is a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney.

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