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Angel of Death Strikes Parliament

One Airman and Two Parliamentary Clerks Die One After Another Leaving a Nation Mystified



The Angel of Death worked overtime in Australia’s new national capital, after the royal opening of Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 1927.  Three dramatic deaths occurred in quick succession, all linked in a mysterious way.

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot, Flying Officer Francis Ewen, was the first to die when his plane crashed while participating in a fly past for the afternoon military review on opening day. The second death occurred on 27 July 1927 (the dead pilot’s birthday!) when the Clerk of the House, Mr Walter Gale died in his new chair in his new office in the new building. Two months later on 28 September 1927, the new Clerk, Mr John McGregor, died after collapsing in the Chamber during the condolence speeches for his predecessor.

“And so did the House adjourn, the first day’s sitting of the first working session in the new capital cut short by the hustle of the wings of the Angel of Death.” (Brisbane ‘Telegraph’, 29 September 1927, p9)

The Angel of Death Strikes Parliament House Three Times – Was There a Jinx or a Curse?

In the case of the Clerks, was the new building jinxed?  In the case of the airman, was the RAAF jinxed? In the case of all three deaths, was the Opening itself jinxed?  Or was this proof that bad luck comes in threes? Thankfully after the grief and sorrow of the third death subsided, the business of parliament continued without further tragedy.

Mysterious Forces at Work

Authors John Laws and Christopher Stewart (2004), in a Canberra Times article by Tim the Yowie Man (2018), suggested mysterious forces were at work and that the royal visit itself was cursed.  Why? Because the royal couple, the Duke and Duchess of York, were coming to a ceremony on traditional Aboriginal land without first seeking permission or indeed the involvement of the traditional owners.

The Duke and Duchess of York on front steps of Parliament House while Dame Nellie Melba sings the National Anthem. Opening Ceremony of Parliament House, Canberra ACT, Australia 9 May 1927. National Archives of Australia, A1200, L83823. Item ID 11399753


Five airmen lost their lives during the royal visit.  Four died when their two-seater planes collided mid air at a RAAF fly past welcoming the royal couple to Melbourne.  Then three weeks later the fatal crash of Flying Officer Ewen at the historic opening of Australia’s new home of parliamentary democracy stunned the public and sent shock waves through RAAF officialdom as they ducked for cover denying anything was wrong with the plane’s mechanics.  Ironically, Ewen’s plane landed in the area of where Reconciliation Place is today in the National Capital. Maybe there is something to the theory.

And, who would have thought Parliamentary Clerks would make newspaper headlines?  Mr Walter Gale and Mr John McGregor were career public servants and experts in parliamentary procedure not headline making politicians.

Angel of Death Strike One – Death at the Opening

The Pilot

There was a string of fatal air crashes in the first six years of the RAAF’s existence.  Francis Ewen was the 17th pilot to die in one of the old British war planes gifted to Australia for services rendered in the Great War.  These old planes, 128 in total, were the foundation of Australia’s third military arm.  People started thinking the RAAF must be jinxed after the Ewen crash. Newspaper headlines were a public relations nightmare for the RAAF, especially one describing the RAAF as a ‘Suicide Club’.

F.O Francis Ewen’s wrecked plane after the crash in Canberra on 9 May 1927. Source: The Newcastle Sun 11 May 1927, p1


Angel of Death Strike Two – Death in the Clerk’s Office

Mr Walter Gale

Walter Gale died in the arms of his lifelong friend, Major C. Griffith who was visiting him in his Parliament House office, on 27 July 1927.  A former athlete, Walter Gale hadn’t been in the best of health since moving to Canberra. He was increasingly short of breath and had difficulty climbing stairs unaided.

The Hon. Littleton Groom presiding as Speaker in the House of Representatives with the Clerk of the House, Mr Walter Gale, seated in front. National Archives of Australia, A3560,3091; Item ID 1991391.  One of the last photographs taken of Mr Walter Gale before his death during the Parliamentary recess on 27 July 1927.


Major Griffith described the lead up to his friend’s death.

“… we were sitting in Mr. Gale’s room chatting. He seemed perfectly natural and rational, but suddenly he gave a shudder and a paroxysm seemed to pass over him. I cried the room is too hot for you Walter, and opened the window and turned off the heater, but when I took hold of him, he was already unconscious.”  (Herald, Melbourne, 27 July 1927, p1)

Unfortunately, Walter Gale died before medical help arrived. He was 63 years old.

His career in Parliamentary procedure started in the West Australian Legislative Assembly in 1891.  Considered a ‘rising star’ he moved to the Federal parliamentary sphere in May 1901 and was promoted to Clerk of the House on 1 February 1917.

Photographic Portrait of Mr Walter Gale by Laura Greenham 1917-1927 National Library of Australia 24261464


Gale had many fine attributes including great writing skills.  After his verse  “Play the Game” was published in The Argus in June 1915, the Federal Government circulated 100,000 copies to help with recruitment for the First World War.

“From “The Argus”, June 16, 1915″. Also available at Trove, NLA.


Walter Gale possessed an engaging personality and was highly respected and admired by all his associates, especially his Clerk Assistant John McGregor.   His death shocked all who knew, loved and relied on him.

Funeral of Mr Walter Gale

Gale’s funeral service was the second ceremony to be held in the majestic King’s Hall of Parliament House since the opening celebrations when the Duke of York unveiled a statue of his father, King George V.

Describing the Funeral Ceremony for Sir Walter Gale and his burial
Brisbane Courier, 1 August 1927, p15


The large cortege then moved to the graveyard at St John’s Church, Reid where Mr Gale was interred on the southern side of Church from where Parliament House, at the time, could be seen in the distance.

Mr Walter Gale’s Grave in the afternoon sun, St John’s Church Cemetery, Reid, Canberra. Photograph taken by History Snoop on 6 October 2021.  Inscription reads: “Walter Augustus Gale/C.M.G/Clerk First Parliament/Canberra/Born 22 Dec. 1864/Died 27 July 1927.”


Is There a Hidden Meaning in the Memorial Tree Planted for the Clerk, Walter Gale?

On 23 September 1927  the Speaker of the House, Sir Littleton Groom planted an English Holly tree directly outside the window of the Clerk’s office in honour of the late Walter Gale.  This was an interesting choice given the ‘Old’ and ‘Metaphysical’ meanings attributed to Holly.

Bach Flower Remedy

As a Bach Flower Remedy Holly is used for treating the negative emotional states of jealousy, envy, vengefulness and hatred hoping to bring about a positive state of contentment, kindness and open heartedness.

Druid, Celt and Christian Meaning

Druids and Celts believed that the green, white and red berry colours represented protection and luck and hung them over doorways of homes. Christians eventually adopted this tradition, with a few changes.  While they hung Holly on doors for protection Christians also believed that the pointed leaves represented the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion. The plant’s red berries represented drops of blood.

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers, says Holly blossoms, which can be pink, white, green or yellow may indicate foresight but the hard pointed of the leaves historically refer to the idea of “combativeness” and “pain” along with “aggression” and “defensiveness”.

Interestingly the so called ‘spiritual’ properties of Holly describe the behaviour that we often see played out in the arenas of political battle, the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Maybe the Holly tree was planted at Parliament House, not just for its decorative qualities, but for its deeper meaning whether consciously or unconsciously.


A Holly tree outside Old Parliament House today.  The tree planted in memory of Walter Gale was planted outside his office window on 23 September 1927 in a ceremony conducted by the Speaker Sir Littleton Groom. The Clerks office was situated at the south eastern corner of the building.  There is no Holly tree standing there today.  Photograph taken by History Snoop 8 October 2021.

Angel of Death Strike Three – Death in Parliament – The Second Clerk

John Robert McGregor

John McGregor collapsed in dramatic circumstances at the Clerk’s table soon after the first working session of Parliament began. Prime Minister, Mr Bruce, officially announced Mr McGregor, the newly appointed Clerk of the House. Within minutes of the Prime Minister’s announcement, and unbelievably, during the condolence speeches for the late Clerk, the newly appointed Clerk slumped into his papers and started sliding from his chair.  The Ministers seated nearest, Sir Neville Howse and Dr Earle Page, both medical men, rushed to his aid, catching him before he slid to the floor and with the help of others “tenderly” assisted him from the chamber.


John McGregor was sitting at the Clerk’s table in this photograph (on the left, partially obscured) which appeared in The Sun (Sydney) 29 September 1927 p24 with the caption: “The Official Opening of Federal Parliament yesterday at Canberra was a very formal affair. There was little ceremony and display, the members getting along with Business after three minutes was allowed to the press photographers to make exposures.” He collapsed at the desk shortly after proceedings began. (The photo is also part of the National Archives of Australia Collection, NAA: A3560, 3586)

The Last Photograph of John McGregor

A Melbourne ‘Herald’ Photographer took the last photograph of John McGregor moments before he collapsed in the Parliament.   As the photographer was changing his slide in preparation to take another photograph, the Clerk collapsed.

As reported in The Herald (Melbourne) 29 September 1927, p1


The scene in the House of Representatives at Canberra just before Mr J. R. McGregor (Clerk of the House) collapsed in his seat and was carried from the building to die. The Speaker (Sir Littleton Groom) is seen on the extreme right, with Mr McGregor in his seat in the centre. On the left is Mr Bruce (the Prime Minister). As The Herald photographer, using a powerful 1.8 lens, was changing his slide to take another picture, Mr McGregor collapsed.”

Parliament in a State of Disbelief

It was a shocking and distressing scene for MP’s, parliamentary staff and people in the galleries to witness.  The Sydney Morning Herald correspondent summed up the feeling:

“… in less than an hour the House knew that it had witnessed a horrible piece of drama, the sort of astonishing tragedy that makes life a million times stranger and more exaggerated than fiction.” (SMH, 29 September 1927, p11)

Even more shocking for members was that John McGregor collapsed during the condolence speeches for his predecessor Walter Gale, moments after handing the Speaker the papers formally announcing the death of the former Clerk. John McGregor died from a cerebral haemorrhage in Canberra Hospital at 7pm with Sir Neville Howse by his side.

It was Federal Budget day, but the hearts and minds of the parliamentarians were not with Dr Earle Page or his Budget speech, they were with Mr McGregor, who was lying in hospital with no chance of recovery.  When Sir Neville Howse returned to the Parliament, his expression said it all.  He informed the Prime Minister, who then advised the House, that Mr McGregor had died. Members stood in silence before the Prime Minister adjourned Parliament out of respect for their esteemed parliamentary servant.

John McGregor was only 53 years old and three years married when he died.  Finding love late in life McGregor married Miss Madge Lawrence, a former work colleague, when he was 50 years.

Foreboding or Premonition?

John McGregor was not only a long term working colleague but a close friend of the late Walter Gale. He admitted to colleagues that he was anxious about taking over the burden of the chief Clerk’s job.  In fact, colleagues apparently had great difficulty encouraging him to enter the Chamber for the first time as Clerk and occupy Mr Gale’s chair.

He looked extremely distressed during the condolence speeches for Mr Gale.

The Brisbane ‘Telegraph’ tries to make sense of the Mr McGregor’s reluctance:

“What dictated it none will ever know now. It may have been a queer sense of loyalty. It may have been a prophetic disinclination, nevertheless it took his friends on the staff three weeks to persuade him to vacate the Clerk’s Assistant’s quarters, and to move into those which had been occupied by his friend and colleague.  Yesterday saw him walk to the seat of the Clerk of the House of Representatives for the first time.  He was nervous and distraught, and his colleagues, Mr. E. W. Parkes, Mr Frank Green, and Mr Tregear, the Sergeant at Arms, saw, although he denied it, that he was not well.” (Telegraph (Brisbane) 29 September 1927, p9)

The Age speculated that: “His attachment to his predecessor and worry over the responsibility of his new appointment affected his health.” (Melbourne ‘Age’, 29 September 1927, p9)

The Funeral of John McGregor

Within a few weeks, King’s Hall was once again the venue for a funeral. Parliament adjourned so all Members and parliamentary officers could attend the memorial service conducted by the Very Rev. John Walker, of the Presbyterian Church.

The weather reflected the sombre mood as the cortege made its way from Parliament House, in drenching rain, to the cemetery at St John’s Church, Reid where the interment took place.

The pall-bearers were the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Sir Littleton Groom), the President of the Senate (Sir John Newland), the Prime Minister (Mr. Bruce), the leader of the Opposition (Mr. Charlton), the Treasurer (Dr. Page), and the Clerk Assistant (Mr. E. W. Parkes), who had been acting as clerk since Mr. McGregor’s death.

John McGregor’s grave in the dappled afternoon light. Inscription reads: “In Memory/of/John Robert/Beloved Husband of/Madge Frances McGregor/Died at Canberra/28 September 1927” Photograph by History Snoop 6 October 2021.


Friends and Colleagues in Life and Death

Walter Gale and John McGregor have adjoining graves in St John’s Church Cemetery. In less than ten years in November 1936, Sir Littleton Groom, the first Speaker of the House joined them in a neighbouring grave. He too died in Canberra, but thankfully not in Parliament House. His great love for Canberra and an enduring faith in its destiny was the reason Sir Littleton was buried in the nation’s capital rather than in his home town of Toowoomba.

Walter Gale (foreground) and John McGregor (immediately behind) have adjoining graves at St John’s Cemetery. Sir Littleton Groom (back second left) joined them in 1936 when he died suddenly in Canberra. Photograph by History Snoop 6 October 2021.


Not far away on the northern side of the Church, Flying Officer Francis Ewen lies at rest.  All three individuals, Francis Ewen, Walter Gale, and John McGregor played historic roles which unfortunately ended in tragedy.  Their graves at St John’s Churchyard, along with the first Speaker, are at the centre of Canberra’s history.


Gale, Walter Augustus (1864–1927) article by Bobbie Oliver in the Australian Dictionary of Biography https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gale-walter-augustus-6370

McGregor, John Robert (1873-1927) article by Stephen Wilks in the Australian Dictionary of Biography https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgregor-john-robert-28236

Photograph of the Hon Littleton Groom presiding as Speaker in the House of Representatives with the Clerk of the House, Sir Walter Gale, in front. NAA, A3560,3091; Item ID 1991391 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/PhotoDetail.aspx?Barcode=1991391

National Archives of Australia: War Service Records of Captain John Robert McGregor https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=1945264

National Library of Australia, E. W Searle Collection, Front of old Parliament House from the House of Representatives side, Canberra, ca,1949 [Picture],  https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-142013299/view

Aerial view of Parliament House, Canberra, 1939 National Library of Australia: pic-an23548162 http://john.curtin.edu.au/behindthescenes/offices/parliamenthouse.html

Vandyck Studio. (1913). Portrait of Walter A. Gale, Clerk Assistant, 1913 Retrieved October 15, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136703733

‘McGregor, John Robert (1873–1927)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mcgregor-john-robert-28236/text37053, accessed 18 October 2021.

Trove: www.trove.nla.gov.au

John Laws and Christopher Stewart, ‘There’s always more to the story’ (Macmillan 2004), quoted in an article by Tim The Yowie Man ‘Opening jinxed or just bad luck?’, The Canberra Times, Saturday, 19 May 2018


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