Angel of Death Strikes Parliament House in 1927
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 and all were linked in a mysterious way. Air Force 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 birth date of the dead pilot, 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 Royal Australian Air Force (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.
Authors John Laws and Christopher Stewart (2004), mentioned in a Canberra Times article by Tim the Yowie Man (2018) suggested however, that 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.
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 gaining experience at the state legislative level before moving to the federal sphere after Federation in 1901. The Australian Dictionary of Biography has detailed stories about each one’s life and career.
Angel of Death Strike One – Death at the Opening
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. However, after the Ewen crash, people started thinking that our Air Force must be jinxed. The headlines were a public relations nightmare for the RAAF, more so when it was described in one newspaper as a ‘Suicide Club’.
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 and had been experiencing shortness of breath and was having difficulty climbing stairs unaided.
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 spanned some 36 years, 10 years at the WA Legislative Assembly from 1891 where he was considered a ‘ rising star’ and then the Federal parliamentary sphere from 1 May 1901. He was promoted from Clerk Assistant to Clerk of the House on 1 February 1917.
He loved writing and 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.
Possessing an engaging personality Walter Gale was renowned for telling a good story and was highly respected and admired by all his associates, none more so than his Clerk Assistant John McGregor. His death came as a shock to all who knew, loved and relied on him.
Funeral of Mr Walter Gale
The funeral service for Mr Walter Gale was held in King’s Hall, Parliament House, the second ceremony to be held in the imposing space since the opening celebrations which included the unveiling of a statue of King George V by the Duke of York.
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 could be seen in the distance.
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.
Kate Greenway’s Language of Flowers, says Holly blossoms, which can be pink, white, green or yellow may indicate foresight. Thanks to their pointy leaves, Holly flowers have historically symbolised defence, but also domestic happiness. For the Druids and Celts, Holly’s green, white and red berry colours represented protection and luck and were hung over doorways of homes. Christians eventually adopted this tradition, with a few changes. They still hung Holly on doors to offer protection, but the pointed leaves they said represented the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion. The plant’s red berries represented drops of blood.
In the Bach Flower Remedies Holly is used for treating the emotional states of jealousy, envy, vengefulness and hatred to hopefully bring about a positive state of contentment, kindness and open heartedness.
In the ‘Language of Flowers’ Holly’s hard, pointed edges 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 not just for its decorative qualities at Parliament House but for its meaning whether consciously or unconsciously.
Angel of Death Strike Three – Death in Parliament – The Clerk
John Robert McGregor
John McGregor collapsed in dramatic circumstances at the Clerk’s table in the House of Representatives chamber soon after the first working session of the Parliament began. Moments after the Prime Minister, Mr Bruce, officially announced that Mr McGregor was the newly appointed Clerk of the House and in the midst of the condolence speeches for the late Clerk, Walter Gale, the new 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.
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 CANBERRA TRAGEDY: THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH
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. He was taken to Canberra Hospital where he died at 7pm from a cerebral haemorrhage 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 53 years old and had only been married for three years to Miss Madge Lawrence who had worked in the Parliamentary offices in Melbourne.
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 was specially adjourned for the memorial service conducted by the Very Rev. John Walker, of the Presbyterian Church so all Members and parliamentary officers could attend.
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.
Friends and Colleagues in Life and Death
Walter Gale and John McGregor have adjoining graves in St John’s Church Cemetery. In November 1936, Sir Littleton Groom, the first Speaker of the House in Canberra joined them in a neighbouring grave. He too died in Canberra, but not in Parliament House. He was 69 when he died and after a service in King’s Hall, Parliament House, he was buried in Canberra rather than his home town of Toowoomba. He apparently had a great love of Canberra and was very confident in its destiny.
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.
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