JOHN WREN &

West Melbourne Stadium

 

In all my 5 years of experiences with boxing and Stadiums Limited and the organisers of boxing in Melbourne, I can only speak very highly.

I only remember well looked after young fighters which otherwise were likely to have been street kids getting up to no good.

Stadiums in Melbourne always had a proper promoter, a doctor which gave a very comprehensive check-up just before each and every fight (yes even intrusive parts) and referees Al Basten and Terry Reilly which did not hesitate to stop fights when necessary.

This was during a time when a full program of professional boxing took place every Friday night in Melbourne and similarly in other states of Australia.

Young Victor

 


The truth about our 'Al Capone'

By James Griffin
February 28, 2004

When Frank Hardy published Power Without Glory, John Wren immediately gained notoriety as Melbourne's Al Capone. In reality, he was nothing of the sort, argues author James Griffin, who has re-examined the evidence in a new book.

John Wren, financial investor, sports impresario, political "fixer" and philanthropist, may be the most maligned person in Australian literature.

Born into an Irish-Catholic family in working-class Collingwood in 1871, but already prosperous by his early 20s as a result of his illegal gambling activities, Wren moved in the early 1900s across the Yarra River to the elevated and elite Studley Park. There he overlooked his native suburb, where he was generally regarded as a benefactor.

Beyond the inner suburbs of Melbourne, Wren was frequently seen as a corrupt, secretive "godfather". In 1950 he was sensationally denounced and defamed in Frank Hardy's best-selling novel Power Without Glory as Australia's Al Capone.

More than 50 years after Wren's death, in 1953, the defamations are still current, even internationally.

The Australian expatriate and foundation editor of Virago, Carmen Callil, and noted Irish novelist Colm Toibin, include Power Without Glory in their compilation The Modern Library: the Two Hundred Best Novels in English since 1950. They justify their choice not on literary grounds or on the success of Wren's fictional characterisation of "John West", but on what they believe to have been the real, historical, John Wren:

"John Wren was the corrupt business magnate who controlled Melbourne - its sporting, gambling and political life, its police and its Catholic Church - in the decades before 1950. It is in Hardy's understanding of the evil grandeur of the man and the tangled forces that explain him and bring him down that the value of this novel lies."

Hardy levelled many charges against Wren's pseudonym, John West - such as his involvement in homicides, terrorist bombing, thuggery, racketeering and blackmail, the rigging of sporting events, and the corruption of politicians, the judiciary, the police and even the clergy, and abuse of family - but he did not allege overall control of the metropolis. In fact, there is a passage in Power Without Glory where, to his chagrin, West is reminded by a certain "Baineton" (a scion of swindler William Baillieu, who became the so-called Money King of Australia) that ultimate power lies with the mining directors and bankers, not with an upstart from Collingwood.

But Callil and Toibin can take heart from two surveys jointly undertaken in 1999 by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Asked what was the "most influential work published in Australia during the 20th century", the "opinion Leaders" nominated Power Without Glory; the general readers placed it second. What did that mean, and how was it understood by respondents?

The publication of Power Without Glory resulted in a highly publicised criminal-libel trial of Hardy in June 1951, and one can speculate about the political effects of that event on the August referendum on the dissolution of the Communist Party, for example.

The former communist journalist Rupert Lockwood had a more fertile idea of what the book was about and whose interest Hardy was ultimately promoting: "(Power Without Glory was) a damaging corruption of Australian economic and social history. By concentrating on Irish-Catholics the Hardy book shielded the real economic owners, the finance manipulators and rulers of Australia. The interests thus shielded welcomed Power Without Glory ... Irish conspiracies by Sinn Feiners and others, Catholic plans for control in vital fields and the rest, substituted in Australia for European anti-Semitism."

Power Without Glory may have provided grist for the Labor Party's leader, Dr H.V. Evatt, when in October 1954 he blamed Catholic Actionists in the party for his defeat in that year's federal elections. Reversing a maxim that Balzac inscribed under a bust of Napoleon, Evatt told Hardy, so the latter claimed, that what he had done in Power Without Glory with his pen, he (Evatt) intended to consummate with the sword. In this sense, the book could have had a role in the Labor split of 1954-55 and thus in the maintenance of Liberal-National (Country) Party governments for the next 17 years.

But this is hardly what the opinion leaders or newspaper readers meant. Certainly Power Without Glory had aggravated the anti-Catholic sectarianism that had been a feature of Australian society since its beginnings. But is this all that "influential" meant? Or had Hardy's creation of a credible archetypal villain - an Al Capone, as he branded Wren - justified Australians' cynicism about politicians and the inequalities in our society?

Today it seems remarkable that such a crude roman-a-clef could have had such impact. But Wren's notoriety is still such that for many reputable writers it is almost de rigueur to preface even passing references to him with terms such as "nefarious", "shady", "sleazy", "criminal", "racketeer" and "gangster".

Hardy's calumny has been perpetuated by Australia's most celebrated and controversial historian, C. Manning Clark, in the fifth volume of A History of Australia. He linked the personally austere and usually taciturn Wren with John Norton - the paranoid, dipsomaniac proprietor of the scandal-sheet Truth - as "a preyer on humanity" who "debauched society". Their photographs are juxtaposed, and Clark read in Wren's face "the loneliness of a man enslaved by the bitch goddess of success".

As for Wren's philanthropy, Clark saw him simply as "a Father Christmas to the afflicted and the distressed". Only someone bred and living in bourgeois comfort could fail to appreciate how vital were the handouts to the poor by people like Wren before the days of the welfare state, or how well-intentioned they might be. Clark was convinced that Wren made "huge sums of money by roguery" and that he intimidated Labor politicians in particular:

Outwardly the purest of the pure, but inwardly ravening wolves in the presence of alcohol or women (they) cowered in the corridors of Parliament House when a hireling of John Wren whispered what might happen to them if they did not toe the line.

How did Clark arrive at these opinions? His footnotes contain only one substantive source, an article in the first issue of the Lone Hand (May 1, 1907), an offshoot of the often scurrilous Sydney Bulletin. His mentors were Hardy and Power Without Glory; Hardy boasted that the historian "used to ring him to check the facts when he was researching the life and works of John Wren".

Wren legends have been plentiful, and live on. On the weekend when Wren's last surviving offspring, John Francis Wren, died, a local pagliaccio published a magazine article on "monumental" buildings including The Tote, in Johnston Street, Collingwood:

This lovely old working-class pub steeped in history and emblematic of the people and its neighbourhood. Many Melburnians have heard the stories about the infamous underworld figure John Wren, on whom Frank Hardy based his novel Power Without Glory. Between the wars and beyond, Wren used the tote as the centre of his activities. He was a feared man among the locals of Collingwood, or Carringbush, as it was then known.

Sit in the front bar and hear the regular drinkers tell stories about Wren and the secret tunnels under the road to his SP bookmaking office.

How does one cram so many furphies into so small a space? In Wren's heyday there was no such hotel as The Tote, a name capitalising on Hardy's book. And "Carringbush" was Hardy's pseudonym for Collingwood, although there are educated Melbourne people who assert that Carringbush was the original name of the area.

I have never heard of the teetotal Wren frequenting such a hotel or any other. Wren's "tote" was the totalisator (rather than SP, or starting price) betting that he notoriously worked in Collingwood. It closed in 1907. And those secret tunnels, like the ones under the road between the homes of archbishop Daniel Mannix and John Wren, were fables.

A notable historian of Melbourne, Graeme Davison, believes that Wren "would not have become a figure of history without the publication of (Power Without Glory)". Some readers of social history, however, may well be surprised at the amount of ink and indignation spilt over Wren in the early years of the past century, and at his significance as a focus for sectarianism.

Aficionados of sport should at least admire Wren's initiative in providing so much public entertainment - in theatre and cinema, too; John Cain jnr considers Wren "arguably the most innovative and audacious showman in Australia" during the first half of the 20th century.

There will be differing opinions as to Wren's influence in politics, but since the discovery in 1992 of H.V. Evatt's letters to him, attesting friendship and asking for favours, it can hardly be dismissed as negligible or uninteresting. The Catholic Church certainly used Wren's "good offices" - and substantial sums of his money. And his reputation stood high in the business world; he was no mere speculator or asset-stripper.

Wren was not a gangster in the American (Al Capone) sense: that is, a social marauder with a "machine" that was prepared to kill, rob and terrorise his fellow citizens. It should be evident from the Smythe case that Hardy's accusations of involvement in homicide are groundless and malignant. For the 14 years that he ran the illegal tote, Wren did rely on toughs to protect it, and to deter hooligan elements on his pony tracks. But there is no evidence that, on Wren's behalf, they were engaged in gangland activities. In any case his interests did not make it necessary for him to do so.

Wren was not a racketeer involved in protection levies, prostitution, drugs, bootlegging, rack-renting etc. One can understand that some moralists would regard gambling as a "racket" even when "honestly" conducted, especially in the socio-economic conditions of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, "wowsers" deserve their disparaging appellation. They tolerated gambling for "gentlemen" in elite clubs. They were oppressive and class-conscious and, when triumphant, responsible for such squalid features of social life as ubiquitous back-lane betting and, after the First World War, the infamous six-o'clock swill. Their attitude was punitive: if the lower classes must gamble and drink, let them do it in degrading circumstances.

Because the tote was illegal, it would be naive to believe that because Wren payouts to an already corrupt police force were not proven, they did not occur, and that witnesses and jurors were not nobbled as required. Before the tote was closed in January 1907, this was hardly a contribution to Collingwood law and order. Wren was no saint.

In politics, there is no doubt that Wren used his wealth to influence pre-selection ballots, that he paid the electoral (and other) expenses of some candidates and that he expected and often received support for his interests in return. But he did not cut off those who did not respond.

Wren was not a political theorist nor a man of progressive ideas. The Australian status quo suited his interests. Aside from protecting them, as a capitalist would, it can be believed that, in supporting Labor, he simply wanted to promote, as he put it, the welfare of "the class from which (he) sprang", a role that was not devoid of vanity and even sentimentality. His critics seem unable to explain his popularity with unionists or their preparedness to use his patronage.

Wren maintained allegiance to the British social democratic state and, in spite of many years of doubt and non-attendance, to the Catholic Church. Unlike conservative businessman Herbert Brookes, some leading members of the Protestant Federation, and supporters of the Nationalist, United Australia and Country parties, Wren did not conspire with organisers of "secret armies" - the ultimate subversion of the political process.

In no sense a crusader, he saw no incompatibility between Catholicism and the secular state of his day, was anti-sectarian and saw the advent of the Santamaria Movement as fatal to unity in the Labor Party. His ultimate support of Menzies was a natural development for a pragmatic wealthy man once the Chifley government espoused socialist policies.

Arguably, Wren was Australia's leading promoter of public entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. He was not just fleecing the gullible, as is believed by many. He was also a productive investor, not a parasite on the stock exchange.

 He also preferred to belong to the populist Collingwood Football Club rather than climb into the exclusive Melbourne Club.

People are not entitled in a civil society to pursue a malicious campaign of character assassination based on a big lie.

It is unfortunate that the celebrated historian and parroting scribes have not considered this before accepting Hardy as an authority on John Wren.

 This is an edited extract from John Wren: a life reconsidered, by James Griffin, and published by Scribe.

Also see Snowy Baker

 

This is a copy of the publication by the Age newspaper http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/02/27/1077676957309.html?from=storyrhs

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