JOHN WREN &
West Melbourne Stadium
all my 5 years of experiences with boxing and Stadiums Limited and the
organisers of boxing in Melbourne, I can only speak very highly.
only remember well looked after young fighters which otherwise were likely
to have been street kids getting up to no good.
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.
was during a time when a full program of professional boxing took place
every Friday night in Melbourne and similarly in other states of
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
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
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
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
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
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
This is an edited extract from John Wren: a life
reconsidered, by James Griffin, and published by Scribe.