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Ley, Thomas John (1880–1947)

by Baiba Berzins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Thomas John Ley (1880-1947), by Romney Studios

Thomas John Ley (1880-1947), by Romney Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23460617

Thomas John Ley (1880-1947), politician and murderer, was born on 28 October 1880 at Bath, Somerset, England, son of Henry Ley, butler, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bryant. His father died in 1882 and in 1886 his mother migrated to Sydney with her four children and her mother. From an early age Ley had to earn money as a paper-boy and messenger. He attended Crown Street Public School but his formal education ended at 10 when his mother withdrew him to assist her in running a grocery store that she had bought. Later he worked on a dairy-farm near Windsor.

Ley, however, had ambitions for the law. While at Windsor he studiously learned shorthand and, at 14, secured appointment as a junior clerk-stenographer in a Pitt Street solicitor's office. In 1901 he transferred to Norton, Smith & Co., was articled to F. Osborne in 1906 and was admitted as a solicitor on 13 March 1914. On 16 June 1898 Ley had married Emily Lewise (Louisa) Stone Vernon, daughter of a well-off Somerset doctor. The Leys lived with the widowed Mrs Vernon at Glebe until 1906, during which time they had three sons.

In 1896 Ley had joined the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts where he began to develop his considerable debating skill. The inner city offered few opportunities for an aspiring young politician so in 1907 he moved to the developing suburb of Hurstville. Within five months he was elected to the local council. He served on council committees dealing with parks and gardens, rates and levies, building and health by-laws and street maintenance. He was involved in the local ratepayers' association and the Parents' and Citizens' executive and was active in Protestant organizations such as the Presbyterian Debating Society. Through his advocacy of prohibition and his involvement in the temperance movement, he acquired the nickname 'Lemonade Ley'.

After losing several elections for mayor, he decided not to seek re-election in 1911 and instead turned his attention to State politics. An ardent conscriptionist, he was elected in March 1917 to the Legislative Assembly for Hurstville for the National Party, led by W. A. Holman after Labor split over conscription. Ley, however, was no friend of Holman. Within the Nationalists he was the leading advocate of proportional representation which, despite Holman's opposition, the government enacted in 1919. Moreover, he was one of the first Nationalists to join the Progressive Party (later the Country Party) and in 1920 was returned as a Progressive for St George.

Although detested by many in his own party, Ley was a 'fluent speaker, with a most unctuous manner', and deluded many with his community work and pious utterances. He was minister of public instruction and of labour and industry in Sir George Fuller's 'seven-hour' ministry of December 1921. After this débâcle the urban Progressives were accepted back into the Nationalist fold. In 1922 Ley was returned as a Nationalist and was appointed minister of justice in Fuller's coalition ministry of 1922-25.

Ley's ministry was disastrous; virulently sectarian, he had already inflamed existing antagonisms by backing Sister Liguori and now exacerbated the situation by promoting the marriage amendment (ne temere) bill. His prevarication about a prohibition plebiscite and double-crossing of Rev. R. B. S. Hammond damaged his standing with the temperance lobby. There was a community outcry at his refusal to commute the death sentence on Edward Williams, an impoverished music teacher who had murdered his three daughters.

Re-elected in 1925 but now in Opposition, Ley resigned in September, allegedly at the invitation of Prime Minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, to stand for the Federal seat of Barton. The ensuing campaign and its aftermath irreparably damaged his reputation. His Labor opponent Frederick McDonald alleged that Ley had tried to bribe him to withdraw from the contest. Ley countered the accusation and won the seat. McDonald sought to have the election declared void in the Court of Disputed Returns but on 15 April 1926, on his way to meet Premier J. T. Lang, he mysteriously disappeared.

Ley had hoped for appointment to the Federal ministry but the prize eluded him. Instead, suspicion about him mounted. In late 1925 he had severed his connexion with Norton, Smith and established the legal firm of Ley, Andrews & Co. He engaged in business ventures such as S.O.S. Prickly Pear Poisons Ltd and Australasian Oil Fields Ltd, about which allegations of irregularity were rife by 1927. However, that year he visited Switzerland as delegate to the League of Nations General Assembly at Geneva. The critics had included his legal partner Harry Andrews and Hyman Goldstein, politician. On 3 September 1928 Goldstein was found dead at the foot of the cliffs at Coogee.

Ignominiously defeated in the 1928 Federal elections, Ley soon left for England. He was accompanied by his mistress, Maggie Brook, whose husband had also died in mysterious circumstances, with whom he had conducted a discreet alliance since 1922. In England Ley continued his involvement in shady business ventures: he promoted an unrealized £1 million sweepstake for the 1931 Derby, engaged in dubious real estate dealings, and was a wartime black marketeer.

In March 1947 Ley was convicted and sentenced to death for arranging the death of John McBain Mudie, a barman whom he deludedly believed to be Maggie Brook's lover. Three days before the ex-minister of justice was to hang for the 'Chalkpit Murder', his sentence was commuted and he was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Berkshire, where he died of meningeal haemorrhage on 24 July 1947. He left his estate, valued for probate at £744 in New South Wales, to his wife and sons.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • C. Wilson and P. Pitman, Encyclopaedia of Murder (Lond, 1961)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • D. Morgan, The Minister for Murder (Melb, 1979)
  • People (Sydney), 12 Mar 1952
  • Ley papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Baiba Berzins, 'Ley, Thomas John (1880–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ley-thomas-john-7191/text12435, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 28 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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