Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Wren, John (1871–1953)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

John Wren (1871-1953), entrepreneur, was born on 3 April 1871 at Collingwood, Melbourne, third son of illiterate though not indigent Irish immigrants John Wren, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Nester. Leaving school at 12 to work in a wood-yard and then as a boot clicker, Wren supplemented his 7s. 6d. weekly wage by circulating betting cards, bookmaking and small-scale usury. Although short and 'bandy' from an ill-set fracture, he was a feisty 'scrapper', handy cricketer and prospective Collingwood footballer. Laid off work during the 1890s depression, Wren launched his Johnston Street totalizator in 1893 with a stake bolstered, so he boasted, by Carbine's 1890 Melbourne Cup victory and subsequent gambling coups. The 'tote' was later to net him £20,000 per annum. It was popular for its unique defences and scrupulous dealing in a suburb mistrustful of police and enthusiastic about betting. His demotic City Tattersalls Club (1903) drew attention to similarly illicit, though tolerated, punting in elite venues. Senator Andrew Dawson, formerly 'the world's first Labor premier', lectured there on 'theoretical socialism' with Wren in the chair.

That Wren became a local hero, generous to the needy—and the Catholic Church—enraged wowsers like William Judkins and Henry Worrall. The Lone Hand denounced this 'pestilent citizen' who drained the wages of 'infatuated workers', while Judkins condemned a 'Vesuvius of carnality … greed … animalism'. Undoubtedly Wren employed ex-criminals as henchmen, punished 'narks' and, under the lax police commissioner Thomas O'Callaghan, 'fixed' witnesses in gaming cases, though no one ever 'shelfed' him. Allegations that he corrupted Chief Secretary Sir Samuel Gillott and Judge George Neighbour lacked foundation.

Action against 'totes' was also foiled by defective legislation which (Sir) Isaac Isaacs's anti-gambling bill (1898) failed by one vote to repair. A nine-week police occupation of the 'tote' from the eve of the 1903 Melbourne Cup ended farcically with the last sentinels being bundled out as trespassers. Rumours that Wren must have been involved in the notorious bombing of David O'Donnell's home were repudiated by the detective himself. Characteristically, however, when under personal attack, Wren led roughs to Hawthorn in 1905 to break up a George Swinburne election meeting. The latter's, and Judkins's, triumph came with (Sir) Thomas Bent's Lotteries, Gaming and Betting Act (1906) which was passed after stonewalling by Frank Anstey and Wren's lawyer David Gaunson. By then a millionaire, Wren easily retreated to other diversifying interests. When Judkins died in 1912, Wren was 'the most generous donor' to a testimonial for this propagator of 'homely virtues'.

A sleazy reputation clung to Wren. While it is credible that he fixed the ageing 'Plugger' Martin's victory in the 1901 Austral Wheel Race, a similar charge about his £50,000 coup in Murmur's 1904 Caulfield Cup win is fanciful. The Victoria Racing Club's temporary refusal to accept Wren's nominations was based on competition for gamblers' shillings and distaste for his origin, associations and success. Wren's response was to buy into Richmond, Fitzroy and Ascot pony courses which he personally controlled and cleansed. His use of professional stewards was an innovation. There is no evidence that he had associations with the murderous tout 'Squizzy' Taylor.

In 1910 Wren established the Victorian Trotting Association to reform a stagnant and corrupt sport, long before other States did the same. A typically audacious coup was to stage an 'Ascot Thousand' to replace the postponed Melbourne Cup in 1916. To stall the campaign against proprietary racing, he sold his Victorian interests in 1920 to the Victorian Racing and Trotting Association with (Sir) Gilbert Dyett as secretary, but a select committee suggested that this action was a subterfuge. To Wren's chagrin, Premier John Cain in 1947 established an independent control board. In Brisbane-Ipswich Wren owned six racecourses, including Doomben. A Queensland inquiry under a non-Labor government found in 1930 that, because proprietary racing was controlled by Wren, it was inherently corrupt. In 1948 Wren told a Commonwealth royal commission that he had bought Albion Park for £31,000, sold it for £450,000 and earned £300,000 from it. Wren owned the Belmont Park track in Western Australia, but it is unclear how involved he was in Sydney with James Donohoe and Sir James Joynton Smith. After Murmur, Wren's own horses, carrying the Collingwood Football Club's magpie colours, were moderately successful. Garlin won the 1915 Doncaster, Pandect the 1940 Australian Jockey Club's Derby, Pure Fire the 1952 Victoria Racing Club and A.J.C. Sires' Produce stakes, but his Australian Cup winner, The Rover, failed by less than a length to win the 1921 Melbourne Cup and a plunge for £300,000. Wren was a cool loser.

He had entered boxing promotion in 1905. His Stadiums Ltd acquired Reginald 'Snowy' Baker's interests in 1915 and a near monopoly in eastern Australia. Under its enduring, loyal manager Richard Lean, who also ran Wren's cycling venue in Melbourne, the stadium was 'a harsh unimaginative enterprise' without statutory control. It dictated terms to boxers and repressed unionism, although there were handouts for derelicts like Ron Richards. Locals were discouraged from seeking world titles abroad, but Wren had no part in Les Darcy's nemesis. Stadiums Ltd's profits remained unknown, but boxing was not, as in the United States of America, run by gangsters. Wrestling, as elsewhere, degenerated into farce.

Wren's miscellaneous businesses, spread over thirty-one companies, nearly always using his associates' names rather than his own, had no corporate organization. His partners did not doubt his integrity. In 1904, with Sir Rupert Clarke, he joined the proprietors of the renovated Theatre Royal, Melbourne, and acquired freehold of the Criterion theatre and hotel, Sydney, receiving eventually £267,000 for their demolition. In addition to owning three suburban cinemas, he constructed with E. J. Carroll and Frank Talbot the Melbourne Athenaeum Theatre. He purchased Morocco East, a grazing property in the Riverina, and, in the 1920s, two runs in Western Australia. One, Bidgemia, of 1,200,000 acres (485,628 ha), was sold lucklessly at the end of a nine-year drought. Wren speculated patiently and profitably in large tracts of marginal land in Sydney and Melbourne. He partnered Edward Theodore, Patrick Cody and (Sir) Frank Packer in three lucrative Fiji gold-mines. Great Boulder Mines (Western Australia), Golden Plateau (Queensland) and a colliery at Newcastle were also successful, though not Roma oilfields with his friend Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig, nor Watut goldfields in New Guinea.

Wren bought the Brisbane Daily Mail with Benjamin Nathan in 1915 and merged it with Sir Keith Murdoch's Courier in 1933 as the Courier-Mail. On behalf of his and Cody's United Distillers Ltd, he lobbied 'patriotically' and successfully with James Scullin's government for duties on fiercely competitive Scotch whisky. Australian Food Exporters Ltd (AFEX) and Barrett/Rowlands soft drink company were 'disasters'; Effron Yeast Pty Ltd was not.

His Criterion restaurant opposite St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, yielded his estate £120,000 for freehold. He had a frock shop in Sydney and the franchise for Marigny Cold Wave cosmetics. Ultimately Wren's empire was 'hopelessly confused', partly because, according to his eldest son, he 'soft-heartedly stuck to too many drones as managers'. In Victoria his probate was to be valued at £1,003,946; in Queensland at £70,666. It took two and a half years to wind up his affairs.

Jack Lang, no friend of Wren (or of his associate Theodore), called him 'a champion wire-puller', but the extent of his political manipulations is impossible to gauge. Written evidence of them scarcely exists. The Lone Hand claimed knowledge of 'parasitism' from 1901 when Anstey allegedly became a 'client'. Wren was supposed to have influenced Chris Watson's government of which Dawson was a member. Ultimately, in 1927 Anstey—evidently influenced by Theodore's election—resigned as deputy Federal parliamentary leader before accepting shares in Wren's New Guinea gold-mine. A royal commission in 1928 examined Wren (and others) to no effect in relation to a bribe paid to William Mahony to resign his Commonwealth parliament seat to make way for Theodore. Lang thought Scullin was 'a Wren man', but Scullin's biographer disdains such an idea—as did Tom Ryan's. Arthur Calwell, an admirer of Wren, linked even the highly respected George Prendergast with Ned Hogan and Tom Tunnecliffe as 'Wren's man'. Justice Bert Evatt was prepared to be seen at the football with him; (Sir) Robert Menzies appeared for him in litigation in 1947. Wren could telephone Prime Minister John Curtin to protest against wartime taxation, but got nowhere. His contributions to the electoral expenses of the idealistic Frank Brennan, for example, must have been routine, without any surety of reciprocal favours. Yet there is no doubt that Wren was co-broker in forming the Labor-supported Dunstan government of 1935. Clearly some Labor and Country Party parliamentarians accepted favours and espoused his liquor and gambling interests, but his sanctions were limited. John Cain won party leadership despite eschewing Wren influence.

Wren's control over Melbourne's inner suburban politics was far from thorough, although branch stacking, rigged ballots, bogus trade unions, intimidation and jobbery were endemic. A mayor of Collingwood, Robert 'Sugar' Roberts, who reported to Wren on Sundays, was expelled from the Labor Party in 1925 for attempting to subvert Maurice Blackburn's preselection for Fitzroy and for paying bribes to others to smear him as a 'communist'. Brennan was able to support Blackburn with impunity. Re-admitted in 1929 and precipitately made Collingwood branch president, Roberts was still refused endorsement for municipal elections in 1935. Nothing comparable with Tammany Hall operated in Australia. Aside from protecting his own interests, Wren obviously enjoyed political fixing, as he did his popularity with sections of the working class. An eight-hour day procession gave 'Three Cheers for Jack Wren' as it passed City Tattersalls. He was often generous to strikers and gave £1000 to the waterside workers in 1928.

Enthusiastically supporting World War I, in 1915 Wren awarded £500 to Albert Jacka as Australia's first Victoria Cross winner in that war and subsequently staked him in business. At 44, Wren joined the Australian Imperial Force, urged other sportsmen to do likewise, and became a corporal. He harangued his comrades against vice, set up a loan fund for them and improved their amenities before being discharged unfit in November 1915. He supported conscription, but spoke cogently on Irish independence, organizing the 1919 Irish Race Conference and fourteen Victoria Cross winners on white chargers for the triumphant 1920 St Patrick's Day march for Archbishop Daniel Mannix; he had the event filmed and exhibited. Hibernians gave Wren an armchair embossed with RUBHIN ABU ('Wren to Victory'). His framed photograph hung in a back room at Raheen which Wren had offered to help to purchase for Mannix. Wren told Fr William Hackett that he had given £2 million to charitable causes, mainly Catholic. Donations were often anonymous. Because of his prejudice against higher learning, however, he did not contribute to the foundation of Newman College or to Hackett's Central Catholic Library. Wren's association with Mannix fanned the sectarian fears of Empire loyalists like Herbert Brookes and Thomas Ruth to new heights in 1917-22. 'Shall Wren be Crowned King?' asked one Vigilant headline. In the early 1940s Wren was persuaded to make an initial contribution to the Catholic Social Studies Movement, organized by B. A. Santamaria, but withdrew support when he feared sectarianism would 'wreck the Labor Party he knew'. In 1948 the Catholic industrial grouper Stan Keon excoriated Wren in the Victorian parliament in terms which would have delighted Judkins. Wren's Labor sympathies finally soured.

The Wrens had been disgraced in 1889 by the sentencing of an elder brother, Arthur, to flogging and imprisonment, in commutation of a death sentence, for aiding and abetting rape—unjustly, thought his family. The eldest brother, Joseph, went on binges. John was neither to drink, smoke, tolerate profanity, womanize, nor disown his brothers, who acquired substantial assets. Arthur's obituary in the Argus described him as philanthropic, popular and 'beloved by the poor of Collingwood'.

On 31 December 1901 at St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, Wren married Ellen Mahon (d.1968), a police constable's convent-educated daughter. After a honeymoon in New Zealand, his only trip abroad, he took her to a reconstructed Studley Hall, across the River Yarra, overlooking Collingwood, where they reared seven children (two others died in infancy) on an almost self-contained farmlet. Wren bedded in a sleep-out, showered at 6.30 a.m. in hot, then cold, water, and allowed the air to dry him. He ate spare, near-vegetarian meals, entertained infrequently and avoided business lunches, snapshots and publicity. He prayed daily on his knees, but did not formally practise Catholicism until his last years when he attended morning Mass. He wore suits purchased three at a time off-the-rack, and, disliking automobiles, usually walked to the city, occasionally meeting en route his neighbour Mannix. Wren's manner and speech remained those of his Collingwood past, but his sons attended Xavier College, Kew, and his four daughters Sacré Coeur Convent, Malvern. In spite of his stern patriarchy, theirs was, apparently, a contented home, though, according to his son, Wren 'never understood women'. Three daughters married in Europe; one notoriously associated with 'communists'. His eldest daughter Margaret studied violin overseas which led Wren to sponsor Fritz Kreisler's tour in 1925. Wren was more comfortable with his football club where, from World War I, he was premier patron but not, as believed, the virtual owner.

Self-made rather than self-educated, Wren pursued wealth and influence while retaining the values of the alienated rather than the 'improving' working class. Conspiratorial, aloof, taciturn, contemptuous of 'establishment opinion' and with a masterful grey-eyed stare, he was an apt subject for ethno-sectarian apocrypha. It was sensationally exploited in communist Frank Hardy's best-seller, Power Without Glory (1950), and its Australian Broadcasting Commission telecast (1976) in which even murders are imputed to him. Wren threw his copy into the wastepaper basket, but his sons chose, on gauche legal advice, to press an obsolescent criminal libel charge in respect of their mother's identification with Nellie West who seduces a tradesman, bears an illegitimate son, Xavier, the same name as Ellen's deceased infant, and is ostracized by her husband. Smartly defended, the case foundered on the prosecution's unwillingness to contest that West was Wren and therefore that Ellen was characterized. The jury supported the underdog, though the identifications were clear. Decades later, Hardy admitted that 'on balance' he did not think that Ellen was an adultress. The irreproachably pious and retiring Ellen was not upset by a verdict she foresaw. To a reporter, Wren simply mused: 'Not guilty! … Extraordinary'.

Wren and his cobber 'Jock' McHale, Collingwood's renowned coach, both suffered coronary occlusions following its 1953 premiership. Wren had bustled to get behind the Magpie goalposts for the last quarter. Survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons, he died in Mount St Evin's hospital, Fitzroy, on 26 October. With Mannix presiding, the administrator of St Patrick's Cathedral celebrated Mass in hopeful white (not requiem black) vestments because it was the anniversary of the cathedral's consecration. Coadjutor-Archbishop Justin Simonds and thirty priests assisted. Boys from Xavier preparatory school formed a guard of honour before the cortège proceeded to Boroondara cemetery. The diocesan Advocate praised Wren's charity, modesty and concern for freedom, citing his efforts on behalf of Fr Charles Jerger. At Wesley Church's Pleasant Sunday Afternoon, Rev. Irving Benson recalled Judkins's 'valiant fight for righteousness' and the 'crack of … [Wren's] whip in the corridors of parliament'. Calwell, a pallbearer at Wren's funeral, later wrote that Wren 'was a better Australian than his detractors' and had simply observed 'the principles of commercial morality'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • F. Hardy, The Hard Way (Lond, 1961)
  • N. Brennan, John Wren (Melb, 1971)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • M. Cavanough, The Caulfield Cup (Syd, 1976)
  • E. H. Buggy, The Real John Wren (Melb, 1977)
  • P. Corris, Lords of the Ring (Melb, 1980)
  • R. Stremski, Kill for Collingwood (Syd, 1986)
  • J. O'Hara, A Mug's Game (Syd, 1987)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 16 Dec 1898, 13, 25-27 Sept 1906, 28 July 1948
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1926-28, 4, p 1235
  • Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1929-30, 2nd S, 2, p 1289
  • Lone Hand, May 1907
  • Labour History, May 1981
  • Journal of Religious History, June 1978
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 18 Nov 1893, 6 May 1899, 8 Dec 1900, 9 June 1906, 8 Sept 1919, 29 Oct 1953
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Feb, 8 Mar 1889, 27 July 1935, 3 June 1947, 28, 29 July 1948, 27 Oct 1953
  • Bulletin, 27 Oct, 1 Dec 1904, 4 Oct 1906, 26 May 1948
  • Vigilant, 1 July 1920
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Sept 1921, 24, 26 Dec 1983
  • D. W. Rawson, The Organisation of the Australian Labor Party 1916-41 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1954)
  • Hackett papers (Society of Jesus Provincial Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne)
  • Power Without Glory scrap-book of newsclippings re libel charge (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Wren, John (1871–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wren-john-9198/text16247, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014