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JOHN WREN (1871 - 1953), SELF-MADE MAN, LOCAL HERO & SCOUNDREL

This cover leads into a remarkable story told in a total of 4½ pages in the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography (A.D.B.), a length of biography uncommon for a man of his ilk (a page more than for Ned Kelly). The front shows that it is addressed to John Wren Esqr, Bourke St., City (Melbourne). The 1d rose Victoria ‘Postage’ stamp is postmarked with an unframed sixth duplex SOUTH YARRA/ 1/ AU 18/ VICTORIA, with the barred numeral ‘200'. It is endorsed by red pen ‘Delivery prohibited/ [initials] 20/ 8/08 (Figure 1).

 

 

The reverse has a Melbourne machine cancel, partially obscured by a black-printed white label: VICTORIA/ E.[ Queen’s insignia] R./ FOUND OPEN/ double oval, containing the instruction: ‘The Officer Closing This Must/ Sign His Name In The Centre’ with the officer’s initials in red crayon/ OFFICIALLY SEALED. There is a red postmark DEAD LETTER OFFICE/ AU 21/ 08/ MELBOURNE (Figure 2).

 

 

The vendor describes the cover as ‘Rare. Ex Hugh Freeman. [Wren was a notorious criminal - the subject of Frank Hardy’s book “Power without Glory” - & the subject of a PMG Order regarding non-delivery of his mail]’. Very exciting, but it did not prepare me for the large file on him in the prestigious A.D.B. John Wren was born on 3 April 1871 at Collingwood, Melbourne, the third son of illiterate though not indigent Irish immigrants John Wren, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Nester. Leaving school at the age of 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 City Tattersalls Club (1903) drew attention to similarly illicit, though tolerated, punting in elite venues.

A sleazy reputation clung to Wren. While it is credible that he fixed the aging ‘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 gambler’s 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.

He had a typically audacious coup staging 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. He entered boxing promotion in 1905 and by 1915 his Stadiums Ltd had a near monopoly in eastern Australia. Wren’s businesses spread over 31 companies, nearly always using his associates’ names rather than his own, and had no corporate organization. His partners did not doubt his integrity. He was involved in renovating the Theatre Royal, Melbourne and acquired the Criterion Theatre and Hotel, Sydney, receiving £267,000 for their demolition. He had property in the Riverina and two runs in Western Australia. He had 3 lucrative Fiji goldmines, Great Boulder Mines in W.A., the Golden Plateau in Queensland and a colliery in Newcastle. There was a restaurant in Melbourne, a frock shop in Sydney and a cosmetic’s franchise. In Victoria his probate was to be valued at £1,003,946, in Queensland at £70,666, and it took 2½ years to wind up his affairs.

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 reported to Wren on Sundays. Aside from protecting his interests, Wren enjoyed political fixing, as he did his popularity with sections of the working class. He was generous to strikers and he gave £1,000 to the waterside workers in 1928. He enthusiastically supported Australia’s involvement in World War I, and in 1915 he gave an award of £500 to Albert Jacka who was Australia’s first Victoria Cross winner in that war.

On 31 December, 1901 he married Ellen Mahon at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Melbourne and they reared 7 children. He ate sparely, near-vegetarian meals, entertained infrequently, avoided business lunches, photographs and publicity. He neither smoked, drank, nor tolerated profanity, and did not womanize. He prayed daily on his knees, but did not formally practice Catholicism until his last years, when he attended morning mass.

Wren suffered a heart attack following Collingwood’s 1953 premiership and died in hospital on 26 October 1953, survived by his wife, 3 daughters and 2 sons. The man was loved and reviled by many, and was accused by many of heinous crimes, most of which were poorly substantiated. He was described as conspiratorial, aloof, taciturn, contemptuous of establishment opinion, and he had a masterful grey-eyed stare (Figure 3).

 

This paper was extracted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

 

 
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