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John Wren (3 April 1871 – 26 October 1953) was an Australian businessman and underworld figure. He has become a legendary figure thanks mainly to a fictionalised account of his life in Frank Hardy's novel Power Without Glory, which was also made into a television series. Wren exercised some influence in Victorian politics and business, but he was not as powerful as subsequent legend has suggested.
Wren was born in Collingwood, an inner working-class suburb of Melbourne, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants. In 1890, while working in a Collingwood shoe factory, he bet his entire savings on Carbine, the winner of the Melbourne Cup. In 1903 he added considerably to that sum when his own horse, Murmur, won the Caulfield Cup.
Racing and boxing activities
In 1892 Wren established an illegal totalisator (betting shop) behind a tobacconist's shop in Johnston St, Collingwood. The shop provided entry to a spacious wood yard at the rear, which was heavily fortified preventing easy access by the authorities. The betting model he employed for delivering transparent odds to his clients was adopted from George Adams's successful Tattersalls totalisator venture. The Collingwood tote made Wren a rich man and also gave him political influence in the inner suburbs. In 1905 he inherited the running of business interests in pony and horse racing from another Collingwood identity, and later made further expansions into gambling, cinemas, goldmining, newspaper publishing, and professional cycling. He subsequently had a role in the establishment of Moonee Valley Racecourse in Melbourne, which competed with the Victoria Racing Club's course at Flemington.
Wren became best known as a boxing promoter and through this success he was able to establish the Stadiums Limited organisation, which acquired venues in most major Australian capitals, including Sydney Stadium, Festival Hall, Melbourne and Festival Hall, Brisbane.
Wren, along with promoters Snowy Baker and Hugh D. McIntosh, was accused of using his influence to prevent the great young Australian boxer Les Darcy from fighting in America, where he had fled at the end of 1916 to earn money to support his family (according to Darcy) before he would serve in WWI. To quote Greg Growden : "All three realised their meal ticket had dudded them... Wren telegrammed Baker stating he would make certain Darcy was blackbanned in America.". In contrast, James Griffin in "Australian Dictionary of Biography" states : "Locals were discouraged from seeking world titles abroad, but Wren had no part in Les Darcy's nemesis". Griffin also points out that Darcy departed the day before the 1916 conscription referendum (which Wren supported). This illustrates the controversy surrounding John Wren's affairs.
Unlike many Australian Irish-Catholics Wren supported Australian involvement in World War I, and although he supported conscription for the war he grew increasingly anti-British after the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. This made him a supporter of the powerful Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, who became a close friend and neighbour. However, Niall Brennan tells us that Dr Mannix made a mistake with his public association with Wren as it damaged the Catholic Church, and : "He (Wren) tried hard but was never successful in buying the Archbishop as he bought politicians", and describes how Mannix refused Wren's contribution of most of a £50,000 testimonial at Mannix's departure for the USA and Rome in 1920 : "It was the last effort to wrap a tentacle around the Archbishop; and it failed".
Under Mannix's influence Wren was fiercely anti-Communist, and after the war he used his wealth to support politicians who opposed Communism and defended Catholic interests. In return he expected them to protect his business interests, both legal and illegal. By the 1920s, however, Wren no longer needed to be involved in small-time activities like illegal betting, and most of his money came from legal, if not entirely respectable, businesses such as racing and boxing promotion. It was during this period that he also became an influential patron of the Collingwood Football Club.
During the 1920s, '30s and '40s Wren controlled a political machine in Melbourne's inner suburbs, which he used mainly in the interests of moderate Catholic Labor politicians such as James Scullin, Frank Brennan and Tom Tunnecliffe. But he was also a friend and supporter of the Country Party Premier of Victoria Albert Dunstan, and it was his influence which led state Labor leader John Cain to support Dunstan's minority Country Party government through the 1930s.
Power Without Glory
In 1950, the novelist and Communist Party of Australia member Frank Hardy launched a savage attack on Wren in his self-published 1950 novel Power Without Glory, in which Wren appears thinly disguised as a character called John West. The book also included characters based on other important Victorian and Australian political figures, including Victorian Premier Sir Thomas Bent and Prime Minister James Scullin, as well as Roman Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix.
Hardy was tried for criminal libel in 1951 because of the depiction in the novel of "West's" wife having an affair, but he was acquitted on the grounds that the work was, as he said, a mixture of fact and fiction. It was the last prosecution for criminal (as opposed to civil) libel in Victoria. The case attracted enormous publicity, coinciding as it did with the anti-Communist referendum and served mainly to give the novel and the negative portrayal of Wren greater prominence. In 1976, the novel was made into an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television series starring Martin Vaughan as West.
Death and posthumous reputation
Wren died in 1953, a month after suffering a heart attack while witnessing his team Collingwood win the VFL grand final. He was not the only notable Collingwood figure to die that month: legendary coach Jock McHale had died twenty-two days earlier.
Frank Brennan's son, the author Niall Brennan, gave a favourable portrayal of Wren in his 1971 biography, John Wren: Gambler. Hugh Buggy's The Real John Wren (1977), with a Foreword by Arthur Calwell, Federal Parliamentary Labor Party Deputy Leader, was also very favourable. A more balanced account was given by Chris McConville's article in Labour History, "John Wren: Machine Boss" (1981). John Wren: A Life Reconsidered by James Griffin (2004) presented an essentially positive,and more factual, view of Wren's life and career.
Wren's granddaughter, Gabrielle Pizzi, also achieved renown as an art dealer credited with raising the profile of Aboriginal art.
- Brennan, Niall. Dr Mannix. Rigby Limited Adelaide, 1964.
- Brennan, Niall. John Wren: Gambler. Melbourne, 1971.
- Buggy, Hugh, The Real John Wren, Melbourne, 1977.
- Griffin, James. Wren, John (1871–1953), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, Melbourne University Press, 1990, pp 580–83.
- Griffin, James. John Wren: A Life Reconsidered, Scribe, Melbourne, 2004.
- Growden, Greg. The Snowy Baker Story. Random House Australia, 2003.