Racing Victoria’s John Wren exhibition

The Good Ol’ Age has alerted me to the fact that from 7 September 2006, the Victorian Racing Museum in Federation Square is holding an exhibition about John Wren, pictured, at one time Australia’s richest man. Born in Collingwood in 1871, he died in Fitzroy in 1953 aged 82, having lived across the river in Kew, in what is now Xavier’s junior school, Burke Hall (then Studley House), a man who would have been an avid reader of Abbotsford Blog (but not its reviews of pubs and bars, for he was a teetotaller) had he only lived to see the day. He had toured the virtuosic violinist Fritz Kreisler, set up an opera company, owned The Criterion restaurant opposite St Paul’s, built a racecourse in Richmond, supposedly given two million pounds to charity over 5 years, bet his life savings on a legendary Melbourne Cup winner, Carbine, owned the 1904 Caulfied Cup winner, Murmur, built a public pool on the Yarra at Abbotsford, preferred the Collingwood Football Club to the Melbourne Club, and promoted boxing and cycling. What else he did besides is a matter of some controversy, though he did get right up the nose of my relative, Bill Judkins (one of Keith Dunstan’s favourite wowsers). The Judster was a Methodist lay preacher who, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, saw “Wren, drink, gambling and Catholicism all combined into one terrible evil.” Short, bandy and sharp-featured, the Wrenster and the Judster were apparently frequently mistaken for one another to their mutual embarrassment. The ADB describes his personal life thus:

“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.”

For 14 years to 1907, he ran an illegal tote behind the pictured no. 146 Johnston St, Collingwood, a tobacconist’s enclosed by barbed wire and staffed by hooded bookies who would take as little as 6 penny bets. A reconstruction of it is to be a feature of the Racing Museum’s exhibition. (Now I know why The Tote is so named.)

As John West he was the thinly veiled subject of the Communist Frank Hardy’s novel Power Without Glory set in the fictional suburb of Carringbush. In 1951 it was the subject of an unsuccessful criminal libel prosecution of Hardy. Squizzy Taylor (who used to drink at what is now The Renown Tavern on the corner of Napier and Gertrude Sts, formerly known as Squizzy Taylor’s) and Archbishop Daniel Mannix also feature. The novel itself if a remarkable story, as recounted in this essay published by Trinity College:

Power Without Glory was researched and written in elaborate secrecy. Hardy and his supporters worked in a clandestine fashion to avoid the attention of police and powerful individuals who could prevent the novel’s publication. After years in preparation, Power Without Glory appeared on Australian streets in 1950. It was self-published and bound by volunteers in suburban homes across Melbourne. Exhibiting its close relation with radical politics and the union movement, Power Without Glory was not distributed through normal literary channels: it was sold in factories, at political and cultural meetings, on street corners, in pubs, and under the clocks at Flinders Street Station. Most contemporary reviewers in the established newspapers and journals ignored the novel. Nevertheless, Hardy’s realist fiction soon became an underground hit, before exploding into public life when Parliamentarians and other leaders of society fulminated against his thinly veiled attack on powerful men and machine politics. The thirty-three year old author was arrested and charged with criminal libel of Ellen Wren, the wife of John Wren, a multi-millionaire businessman and power broker in the Australian Labor Party (ALP).”

Hardy, pictured, only died in 1994.

Manning Clark, ever florid, captioned Wren’s photo in his big history book “the loneliness of a man enslaved by the bitch goddess of success”, as recounted by the the 2004 biography which sought to ameliorate the severity of the accepted wisdom about Wren in the years after his death extracted in this lengthy Age article, by Professor James Griffin.

I discovered today that the whole of the Australian Dictionary of Biography appears to be available online for free. This is what they have on the Wrenster. The things you learn: did you know there was once a barrister named Maurice Blackburn, who founded the leading labour law firm? Or that teetotallism has nothing to do with tea? Or that Squizzy Taylor was so named because of a droop in his left eye?

4 Replies to “Racing Victoria’s John Wren exhibition”

  1. just been reading about John Wren in the old newspapers – my great grandfather worked for him as one of the 'hooded men' – should be 136 Johnston Street

  2. hey,this is Ellena Apadoca,just discovered your Blog on google and i must say this blog is great.may I share some of the article found in your web site to my local mates?i’m not sure and what you think?anyway,Thank you!

  3. Hello there. Im just wondering if anybody can spare some time to assist me with information on John and Arthur Wren? My email is karlie2210@hotmail,com.
    I would be so grateful for any historians that might spare me some time so that I can learn more about them 🙂

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