Lost in the battle

There is almost as much heat generated about John Wren as there is about Ned Kelly. James Griffin’s book will certainly raise the temperature. His thesis could be construed as ‘glory without power’. By examining every account of Wren, incident after incident, commentator after commentator, Griffin argues that Wren did not rig sporting events but did use his wealth to influence pre-selection ballots—he was a productive investor and a genuine philanthropist. Why then did he receive such damning press? This extraordinary biography leaves many puzzles and does not produce a clearer picture of the ‘real’ John Wren.

Griffin relied heavily on journalist and Wren confidant, Hugh Buggy. His retrospective and laudatory accounts in The Real John Wren were published to refute characterisations in Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, A Novel. Griffin sets about dispelling the myths—well some of them. He argues Wren was not a Tammany Hall figure (as asserted by Frank Hardy and Manning Clark); he ran his totes with ‘fair dealing and orderliness’; and Buggy’s title of a ‘human benevolent institution’ fitted. In so doing he provides some subtle variations.

Whereas historian Niall Brennan in John Wren: Gambler, His Life and Times has Wren born in a slum of slum parents, Griffin’s Wren, a resident of Collingwood, was the product of illiterate parents who had initiative. He describes the Wren family as ‘upper working class’ asserting that the Irish who came to Australia were not as destitute as their American counterparts—they could afford the higher passage or presented well enough for state assistance.  He delineates the litany of Wren’s family disasters with siblings, children and grandchildren. Unfortunately he fails to explore either cause or effect.
To understand Wren, writers have focused on his physical appearance. Brennan describes him as ‘short, bandy-legged, rather rodent-faced and almost instinctively furtive of manner’, while Griffin’s portrayal is ‘short but not inordinately so’. Ironically Griffin later refers to Wren’s nemesis, Judkins, as ‘short wiry, with sharp features and the wags said that he and Wren could have been mistaken for each other’. Griffin also dismisses Frank Hardy’s description of West/Wren as ‘Looney Tunes’—not a serious literary work.

Griffin, all too often, does to others what he so vehemently objects to in studies of Wren. He perpetuates the furphies. William Lawrence Baillieu, of Collins House fame, is pilloried for his ‘secret compositions’ during the Depression, but no mention is made of his later work in war munitions or industrial welfare schemes. From my own investigations, Wren, the teetotaler, was not instrumental in the transfer of the liquor licence of the Tivoli (German) Club to Collingwood Football Club in 1941. The idea and the execution belongs to architect Robert Henry McIntyre, whose practice was largely in hotel renovations. Griffin’s real ire is directed towards journalist Monty Grover, describing him as ‘patently a hostile commentator relying on hearsay and seemingly disturbed by the existence of knockabout Collingwood
blokes, though not by the raffish chaps around The Bulletin’.

Griffin describes Grover’s 1907 article in the Lone Hand as diatribe. Yet the Australian Dictionary of Biography refers to Grover as being renowned for his honesty and hatred of opportunism. Why were Grover’s perceptions widely accepted? Perhaps there was an element of truth, or perhaps Buggy’s statement, ‘malicious gossip about Wren’s motives for this or that action ran off him like water off a duck’s back’ is closer to the mark.

Griffin’s exposé is not for the faint hearted. In 419 pages almost every event, association and activity in Wren’s life is explored in microscopic detail. Yet mystery surrounds his schooling. What kind of rudimentary education (state or Catholic) did Wren receive? Only in about 25 instances (the notes are frustratingly unclear in their attribution) does Griffin quote Wren. The quotes are from speeches, newspapers, Royal Commissions, and a smattering of letters in the Barry and Wren papers. The most outspoken of these are the two letters to The Herald in 1906 following the bombing of Detective-Sergeant O’Donnell’s house. Yet even Griffin wonders if Wren was the author.

Aspects of Wren’s stance on the Irish question and the Catholic Church are still unresolved. Griffin’s book is riddled with suppositions ranging from ‘it is not fanciful to imagine the Wren family were stirred by Ned’s self-justifying Jerilderie letter, like those who protested against his execution, and were riled by the manifest bias at his trial by the Anglo-Irish hanging judge, Sir Redmond Barry’, to assumptions such as  ‘Wren would have been more at ease with the affable, ursine Queenslander than with his own awesome, gaunt archbishop, who liked to put people down where Duhig preferred to placate his opponents’. Does he agree with Brennan that ‘even historians should be allowed some imagination’?

If you can ignore the frequent swipes at Manning Clark’s ‘yarrasiders’, (the gentility on the other side of the river); not choke on Sacré Coeur and the Titian-haired Mary Wren being described as ‘posh’; and accept that the intent of Evatt’s cryptic letters to Wren are about his preferment (wanting to become a Privy Councilor), then this account opens new vistas. It is a detailed account of an intriguing man who, reputedly at his death, had two books by his bedside, the Bible and a history of the Collingwood Football Club. Unfortunately the book is almost indigestible in its detail. Perhaps a better title would be, John Wren: A life rehabilitated. 

John Wren: A life reconsidered, James Griffin. Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 92076 911 0, rrp $60

Jane Mayo Carolan is a Melbourne historian and author of a history of Trinity Grammar, Kew, For the Green, the Gold and the Mitre.



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