AUSTRALIAN HISTORY by Jeffry BabbNews Weekly
When John Wren took on communist Frank Hardy
, August 2, 2014
The libel trial between Victorian businessman John Wren and communist author Frank Hardy took place against the background of Robert Menzies’ Communist Party Dissolution Act (1950).
John Wren in the 1930s
Hardy was a knockabout hack journalist who spent much of his spare time at the trots. He was also a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). His exposé of John Wren’s political machine aimed to prove that capitalism was evil.
The late Professor Patrick O’Brien of the University of Western Australia argued that Hardy’s famous novel, Power Without Glory (1950), was not about Marxism, but a particular form of Catholic dogma. Both Wren and Hardy were of Irish Catholic background. The title of Hardy’s novel is derived from the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, then commonly known as the Pater Noster (Our Father). It is sufficient to show that Hardy, although a sworn atheist, could not escape his Irish Catholic upbringing.
It has been speculated, by O’Brien among others, that large portions of Power Without Glory were dictated to Hardy by the central committee of the CPA. What is beyond speculation is that Hardy’s work was produced clandestinely. A first edition copy, a solid brick of a book, is held in the State Library of Victoria’s Rare Books Collection. The book records Frank Hardy as the publisher and author.
Also, a typed list of the fictional names of the book’s characters and the corresponding actual names is folded into the dust cover. The correspondence between contemporary figures and fictional characters is undeniable; indeed, it was intended.
Power Without Glory contains little in the way of Marxist theory; O’Brien speculated that its guiding light was Jansenism, a Puritan strand of Catholicism.
As for Hardy’s adversary, John Wren, one could hardly describe him as being a member of bourgeoisie. He was without doubt a competent businessman, but sometimes not an especially successful one. After his death, one of his sons said his father would have done a lot better if he had got rid of the drones he employed to run his enterprises, mainly as a reward for their personal loyalty
The foundation of Wren’s fortune was the famous Collingwood tote, which was known to operate fairly and pay out on time. Wren also operated numerous well-known enterprises that operate to this day, such as the Moonee Valley Racecourse in north-western Melbourne and Doomben Racecourse in Brisbane. My uncle, Frank Jeffries, boxed at Melbourne’s Festival Hall — another Wren enterprise.
Niall Brennan, who wrote extensively on Australian Catholics and Australian Catholicism, wrote a biography called John Wren, Gambler: His Life and Times (1971), in which he observed: “Wren never entered the field of drugs, human bodies, pornography or striptease. He never found it necessary to say, as later entrepreneurs have done, that these things were relievers of tension, indications of an artistic trend, or stimulants to philosophic thought.
“He just went in and took the money that his customers offered him. It was not as dirty as some sorts of money, but it was hardly spotless.”
When Wren took Hardy to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1950, he must have thought he had a lay-down misère. Libel was a criminal offence and, indeed, Hardy was held on remand. Were Hardy to be convicted, he would almost certainly have been incarcerated in Pentridge Prison.
Nonetheless, Hardy could have pleaded truth and public benefit and, in the process, brought to light many things John Wren would have preferred not to be revealed.
However, according to Wren’s wife, Ellen, things seemed fairly clear cut. The Wrongs Act 1928 states: “Words spoken and published of any woman imputing to her a want of chastity shall be deemed to be slander, and an action shall by sustainable for such words in the same manner and to the same extent as for words charging an indictable offence.”
Henry Winneke KC, leading for the Crown, had to convince the jury that Nellie West and Ellen Wren were one and the same person. In the end, the jury did not find this credible.
Whether it was for the fact that Nellie West was a fairly minor character in the book, or that they didn’t believe that the wife of a prominent businessman would carry on an affair with a labourer and thereby produce a child, Hardy was found “not guilty”.
Many legal observers gave the credit for Hardy’s acquittal to Don Campbell KC, who led for Hardy. No criminal libel trial has ever been held since in Victoria.
Power Without Glory went through at least three editions. The book, quite contrary to the intentions of the CPA and Frank Hardy, made John Wren look like a battler made good, a man who was providing a service in spite of the “bourgeoisie” and the wowsers. In 1976, ABC television produced a 26-episode series, Power Without Glory, starring Martin Vaughan.
In real life, John Wren was not a gangster, but a big city boss who excelled at machine politics, and even funded the Catholic Church.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.