John Wren: A Life Reconsidered by James Griffin

 ‘John Wren, financial investor, sports impresario, political ‘fixer’ and philanthropist, may be the most maligned person in Australian literature.’

A chance reference in another book I was reading led me to this book about John Wren.  A very long time ago, I read Frank Hardy’s ‘Power Without Glory’ in which ‘John West’ appears as a lightly  fictionalised version of John Wren.  I had no reason, then to question Frank Hardy’s portrayal.  Besides, Frank Hardy was something of a hero in the circles in which I moved, and his novel was much admired.

In the almost fifty years that have elapsed since I read ‘Power Without Glory’, I’ve read more broadly about early twentieth century Melbourne.  John Wren’s name has sometimes appeared in my reading.  So, who was John Wren, and why did James Griffin write this biography?

‘An historian can only work with the evidence before him.’

John Wren (3 April 1871 – 26 October 1953) was born in Collingwood.  His parents were Irish immigrants. He left school at the age of 12 and worked in a wood-yard and as a boot clicker, while supplementing his wage through various gambling activities. When John Wren lost his job in the 1890s depression, he commenced a horse racing gambling venture, which eventually earned him £20,000 per year.

I was intrigued.  A self-made man who moved into boxing and wrestling promotion, land speculation and newspaper ownership.  A generous benefactor to the needy and to the Catholic Church.  A man with interests in horse racing and politics.  I may not share his support of the Collingwood Football Club, but he was clearly passionate about it.  He suffered a heart attack at the VFL Grand Final on 26 September 1953, in which Collingwood beat Geelong.

James Griffin writes that Frank Hardy’s research into John Wren was fraudulent and motivated by Hardy’s personal agenda.  Certainly, in at least some parts of the biography, this is demonstrated.   

I am glad I read this book.  John Wren deserved far better treatment than he received as ‘John West’.  I wish I’d thought to question Frank Hardy’s portrayal earlier.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

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