Notable People of Collingwood

Collingwood Notables Database

John Wren


Bookmaker, tote operator, businessman, entrepreneur, racecourse owner, Collingwood Football Club supporter

Personal Photo 1

Born of illiterate Irish immigrants (John Wren and his wife Margaret, formerly Nester) in Ballarat Street, Collingwood in 1871, John Wren like many Collingwood boys left school early and commenced his working life in the boot trade, working at Whybrow's boot factory. Some stories say that while there he added to his income by a small scale bookmaking operation. Others suggest that he worked for a bookie after his retrenchment from Whybrow's in the 1891/1892 economic slump. Another story is that it was a win on the Melbourne Cup that allowed him to set up his bookmaking business behind the facade of a shop (at various times described as selling tea or tobacco) in Johnston Street, Collingwood.

However, it is probable that the owner of the shop at 136 (now 148) Johnston Street, Eliza 'Granny' Foster, helped to stake Wren in setting up the Tote. Eliza Foster also owned the two houses in Sackville Street, immediately behind and around which the three escape routes from the Tote functioned and all of these buildings were an essential part of the Tote operations. When she died in 1913 in Clifton Hill, Wren's refusal to accept the legacy of her whole estate made headlines in The Age and the Truth.

Established in 1893, the illegal tote provided a gambling venue for local people and was raided many times by the police, including the famous (or infamous) nine week police occupation from the eve of the 1903 Melbourne Cup. Originally entry to the Tote was through the shop, but from 1896 the entry was from Sackville Street through the lane beside one of Eliza Foster's houses. The most detailed contemporary description of the layout and operations of the Tote comes from the 14 November 1903 issue of the Truth newspaper. By this stage the door in the wall across the right of way from Sackville Street allowed the punter to enter a small yard for scrutiny, before passing through another wall into the main yard. The Tote was in a long, fortified structure to the left. Getaways were provided through the yard of the house next door as well as through a 'secret' passage running further east. The Truth also describes the distinctive Z shaped chute by which money was passed in by punters and winnings passed out.

Wren himself lived in Ballarat Street until, in 1901, he married Ellen Mahon who lived two doors from the Tote at (then) 132 Johnston Street. Ellen was the daughter of policeman, James Mahon and his wife Rose, a milliner.  Ellen, while born in Casterton, had been educated at St Euphrasia's Abbotsford by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and she and Wren were married at St Patrick's Cathedral by Father Patrick Phelan who had had responsibility for a number of years for St Joseph's in Otter Street Collingwood. Father Phelan is reputed to have said to Ellen on the day of the wedding 'You are marrying a miracle, not a man!' After the wedding the couple moved from the Collingwood Flat up to the grand Studley House in Nolan Street Kew. Of their nine children, three sons and four daughters survived to adulthood.  The sons were educated at Xavier College Kew, and the daughters at Sacre Coeur, Malvern.

The Tote closed down in January 1907, finally defeated by Sir Thomas Bent's Lotteries, Gaming and Betting Act of 1906. By the time of its closure, John Wren the entrepreneur had a finger in many other pies, and during his lifetime these included many sporting fields with interests in horse racing, trotting, boxing and cycling. His business interests, however, were broad and included real estate such as theatres (including the Melbourne Athenaeum) and hotels and a number of racecourses as well as the Brisbane Courier-Mail. An enthusiastic early supporter of the talkies, he also had a stake in various cinemas including the Glen in Hawthorn, the Rialto in Kew and the Hoyts Cinema in Richmond, as well as others in Geelong and Sydney. At Wren's death in 1953, his estate was valued at £1,074,612.

In 1913, Coadjutor Archbishop Daniel Mannix arrived on the scene in Melbourne, and Wren like many was attracted by his passionate interest in causes, though Wren was selective in what he backed. For example Wren did not help fund Newman College, a cause close to Mannix' heart. However, not surprisingly given his own family background, Wren supported Mannix on the Irish issue after the Easter uprising in 1916, funding both the attendance of the Victoria Cross winners on grey horses at the spectacular 1920 St Patrick's Day Parade, as well as the production of a film about the event which also included a segment called 'Martyrs of the Easter weekend 1916'.  One of the VC winners was local boy, Maurice Buckley, who had attended the Christian Brothers school in Nicholson Street, Abbotsford.

Despite moving to Kew in 1901, Wren never lost his connections with Collingwood. He had a reputation for both philanthropy and political manipulation in Collingwood, where Councillor and Mayor Robert 'Sugar' Roberts allegedly had weekly meetings with him. Aside from personal philanthropy which was mostly anonymous and said to amount to millions of pounds, Wren was the major funder for work that resulted in the Deep Rock swimming pool on the Yarra for Collingwood from 1916. He also contributed a £100 prize at a charity event in 1918 when 60,000 people watched Alec Wickham make a spectacular dive from the nearby cliffs.

Wren was also a patron and passionate supporter of the Collingwood Football Club.  This may have led to his ultimate undoing. John Wren died in October 1953 from a heart attack said to have been brought on by the excitement of Collingwood wresting the premiership from Geelong in the last quarter. His friend, coach 'Jock' McHale also suffered a heart attack after the Grand Final and predeceased him.  Wren died in Fitzroy at Mount St Evins, the private wing of St Vincent's Hospital, another beneficiary of his support. Wren's funeral, conducted at St Patrick's Cathedral and presided over by Archbishop Mannix with Coadjutor Archbishop Simonds and two other bishops and 30 priests also present, was attended by 1000 people. The Xavier College boys formed a guard of honour. Wren was buried at Boroondara Cemetery with the two archbishops at his graveside.

The story of John Wren is much written about and unfortunately is so clouded by hagiography and innuendo that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. This is particularly so because of the 1950 publication of Frank Hardy’s fictional account of Wren, Power without glory, and the notorious court case which was brought against Hardy by Wren’s children. Notwithstanding all of this, John Wren remains a name that many still see as synonymous with Collingwood.


Life Summary

Birth Date Birth Place
3 April 1871 Collingwood
Spouse Name Date of Marriage Children
Ellen Mahon 31 December 1901, St Patrick's Cathedral, East Melbourne Nine children of whom seven survived childhood. Madeline Margaret (1903-82), John Joseph (1905 -died aged 4 months), Elinor (1906-48), John Francis (1910-92), Mary Dorothea (1911-79), Anthony (1912-46), Joseph (1915-86), Angela (1916-57), Francis Xavier (1919-22).
Home Addresses
Home Street Home City Status of Building
35 Ballarat Street Collingwood Demolished
Work Addresses
Work Street Work City Status of Building
136 Johnston Street Collingwood Extant
Church Lodge
St Joseph's Catholic, Otter Street Collingwood
Death Date Death Place Cemetery
26 October 1953 Fitzroy Boroondara

Brennan, John Wren gambler: his life and times; Buggy, The real John Wren; Griffin, John Wren: a life reconsidered; 'Wren, John (1871-1953)' in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 12, 1891-1939, pp.580-583; Hardy, Power without glory; Hibbins, A short history of Collingwood.

Collingwood Historical Society website Plaques section 

ADB John Wren

Online Image links
Deep Rock Swimming Pool
Collingwood Trades Cricket Club

There are a number of photographs and illustrations of Wren in the publications cited above, particularly Brennan and Griffin.

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