July 15, 2024

The Great Trades Hall Robbery

You can still see the bullet holes in the wall at Trades Hall in Carlton; remnants of a bloody shootout between armed bandits and police in 1915. This is, The Great Trades Hall Robbery.

Carlton Trades Hall, circa 1890.
Trades Hall, circa 1890.

Opening in 1859, the Victorian Trades Hall on Lygon Street is one of the oldest organised labour buildings in the world.

Its construction was funded by local tradies. Flush with success after their campaign for an 8 hour day in 1856, local unions took up a collection from members to fund a new base of operations. The Victorian branch of the Labour Party was founded there, and a number of Victorian unions are still based in the building.

The hall also used to be awash with cash.

Carlton Trades Hall, present day
And present day.

Most of the unions operating from the building used the facilities to collect their dues, which were then stored on site before being banked.

As Melbourne expanded rapidly, and the trade labour unions thrived, the sums of money collected by the unions were vast. In the early twentieth century, the building frequently had tens of thousands of pounds kept in it, an enormous sum for the time.

And it was also a poorly kept secret that this money was not heavily secured, being kept in bags in an empty room on the top floor.

Former police headquarters building, Melbourne
The grand police headquarters on Russell St, two blocks from Trades Hall.

In the small hours of October 2, 1915, police Constable William Warren was on patrol in Carlton.

The streets were quiet at that late hour, and the location, a block from Melbourne's police headquarters on Russell Street, were not usually a crime hotspot. But around 2.15am, as Warren walked past the darkened Trades Hall, he could hear a strange tapping sound, coming from inside the building.

While Warren tried to decide what to do, he was joined by Inspector Joseph McKenna, also on patrol. And McKenna felt he knew instantly what the noise was: a team of men trying to crack a safe. A third policeman, Douglas McGrath, joined the group and McKenna left them on the scene, while he dashed back to headquarters for reinforcements.

Police Constable David McGrath
Police Constable David McGrath

McKenna returned in a few minutes with several more officers, and the group entered the building.

The building was dark and the police moved cautiously, fanning out across the main staircase that lead to the upper floors. McGrath, an experienced officer with a cool head, took the lead. What happened next was to be much debated.

As the police moved deeper into the hall, they could hear movement in the dark and so challenged anyone there to identify themselves.

They were then fired upon,and so defended themselves with their service revolvers. The hall roared with the sound of a sudden gun battle, shots on both sides blazing in the dark, a chaotic and frightening moment.

Criminals involved in the Trades Hall Robbery
The three armed robbers.

Finally, the police managed to subdue the assailants and apprehend them.

There were three burglars, all of them well known to the authorities; John Jackson, Alexander Ward and Richard Buckley, the last an associate of notorious local gangster Squizzy Taylor.

There was also a tragic discovery in the aftermath of the shootout. Constable McGrath, 42 years old and a happily married family man, was found dead, shot by one of the gang.

The case against the accused appeared open and shut; the men admitted that they were after the union dues thought to be stored at the hall (in the end only 30 pounds was in the building at the time), and had been planning the break in for some weeks.

But attributing blame for McGrath's death proved more difficult.

Melbourne press reports the Trades Hall Robbery
The local press reports the story.

Jackson admitted shooting McGrath, but denied that he intended to kill him. Instead, he said that he ran into McGrath in a corridor and:

'Jackson said a shot was fired which struck him in the leg. He then got his gun out and fired at the Constable's hand.


Jackson said he did not intend to kill McGrath, but just to divert him, and save his own life.'


- The Argus reports Jackson's testimony

But the jury was either not convinced, or considered this explanation irrelevant: Jackson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

He was hung at the Melbourne Gaol, a short distance from the crime scene, the following year. His accomplices, Ward and Buckley, were absolved of blame for the killing and served five and six years in prison for robbery, respectively.

And there the matter may have rested.

Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy
Frank Hardy's famous novel

But from the time the crime was committed, there has been speculation that something else was afoot that night.

More specifically, that what the three culprits were at the Trades Hall to steal was not cash, but secret union documents, of interest to Melbourne's criminal underground.

The rumour has long been that Squizzy Taylor, and his friend and occasional business partner John Wren, were behind the break in.

John Wren: connected to the Trades Hall Robbery
Infamous local identity John Wren

John Wren was a colourful local identity, a businessman and a behind-the-scenes political player, known for his underworld connections. It was widely held that he had corrupt dealings with local unions - fixing prices, exchanging contracts for kick backs - but had always managed to avoid prosecution, and denied any charges levelled against him.

This version of the story has it that Wren had heard that the unions were also dealing with other criminal figures, on the side, without his knowledge.

And so, he decided to arrange a break in to find out who these other players were, from the unions records. He arranged for three local petty criminals to stage the robbery, and to get the records for him, in exchange for which they could keep any money they found.

Hardy found not guilty of defamation of John Wren

This speculation was given full vein in author Frank Hardy's classic local novel 'Power Without Glory,' where character John West (based on Wren) arranges a break in as described above.

Furiously denying the charge, Wren would sue Hardy for libel.

In a sensational case, that dominated local headlines for months, a parade of witnesses came forward to accuse Wren of a wide variety of criminal activity. The presiding judge ultimately threw out the case, stating that Wren's reputation was already so poor that he effectively couldn't be libelled.

For his part, Wren always denied any involvement with the crime.

Remnant of the Trades Hall Robbery: bullet holes in the wall
Bullet holes in the Trades Hall wall.

Which brings us back to the bullet holes; four are still visible in the Trades Hall wall. A small reminder of an unusual, foiled crime, that cost two young men their lives.


2 thoughts on “The Great Trades Hall Robbery

  1. The full name of the police sub inspector was Charles Joseph McKenna, my mother’s paternal grandfather.

    Neither Squizzy Taylor nor John Wren was involved. Frank Hardy fronted as the author of ‘Power without glory’ but did not do the research or write much of the book. It was organised by the Communist Party of Australia who was targeting a successful Irish catholic businessman. It was attack on the Australian Labor Party and the Catholic Church. A former communist party member received a PhD in the 1990s for her research on the background story.

    My great grandfather was interviewed by famous crime reporter Hugh Buggy and his interview appears in ‘The real John Wren’ which was originally serialised in the ‘Argus’. Hardy was sued, not by John Wren but by his sons. Like a case handed down this year, his sons gave the advantage to the defendants. The sons sought criminal libel and faced a tougher standard of proof. (This year the defendants had the benefit of the civil standard). The defendants won in both cases!

    Frank Hardy in court said the story was fiction but after the judgment claimed for the rest of his life that it was fact.

    1. Pauline Armstrong, 1928-2001, received a PhD for her thesis on Power without glory. Her book Frank Hardy: and the making of Power without glory was published by Melbourne University Press in 2000. Details xix, 249 p., [16] p. of plates ; ill., ports. ; 24 p. ISBN: 0522848885

      The papers of Pauline Armstrong, 5.25 metres (25 boxes + 5 cartons + 77 sound/av carriers), date range 1898 – 2004 and held by the National Library of Australia, Collection Number MS 9878. There are sixteen series. The first seven are ‘Save our Sons’, eight are ‘Frank Hardy and Power without glory’ and the last is obituaries and an autobiography.

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