Friday, September 18, 2015

The Trades Hall Robbery Shoot Out

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 tradesman, flush with success from their campaign for an 8 hour day in 1856, and keen to further organise their lobbying efforts. The Victorian branch of the Labour Party was founded there, and a number of Victorian unions are still based in the building.

The Trades Hall circa 1890.

Present day.

The hall also used to be awash with cash.

Most of the unions operating from the building also 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; at times in the tens of thousands of pounds. 

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.

'The Argus'; October 2, 1915.

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 (there had been a minor safe burglary at the hall a few weeks before). A third policeman, Douglas McGrath, joined the group and McKenna left them on the scene, while he dashed back to headquarters for reinforcements.

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

Police Constable David McGrath.

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, unprovoked, 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.

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 local press reports the story.
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), and had been planning the break in for some weeks. But attributing blame for McGrath's death proved more difficult.

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

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.

But from the time the crime took place, 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. Both had corrupt dealings with local unions - fixing prices, exchanging contracts for kick backs etc - and had heard that the unions were also dealing with other criminal figures, without their knowledge. 

So, in this version of the story, they decide to arrange a break in to find out who these other players are, from the unions records, and then use the promise of cash on the site to entice a few blokes to carry it out for them. The burglars can keep the money, as long as they hand over the unions books.

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. For this, and many other assertions, Wren would sue Hardy for libel, but the case was ultimately thrown out.

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

Bullet holes, still visible in the Trade Hall wall.

But whatever the ultimate truth behind what happened, this remains a tragic story; two men's lives lost, all for the sake of thirty pounds. Some of the bullet holes from the shootout are still visible in the Trades Hall walls, to serve as a reminder.


  1. Another great post Danno--and a reminder to re-read Power Without Glory--ta!

  2. Thanks for this great post. I came across it while researching Richard Buckley. I think I'll now read Power Without Glory.I watched the TV series years ago, but have never read it.