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Rich History in RSL Billiard Table

Hawthorn's small RSL sub branch, located on the corner of Glenferrie and Manningtree roads, was built in 1920 for Hawthorn's returned First World War soldiers, sailors and airmen to gather and socialise and was complete with a billiard-room, card room, several living rooms and a canteen.

In July last year The Glenferrie Times explored the history and City of Boroondara's future plans for the Hawthorn RSL. There is not a lot of historical information about the building and activities associated with the building, so we asked the public to share any information they had. A member of our local community, Jenny, contacted the The Glenferrie Times to tell her story of a beloved piece of the Hawthorn RSL.

Despite residing in Camberwell, Jenny has strong ties to Hawthorn: her father-in-law Max Yunghanns was the Mayor of the City of Hawthorn 1960-61. About 35 years ago he heard that the Hawthorn RSL was selling furniture and reducing in size. As long-time collectors of vintage furniture, Jenny and her husband jumped at the opportunity to purchase some of the furniture. They fell in love with the Hawthorn RSL's grand old-style billiard table with elegant fiddleback sides, purchased the table and have been proud owners since. However, the supposed original owner is an exciting story.

The billiard table bears no plaque or inscription, but Jenny believes word of mouth. Rumour has it the table was donated to the RSL by John Wren, the infamous local businessman who made a name for himself in the betting industry at the turn of the 20th century. Born in Collingwood in 1871, Wren’s lucrative career broke from bootmaking to bookmaking to eventually include over 31 different companies. While he famously owned real estate, newspapers, sports venues, and more, it was the wildly popular Johnson Street Tote - Wren’s illegal gambling hub of the 1890s - which gave him his controversial reputation (and fortune!).

Jenny laughs, speculating where the money came from. “Crooked money,” she insists.

Frank Hardy’s novel Power Without Glory was released in 1950 and while its contents are fictitious, it retains one element of truth: the whirlwind of rumour which followed Wren his entire life, tying him to corruption, crime, and even murder. The legend is now perhaps more rich than ever in the memories of local men and women like Jenny.

She remembers the figure of John Wren as a successful, self-made man known for his generosity to the local working class. In retrospect, Jenny likens him somewhat to the character of Clive Palmer: a wealthy, jolly figure in the community, plagued by controversy.

She believes Wren donated the billiard table following the First World War, when the recreation and enjoyment of returned soldiers were of the highest priority.

Although she admits the table no longer receives the use of years gone by, Jenny and her husband have loved their statement billiard table. It’s a staple piece in their home and - as rumour will have it - a true relic of local history.

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