Saturday August 24 2013
– For a pacifist, former deputy prime minister Jim Cairns was pretty handy with a shooter.
Long before he led more than 100,000 people in the 1970 anti-Vietnam War moratorium demonstration, he was involved in a free and frank discussion with a gunman in the Exhibition Gardens.
In one way they shared the view that wealth should be distributed more equitably – they just differed on methodology. Jim believed in taxing the wealthy while he gunman advocated armed robberies.
It was around lunchtime on November 5th, 1936, as police chased suspected murderer and bandit William Cody but Bill chose the wrong copper to try to beat in a foot race as Cairns was a local decathlon and long jump champion.
Australia was just recovering from the Great Depression (which made the GFC look like a bad hair day) and was awash with violence and corruption. Many police were on the take, gangs ran the backstreets of Fitzroy and Collingwood and the city warehouse district was home to baccarat rather than baristas.
Most coppers were poorly trained, poorly paid and often unmotivated. There was a huge trade in illegal drugs (cocaine was popular), sly grog (pubs were supposed to close at 6pm), SP bookmaking and prostitution. Guns, many from World War I, were readily available though locally sourced ammunition was notoriously unreliable.
Gentleman Jim Cairns had been in the police force for only two years and was working in the surveillance squad, known as The Dogs. He would complete a Melbourne University economics degree part-time (handy as he would rise to be Australia’s treasurer) and became the first Victorian policeman with a tertiary qualification.
But this day he was following suspects for an armed robbery where a guard was shot dead in the middle of Melbourne. Cairns jumped on a Nicholson Street tram (his colleague, lacking the necessary athletic prowess, missed his moment) and approached Cody, but the Collingwood tough was not about to come quietly.
More than 50 years later the long-retired politician recalled the incident in an interview with Robin Hughes for the Australian Biography Project.
“Cody hopped in through the door of the tram with a .32 calibre revolver, pushed it into my chest and pulled the trigger. It didn’t go off. So I pushed him aside and he took off, raced down through the tram and across into the Exhibition Gardens.
“I had a .25 calibre Browning automatic in my shirt pocket, and as I chased Cody, he’s turning around, by this time got his gun to go. I counted five shots that he fired in my direction – five. And when we got that far, I fired two in the air above him and he called out, ‘I’ve had enough.’ So I caught up to him and pulled the gun from him. By this time another detective had arrived, Alf Guider, and another police car was coming in from the other side, and so Alf Guider said, ‘shoot the bastard,’ and I said, ‘No, he hasn’t got a gun.’,”
There is some confusion how many shots were fired (around 10) and so we turn to the journal of record, The Age, whose enthusiastic crime reporter of the day hunted down an eyewitness.
“Mr C. Bevin, of Cardigan Street, Carlton, who was strolling through the gardens, said he was nearly hit by one of the bullets. ‘I threw myself to the ground,’ he remarked. ‘I thought that bandits, whom we have heard something about lately, were close to me, and I didn’t mind admitting, that I was considerably frightened. When I saw the man behind the tree and the other men advancing on him I then guessed that the converging men were detectives. The man behind the tree did not appear to offer any resistance.'”
This draws us to conclude that either Mr C. Bevin of cardigan Street was a visiting thespian from Stratford-upon-Avon or the quotation is bogus.
We also note the report recorded that “the hail of bullets drove card players and park denizens from their seats”. Pass the Abbots Lager.
Cody was arrested along with brothers Geoffrey and Rupert Davies and charged with a truckload of offences, including the murder of security guard Ted Scriven, gunned down in an armed robbery 10 months earlier.
Enter historian Robin Grow, who is painstakingly reconstructing the events that cover the tragic murder, four trials and a Watergate-like cover-up that would cost the chief commissioner his job.
“Melbourne before the war was very much like Chicago. I don’t think people understand the level of violence at the time,” Grow says.
It was the Underbelly of its day – involving sex, lies and violence – and that’s only the coppers. But more of that later.
It began in a most innocuous setting, the old a Stamps Office on the corner of Lonsdale and Queen Streets at the end of the January heatwave.
The takings of about $3500 (nearly the price of a new home) were to be transported by cab to the Bank of Australasia. Police had provided the escort but when they raised their rates the tight-fisted Law Department refused to pay and expected their clerical staff to ride shotgun.
On this Friday the proposed escort was having trouble balancing the books and at the last minute employee Ted Scriven, a 63-year-old ex-soldier nearing retirement, was asked to fill in. In his haste he left his .25 Webley & Scott pistol in his drawer.
Scriven and the 18-year-old messenger were jumped at the cab outside the Stamp Office and the former soldier was shot in the head from point-blank range. The two gunmen escaped in a large black sedan driven by a third man.
The taxi driver picked up a gun from the ground, yelled, “Stop that car,” and tried to fire, but nothing happened. In a mad chase the gunmen crashed into a fruit shop before dumping the car near the (now) Southern Cross Station.
Eventually the case was put in the hands of the head of the CIB, the legendary Detective Superintendent John O’Donnell Brophy.
What police methods lacked in science in those days was more than made up by what they could make up. Shady informers, questionable confessions, and dodgy eyewitnesses were often accepted and the case against the three was sketchy at best.
Grow’s research shows the three were crooks (all bought motorbikes shortly after the stick-up) but were they the armed robbers in question?
Geoffrey Davies was acquitted at the first trial while the jury failed to reach a verdict on the remaining two. In the retrial Cody and Rupert Davies were found guilty and sentenced to death, only to have their convictions overturned by the High Court. A third and fourth trial ended with hung juries, which meant the defendants weren’t.
Cody was convicted of other matters but he always remembered that Cairns refused to “shoot the bastard” back in the Exhibition Gardens. “When he came out of jail, after doing seven years for shooting [at] me, he arrived with a bunch of flowers for [my wife] Gwen.”
During the trials one witness was shot, another committed perjury and there were allegations of jury tampering. The trials also exposed police methods as shambolic at best.
Nearly four months after the murder Brophy was shot while sitting in a chauffeur-driven car in Royal Park. Surprisingly there was no manhunt for the offenders and the first official version was that he “was accidentally shot in the right arm whilst handling his revolver”.
There was no mention of the fact he was also shot in the cheek and chest (the potential fatal shot deflected off his braces buckle). If it was accidentally self-inflicted he was indeed suffering from near-terminal butter fingers.
When the press failed to swallow the line then chief commissioner Tom Blamey said Brophy was shot as he was about to meet an informer as part of armed robbery investigations (including the Stamps Office). No mention was made that there were two women in the car.
Soon there were rumours the policeman was shot by a jealous husband and there was even a suggestion the chief commissioner was in back seat (although his view of the crime was obscured by a lady’s petticoat).
Blamey hated the press and had used Cairns to follow reporters to try to find their sources.
Now it was payback time and finally the government appointed a royal commission, which found Blamey “gave replies that were not in accordance with the truth”.
He was forced to resign, although he rebuilt his reputation in World War II when he became Australia’s highest-ranking military leader.
His nocturnal appetite was said to be prodigious (he made Snoop Dogg look like Donnybrook Osmond) and it was never explained how years earlier his police badge had turned up in a brothel.
On a 1944 trip on the USS Lurline to San Francisco with prime minister John Curtin he insisted on taking on board several cases of spirits for the journey.
Being a generous soul, he chose to entertain lonely Australian war brides in his cabin, much to the annoyance of the PM, a reformed alcoholic.
Blamey’s replacement was Alexander Duncan, a former head of Scotland Yard’s famed Flying Squad. He professionalised police methods, teaching detectives that physical evidence was better than tainted testimony.
In 1943 he set up the homicide squad, which will hold its gala 70th anniversary dinner in a few weeks (commemorative ties available for $20).
Pass the port – John Silvester