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Collingwood Tote

Almost a century after its closure, the Collingwood Tote is still remembered as Melbourne's most colourful and perhaps most profitable illegal betting shop. Located at 136 Johnston Street Collingwood (now most likely 146 after renumbering), the tote was hidden behind a teashop. It took up one side of a wood yard into which it was said only one load of wood ever went and none ever came out. Punters entered the tote through a gap in the lane at the rear, reached via Sackville Street, and placed their bets with staff hooded to avoid identification. Entrepreneur John Wren (1871-1953), a former boot-maker, established the tote, where winnings were based on totals wagered on each runner, in an era of fixed odds betting. As legend has it, Wren was able to bankroll his tote with winnings from Carbine's 1890 Melbourne Cup. Despite opposition from some church groups and newspapers such as the Argus, and after several slapstick raids (with constables concealed under loads of hay), police failed to prevent the tote taking wagers. Detective Sergeant David O'Donnell insisted that he had no legal powers to close the betting shop down, but for his troubles had his house firebombed in 1906. A 1906 Gaming Law brought to an end the colourful history of this inner-city institution. By then, Wren, a businessman with wide legal investments, had left Collingwood for a mansion in Kew, having established the City Tattersall's Club to serve his gambling and racing interests. The tote figured in Frank Hardy's novel Power without glory (1950), the subject of an unsuccessful criminal libel charge against the author from within Wren's family.

Chris Mcconville