Tom Ley, Federal Member for Barton.
Tom Ley, Federal Member for Barton.

The only person whose career is summed up in The Australian Dictionary of Biography as “politician and murderer” and in The Australian Encyclopaedia as “politician and criminal” lived for a number of years at various addresses in Glebe.

Tom Ley was born in Bath, England, the youngest child of a butler.  After the death of his father in a workhouse, his mother Elizabeth sailed to Sydney and, with her four children, rented 24 Denham Street (now the northern part of St Johns Road) opposite the police station.  Six-year-old Tom Ley was soon delivering papers for Sydney Bibb’s news agency at 129 Glebe Point Road.  At Hereford House he got to know district court judge William Wilkinson and his son William Camac Wilkinson, a surgeon and MLA for Glebe.  In later years Ley claimed the judge, his mentor, gave him his first reference and, thereby, entry into the legal profession.

Elizabeth moved the family to Surry Hills where she ran a boarding house and Tom was enrolled at Crown Street School. However his formal schooling ended at age 10, when his mother opened a grocery.  He worked there and on a dairy farm near Windsor. But Tom was ambitious: he taught himself shorthand and, at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, developed skills as a debater.  Aged 14, he became a junior clerk-stenographer in a Pitt Street solicitor’s office.  Here he became friendly with a typist, Ethel Vernon, but switched his attentions to her sister Emily Lewise Stone (known as Louisa) and in 1898 put his age up by nearly four years to marry her.

The Vernon girls lived with their widowed mother Emily in Glebe, opposite Hereford House.  Their father, a successful English doctor, had left the family comfortably off and the women had travelled extensively before settling in Sydney in 1895.  The newly wed Tom and the pregnant (with Russell) Louisa took over the top floor of their mother-inlaw’s house.  Keith was born in 1900.  By the time of the birth of their third son Clive, in 1903, the extended family had moved several times: 67 Glebe Road, 261 Glebe Road, 57 Parramatta Old Road, Forest Lodge and Cresswell, 347 Glebe Road.  In 1903 Tom gave his address as 6 Avona Avenue.  When Mrs Vernon and Ethel, a “stenographer”, went to live in Woollahra in 1906, ownership of Cresswell passed to Ley, now an articled clerk with Norton, Smith & Co.  A year later he moved to the developing suburb of Hurstville and was soon elected to council.

In 1914 Ley was admitted as a solicitor. Unsuccessful as a mayoral candidate he switched to State politics, and was Nationalist MLA for Hurstville/St George

1917 – 1925.  An advocate of prohibition (nicknamed “Lemonade Ley”) and a fervent conscriptionist, he held Cabinet positions of Public Instruction, Labour and Industry, and Justice (1922-5).  “A fluent speaker, with a most unctuous manner”, Ley joined a number of community organisations but appeared to have few friends.  Many in his own party loathed him.

His prevarication over the introduction of a plebiscite on prohibition lost him support in the anti-liquor movement, particularly with the Temperance Society’s President Robert Hammond whose notice board outside St Barnabas Broadway admonished in a “weekly sermon in a sentence”: “Drink promises you heaven, but gives you hell”.  A virulent sectarian, Ley tried to push through the Marriage Amendment (ne temere) Bill whereby a Protestant/Catholic couple united in a State ceremony would have to remarry in a Catholic church.  He supported Mary Ligouri (who eventually died in the Rydalmere Mental Hospital), a nun who ran away from a Wagga convent and sued the Catholic Church for wrongful arrest.  Both issues received huge press and parliamentary coverage at the time.

As Minister for Justice he resisted appeals for clemency in the case of Edward Williams, a Paddington church organist who, living in a single room with his three small daughters after the death of their insane mother, killed them as the result of a “vision” and was hanged.  On the other hand, there were rumours that he had ordered the release of a convicted criminal, Puddifoot, because he was the illegitimate son of Ley’s sister.

But Ley in the early 1920s was at the height of his power, a well-known Sydney identity, stocky, snappily dressed, with the “gift of the gab”. He was a councillor of the Millions Club, a director of Universal Sales and his son Russell had served as a lieutenant in the war.  He enjoyed motoring and tennis and moved up market from Caloola in Hurstville to The Bungalow in Hurstville.

Re-elected in 1925, but now in Opposition to Jack Lang’s Labor Party, Ley next turned his sights on the Federal seat of Barton, held for Labor since 1922 by Frederick McDonald.  McDonald, although an early president of the Teachers Federation, was out of his depth in the robust politics of the time and was apparently persuaded by Ley not to nominate in exchange for five thousand pounds.  However, a few days before the election, Ley told him that as he himself was going to win easily, the deal was off. McDonald hastily nominated and was defeated.

McDonald went to the Court of Disputed Returns and gave a statement to Lang. Ley contacted McDonald suggesting a meeting before he went to see the Premier.  On the day of the appointment McDonald disappeared; no trace of him was ever found.  With no chief witness, charges of bribery were dropped.  At about the same time Ley severed connections with his old legal firm Norton, Smith and went into partnership with Harry Andrews.

Ley’s expectations to have some status in the Bruce government were never realised, the Prime Minister refusing to have anything to do with him.  He spent some time in 1927 in Switzerland as a delegate to the League of Nations, and was defeated in the next elections.

In September 1928 the body of Hyman Goldstein, MLA for Coogee, was found “greatly mutilated” at the foot of “suicide point” near Coogee Beach.  Goldstein had been a shareholder in Prickly Pear Poisons, a company of which Ley was chairman and his son Keith secretary. Irregularities were said to exist in the company: its patent had never been lodged, naphtha proved ineffective as a poison, and the balance sheets were fraudulent.  The company should have ceased trading.  His legal partner Harry Andrews broke with Ley to represent two plaintiffs who served him with writs. Goldstein, chairman of a shareholders’ committee investigating the company, had vowed to pursue the action.

Another of Ley’s associates, Kenneth Greedor, last seen on a ship to Newcastle, also disappeared.

Soon after Goldstein’s death, and before charges were laid by shareholders in another Ley company, Australasian Oil Fields, Ley left the country, accompanied by his mistress since 1922, Maggie Brook (whose husband had supposedly died from bee stings) and her daughter.  Mrs Brook had been his companion on an official tour of the USA and Canada in 1924-5, and Ley had bought thousands of pounds worth of property in her name.

In England he promoted a million dollar sweepstake for the 1931 Derby, was a wartime black marketeer and a dealer in London real estate.

In November 1946 the strangled body of a barman, John Mudie, was found in a Surrey chalk pit.  Four months later Ley and Lawrence Smith, a joiner, were charged with murder.  It was alleged that Ley, suspecting Mudie of having an affair with Maggie Brook (then aged 66) had hired Smith and a hire car driver, John Buckingham, to kill him.  Each was paid £200.

Buckingham turned King’s Evidence.

Jurors in the “chalk pit case” heard that Ley had become obsessed with Mudie, who had met Mrs Brook only once.  Ley and Smith were found guilty and their execution was fixed for 8 May at Pentonville Prison.  Ley protested his innocence: “I am not surprised at the verdict of the jury after the biased summing up, the exploitation of the allegations of jealousy, suspicions, obsessions and such like nonsense”. He appealed twice, but his reprieve came about in a different way.  Three days before the scheduled hanging he was medically examined on the recommendation of the Home Secretary and pronounced insane, although this defence had not been brought up at the trial. Smith’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Ley died on 24 July 1947 in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. With him were his wife Louisa and son Clive who had flown to England, desperate to find witnesses to prove his Ley’s innocence.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography The Australian Encyclopaedia 2nd edition vol. 5
Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook 1930
F C Green Servant of the House 1969
F Tennyson Jesse (ed) Trial of T J Ley and L J Smith 1947
Labor Daily 15 June, 16 June, 19 June 1928
J T Lang I Remember 1956
Modern Encyclopaedia of Australia and New Zealand 1964
Dan Morgan The Minister for Murder 1979
People 12 March1952
Sands directories & electoral rolls 18961908
Sydney Morning Herald 18 Dec 1886, 4 Sept 1928
The Times 11 Jan, 20 March, 21 March, 22 March, 25 March, 25 April, 29 April, 6 May, 26 July 1947
Who’s Who in Australia 1922, 1927-8