Les McMahon, who died in January this year, was a Glebe boy, born and bred. A plumber by profession – and an official in the Plumbers’ Union – he was married to the daughter of the then Labor Federal Member, Danny Minogue, after whom his street in Forest Lodge was named. He was a good Catholic and a loyal member of the right wing of the NSW Labor Party.
Les was deputy Mayor of Leichhardt Council when in 1968-69 we started the Glebe Society, and was the main political figure in the area (having taken over that role from ‘Doc’ Foley, whose political star was waning – ‘DOC FOLEY WEARS LACE UNDERPANTS’ was scrawled on a wall above Wentworth Park).
Glebe was traditional ALP territory. It was staunchly working-class, and until we middle-class house-renovators arrived, it was regarded as one of Sydney’s inner-city slums, and solidly Labor.
Initially, we were regarded by the powers-that-be in Glebe with suspicion bordering on hostility.
Labor had already lost Paddington to middle-class gentrification, and Balmain was well-advanced down that road. The possibility that they would lose Glebe too – where Jock Garden once ruled – was something they could not lightly allow to happen.
Nevertheless, if we were to succeed, we had to get Labor and Les McMahon onside. That became my task as vice-president of the Society.
In this I was aided by what was happening in nearby Balmain. There gentrification had, for the Labor Party, turned nasty. Political radicals had gained a foothold in that part of the municipality, and were regularly disrupting council meetings, led by two prominent Trotskyites called Nick Origlass and Issy Wyner.
So in reality, it was not we middle-class interlopers that Les and Labor were most worried about, but the Workers Revolutionary Party and their acolytes.
To his credit, Les realised that open hostility to gentrification could lead to far worse things for Labor,which was why he rang me one Saturday morning in 1969 and suggested we meet.
As we drove together round Glebe, I tried to reassure him that we did not pose a political threat to him or Labor. We wanted to preserve Glebe’s physical heritage. We did not regard it as a slum, but a gem of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
As we passed Jubilee Oval he pointed to the bandstand. ‘Was that what I wanted preserved?’ he asked. Then he directed me to the soldiers’ memorial in Glebe Point Rd as a fine example of the spirit of preservation in Glebe.
Next I drove him up my street, Toxteth Rd, and pointed to the three-storey walk-up on the corner of Mansfield St. ‘That’s what we don’t want,’ I told him.
I also pointed out the ceramic tiles on many of the façades and front steps of houses further down Glebe Point as being features of architectural value, and worth preserving. He confessed to me that he had never noticed those tiles, though he had lived all his life in the area. Les was seeing a Glebe he had never seen before.
Over the coming months, Les and I developed a good working relationship. I believe he did his best to stop further demolitions and hinder applications from firms like Parkes Development to erect more of their three-storey walk-ups on the waterfront land they had their greedy eyes on.
Perhaps the biggest favour Les did for the Glebe Society was to arrange an audience with the local Catholic priest, Father Roberts, in his presbytery in Woolley St, off Bridge Rd. As well as being Labor territory, Glebe was also a Catholic bailiwick, and Father Roberts was a person of much influence in the area.
Yet, to my surprise, he was not so much worried about our gentrification as the threat to his flock from middle-class religious infection, spearheaded by the Children of God who had taken over Lyndhurst and were attracting (he assured me) local youngsters to their fundamentalist gatherings.
Yet what won him over to our cause was when I told him that our primary concern then was the eight-lane cut-and-fill expressway the Main Roads Department was planning to drive through Glebe Point, which would (I pointed out to him) mean the demolition of Lyndhurst.
From then on we had the not inconsiderable imprimatur of the Catholic Church in our efforts to save Glebe, and for that we had Les to thank.
In the fullness of time, Les took over from his father-in-law as MHR for the Glebe constituency. But in his heart he remained, I am sure, a Glebe Boy the rest of his life.
I counted him as an ally to our cause. With his passing, the Society has lost a foundation supporter and a firm friend.