At 10pm, on Saturday evening, 1 December 1928, Melbourne was rocked by the sound of two explosions. The Akropolis Club in Lonsdale Street, a premises owned by Samian immigrant Nikolaos Manolitsas since 1923, was already notorious for its past association with underworld figure Squizzy Taylor. Now it would at the epicentre of one of Australia’s first acts of terrorism, an alleged racial hate crime, the implications of which would reverberate within legislation, see the matter reach the High Court, and give rise to questions of conspiracy and allegations of police misconduct. Strangely enough, given its extreme nature, and the fact that it remains a mystery unsolved, this singular event appears to exist outside the historical memory of the Greek community, which was the crime’s main target.
Half an hour previously, the upper room of the Akropolis Club was full of Greek-Melburnians playing cards, or billiards. At 9:45pm, a man carrying a small sack was seen emerging from a car. In the company of another, they entered the narrow passage way leading to the upper room and entered the toilet. Moments later, they exited the toilet and proceeded to an upper unoccupied room. There they planted two bombs and exited the Club in a hurry.
When the bombs exploded, their impact was devastating. According to reports, a “hail of jagged pieces of iron smashed the windows, the building was plunged into darkness, and a dense cloud of smoke rolled out. Doors were ripped off; an area four metres square was torn from the ceiling huge holes were gouged in walls, thick timbers were splintered; part of the roof was lifted bodily; furniture and crockery were smashed to fragments.”
Luckily, there were no deaths. Three Greeks, an Albanian and an Italian were admitted to Melbourne Hospital with severe injuries. The owner, Manolitsas, suffered a lacerated thigh and severe shock. He remained in hospital for seven weeks. Other patrons required longer hospitalisation.
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A large crowd gathered around the ruins of the Akropolis Club and the police immediately went into action. Within hours, they had raided homes in East Melbourne and Richmond where they stopped a car they were pursuing and found a home-made bomb under the seat. Five men were arrested: Timothy O’ Connell, Francis Delaney, Stanley Williams, Norman McIver and Alexander McIver. They were charged with maliciously damaging a building and endangering the life of Nikolaos Manolitsas and were released on bail.
The attack was one in a series of bombings that had shocked Melbourne over the past few months. It was believed that they were all linked, being motivated by the breaking of a waterfront strike at the Port Melbourne wharves, in which Greeks and Italians were used as strike breakers. Until the Akropolis bombing, authorities were at a loss to find the perpetrators and public opinion was galvanised against the bombers, the Age Newspaper deploring a crime against immigrants and demanding that “this unspeakably contemptible crime, so revolting to Australian instincts,” be stamped out. The Sun was even more scathing, directly linking the crime to waterfront workers, via “a gang backed by Red money,” hatching “a plot to cause racial and industrial strife.”
The bombing was seen as an event of national importance. The Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, expressed his dismay and referred the matter to the State authorities. Victorian Premier William McPherson sent a note of condolence to Greek Consul Alexander Maniakis, who stated that although he believed the Greek community would rally around Manolitsas, whose livelihood had been destroyed and had a wife and four children to support, he would asked the State for compensation. Sadly, the Greek community did not assist Manolitsas, nor did he receive State compensation. Though he managed to repair the building and re-open the premises, members of the Greek community avoided it and he worked as a cook instead, dying in 1942 at the age of fifty two.
Within days of the bombing, the Victorian Government shepherded its Explosive Substances Bill in Parliament, extending the maximum penalty for bomb throwing to between 10-15 years and extending its scope to planning a bombing and preparing a bomb. As if to address community suspicions, Labor member Mr Blackburn declared that the Waterside Worker’s Federation and the Trades Hall Council condemned the attack, stating that it was “disgraceful” that such an attack had been made on Greeks and stating that he himself had “been a guest of decent respectable men of those races” at the club.
The trial of the accused itself commenced on 20 February 1929 in the Supreme Court of Victoria. It took eight days and involved an array of leading barristers, attracting great media attention and packing the public gallery. Although the accused pleaded not guilty, professing no knowledge of the matter, the evidence against them seemed irrefutable: O’Connell and Delaney had been spotted entering the building and Norman McIver had driven the getaway car in which explosives were found. Alex McIver had been seen casing the premises by police officers. A notebook was found in O’Connell’s possession containing sketches of bombs. Police officers testified that some of the accused when apprehended, offered to “tell all” and implicate others, if they were left free to go. However, the credibility of some of the witnesses was compromised: an Italian cook who testified as to the identity of the bombers was found to have prior convictions and to be a police informer and a night-watchman named Jackson who had testified that he had seen McIver, O’Connell and Delaney at the premises, was found to have been jailed 23 years previously for attempting to bribe a jury. Further, at the time, the Victorian police was a highly politicised force, its Chief Commissioner, Blaney, who also, according to accounts, was a member of the local fascist group “White Army,” being an opponent of organised labour. Suspicions began to grow in certain quarters that the speed of the arrests and evidence had been doctored so as to implicate the broader labour movement.
Despite being seen at the Akropolis Club by a number of witnesses, O’Connell offered as an alibi, that he was at the ALP Club at the time and this was corroborated by an ALP club steward. To the defence’s contention that the Crown had not suggested a motive, the Prosecution responded that it did not have to establish motive and that the alibis offered by the accused could have been pre-arranged.
After deliberating for six hours, the jury acquitted Williams and Norman McIver and found the rest of the accused guilty. They were sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment with hard labour, a sentence applauded by the Argus newspaper: “Every decent law-abiding member of the community, will feel relieved that three of the perpetrators of the Greek Club bombing outrage have been brought to justice and punished for their crimes and that in each case, the maximum penalty has been imposed. Foreigners are entitled to all the protection that the highest authority in the country can bestow.”
On hearing his sentence, O’Connell declared that he had been the victim of a set-up, which he had not disclosed, because his counsel had advised him not to mention facts that could implicate prosecution witnesses. An appeal was lodged, contending the trial judge had misdirected the jury but the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and upheld the original sentences. The defence then sought leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia, the full bench of which, after considering the application for less than ten minutes, refused leave to appeal.
In the meantime, police arrested three men on the charge of conspiracy, Henry Stokes, Norman McIver and Thomas Taylor. They were charged with having offered a bribe to a woman to testify that she had seen a man known as Percy Jenkins hand two bombs to police constable Dunn and drive off with him. The jury acquitted the accused but concerns were raised that the convictions of the bombers were based on tainted evidence, especially as statutory declarations surfaced by people implicating Jenkins and Constable Dunn in the planting of the bomb in Delaney’s car. A pamphlet circulated urging reconsideration of the case. It is believed that the author was King’s Counsel Eugene Gorman, later an honorary Consul-General of Greece. When the pamphlet was received by the leader of the Victorian Opposition, he referred it to the police, who promptly arrested the printer, for not registering his press.
Fascinatingly, eight years after the trial, the Port Melbourne branch of the ALP urged the Victorian Trades Hall Council to press the Victorian Government to remit the rest of the bombers’ sentences. The original attempts bore no fruit but in February 1937, the Geelong branch of the ALP, the Victorian Liquor Trades Union and the Waterside Worker’s Federation persuaded the Trades Hall Council to make further representations. An application was made by legal luminaries Dr Evatt, then a High Court judge, Maurice Blackburn and Brian Fitzpatrick. A few days later, O’Connell and Delaney were released and Alexander McIver was released in October 1939.
In 1970, Sir Eugene Gorman visited Athens and discussed the case with diplomat, historian and Ambassador to Greece Hugh Gilchrist. According to Gilchrist, Gorman maintained that Constable Dunn had been responsible for planting the bomb in Delaney’s car, he being discharged from the force in 1940 for unsatisfactory conduct.
The circumstances surrounding the bombing of the Akropolis Club are almost movie-like in their intricacy of plot and conspiracy and at the time, captured the attention of an entire city. What actually happened that night, and whether the bombing was intended to terrorise the Greek community or to portray the labour movement as terrorists shall never be known. Maintaining the sense of continuity, is the singular fact that the building in which the bombing took place still stands, and until recently, housed the Apokalypsi nightclub, while it still houses the premises of Caras Music to the present day. However, the historical amnesia which masks the post-war Greek community’s ability to conceive of a linearity of tradition and memory prior to the arrival of their own families on this continent, so as to preserve and contextualize these events within its conception of its identity is regrettable, for in this way, the multifaceted cultural and social experience of an entire community is effaced. It also stands in the way of appreciating, a most intriguing mystery.