Thomas John Ley
(28 October 1880 — 29 July 1947) was an Australian politician who was
convicted of murder in England. It is highly likely that he was also
involved in the deaths of a number of people in Australia.
Ley was born in Bath, England, but his father died in
1882 and his mother brought him and three siblings to Australia in 1886.
He attended Crown Street Public School in Sydney until he was ten; then
he worked as an assistant in his mother's grocery store. Having learnt
shorthand, he became a junior clerk-stenographer in a solicitor's office
at 14. He married Emily Louisa (known as "Lewie") Vernon in 1898, the
year she came to Australia from England. Both husband and wife were
active in politics, she in the international suffrage movement, and he
as a state (New South Wales) and federal politician from 1917 to 1928.
Ley served in the lower house of the New South Wales
parliament (1917-25) as member for Hurstville from 1917 to 1920,
representing the Nationalist Party of Australia, and St George from 1920
to 1925, representing the Progressive Party from 1920 to 1922. He was a
prominent and vocal advocate of proportional representation, which the
state adopted in 1919. Both his electorates were in Sydney's southern
As a teetotaller, Ley acquired the nickname
Lemonade Ley, but the Temperance Movement accused him of betrayal
when he supported legislation which eased requirements for the sale of
alcohol. It later became evident that he was being paid by the brewery
lobby. Despite this, he was appointed New South Wales' Minister for
Justice from 1922 to 1925 — in the cabinet of Premier Sir George Fuller
— and gained a reputation for harsh decisions.
Shortly after he became Minister for Justice, Ley
made an official visit to Western Australia and there was introduced to
Evelyn (Maggie) Brook, a magistrate's wife. Shortly afterwards the
magistrate died; Ley acted for her and her daughter in various financial
and legal matters.
In 1925, Ley was elected as the Nationalist Party of
Australia member for Barton in the federal House of Representatives.
Ley's fellow-conservatives began to have doubts about him after the
election. Accordingly he was never appointed to a federal ministry, such
as would normally have been expected with a man who had held, after all,
a senior State Government portfolio.
During the 1925 federal campaign Ley had tried to
bribe his ALP opponent, Frederick McDonald. McDonald revealed this in
public, and also alleged that Ley had offered him a £2000 share in a
property at Sydney's Kings Cross in return for withdrawing from the
ballot. Ley won the election, and McDonald appealed to the Courts, but
disappeared in mysterious circumstances; the case against Ley collapsed
for lack of evidence when McDonald failed to show up.
McDonald's disappearance may have been a coincidence.
But in 1927, Hyman Goldstein (himself member for Coogee in the New South
Wales parliament's lower house, and another of Ley's public critics) was
found dead after apparently falling from "Suicide Point" on the cliffs
of Coogee. Then a group of businessmen concerned at Ley's reputation for
dubious business dealings (SOS Prickly Pear Poisons Ltd being one of the
more infamous) appointed Keith Greedor, an opponent of Ley but formerly
an associate of his, to investigate. Travelling to Newcastle by boat,
Greedor fell overboard and drowned.
Return to England
After his defeat in the 1928 election, Ley returned
to England with Maggie Brook, his mistress of several years, leaving his
wife in Australia.
Little is recorded of Ley's life during the 1930s.
About all which can be said for certain is that he used his move to
England to start afresh in dubious business ventures, and during World
War II he was arrested and convicted for black marketeering.
The Chalk-pit Murder
In 1946 Maggie Brook was living in Wimbledon, and Ley
had his house at 5 Beaufort Gardens, London, converted into flats. Ley
imagined (wrongly) that Brook and a barman called John McMain Mudie were
lovers. Ley persuaded two of his labourers that Mudie was a blackmailer,
and together they tortured and killed him. The case became known as the
"Chalk-pit Murder" because Mudie's body was dumped in a Surrey chalkpit.
With Lawrence John Smith, Ley was tried at the Old
Bailey, and both were sentenced to death in March 1947. However, both
Smith and Ley escaped the noose; Smith's sentence was commuted to life
imprisonment, while Ley was declared insane and sent to Broadmoor Asylum
for the Criminally Insane. There he died soon after. He is said to have
been the wealthiest person ever to be a Broadmoor prisoner.
Ley's wife had followed him to England in 1942. From
Broadmoor, Ley wrote letters and poems and protested his innocence to
his wife and children. After his death, Lewie Ley returned to Australia;
she died at Bowral, New South Wales, in 1956.
Ley, Thomas John (1880 - 1947)
Australian Dictionary of Biography
LEY, THOMAS JOHN (1880-1947), politician and murderer,
was born on 28 October 1880 at Bath, Somerset, England, son of Henry
Ley, butler, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bryant. His father died in 1882
and in 1886 his mother migrated to Sydney with her four children and her
mother. From an early age Ley had to earn money as a paper-boy and
messenger. He attended Crown Street Public School but his formal
education ended at 10 when his mother withdrew him to assist her in
running a grocery store that she had bought. Later he worked on a dairy-farm
Ley, however, had ambitions for the law. While at
Windsor he studiously learned shorthand and, at 14, secured appointment
as a junior clerk-stenographer in a Pitt Street solicitor's office. In
1901 he transferred to Norton, Smith & Co., was articled to F. Osborne
in 1906 and was admitted as a solicitor on 13 March 1914. On 16 June
1898 Ley had married Emily Lewise (Louisa) Stone Vernon, daughter of a
well-off Somerset doctor. The Leys lived with the widowed Mrs Vernon at
Glebe until 1906, during which time they had three sons.
In 1896 Ley had joined the Sydney Mechanics' School
of Arts where he began to develop his considerable debating skill. The
inner city offered few opportunities for an aspiring young politician so
in 1907 he moved to the developing suburb of Hurstville. Within five
months he was elected to the local council. He served on council
committees dealing with parks and gardens, rates and levies, building
and health by-laws and street maintenance. He was involved in the local
ratepayers' association and the Parents' and Citizens' executive and was
active in Protestant organizations such as the Presbyterian Debating
Society. Through his advocacy of prohibition and his involvement in the
temperance movement, he acquired the nickname 'Lemonade Ley'.
After losing several elections for mayor, he decided
not to seek re-election in 1911 and instead turned his attention to
State politics. An ardent conscriptionist, he was elected in March 1917
to the Legislative Assembly for Hurstville for the National Party, led
by W. A. Holman after Labor split over conscription. Ley, however, was
no friend of Holman. Within the Nationalists he was the leading advocate
of proportional representation which, despite Holman's opposition, the
government enacted in 1919. Moreover, he was one of the first
Nationalists to join the Progressive Party (later the Country Party) and
in 1920 was returned as a Progressive for St George.
Although detested by many in his own party, Ley was a
'fluent speaker, with a most unctuous manner', and deluded many with his
community work and pious utterances. He was minister of public
instruction and of labour and industry in Sir George Fuller's 'seven-hour'
ministry of December 1921. After this débâcle the urban Progressives
were accepted back into the Nationalist fold. In 1922 Ley was returned
as a Nationalist and was appointed minister of justice in Fuller's
coalition ministry of 1922-25.
Ley's ministry was disastrous; virulently sectarian,
he had already inflamed existing antagonisms by backing Sister Liguori
and now exacerbated the situation by promoting the marriage amendment (ne
temere) bill. His prevarication about a prohibition plebiscite and
double-crossing of Rev. R. B. S. Hammond damaged his standing with the
temperance lobby. There was a community outcry at his refusal to commute
the death sentence on Edward Williams, an impoverished music teacher who
had murdered his three daughters.
Re-elected in 1925 but now in Opposition, Ley
resigned in September, allegedly at the invitation of Prime Minister S.
M. (Viscount) Bruce, to stand for the Federal seat of Barton. The
ensuing campaign and its aftermath irreparably damaged his reputation.
His Labor opponent Frederick McDonald alleged that Ley had tried to
bribe him to withdraw from the contest. Ley countered the accusation and
won the seat. McDonald sought to have the election declared void in the
Court of Disputed Returns but on 15 April 1926, on his way to meet
Premier J. T. Lang, he mysteriously disappeared.
Ley had hoped for appointment to the Federal ministry
but the prize eluded him. Instead, suspicion about him mounted. In late
1925 he had severed his connexion with Norton, Smith and established the
legal firm of Ley, Andrews & Co. He engaged in business ventures such as
S.O.S. Prickly Pear Poisons Ltd and Australasian Oil Fields Ltd, about
which allegations of irregularity were rife by 1927. However, that year
he visited Switzerland as delegate to the League of Nations General
Assembly at Geneva. The critics had included his legal partner Harry
Andrews and Hyman Goldstein, politician. On 3 September 1928 Goldstein
was found dead at the foot of the cliffs at Coogee.
Ignominiously defeated in the 1928 Federal elections,
Ley soon left for England. He was accompanied by his mistress, Maggie
Brook, whose husband had also died in mysterious circumstances, with
whom he had conducted a discreet alliance since 1922. In England Ley
continued his involvement in shady business ventures: he promoted an
unrealized £1 million sweepstake for the 1931 Derby, engaged in dubious
real estate dealings, and was a wartime black marketeer.
In March 1947 Ley was convicted and sentenced to
death for arranging the death of John McBain Mudie, a barman whom he
deludedly believed to be Maggie Brook's lover. Three days before the ex-minister
of justice was to hang for the 'Chalkpit Murder', his sentence was
commuted and he was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum,
Berkshire, where he died of meningeal haemorrhage on 24 July 1947. He
left his estate, valued for probate at £744 in New South Wales, to his
wife and sons.
J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd,
1956); C. Wilson and P. Pitman, Encyclopaedia of Murder (Lond,
1961); D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969); D. Morgan, The
Minister for Murder (Melb, 1979); People (Sydney), 12 Mar
1952; Ley papers (National Library of Australia).
Author: Baiba Berzins
Print Publication Details: Baiba
Berzins, 'Ley, Thomas John (1880 - 1947)', Australian Dictionary of
Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp 97-98.