The Life & Times of Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell
After briefly living behind the police station in the working-class Sydney suburb of Redfern, Francis Michael Farrell, born in 1916, was brought up in the ethnic melting pot that was Marrickville.
Named after St Francis of Assisi, Farrell was a devout Roman Catholic of distinctly Irish heritage. The future infamous Sydney policeman and legendary captain of the Newtown rugby league team gained his nickname from his habit, as a teenager who often walked barefoot, of picking up discarded cigarette butts, or bumpers, which he broke open, using the tobacco to make his own cigarettes. Indeed, throughout his eventful life Farrell was a chain-smoker and a staunch imbiber of the booze.
As a hardline copper who didn’t mind bending the rules, Farrell’s heyday covered the latter half of the razor gang years in the late 1930s, Kings Cross and inner-city Sydney during World War II and the ferocious 1950s and 1960s in places such as Darlinghurst, where he became head of the Vice Squad.
Larry Writer writes evocatively about the fights between Sydney brothel keepers Kate Leigh, who was Farrell’s most valued informant, and Tilly Devine, who loathed Farrell with a passion and who, at her 50th birthday party while carving the roast pork and plunging in a knife, remarked, “I wish this ‘ere pig was Bumper Farrell.”
Strong as an ox, with gnarled nose and cauliflower ears, Farrell’s beat from 1938 to 1976 involved dealing with such infamous gangsters as Lennie McPherson, Abe Saffron, and John (“Chow”) Hayes.
As a rugby league player, he captained Newtown to the premiership in 1943 and represented Australia against England and New Zealand. His football career began at Marist Brothers Kogarah, where he developed into a tough front-row forward playing against the likes of the legendary Frank Hyde. Yet for all of Farrell’s sporting achievements, he was best known for biting off the ear of a St George rival, Bill McRitchie, in an infamous match in July 1945.
On completing an apprenticeship as a boilermaker at Garden Island naval dockyards, Farrell joined the NSW Police Force in 1938. Soon he was at home in Darlinghurst and the Cross, which along with Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo became his domain for decades.
Throughout Farrell’s police career, it was accepted that the owners of gambling dens and sly grog houses who paid substantial bribes were rarely raided, and almost never without a tip-off. As Writer explains, either the proprietor paid a senior politician or policeman directly or police “bag men” were sent to the clubs, brothels and gaming houses and “collected their superiors’ money in proverbial brown paper bags”. By the 1960s, this system was “ratcheted up to a streamlined and vastly more profitable level by Premier Robert Askin and a succession of corrupt police commissioners and senior officers”.
Yet when he was allowed to organise surprise raids, Farrell did so with considerable physical verve and gusto. Like many of his generation, Farrell loved a fight.
One of the most fascinating sections of Bumper deals with his years working at News Ltd in Surry Hills after he retired from the force.
When Ita Buttrose was editor-in-chief of The Sunday Telegraph in the early 1980s, she was experiencing considerable problems with a stalker. Farrell soon fixed this problem by contacting the notorious Roger Rogerson, then in charge of detectives at Darlinghurst police station. Predictably, the stalker was quickly dealt with and thereafter left Buttrose alone.
Buttrose has fond memories of Farrell. “He had a huge reputation as the toughest cop ever, yet he was the most courteous man in that very policeman-like way,” she says. “His courtesy and friendship made it easier for me to be a woman executive at News Limited, a place where you could smell the testosterone when you walked in the front door.”
In this fine biography, perhaps not enough is made of Farrell’s love for his children and of his undying affection for his artistic wife, Phyllis, an Anglican who converted to Catholicism and who in marrying him sacrificed her career. Certainly Phyllis’s death left Farrell bereft.
To the end of his days, as he had done as a child, each morning on waking and each evening before he slept the plain-spoken Bumper said his prayers while bending on his knees.
In April 1985, Farrell died in his bed, at home alone. In his right hand he held his rosary beads. As Writer evocatively concludes: “His left arm was raised, reaching back, the hand clutching a slat in the bed head, as if he had suffered a painful spasm and grabbed something solid for support.”
The Life & Times of Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell by Larry Writer , Hachette, 402pp, $35