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On Fire

When I was a young minister freshly graduated and ordained, my first ministry in the 1960’s, after seven years of the slums of Newmarket, was in a small country church, in the small country town of Ararat, gateway to the Wimmera in Western Victoria. There I learnt the difficult art faced by all city bred ministers, of becoming a country parson.

On my first day in Ararat I was given a massive iron key to open the thick, heavy, iron and wood doors to the maximum security division to enable me to visit cell to cell the psychotic prisoners in J Ward. J Ward was built last century of heavy blocks of blue granite with high walls topped with rolls of barbed wire. Every gate and window was barred with steel bars one and a half inches thick.

The prisoners were considered the most dangerous in the country and the people in the community looked up to the top of the hill where the psychiatric prison stood like a great castle, fearful of the night when the sirens might go announcing a mass escape when they would all be murdered in their beds. There was no love for those prisoners in Ararat.

The prisoners I met as I went from cell to cell or stopped and talked to in the exercise yard were a strange mixture. They were the insane murderers of Victoria marked “Never to be released” or “To Be Held At The Governor’s Pleasure”. Some of them had been there a long time. Old Bill Wallace was 82 years of age when I first met him in 1965, and he had been a resident for more than forty years in a cell in J Ward as a result of a suspected murder. He was suspected only for he never spoke about his crime. A man was murdered, his friend, over an argument about a cigarette in the Waterloo Cafe in King Street, Melbourne. But there had been no witnesses, and there was no trial. Old Bill simply remained silent without answering a single question. Two police doctors declared him insane and he was sent to J Ward “To Be Held At The Governor’s Pleasure”.

He had already been there forty years and I guess I thought he would shortly die. The fact of the matter was Old Bill was to stay in prison until 1989 when he died in July after 63 years of imprisonment in J Ward, dying at the age of 107 as Australia’s oldest prisoner.

There were other strange men in J Ward. There was a man who constantly barked like a dog, and another man who would ask you frequently if you had ever sawn a man up into small pieces with a wood saw as he had.

There was a man in a cell who had only been there a few months, moody, over weight and pensive. I spoke to him like I spoke to others, but got nowhere. In fact I was to leave before anyone got anywhere with him. I only wished that I had been able to play a small part in his life for his story is indeed a remarkable one. But it was my successor as Chaplain to J Ward, Rev. Colin Knox who came in 1967, who was to play an important part in this psychotic prisoner’s life.

Later on I was to meet the prisoner and come to know his incredible story. But when I first unlocked the door of his cell he was just another moody, glowering prisoner sitting on his bed in the corner of the room staring ahead, not wanting to talk to anyone least of all a visiting Chaplain.

Thomas Albion Varney, that is his real name, was a prisoner with a terrible past. He had grown up in the township of Bairnsdale, Victoria where he had been born in 1940. He was a particularly dangerous prisoner.

He was in a very disturbed psychotic state and had been committee to J Ward at the Governor’s pleasure. He was disturbed mentally, had acute psychotic episodes in which he heard male voices speaking in his head telling him to attack police and to burn their cars. He became extraordinarily aggressive and violent towards police and had burnt three police cars in the previous nine months. He had violent dreams in which he shot policemen and burnt their cars.

Tom Varney was a nasty piece of business.

One night in Bairnsdale he had crept behind the police sergeant’s residence to the timber four car garage where the police cars were kept. Dragging a heavy can of petrol he poured the petrol all over the police car inside, then struck a match. The explosion blew him backwards out of the garage burning his hair off and seriously burning his face and hands. The police had no difficulty in arresting him but that was only part of his story.

Tom Varney had grown up in a good home, was a fit young man and a tremendous cricketer and football player. From an age of 13 he used to drink on a Sunday morning with the men in the old country hotel that adjoined the football ground. He loved to train with the older men and then go and drink in the hotel bar with them. Before he was 15 years of age he was an alcoholic.

Everything that he did was typical of a young man who was determined to make a mark on the world. He had a fine physique, worked hard and played hard. He was good sportsman with an uncanny ability with the ball and a very steady eye. He loved to shoot and had quite a number of high powered rifles. The local papers featured photographs of him as he was the only one in the whole area to shoot the maximum number of ducks on the opening of the duck season, or shoot a wild boar, or in one season of two and a half months shoot 116 foxes to make a local record. He was a dare devil who attracted the local girls and one fifteen year old girl, Barbara, thought the sun, moon and stars shone out of him.

He was a typical wild young drunk, always drinking heavily. On one occasion when he was 21 years of age and drunk he was driving his utility into Bairnsdale when he suddenly had the urge to kill Constable Don Hammond. Driving into town he loaded his shotgun and looked for Hammond.

As he drove down Main Street he spotted a police patrol car parked outside the butcher’s shop with its driver leaning against it talking to a man. It was not Hammond but Tom Varney hated all police. He tooted his horn constantly until the policeman turned towards him, then he shouted “If you want me, you are going to have to come and get me”. He revved up the engine and roared away screeching the tyres across the wrong side of the road.

The policeman jumped into his car, turned on the flashing blue lights and wailing siren and started chasing him. Tom Varney accelerated down the street with tremendous speed until he reached the centre of the Main Street where the War Memorial stood, a monument to the lost soldiers of two world wars. With screaming tyres he drove the utility around the War Memorial, riding the car up on two wheels and crashing up over the footpath. He roared back up Main Street with the police car in full pursuit. The crowds on the streets scattered as the two cars raced up the main street. Some of his friends recognised him and shouted encouragement as he drove crazily in front of the police car trying to burn the police car off.

The chase was a nightmare. He headed into the show grounds and through to the sale yards. He roared his utility around the show grounds arena and then back out of the sale yards gate. Through the show grounds and in front of him was a uniformed figure trying to wave him down. It was Constable Hammond. Tom Varney swerved the utility towards him and tried to run him over, but the policeman dived to safety. Another policeman standing back further threw a long wooden pole at the windscreen hoping somehow to break the windscreen and stop the vehicle. Varney roared the utility out over the rough grass and down the stock route towards the creek. He hit a huge bump at high speed which threw him up into the air with his head crashing against the roof stunning him.

The next thing he knew, was that he was in a police cell once more. Varney was sentenced to a heavy fine and his licence was suspended for eighteen months.

Tom Varney was to continue to lead a hectic life with many brushes with the law. He married his nineteen year old girl friend Barbara and within two years was the father of a daughter. His heavy drinking patterns now moved from beer to whisky, brandy and other spirits. Although only 21
years of age he was already a nasty alcoholic. When he began to drink his mind changed to a vicious, aggressive man. Sometimes he would take his guns and fire rapidly in an explosion of pent up anger.

Desiring to get even with the police he again took a heavy can of petrol, and hand gun and some gelignite to blow up the police vehicles at the back of the police station in Bairnsdale. On a freezing cold night near midnight he quietly broke his way into the police garage, emptied the full drum of petrol into the car, and trailed gunpowder outside where he set alight to it. It quickly sped along the ground and an horrendous explosion shattered the silence of the night.

Once more Varney was wanted by the police. He knew he had to get out of the area. After a long period on the run which ended in a bout of heavy drinking he was caught, charged with burning two police cars and locked away.

Tom Varney was bailed to appear in court in four months time. During those four months he tried to overcome his alcoholism by taking voluntary treatment but nothing seemed to make a difference. A local policeman, Sergeant Harvey Child tried to help him but Varney threatened him again and again, “My shotgun holds five cartridges, one each for four policemen in this place and one for yourself. One day soon I am going to walk in here and use very one of them on the lot of you.”

It was not long after that that very gently Police Sergeant Harvey Child visited Varney at his home with a warrant explaining that his licence to hold firearms had been cancelled. He took possession of all of Tom’s highly valued rifles.

He was sentenced to Pentridge, Melbourne’s notorious gaol, where he spent his time planning escapes. He mixed with older criminals and planned armed hold ups when he was released. It was while he was there in Pentridge that Tom Varney was certified insane and was sent to J Ward at Ararat.

During this period in the psychiatric prison Tom Varney was a hulking, cowering alcoholic inside a psychiatric prison. He was one of those hopeless cases to be detained at the Governor’s pleasure.

His wife Barbara, now with two children, shifted to Ararat where she might visit him. With faithfulness she stuck beside him. After a couple of years Tom Varney was released back into the community. His craving for alcohol immediately thrust him back into alcoholism and aggressiveness. He drove a truck but constantly was in trouble. Driving to Queensland he went on the biggest bender imaginable after drinking methylated spirits. He frequently woke in the morning after a methylated spirits bender absolutely paralyzed. He decided he would kill himself. Gaining a shotgun, he decided to blow out his brains.

In one fortuitous moment the police arrived and he was arrested, placed back in a prison cell at Bairnsdale and then transported across the State back to J Ward at Ararat. There my friend, the Methodist minister Rev. Colin Knox, visited him and shared faith with him. Varney was told “God is your only hope.” But Varney was not listening. He was planning an escape. Day after day he planned an escape and then suddenly at one meal break he and two other men each grabbed a large carving fork, and threatening a warder used the long sharp forks to force their way out, escaping in the darkness. That night they obtained bottles of methylated spirits and drank them hidden in the grass around Ararat. The impact was horrendous. During the night one of the other men died from the effects of alcohol poisoning.

The following morning the other two, totally incapacitated by the alcohol, were captured and taken back to J Ward. Once more he was visited by Rev. Knox who stressed with him that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God”. One of the other prisoners, a few days later, said to him “Tom, God is your only hope”. In the solitude of his cell for the first time he picked up a small Gideon Bible left a visiting Gideon and began to read it.

The words seemed to make sense and outside on the summer air a visiting choir of Christians was singing Christmas carols, the sound floating over the prison walls and through the bars of his window. Something like peace filled his room and Tom realized he had been given by God one more chance.

After two more years Tom Varney was allowed out of J Ward provided he stayed within the Aradale Mental Hospital. His wife Barbara, living nearby came to visit him faithfully. So did the men from the church, and from Gideon’s. He started on the AA programme and learnt of a power greater than himself that was able to help him recover. Barbara said “Why don’t you ask God to help you?” Kneeling down Tom Varney prayed, “God, if there be a God, would you please take away my desire for alcohol.”

It was the beginning of a new beginning. After some time Tom Varney was released from the psychiatric hospital subject to him having continuous reassessment. He shifted into the house that Barbara had obtained for them at Ballarat. The man next door was a builder who offered him a job. He accepted the job and one day while they were talking together the builder indicated that he was a member of the Gideon’s who had been to the various prisons and mental institutions to leave copies of God’s word. Tom looked at him in utter amazement and then recognised that this was the man who had visited him in J Ward and left the copy of the New Testament which had started him on the way to recovery.

I haven’t time to tell you all the rest of Tom Varney’s story but prison, psychiatric treatment, help from Alcoholics Anonymous and commitment to God through the Christian witness of Gideon’s who shared the Bible brought Tom Varney to a totally new perspective of life. It took a while but the power of alcohol was broken in him. Then Barbara made her commitment to Jesus Christ and they were both completely born again and a new life began. Tom Varney, during the 1970’s, eventually became a concrete contractor and life changed. He was employed, healthy, happy and a committed Christian until one day a police car pulled up and a member of the arson squad came with a summons indicating that he had to appear at the Bairnsdale Magistrate’s Court to face the charges of burning the police cars which he had burnt so many years previously.

Tom Varney, with the support of his new Christian friends, defended himself. So remarkable was his change in life that one of the members of the arson squad asked Tom for a copy of the Scriptures and Tom helped lead him to the Lord. Eventually a letter came from the Government of Victoria granting him a full pardon in the light of the remarkable change within his character.

Today Tom Varney is a committed Christian who works helping other prisoners through AA and the Gideon’s, with a completely Christian family of five children, living now in Beenleigh, Queensland. Tom Varney had been taken in his own words “from gutter to glory”.

I know him now as one of God’s gracious Christian men but I remember him sulking on a bed in the corner of a cell in J Ward, a totally psychotic criminal. Such is the power of God’s grace.

But I must admit that I would have doubted the change would have been possible after that first visit to J Ward when I came home with the huge key weighing down my pocket, to the country manse at 90 High Street, opposite the Railway Station, having learnt another lesson in the difficult art of becoming a country parson.

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