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Blakeney, Frederick Joseph (1913–1990)

by Stuart Doran

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Frederick Joseph Blakeney (1913-1990), diplomat, was born on 2 July 1913 at Chatswood, Sydney, second child of Australian-born parents Frederick Joseph Blakeney, public accountant, and his wife Mabel Florence, née Bates. Educated at the Marist Brothers’ High School, Darlinghurst, and at the Marist Brothers’ juniorate at Mittagong, he entered the novitiate in 1931 and took his first vows on 2 July 1932. He adopted the religious name of Albeus and taught in schools at Forbes and at Bendigo, Victoria, before he left the Order in 1936. Enrolling at the University of Sydney (BA, 1942), he graduated with first-class honours in English and history, and won the university medal in history.

On 28 March 1942 Blakeney enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was 6 ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall and 12 st. 6 lb. (79 kg) in weight, with blue eyes and brown hair. Qualifying as an air observer, he was commissioned on 10 December. At St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on 11 January 1943 he married Marjorie Grosmont Martin, a photographer. He underwent further training in Canada and Britain and was promoted to flying officer in June. From October he served in North Africa, transporting anti-submarine aircraft. In January 1944 he was posted back to Britain as a navigator in No.271 Squadron, Royal Air Force. He dropped Canadian paratroops and towed a personnel-carrying glider over France on D-Day (6 June), and took part in the airborne operations at Arnhem, the Netherlands, in September. Promoted to flight lieutenant in December, he served with Transport Command in Canada from January 1945 and returned to Australia in July. His RAAF appointment terminated on 1 October.

Blakeney taught modern history at the University of Sydney before joining the Department of External Affairs in June 1946. He served in Paris from 1947 to 1949, the first of many European postings, and thereafter in Stalin’s Moscow until 1951. From late 1953 to 1956 he was counsellor in Washington and between 1957 and 1959 he was minister in Indo-China. As a Catholic (which was unusual in the department at the time) and a staunch anti-communist (to a degree notable even among peers for whom such an orientation was customary), he appears to have encouraged Australia’s nascent support for the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem—a commitment that would lead to Australia’s direct involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Recalled to Canberra in 1959, Blakeney was appointed head of the department’s South and South-East Asia branch, where he saw the end of the Menzies government’s policy of keeping West New Guinea out of Indonesia’s hands. In 1962 he was dispatched again to Europe, and he remained there—with the exception of two more years in Canberra—for the rest of his career. He was appointed knight grand cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Paul VI in 1964 and CBE in 1968. As ambassador in Bonn (1962-68), Moscow (1968-71) and The Hague (1974-77), and permanent representative to the European office of the United Nations in Geneva (1977-78), he reported widely on developments in East-West relations. But Australia also had more direct interests on the Continent. For example, in West Germany a major objective given to him was to achieve agreement that Australian exports would receive special treatment once Britain entered the European Economic Community; in the Netherlands Australia had significant concerns with regard to trade, finance and migration; and in the Soviet Union Blakeney negotiated something of a thaw in bilateral relations. This last step was part of Australia’s attempt to take advantage of the growing split between the Soviet Union and China.

A heavy cigar smoker, Blakeney retired in June 1978 after a major heart attack. He had been well regarded among senior officers, one of whom described him as `jovial in manner’ and `prudent and thoughtful in his approach to foreign policy issues’. However he was unpopular with subordinates, who perceived him as being overly conscious of his status, a man who did not suffer juniors gladly. Such a reputation earned him the sobriquets `Blake the Snake’ and `Franz Joseph von Blakenburg’. His stiff and authoritarian manner appears to have sprung, at least in part, from two conservative beliefs: that his minions should be aware of their lowly place in the hierarchy and that subordinates should endure a series of trials in order to be prepared for greater responsibilities.

Blakeney’s leadership, which sometimes extended to checking the fingernails of staff, had some positive features. His schoolmasterly approach is said to have accompanied a deep knowledge of old-style diplomatic skills that provided a valuable example for a career in the foreign service. In the more intimate surroundings of his home at Deakin, Canberra, and later at Mollymook, New South Wales, his family viewed him with affection and admiration. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 16 June 1990 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times, 21 June 1990, p 7
  • Canberra and District Historical Society, Newsletter, Aug 1990, p 9
  • AWM 65, item 344 (Australian War Memorial)
  • series A9300, item Blakeney F J, series A6366, item MS1969/01T, series A1838, items 3014/10/ 10/1 and 29/1/3, part 4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • career details (Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra)
  • Blakeney papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Stuart Doran, 'Blakeney, Frederick Joseph (1913–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blakeney-frederick-joseph-12220/text21915, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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