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Audrey Elsie Blake (1916–2006)

by Phillip Deery

This article was published online in 2023

This is a shared entry with John David Blake

Audrey Blake, 1952

Audrey Blake, 1952

Courtesy of John Hughes

John David (Jack) Blake (1909–2000) and Audrey Elsie Blake (1916–2006), communists, were husband and wife. Jack was born on 25 May 1909 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and named Alfred Airey, eldest of three children of Robert Airey, carter, and his wife Mary, née Gibson. Migrating to Australia with his parents and siblings in December 1922, he worked (1923–30) in the State coalmine at Lithgow, New South Wales, where he was a member of the Miners’ Federation and an active militant until seriously injured in an underground accident. He joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1924 and became secretary of its Lithgow branch in 1926.

In January 1931 Airey travelled to Moscow, where he spent two years at the International Lenin School, which provided specialised training for foreign communists. Returning to Australia in February 1933, he was sent to Melbourne to ‘bolshevise’ the Victorian branch of the CPA and was elected to the State executive and the central committee. The next year, the tall, lanky, and handsome Airey changed his name by deed poll to John David Blake.

On 13 April 1934 at the registrar’s office, Collins Street, Melbourne, Blake married the diminutive, energetic, and vivacious Audrey Elsie Boyd. She had been born on 9 August 1916 in South Melbourne, second of six children of working-class parents, Donald McDonald Boyd, rubber worker, and his wife Elsie Maria, née Rees, both Victorian born. Educated at Albert Park State School, Middle Park Central School, and, until she turned fourteen, Melbourne Girls’ High School, she joined the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1931 and the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1932. The next year she joined the CPA using the pseudonym Elsie Forbes.

For the next twenty years Jack and Audrey Blake were formidable figures within the CPA. In 1934 Jack helped direct the successful coalminers’ strike at Wonthaggi and stood unsuccessfully for Federal parliament in the seat of Maribyrnong. He edited the CPA newspaper the Workers’ Voice (later the Guardian) and wrote frequently for the party and popular press. Audrey was a full-time party functionary with the YCL and was elected to the CPA State committee in 1934. Jack returned to Moscow in May 1937, accompanied by Audrey and their infant daughter Jan. They represented the CPA on, respectively, the Comintern and the Young Communist International. Audrey also studied the techniques of the Soviet youth organisation, the Komsomol. Both witnessed, close-up, the show trials and purges of 1937–38, but as dedicated Stalinists they turned a wilful blind eye.

The Blakes returned to Australia in November 1938. On 15 June 1940, the day the Menzies government banned the CPA, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch raided their Carlton home and, indicative of their wide reading, 140 books were seized. Jack went into hiding and grew a beard, Audrey relocated to a safe house, and Jan was sent to a boarding school under an assumed name. Although the party’s legality was not restored until 18 December 1942, Jack contested the State seat of Port Melbourne as a communist at a by-election in April 1942, winning 40 per cent of the vote against a Labor opponent. Such was his speaking ability and charisma that when about to address large meetings, he had ‘to wait two or three minutes for the cheering to cease’ (Guardian 1944). As State secretary of the Victorian branch of the CPA ‘his grip was firm and his politics as hard as granite’ (Cook 1994, 94).

Audrey was the linchpin of the Eureka Youth League, the CPA’s new youth organisation formed in December 1941. As its inaugural State secretary and, from 1944, national secretary, she was a dynamic and effective leader. She organised political campaigns, edited the EYL’s Youth Voice, gave radio broadcasts and educational lectures, addressed rallies and CPA congresses, and contributed to the party press.

In 1949 the Blakes moved to Sydney where Jack commenced working at CPA headquarters. That year Audrey travelled behind the Iron Curtain for six months, attending the second conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth in Budapest and forging links with socialist youth organisations in Bucharest, Prague, and Vienna. Inspired by the communist-organised World Youth Festival in East Berlin in 1951, she was the driving force behind the Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship, held in Sydney over four days in March 1952. Soon after, she retired from the EYL and worked full-time for the CPA central committee. In this period, according to the Soviet defector Vladimir Petrov, she provided typewritten personality reports on EYL members at the University of Sydney to the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).

Jack was the party’s leading theoretician and a prolific contributor to the Communist Review. A well-placed agent of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization reported in the early 1950s that he was ‘head and shoulders’ above the rest of the four-person central committee secretariat and ‘easily the mental giant of the team for BLAKE is the professor of Communism’s mind’ (NAA A6119, 125, f. 64). His commanding intellect, oratorical powers, and self-effacing personality explained his high status within the party. This was not matched by income: in 1952 his annual salary as a CPA functionary was a meagre £476. His popularity, however, was also his nemesis.

A bitter and intense inner-party struggle, euphemistically termed ‘consolidation,’ occurred between 1951 and 1954. The party’s general secretary, Lance Sharkey, had discussed privately in late 1950 how Blake could be ‘politically destroyed’ (Hummer 2002–03, 27), and he was. He was blamed for a series of ideological mistakes and ‘sectarian errors,’ particularly during the disastrous 1949 coal strike. The guileless Blake was outmanoeuvred by Sharkey and E. F. (Ted) Hill and removed from the party’s all-powerful secretariat in December 1953. His political destruction was completed in 1956, when he was forced to resign from the central committee after supporting Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin. He became seriously ill, later recalling that ‘consolidation came very near to killing me. Without Audrey I would not have survived’ (Blake 2000). When asked in September 1956 how it was possible to remain a member of the CPA, it was said he looked bleak, shrugged his shoulders, and replied, ‘show me another party’ (Milliss 1984, 212). After criticising the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November, he was stripped of his remaining party posts.

Angered by the CPA leadership’s scapegoating and treatment of Jack, Audrey relinquished all her positions on the central and State committees. She found work as a shop assistant and later in a warehouse until she retired in 1976. Unlike Jack, who maintained his sixty-seven-year membership until the party was dissolved, she resigned from the CPA in 1966, but remained an active socialist. Jack worked as a cleaner until 1967, when a research grant awarded jointly by the journals Outlook and Arena enabled him to write an extended analysis of Stalinism, Revolution from Within: A Contemporary Theory of Social Change (1971). Audrey later published her memoir, A Proletarian Life (1984), and was featured in the documentary film Red Matildas (1984). Both welcomed the democratisation of the CPA in the 1970s and supported the Gorbachev reforms in the Soviet Union, to which they returned three times in the 1980s.

A long-term sufferer of tuberculosis, Jack died on 1 October 2000 at Leichhardt, Sydney. After a close partnership of sixty-six years, his death was ‘excruciatingly painful’ for Audrey (Blake, pers. comm.). Survived by her daughter and four grandchildren, she died on 1 November 2006 at Neutral Bay. Both were cremated. Notwithstanding their post-1956 repudiation of Stalinism, they always believed history was on the side of the revolutionary working class, and their dedication to the communist cause was marked by deep intellectual conviction and significant self-sacrifice.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Blake, Audrey. A Proletarian Life. Malmsbury, Vic.: Kibble Books, 1984
  • Blake, Audrey. Interview by Phillip Deery, 13 July 1999
  • Blake, Audrey. Personal communication, 22 May 2001
  • Blake, Audrey. ‘Recollections: Audrey Blake.’ In Australians: From 1939, edited by Ann Curthoys, A. W. Martin, and Tim Rowse, 394–99. Sydney: Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, 1987
  • Blake, John David. Interview by Phillip Deery, 28 June 2000
  • Cook, Peter S. Red Barrister: A Biography of Ted Laurie. Bundoora, Vic.: La Trobe University Press, 1994
  • Deery, Phillip. ‘Jack Blake.’ Communist Biographies Project, Search Foundation, 2020. Accessed 14 June 2023. https://www.search.org.au/jack_blake. Copy held on ADB file
  • Deery, Phillip. ‘The Sickle and the Scythe: Jack Blake and Communist Party “Consolidation,” 1949–1956.’ Labour History 80 (May 2001): 215–23
  • Guardian (Melbourne). ‘Leading Vic. Communists.’ 23 June 1944
  • Guardian (Melbourne). ‘Something About Jack Blake.’ 13 March 1940, 3
  • Milliss, Roger. Serpent’s Tooth: An Autobiographical Novel. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1984
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 120–122, Audrey Elsie BLAKE
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 123–125, 332, John David BLAKE
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 5971, J. D. (John David) Blake papers
  • Hummer (Sydney). ‘Jack Blake’s Final Reminiscences.’ 3, no. 9 (Summer 2002–03): 25–30

Additional Resources

Citation details

Phillip Deery, 'Blake, Audrey Elsie (1916–2006)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blake-audrey-elsie-32384/text40144, published online 2023, accessed online 21 May 2024.

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