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Audrey Elsie Blake (1916–2006)

by Sharon Connolly

Seeking to join the Young Communist League at 15, Audrey Blake was asked about her "social origin". She confessed to not understanding the question so her interviewer asked what her father did. Blake replied that he was a sheetmetal worker, to which another interviewer responded, "Ah, a proletarian!"

With that, and confirmation of her opposition to Trotsky — once his ideas had been briefly described to her — she was admitted to the league.

Blake, who has died at 90, became a political activist and organiser best known for leading the Eureka Youth League in the 1940s and 1950s, and its remarkable Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship in 1952. Her leadership of the league influenced several generations of activists.

Her colleague Mavis Robertson said Blake was a role model — especially for young women — before that term was widely used: "We became activists, art lovers, public speakers. We had access to sport and to educational and cultural activities. We read books. We made speeches. We organised. And like her, we thought we could change the world," Robertson wrote in a message to her friend's funeral in Sydney this month.

Born into a working class family in South Melbourne, Blake was the only girl of five children. Her parents separated when she was young. She started at Melbourne Girls High in 1930, but left when her mother was unable to afford the £2 a year required for her to stay on beyond the age of 14.

"In 1930," Blake recalled later, "I met the first Jews I'd ever known, discovered the revolutionary movement, and stopped believing in God." She also started work for a Melbourne catering firm and joined the Friends of the Soviet Union.

During the Depression her employer insisted she choose between her job and the Communist Party. She chose the party and began full-time work for the Young Communist League shortly before turning 18.

By then she'd met Jack Blake, a handsome young miner who returned from studies at the Lenin School in Moscow to work for the Communist Party of Australia. She first saw Jack, a powerful speaker, addressing a rally. She told her mother: "I've met the man I'm going to marry." They were married 66 years; Jack died in 2000.

Their daughter, Jan, was born in 1936 and by 1937 all three were in Moscow, where Audrey represented Australia in the Young Communist International and Jack in the Comintern (the Communist International).

After their return and the declaration of war, the Blakes played leading roles in the underground activities of the Communist Party and its youth organisation. The party, which was illegal in 1940-42, had opposed fascism through the 1930s but was ambivalent about World War II until the Soviet Union entered the fray in 1941, when it gave strong support. Membership grew.

The Eureka Youth League was formed in 1941 to replace its illegal forerunner, the League of Young Democrats, which had replaced the Young Communist League. Blake became national secretary, one of many women leaders, including Joan Clarke, Joyce Stevens, Wendy Lowenstein, Mavis Robertson and Rivkah Mathews.

The Eureka league supported workers and troops, led successful campaigns to improve the conditions of apprentices and expand access to sporting facilities, and provided opportunities for young people to study everything from socialism to jazz — delegations, including Graeme Bell's Jazz Band, attended youth festivals around the world. Its national membership never exceeded 5000, but its influence was far-reaching.

The Menzies government strenuously opposed the league's Australian Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship in Sydney at the height of the Cold War. Although visas to international delegates were refused and access to many venues was denied, 12,000 people celebrated the opening, 30,000 attended its closing day and all 156 events went ahead.

Despite the success of the carnival and the defeat of the 1951 referendum campaign to ban the Communist Party, the 1950s was a decade of turmoil for many communists, including the Blakes. They had moved from Melbourne to Sydney in 1949 at the party's request. However party tensions led Audrey to resign from its central and state committees in 1955. She and Jack were among those who exhorted the party to reassess following Khrushchev's 1956 revelations of Stalin's excesses. The leadership's failure to do so devastated them.

After leaving her party job, Blake worked in a shop and then a toy warehouse. The couple struggled with life-threatening illnesses and their reassessment of Marxism. She resigned from the party in 1966, while still seeing herself as a socialist.

In their later years the Blakes became independent scholars, studying the French Enlightenment, modernism, postmodernism, sociological and political theorists, art and poetry.

These interests brought intellectuals, artists, students and documentary makers to their door. Blake featured in a number of radio and television programs, including the documentaries Red Matildas and The Archive Project, to be screened on ABC TV next January. Her book, A Proletarian Life, was published in 1984.

Her expansive and flexible mind, dapper diminutive figure, warm sense of fun and stimulating conversation will long be remembered. She is survived by her daughter Jan, grandchildren Rick, David, Matthew and Katie and nine great-grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sharon Connolly, 'Blake, Audrey Elsie (1916–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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