1940 • Inspector Browne

The head of the Investigation Branch in Melbourne is a man called Browne. The Communists know this. They even point out where his office is—just behind the GPO. Inspector Roland Browne works on the top floor, above the rooms for politicians down from Canberra. Now, in our new century, you can stay the night in Inspector Browne’s old office, because today it’s part of a boutique hotel. [RED, page 124]

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Inspector Browne’s offices were on the top floor of this building in Post Office Place, Melbourne

When Inspector Browne reveals the purpose of the visit, he mentions the Yarra Bank, the location in Melbourne of a “speakers’ corner”, similar to the Domain in Sydney, where people were permitted to speak on any subject—under the watchful eyes of the police.

“—I’d prefer you didn’t tell the Yarra Bank about this.” The Yarra Bank, where leftists speak, is his substitute for “Communists”, a word he is too delicate to utter in her presence. …
“We’ll be declaring you … illegal in the next few days.” [RED, pages 126–7]

Audrey’s husband Jack Blake was a regular speaker on the “Yarra Bank”, as seen in this detail of a photograph taken by a friend, the artist Albert Tucker, in c. 1942. The men in white pith helmets are police officers.

jack Blake 1942 speaking Yarra Bank pic by Albert Tucker detail NLA

(This is a detail from a photograph by Albert Tucker, part of the “Albert Tucker, family and friends” collection, NLA.)

Within a fortnight of the meeting Audrey’s home was raided and her books and papers removed, as part of a nationwide operation affecting hundreds of communists on the night of 15 June, as explained in the episode “Will they burn them?” (RED, p. 128) More HERE.

Then, after three months, Audrey wrote to the Commonwealth Attorney-General asking for her library back. The Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department passed the request to H. E. Jones, Director of Security:

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(From Audrey Blake’s ASIO file, A6119/120, “Audrey Elsie Blake”, page 3.)

Why did it take so long—a further four months—to return these books? It seems the labour of judging which of her books were “unobjectionable” was a slow process, as Browne explains to Jones.

ASIO Audrey 4

(Audrey’s file, p. 4)

Poor Inspector Browne found himself under pressure to release the books, while complaining that his officers were overworked. This went on until February of the following year. The total number of books seized in Melbourne alone must therefore have been vast. The war of memos dragged on for seven months, in which time the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Sir George Knowles, reminded his Investigation Branch that the books he wanted returned were “innocuous” (Audrey’s file, p. 6). This does not mean that Knowles thought all the books were harmless; rather, the seized books needed to be examined and then placed into two piles: those to be permanently “held” (and then burned), and others (the “innocuous” ones) returned.

We have (in Paul Moline’s ASIO file, A6119 / 512, pp. 9-12) just such a list of books, those to be “returned” and the rest to be “held”. Many of Paul’s books and papers were indeed found sufficiently obnoxious and objectionable to have been destroyed (RED, pp. 136 and 530) and it’s reasonable to assume that part of the Blakes’ extensive library was similarly purified by a refiner’s fire. More HERE.

After seven months, sometime in January 1941, the file shows that Audrey called on Inspector Browne to collect her own books (but only the “unobjectionable” ones). This would have been a second visit, in which she also met H. E. Jones, the Commonwealth Director of Security, himself. Not many Australian communists had this honour:

ASIO Audrey 11

(Audrey’s file, p. 11)