By Bob Gould
Audrey Johnson began with the Christian ideas of her working class Brethren parents who emphasised the equality of all people. “Never bow or tug your forelock to anyone,” her father used to say. By the age of 16, she had become a socialist.
Audrey went to Sydney University, initially for financial reasons as an evening student, and did arts and social work continuing with a night job to pay for her course. She joined the Communist Party and became at different times secretary of the University Communist Party branch, and secretary of the Labor Club.
Audrey married Allan Ferguson, a fellow Communist, who she met at a Labor Club conference. They started their married life living in the Hargrave Park Housing Commission settlement. She gave up paid work when her first child was born and was a housewife for the next 13 years, bringing up five children.
Audrey and Allan Ferguson left the Communist Party in the 1950s. Like many other Communist Party intellectuals, they were deeply shaken by Kruschev’s exposure of Stalin’s crimes. Audrey became a major supporter of Helen Palmer in the establishment of the independent socialist magazine, Outlook, set up by dissident Communists of the class of 1956. She was a mainstay in the nuts and bolts work of producing Outlook for its 15 years existence. She joined the Australian Labor Party, becoming president of her branch.
Audrey returned to social work at Concord Hospital and then became research assistant to Ken Buckley for his book on the history of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Then followed a long career as an administrator at the University of New South Wales in the schools of Health Administration and Social Work. During that time, she made eight trips to China, the first leading a group of health professionals, the last to teach English at the University in Chang Sha.
By the time she retired, her major venture was writing the biography of turbulent ALP senator and trade union leftist Bill Morrow, published by Penguin as Fly a Rebel Flag. This book has become a bit of a collectors item recently, due to the fact that it contains slices of the life of Morrow’s offsider, Railways Union leftist, Alex Campbell, who lived long enough to become the last surviving Anzac. Needless to say, the ruling class have neglected much mention of this side of Alex Campbell’s activities in the celebrations of his life, but that omission is corrected in Audrey Johnson’s book. Subsequently, she wrote Bread and Roses, a history of left and trade union women activists, published by the Left Book Club, and, when she died, she had almost completed several other books.
Audrey is survived by five children, ten grandchildren and a great granddaughter.
As a bookseller of the left, I take pride in the fact that I keep both of Audrey’s books in print on my shelves. I have warm memories of Audrey at those earnest Outlook conferences in the late 1950s, where she was one of a group of three or four redoubtable women, which included Helen Palmer, Grace Bardsley and herself, who kept the brave and necessary Outlook venture going for a considerable period of time. Later on, when we started the Vietnam Action Campaign and the radical youth group Resistance in the mid-1960s, Audrey was extremely supportive of her daughter, Deidre, whom she encouraged to take an active part in Resistance, initially as a high school student and, subsequently, as a student at Sydney University. Deidre followed in the family tradition by also becoming secretary of the Labor Club at Sydney University, as her mother had 25 years before.
In a reasonably long life, Audrey Johnson was caught up, without regrets, in the vital political events of the 20th century, and she played an important role, both as a Jimmy Higgins, in many spheres of labor movement political activity, and as a serious Marxist intellectual, working creatively in the field of history. She leaves behind the affectionate memories of those who knew her, and a significant body of useful creative work, that stands the test of time.
The Hummer, vol. 3, no. 8, Winter 2002.