Bertha Laidler, later Bertha Walker, in the early 1930s.
Revolutionary activist turned labour historian, Bertha Walker née Laidler (1912—1975) was brought up in a radical household living above a left wing bookshop in the centre of Melbourne.
From an early age she took part in communist and working class movements in Australia, Britain and New Zealand. In London she helped organise the hunger marches during the Depression. In 1943 she was the first woman endorsed as a Communist parliamentary candidate in Victoria. Following the Second World War she helped produce the only newspaper in the Northern Territory, for the North Australian Workers' Union.
In the 1950s she started assembling information about the radical political career of her father, Percy Laidler, and the turbulent times he lived through in the early 20th century. Her researches culminated in the 1972 publication of her book Solidarity Forever!
Bertha May Laidler was born in Richmond on 8 July 1912, the first child of socialist couple Thomas Percival (Percy) Laidler and Christiane Alicia Laidler, née Gross.
For most of her childhood the family lived above Andrade's Bookshop, at 201 Bourke Street, of which her father, Percy, had become the manager. She grew up in the midst of the radicals of all kinds who visited the bookshop. Her outlook on life was formed as she listened to revolutionaries discussing the latest ideas with her mother over coffee in the kitchen, and accompanied her father to the Yarra Bank and socialist meeting halls, where he was frequently the featured speaker. The shop also sold theatrical supplies and conjuring tricks, and Percy Laidler became an accomplished amateur magician and ventriloquist.
Looking back on her childhood later in life she wrote, "The bookshop was open at nights, when I was very young. All the IWW chaps used to come in and meet each other at the shop. Most of them made a fuss of me. They nursed me and picked me up and put me on a narrow ledge where books were displayed, so that I would be level with them. My nickname was Bubbles. The amount of attention I got then was greater than at any other time in my life and I think it was effective in giving a certain amount of assurance, which probably helped me through life." The nickname "Bubbles" stayed with her into adulthood. Her early memories are in My Revolutionary Childhood on this website.
Bertha Laidler as Queen of the May for the 1924 Eight Hours Day procession.
She attended the Queensberry Street State School in Carlton until 1924, then spent a year at business college, learning shorthand and typing. Her first job was in the Motor Registration Branch.
At 16 she started attending classes run by the recently-formed Communist Party and assisting in some of its activities, although she did not join the party at this stage.
When she was 18, she travelled to Europe with the writer Judah Waten. In Britain, she joined the Communist Party and worked in the office of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, helping to organise some of the "hunger marches" and other responses to the Depression. After two years in Britain and France she returned to Australia in 1933.
Bertha Laidler in the 1930s.
During the 1930s she worked for a number of unions, including the Ironworkers' Union, in Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle, and took an active part in Communist activities.
She was a member of the circle of radicals, intellectuals and bohemians who gathered at the Swanston Family Hotel, on the corner of Swanston and Little Bourke Streets in Melbourne: people such as the historian Brian Fitzpatrick, the violin maker Bill Dolphin and the artist Noel Counihan.
In 1939 she went to New Zealand, joining Judah Waten and Noel Counihan, who had travelled there earlier in the year. Bertha got work in a union office in Wellington. She was active in the Communist Party and the peace movement during the early months of the Second World War. She returned to Australia in 1940.
Front page of a pamphlet for Bertha Laidler's state election campaign in 1943.
She became a member of the Victorian State Committee of the Communist Party, and Chairman of its Eastern District. In June 1943 she was the Communist candidate for Richmond in the state elections. By this time the Party was fully supporting the Allied war effort, and she campaigned for unity with the Federal Labor Government, and support for rationing and reforms designed to speed victory, coupled with planning for a "new Social Order" after the war.
She received over 30 percent of the votes cast, in a two-way contest with the Labor candidate. The local paper commented: "The poll was surprising for the large number of votes gained by Miss Bertha Laidler, the Communist candidate."
In 1945 she enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force, and served in Melbourne for a year.
In late 1946 she travelled to Darwin to take up a job with the North Australian Workers' Union. In December 1946 she married the union secretary, Joe (Yorky) Walker. (For information about Yorky Walker and the book that he later wrote, see www.nosunlightsinging.com.) She remained in Darwin for about a year, working in the union office and on the Northern Standard newspaper, published by the union. Towards the end of 1947 the Walkers resigned from their union positions and left the Northern Territory.
By 1950 the Walkers had settled in Melbourne and had a son, Alan. During the 1950s and 1960s Bertha Walker worked at non-political jobs, as a stenographer/typist, often in solicitor's offices.
Bertha Walker, left, in the 1960s, sitting with Neura Hall (former wife of Guido Baracchi—see Chapter 10 of Solidarity Forever!) and Muriel Heagney (see Chapter 13). The men are Mike Hall and Bertha's husband, Yorky Walker. (Photo Alan Walker)
Though continuing to support the communist cause, she drastically reduced her involvement in current political activities, and began to take an increasing interest in radical history. She was especially concerned to record the memories of her father, Percy Laidler, and other campaigners of his generation. She continued her researches after her father's death in 1958.
She was a foundation member of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, and contributed several articles to its publications. To mark the 50th anniversary of the First World War anti-conscription victories, she wrote a booklet, "How to Defeat Conscription: a Story of the 1916 and 1917 Campaigns in Victoria", published by the Anti Conscription Jubilee Committee in 1968.
In 1972 her account of the radical struggles of the early 20th century was published under the title Solidarity Forever! ...a part story of the life and times of Percy Laidler — the first quarter of a century...
In the years following the publication of Solidarity Forever! she completed a book on the Great Depression, including reminiscences of activists and others who lived through that period, but was unable to find a publisher. She also began work on an autobiography.
In May 1975 Bertha Walker died from acute liver failure and other ailments. A secular funeral service at Fawkner Crematorium on 27 May was addressed by some of her comrades.
In 2012 Solidarity Forever! was reissued in a free online edition, forty years after its first publication, and in the centenary year of the author's birth.
On this site, My Revolutionary Childhood, by Bertha Walker, previously unpublished memoirs of the author's childhood and early teenage years.
David Hudson, "Walker, Bertha May (1912–1975)" in Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 2002. Available online at the Australian National University website.
Bertha Walker's papers are held by the State Library of Victoria. They include unpublished manuscripts of her book on the Great Depression and an article on the history of women in the Australian labour movement.
Bernard Smith, Noel Counihan: Artist and Revolutionary, OUP, 1993, includes information on Bertha Walker's times in the Swanston Family circle and in New Zealand.
The genealogy website WeRelate has family history information for the Laidlers and Grosses.