Corindhap, after the gold rush.
Corindhap was the last of the alluvial gold diggings south of Ballarat. Two miles away is the township of Rokewood, where a few deep shafts were sunk. Corindhap had an open-cut mine. The township is on a rise overlooking forty miles of plain stretching down nearly to Geelong. Corindhap is an aboriginal name. Aborigines of the Woadyalloack tribe hunted unmolested until 1836 when the first white men arrived and took possession in the name of the "Clyde Company", domiciled in Glasgow. Sir Charles Fitzroy landed as Governor General in Sydney in 1847 and carried Imperial instructions to sell the Victorian country lands by auction. About 1856 the Clyde Company was dissolved and the lands were bought by people who became the squatters of the district. Elders were big squatters who included in their holdings what was known as the "front paddock" and "back paddock"; these were ultimately bought by Bill Laidler, father of Perc.
In 1852, two years before Eureka, rich gold was found at Boundary Hill. A Mr. Hines and Mr. McGaan found a 24 ounce nugget and decided to keep it secret but at Giblin's pub at Spring Creek, Hines told the story. First thing in the morning the rush began and because of this the township was renamed "Break o' Day". The first shaft was sunk in Elder's front paddock to a depth of 90 feet and 60 oz. was obtained. The lead which was followed through two paddocks was said to be the richest in the State for its size. From one shaft between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. eleven hundred ounces were brought to light—£1300 for landlord-squatter Elder without lifting a finger (the miners gained the right to mine on the squatter's land by agreeing to pay a royalty of thirty percent for all nuggets 20 oz. and over, and all finer gold twenty percent). Elder kept a record of every nugget found, in the Station diary. Replicas of several nuggets were on view in the Ballarat Mining Museum and in the Geological Society, Melbourne. Most famed was "The Little Highlander" found by Rory Menzies and weighing 365 ounces, another weighed 300 ounces. Claims measuring twelve feet square yielded over £1000. An Irish miner swung his pick into the surface of the ground and pulled up a nugget so heavy that the momentum of the back swing swung him off balance.
In its heyday the town had 5000 people, four pubs, three bakers, three tailors, two blacksmiths, two drapers, four butchers, two bootmakers, two grocers, two general storekeepers, a tobacconist and numerous "grog shanties". There was an Oddfellows' Hall, two churches and a school. The town even had a brass band.
When a decent strike was made the men working in the mine concerned would signal the whole population by tolling a bell at the office in the front paddock. The sound of the bell either meant good fortune or bad. It was also used to call for help when a shaft caved in and men were trapped. Everyone, including the women (who dropped their housework), rushed to the office and if it was good news there would be general rejoicing. Everyone knocked off for the day and joined in celebration in the various hostelries.
The 1857 rush, four years after Eureka, must have attracted many Eureka men to Break o' Day field as it was known—possibly some progressive seeds were sown in the district and on the petering out of the fields some may have remained and settled as farm labourers or even pastoralists.
The township did not become a settled community until gold was almost exhausted and the itinerant citizens, miners, their various camp followers—prostitutes, entertainers, card sharps, etc., moved on for pastures new. Sheep and wheat farming became the main occupation of the permanent settlers. Like all gold-mining country there are many to say there is more in the ground than was ever taken out. Indeed, a nugget worth £600 was found by Bert Cookson in March 1936. The various economic crises proved that there was still some gold to be found. There was activity after the 1890s crash, when people came looking for deserted houses and lived by shooting rabbits, and on what gold they could pick up. Again the postwar crisis of 1921 brought a small revival. In the early 1930s there was another revival. People came, living in tents, as the empty houses had mostly collapsed. An interesting personality, Professor Emcke, pitched an outsize tent and lived for several years, nearer to Rokewood than Corindhap. He was trying out a new treatment method which used centrifugal force—the idea being the heavier gold would fly to the outside, leaving the lighter earth at the centre.
The Professor had radical political views and being of German origin, was lucky not to be interned during the war. His skill as an engineer was such that the Government had him making vital engineering parts for defence purposes. It was strange to come onto his isolated tent, well away from sight or sound (other than the birds), and find a great stack of components marked C.A.C. (Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation).
There was one event during the mining days that put Break o' Day in the headlines of the Melbourne and other dailies. Thomas Burke, a popular manager of the Bank of Australia at nearby Smythesdale was shot in the head and robbed, when making a tour to collect gold in the district, in May 1867. The miners and other citizens were incensed as Burke was a very popular man. Immediately suspect was Searle, a hated publican, and his employee, Ballan. The police questioned others but they had alibis and it was only with great urging from the miners that attention was paid by the police to Searle and Ballan. A small boy found a bag full of bank notes hidden under a tree, and later two revolvers were found in a hollow log in the front paddock, about fifty yards from the hotel. All pupils of the local school were given a half holiday to search the paddocks for the gold which was thought might be hidden in a shallow shaft.
The case became known as the "horseshoe case" because Searle, on the morning of the crime, had asked the blacksmith to shoe his horse so that the hind feet would be like the forefeet, apparently to leave confusing tracks. The smith refused as it would lame the horse.
When questioned Searle confessed in the hope of a King's Evidence pardon but both were hanged on August 7th, 1867, in Ballarat. The gold was found in a copper in the stables, as indicated in Searle's confession. Their two effigies were on view at the Waxworks in Bourke Street, opposite where Percy Laidler was eventually to live and work most of his life.
Percy Laidler's grandfather, William Laidler (1827-1905), the lay preacher who had worked down the mines as a child in England.
Perc Laidler's mother and father were vehemently conservative in politics and believed that the city people lived on the backs of the farmers. Nonetheless their personalities and intelligence don't leave them "blameless" in turning out a revolutionary son. His father William ("Bill") Laidler sometimes known as "Black Bill" for his neatly pointed, jet black beard, was something of a personality, a "character". Bill's father, the one who spent his toddler years in the English mine, became a lay preacher for the Methodist Church and an elder of the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps he had some ideas on social conditions as Methodists in England did quite a lot of preaching in favour of trade unionism. Anyhow as a young boy Bill was one of the "lads of the town" who used to sit in the back bench of the Presbyterian Church making it as uncomfortable as possible for the preacher. The lay preacher, Bill's father, would sit in the back seat with them trying to discipline them, alternating his prayers with thumps on the seat. One night these boys locked the whole congregation in the church and barred the door up.
When Bill Laidler grew up he didn't share the old man's views on religion. Perhaps he got too much earbashing at home. At any rate he got great pleasure from picking arguments with believers. An old Irishwoman lived next door. She was rather primitive, having her pig and fowls sleep under her bed as in Ireland. Bill had fiendish pleasure in arguing with her—"You don't mean to say you think God created the world when you haven't the slightest idea who created God?" was a favourite with him.
All his life he hated humbuggery, snobbery and the English Test Cricket team. He was a thickset, dependable man; quiet, little-talking, but when enraged he made everybody "sit up". He had keen twinkling eyes mirroring a sardonic turn of mind which could be best exampled by the following incident. As a well-respected town dignitary he was asked to be President of the Temperance Society and agreed to this request, but annoyed the members when the local football team won a match, by taking a demijohn of whisky to the boys in the team. That sort of thing amused him.
Percy Laidler's father, Bill Laidler (1856-1933) with friends at Corindhap. Bill is the bearded man in the centre of the picture.
Bill, who with the advent of his own family and grand-children became known to each generation and most of the townspeople as "Dad Laidler" didn't drink much himself but if he had a few at a social or reunion, would oblige with "Little Brown Jug" and "My Grandfather's Clock". He worked at the open cut mine and then ran sheep and wool. After buying the front and back paddocks from Elder he was the inheritor of the royalties from gold found on the land. The percentage had by this time dropped to five percent—"five percent from those who felt like paying it", in the words of an old miner.
Although a conservative, he was proud to have a son written up in the papers as an extreme radical—such was his family loyalty.
Annie Greenwell's father
Records indicate that Annie's father was actually her mother's first husband, Murdoch Ross, who died in 1864 when Annie was three. Annie apparently used her stepfather's surname before she married, which may have led Bertha Walker to believe George Greenwell was her father. Both Annie's parents, Murdoch Ross and Ann Campbell, migrated from the Isle of Skye in the early 1850s. They were married in Geelong in 1855 while living on the goldfields, at the unpromisingly-named Mount Misery.
Bill married Annie Greenwell, whose mother had previously been married to a Ross. Annie Greenwell had a number of half brothers. She was volatile, dynamic and unconventional. She was unique in her day as instead of staying home as most girls did, or going out to service, she became a schoolteacher (untrained). Her father George Greenwell was the Chairman of the Board of Advice. [See note, "Annie Greenwell's father" -AW] John Howarth was the Head Teacher with an assistant, Lizzie D. Allen. Bill Laidler's brother Jim and Annie Greenwell were listed as pupil teachers when the school opened on June 29th, 1877 under the aegis of the Minister of Education, W. C. Smith, Esq. M.L.A. Sisters of Bill, Elizabeth and Mary, were part-time music and sewing teachers, respectively. Compulsory education had been introduced in 1872 and there was a big enrolment necessitating the leasing of the Church of England as a school prior to a new building being built and opened as above. The first school was built by the diggers in the early sixties. The schoolteacher received fees from attending children.
Miss Greenwell was somewhat unorthodox in her disciplinary methods. One particularly obdurate boy was called out and put in a corner, where Annie arranged a pile of sticks around him. She then informed him, "One more word out of you and I'll set you on fire".
As a married woman with a number of children, she became Postmistress in charge of Corindhap Post Office on September 15th, 1915. The name Break o' Day had been changed to Corindhap on September 21st, 1876. After the 1914-18 war she acquired the butcher shop for her returned soldier son. He died and from thereon she ran the shop herself, independently of her husband. She also ran her family and later tried to run their families in matriarchal fashion. She was capable of vicious sarcasm but was a humane and generous person. As postmistress and butcher she knew everything going on in the town and through the party-line system, what was going on in every other nearby township. No urgent call could go out or come in to any individual in the district without her monitoring it. No call for doctor, ambulance, undertaker, fire fighters, search parties or police without she heard it and propelled herself into some activity on the sidelines. Laidler's place would be a centre for organising assistance when needed. Without personally participating she was always there by proxy playing a part in the dramas of pioneering townships, making suggestions and sending sons, sons-in-law or employees to do something useful. She saw to it that everyone with a degree of eligibility was getting a pension during the 1929-39 economic crisis. In the main, the Government kept the town at that time.
Although "Mum Laidler" (as she was known) believed that it was right for her to organise a business and look after a post office, she never encouraged her three daughters, May, Nell and Jean, to get out of the home though she did make Nell an assistant in the Post Office and she eventually became the Postmistress. The Post Office has been conducted by Laidlers for 56 years and continuing, Mrs. Lloyd Laidler (nee Jean Bethune, of the well-known Colac family) being presently the Postmistress.
Annie Laidler may not have been quite as conservative as Bertha Walker believed. An 1891 petition for votes for women in Victorian parliamentary elections was signed by an A Laidler of Corindhap, presumably Annie, and at least one other family member, an M Laidler of Corindhap, perhaps Percy's grandmother, Margaret, or one of his aunts.
Mum was so conservative politically that after an election she remarked of a son-in-law, "He's no good, I believe he voted Labor at the Election". So small was the electoral roll at this time (late twenties) and the conservative vote so heavily weighted, that there were only ten Labor votes and people like Annie Laidler could, and did, count the heads to account for every Labor voter. With one more vote than the open Labor supporters she picked on her son-in-law as the subversive.
Dad Laidler spent all the daylight hours in hard graft. As a hobby, as it were, he personally planted an acre of potatoes which were the best ever. He ate them three times a day in huge quantity, fried at breakfast with cold mutton, roasted or boiled in the jacket with roast mutton at dinner time and fried again with cold mutton at night. Meals were free and easy affairs but Mum had one rule, "No swearing at the table". Which command was qualified with "swear as much as you like, in the yard".
Dad loved football and cricket and had a special interest in Test Cricket. When young he played with the local team, and his own sons and grandsons were all good players, with the exception of Perc. A calamity was averted by Mum's intervention, when Dad Laidler had wanted to call Perc for "W. G. Grace" the cricketer. It would have been a great humiliation for Dad to have the only son in the family that couldn't care less about cricket (or football) named after the great W.G.
George, Perc's brother, for years was captain of both cricket and football teams. He was selected to play in Ballarat District Cricket and once played in Melbourne during Country Week. George's son, Lloyd Laidler, played 20 years in local cricket without missing one match.
Perc's brother William, known as "Son" Laidler, was the only one to be given higher education and he attended Grenville College, a Wesleyan College in Ballarat. Then, as now, the gaining of education was not always the reason for attending public school. Some went for status, some to mix with a class where they would be enabled to pick up a rich wife. Son was sent in the hope that he would be selected for the Australian Cricket side. Son was a very good cricketer and Dad thought sending him to College would bring him into prominence on the cricketing fields. However the only team he was selected for was the British Empire vs. the Germans. He was badly wounded and although he came home, died at a young age after suffering great pain.
A younger son, Neil, was killed at the front.
• • •
The Laidler family was not the poorest in the district. There was always someone employed to do the rough work. Without any effort at planning Mum seemed to imagine the boys would have slightly better class employment. In harvesting season extra hands, who had to be good cricketers, were employed.
Laidlers had a buggy drawn by a fine pair of ponies and this proclaimed a certain status in society. People had gigs, spring-carts, phaetons and buggies. It was very flash to have a buggy drawn by a pair of ponies. Laidler's pair made themselves famous by bolting at a funeral and jumping a deep gutter to the footpath. Dad had some vanity about his ponies. Nevertheless conditions of living were primitive—there was no bathroom. A weekly bath was taken in a laundry tub filled with muddy dam water.
Bill Laidler thought the country carried the city on its back and the worker in the city was a parasite working eight hours a day whereas the farmer worked from daylight to dark seven days a week.
This was one of his favourite subjects for more than half a century. One day, at the age of seventy, he was persuaded to go on a visit to the city where he was a guest of friends who owned a clothing factory, and lived on the premises. There were forty women and girls working at the power machines.
Accustomed to the dignified and leisurely pace of work in the country, Dad came down from the living quarters, opened the door to the factory and gaped as he saw the wheels of 40 machines flying as though pursued by a thousand devils, and tied relentlessly to them by every nerve and muscle the forty female slaves, unable to halt and pass a common civility. It passed his comprehension. When all clatter ceased, some of the older women would sigh exhaustedly and some would fleetingly give a smile or wink to the aged, bearded patriarch of the land whose illusion of a lifetime lay suddenly shattered. He looked—he said nothing—what could he say? Perhaps he understood the activities of his son Perc for the first time.
Perc left school at the age of fourteen; he had had some slight illness which the doctor diagnosed as "a too active brain" and advised that he have a rest from school. Shortly after, he left altogether. His experience at this stage was simply that he did not share the sport fanaticism of the rest of the family and that he liked to read books.
The Mechanics Institute housed a library of two rooms full of books, mostly trash and pious trash at that. Perc read every book in that library and assisted the librarian, Miss Carrie Smith. A neighbour, Henry Neil, also read every book in the library. Unfortunately the miners did not have in their midst any appreciator of serious literature, unlike the Walhalla Library which, owing to the benefaction of some fortunate miner, had thousands of books and classics in it, probably not to be found in Melbourne at that time.
Corindhap was already a ghost town but Perc acted as deputy for Walter McDonald as correspondent to the Rokewood Reformer & Corindhap Chronicle in 1901, in which task he learned to use the large vocabulary he had picked up in the Mechanics Institute Library. His biggest scoop was when a very fierce storm blew a house off its stumps and over a fence, several yards into the next paddock.
Reports otherwise were of the Quadrille Club, Sparrow Club, Brass Band, Lodge, fires, yields of gold (September 6th, 1901, 36 oz. nugget of solid gold found), wet weather interfering with the work of carting out of the deep paddock at Laidler's freehold and similar items. The Rev. C. F. Seymour arranged an Irish Night at the Mechanics with a lecture "St. Patrick and the land he dwelt in" and promised a Scotch and English night before leaving the district.
Perc also had some experience as assistant to the Mining Registrar, Walter McDonald, who was the local schoolteacher.
Since September 1851, all miners, had to take out registration known as the Miners' Right. Anyone evading this payment of fee to the Government was brought before the Court. The Mining Registrar would produce the book of registrations in the Court at Rokewood as proof or disproof of registration. When the Registrar, through illness or other considerations, was unable to attend he sent his fourteen year old assistant. The visiting magistrate expressed bewilderment at his youthful appearance but still accepted his evidence.
Perc had also learned to play the piano, and used to teach the other boys of the district. Only one tune remained in his mind so that he could still play it in his late years: that was "Oh dear, what can the matter be!"
Sandow was an American and books written about him circulated in Australia and other countries. "The Gospel of Strength", price one shilling, contained two art supplements:
"I. A Life-size Photo of Sandow's Arm, 2 ft. 6 in. long.
II. Seven Beautiful Photographs and 126 pages on Physical Culture, written in Australia"
and was well advertised.
[footnote from original edition of Solidarity Forever!]
Had he remained in Corindhap the only thing he could have done was go into the mines; instead his mother arranged for him to go to Ballarat and work in a mining office, the headquarters of a group of mine-owners, at 5/- per week. He remained three years at this job. His main interest in Ballarat was physical culture. He became an exponent of Eugene Sandow's body building exercises which consisted chiefly in developing independent activity of every muscle in the body. This has been brought forward for astronauts and is nowadays known as isometric exercises. Perc continued this form of exercising all his life.
He enrolled in Trekardo's Gymnasium, which held public exhibitions every Friday night, and Percy was often on display.
Percy Laidler in Ballarat, displaying the results of his exercises.
Though short like his father and all mining stock, Perc was often put on display for his perfect muscular development.
He used to do marathon walks—once fifty miles in one day, confirming that he was eccentric to his kinsfolk by walking from Ballarat to Corindhap and back to Ballarat again in one day, with two companions Wally Grainger and Charlie Gibson. They started at 5.30 a.m. and arrived back at 1 a.m. next day. Another Sunday they walked the 21 miles to Pigoreet and back.
In the thirties long after Perc had abandoned the "Health first" creed he was approached by E. J. Price, who travelled the world as a health "professor", speaking on the Yarra Bank, Domain and in private halls, and asked to come along with him. He told Perc "you and I together could make a fortune". He tapped Perc on the stomach and said, "You'd have to get rid of this. You want to get into this racket! The best racket of all. With your development of muscles and your honesty you'd be the right one. You'd get to America." He wasn't worried about whether Perc carried out any of the principles he espoused but appreciated his appearance and ability to orate.
Whilst working for the mining company he had some reason to query the economic system. He would be told to notify the mine manager at some particular mine, Pitfield, Berringa, &c., that a visit from the Inspector of Mines was impending. This gave the manager ample time to see that everything was in order for the inspector's visit. In this job he observed the iniquitous tributor system which meant that when a miner brought in £10 a week, the manager gave him £5. These men were not on wages and were paid simply by results.
Old grandfather Laidler died and naturally, in country fashion, Perc intended to go home for the funeral. When he told the manager, this gent gave him some new values to think about by saying—"He's only your grandfather, isn't he! What do you want to go for?" He didn't go!
The distance from home enabled frequent visits by coach and horses. The halfway house was at Jack Egan's Little Hard Hills hotel at Enfield, and here the horses were changed and passengers refreshed. It was a great thrill to leave the big town of Ballarat where you were hardly a person and arrive back in the small townships to be greeted as a person. On arrival at Egan's someone would call out excitedly "Here's Tot" (Perc's nickname alluding to his height, about 5 ft. 4 in.). Egan would get on the phone and ring Corindhap (listened in to by Dereel, Rokewood, etc.), and announce "Tot's on the coach".
After three years he decided to leave, having met Harry Brennan, a brother of Frank Brennan, M.H.R. Harry Brennan was the Ballarat representative of the Argus and he secured for Perc a job as his assistant junior reporter.
Harry Brennan took his mind beyond physical culture as he was the first Labor man that Perc had met.
Frank Brennan made a great name for himself during the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916-17 and for most of his life was a supporter of liberal ideas. His brother Harry was a quiet man (compulsory for a journalist with labor ideas in those times) but apparently he spread the word privately because he first aroused interest in the young Laidler.
Perc did the usual reporting work including police rounds. One of the highlights was covering the story of a woman found dead, chopped up by a tomahawk, in Lydiard Street, a few doors from the Police Station, at midnight. He viewed the body on a slab in the morgue. This lurid spectacle may have confirmed a taste for detective literature.
The job only lasted four months. The Argus and Ballarat Courier worked together in a reciprocal capacity and it was decided that the Argus would simply use the services of the Courier journalists and dispense with its own representatives.
Journalists were inclined to be gentlemen in that period and on most occasions Harry Brennan wore striped pants and a top-hat. Ballarat quite occasionally has a fall of snow and it was a great pleasure to the children of Ballarat to aim snowballs at the top hat of Harry Brennan and every other top-hatted gentleman.
A goodly throng of Ballarat top-hatted journalists waved Harry Brennan off at the station as he left for Melbourne. Perc left for home.
At Corindhap he worked in the open-cut mine for four months. In Rokewood he organised some boys into a physical culture class. Reading of a special patent food which was supposed to supply all necessary vitamins and was recommended by Eugene Sandow, he decided to try it out. He had it for breakfast, went to work at the mine and by lunchtime broke down and went to dinner at the nearby house of his Aunt Liz, to the great amusement of the family and his fellow-miners.
After four months he was offered a job in a Mining Office in Queen Street, Melbourne. He accepted this with alacrity and furthered his socio-political education in that job. The employer was discovered, a few months later, to have embezzled money from the Company and he committed suicide. This ended another job.
In Melbourne Perc lived with the Neils. The Neils, father, mother and six children had lived in Corindhap and naturally took Perc in because their family had received some kindness from the Laidlers.
They were poor and lived at five different addresses in Carlton while Perc was with them. Evictions were common and employment scarce. They lived in Leicester Street near the University, Newry Street, Station Street (where there were bugs and they stayed only one night). He was introduced to bugs, eviction and the moonlight-flit. One son was out of work for nine months. The whole family were anti-capitalist and it was Jack Neil who introduced Laidler to Socialist meetings. His aim was to destroy any remnants of the Laidler in him (regarding this as the zenith of reaction). They always walked from Carlton to the city, never dreaming of paying tramfare on the cable tram for a distance of a mile or two.
The Victorian Socialist Party used to hold a meeting at Bouverie Street, Carlton, one night a week and Jack would take him there. After Perc joined the Socialist Party he used to speak on this pitch and Jack was very happy to hear him paraphrase, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", to "The earth is the Landlord's and the fullness thereof".
Jack took him to hear Tom Mann, the British Socialist, and that determined his future. From that moment on he decided to devote his life to socialism.
He soon became assistant secretary, acting as Tom's secretary at 30/- per week.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
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