The Laidlers: "Red Chrissie" and Perc
In 1910 Laidler married a Socialist Girl, Chris Gross. Her father was a Socialist in Hamburg, Germany, which country he left to get away from the extreme oppression then existing. His best friend remained in Germany and was elected as a Socialist to the Reichstag. Louis Gross was a bricklayer by trade. The family consisted of three boys and four girls, one dying during childhood. Some of the children were born in Germany and some in Australia. Chris was born in Australia. Louis Gross was an ear-basher for Socialism and in the words of daughter, Bertha Tunnecliffe, "It didn't matter what subject came up, he turned it to socialism. I didn't take any notice but Chris lapped it up." Certainly Chris was the one in adult life to be most concerned and active. Bertha claims that she, herself, only sang at socialist meetings, but she had a greater interest than that. For a couple of years she was secretary of the People's Hall (a brainchild of the VSP) and for twelve months she worked for H. H. Champion and assisted on his journal, The Booklover. She recalls going into the Gas Company to copy the names of the shareholders—virtually all non-Australian. As articles and lists appeared in The Booklover it was not long before she was stopped by the Gas Company. As children the family were all brought out in their Sunday best to see the May Day and Eight Hours Day processions. Father would not let them join the German clubs, he said they lived in Australia and should become Australians. He himself was active in the Verein Vorwarts. The children went to German balls. Hardship dogged the family and there was much unemployment in the 1880s. It became known amongst the Germans that if they were skilled in the building trade they could get work in South Africa. Gross borrowed the fare to South Africa and sailed away.
The Gross sisters, Bertha, Chris and Alma
The same day, his wife was stricken with typhoid fever and taken to hospital. She was very ill and did not return home for six months. It had been decided by the family to run a laundry and the children carried it on, the eldest girl, Alma, being 17, Bertha 14 and Chris, eight years of age. Bertha left school and began work in service at the age of 11 years. She was paid 2/6d. a week and allowed home one week-end a month. The family she worked for was very religious and Bertha had to attend Sunday School for the first time in her life. She enjoyed it and always topped the class. Chris when six years old began delivering laundry to the Doctors in Church Street, Richmond. At that time the Church Street Hill was as thick with medicos as Collins Street. She never forgot the effort of lugging big parcels up that hill. After twelve months in service Bertha was apprenticed to Mrs. Villard, a hairdresser and wigmaker, whose son Charles became a fashionable hairdresser in the 1920-40 period.
Louise, aged 11 years, became seriously ill with a heart condition and Bertha (now 90 years old) recalls to this day her horrible experience of asking permission to go to the Children's Hospital to see Louise and on getting there finding that although still alive she was in the mortuary. She had turned blue, but when Bertha came to her, was sensible enough to ask after each one of the family in turn. Next day the children were told Louise was dead, and a German lady arranged the funeral for them. They were taken out to the cemetery where Louise was buried in a pauper's grave. The whole family trooped in to break the news to mother in hospital—she didn't need telling. One look at their faces and she said, "Louise is dead, isn't she."
Experience adds to embitterment. Louis, the father, must have endured torture with the knowledge he could not help. Coming back he poured out onto the table 300 golden sovereigns—poor solace.
Louis Gross built his own monument, the clock tower at Bryant & May's factory in Richmond. It was this job that killed him. He had worked there earlier and was 72 years old when persuaded that his good workmanship was essential to do the job proficiently. He became ill with pleurisy and died in 1924. It was good workmanship—it still stands today, for those who wish to salute it.
Chris became an active member of the VSP and spoke at street corners, taught Sunday School and for a short time was Supervisor of the Sunday School. The Bulletin on one occasion wrote her up as "Red Chrissie". Socialist reported on 16th July, 1909—"Mrs. Wallace (nee Lizzie Ahern) and Miss Gross not to be beaten as regards a Collingwood meeting went on Saturday night and simply electrified the passers-by."
She sang in the choir and was a member of various subcommittees, and on the executive itself at the time John Curtin and Perc Laidler were executive members. At a presentation dinner to the Manns in April 1909, "John Curtin and Miss Chris Gross spoke for the executive of the Socialist party, Frank Hyett for the membership and Bernard O'Dowd for the sympathisers, E. H. Gray for the Barrier Socialist Group and H. E. Holland for the Internationalists of Sydney. H. H. Champion also spoke. Mrs. Mann was given a small silken purse with 10 sovereigns in it." "Tom Mann leaped from point to point as the tornado leaps" so reports the Socialist. On November 2, 1907 Socialist reports that Miss C. Gross presided at a meeting, "The Glorious Message of Socialism to Women"—the meeting being a reply to a certain anti-socialist, Lady Downer, and her colleagues. Tom Mann spoke at this meeting.
Chris and Percy Laidler with their daughter, Bertha, who would become the writer of Solidarity Forever!
Feeling against socialism was so great that a Commonwealth conference of "women's anti-socialistic organisations" was held at "Cliveden", East Melbourne, on the 24th October, 1907. There were 300 to 400 present, representing various organisations in all States. Australian Women's National League, People's Reform League, Women's Liberal League, Women's Electoral League, Women's Branch of the Farmers' & Producers' Political Union, Mt. Gambier, Progressive League, Hobart, etc., etc.
Lady Janet Clarke (Melbourne) presided and during her absence Lady Downer (Adelaide) took the chair. Lady Downer read a paper written by Mr. Percival Stow of South Australia, entitled "Individualism and Socialism, how can we best foster the former and curb the latter". The Socialist women were always capable of preparing their own papers and speeches.
Chris Laidler continued to speak occasionally for several years. Before marriage she worked in service in the homes of some of the Toorak toffs, including the Clarkes, and at Woorigoleen, and she became a tailoress and was active in the Clothing Trades' Union.
House at 290 Mary Street (not 270 as stated in the text) in Richmond, where the Laidlers lived when daughter Bertha was born in 1912. The house is one of a pair built by Louis Gross next to the Grosses' own family home. Visible in the background, through the tree branches, is the Bryant and May clocktower, also built by Louis Gross, as described in the text. (Photo Alan Walker, 2011.)
The Laidlers lived firstly in a single fronted wooden cottage at 48 Rouse Street, Port Melbourne (still standing), later at 270 Mary Street, Richmond near the Grosses and finally in two rooms above the shop of Will Andrade at 201 Bourke Street, when Perc became the manager of the shop. Here they brought up their two children.
Chris was very hospitable and a fair number of the callers at the shop would continue up another flight of stairs to drink coffee in her kitchen, and have discussions on the politics of the time. She enjoyed "pulling the legs" of the "important" who seemed to be so well protected by their egos that they were never aware.
Her life was not easy by any means, confined to two rooms for several years, and later three. She was a very sympathetic person and always ready to give help. She subordinated her potential to the needs of the family allowing Perc to give free rein to his political activities.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
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