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Thomas Percival (Percy) Laidler (1884–1958)

by Andrew Reeves

This article was published:

Thomas Percival (Percy) Laidler (1884-1958), socialist propagandist and bookshop manager, was born on 19 November 1884 at Corindhap, Victoria, son of William Laidler, an English miner and later selector, and his wife Annie, née Ross. Second of seven children, he was educated at local schools and at 14 worked in a Ballarat mining office. He later moved to a similar position in Melbourne and was also a junior reporter on the Argus.

Lodging with a socialist family at Carlton served to introduce Laidler to the Victorian Socialist Party and its secretary Tom Mann. He became a noted local speaker and organizer, schooled by Tom Tunnecliffe and described by Melbourne Punch as 'about the best mob orator that has struck Melbourne for many years'. Laidler assumed a leading role in unemployed demonstrations, acted as secretary of the Socialist Co-operative Society and organized Ben Tillett's 1907 Victorian tour. Next year, when he became Mann's assistant, he stood for the Legislative Assembly as a socialist against Martin Hannah at Collingwood, receiving 85 votes.

Under Mann's influence, Laidler became increasingly disenchanted with the V.S.P. and by 1909 was a convinced syndicalist, arguing that revolutionary industrial organization was more important than political action. He found ample scope to expound these views at Broken Hill, New South Wales, where, having resigned as the V.S.P.'s assistant secretary, he became an organizer of mine workers during the aftermath of the bitter 1909 strike. Here he mixed syndicalism with a potent brand of provocation; in July he proposed an occupation of the British Mine unless the State government provided unemployment relief.

On 24 June 1911 in a civil ceremony at South Melbourne Laidler married Christiane Alicia Gross, a tailoress active in the Clothing Trades Union and an executive member of the V.S.P. That year he became manager of Will Andrade's Bourke Street bookshop. It was Laidler rather than Andrade who made the shop the Australasian centre for importing, publishing and distributing radical, free-thought and socialist literature. The shop was a meeting-place for socialists, and Laidler helped to shape the political regrouping that culminated in the establishment of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920.

Although a sympathizer, it is not clear whether Laidler ever became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. While he later claimed membership, it is likely that his rejection of their ideology of sabotage and 'bummery' prevented his joining them. However, his 1912-14 street meetings did promote syndicalism and other I.W.W. theories and he later became Melbourne secretary and organizer for the I.W.W. Prisoners Release Committee. He was also prominent in the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917.

Laidler, like so many of his contemporaries, was profoundly influenced by the Russian Revolution. In 1918 he wrote his major theoretical contribution to Australian socialism, Arbitration and the Strike, an attack upon H. B. Higgins's concept of the living wage and a denunciation of arbitration as repressive of working-class militancy. The pamphlet represented a transitional stage in Laidler's politics. He went on to sponsor the first Australian publications, under Andrade's imprint, of writings by Lenin, Bukharin, and Trotsky, and in 1920, with Guido Baracchi, he began publication of the Proletarian, a Marxist review promoting the establishment of a Communist party in Australia.

Laidler chaired the inaugural meeting of the Melbourne branch of the Communist Party of Australia in 1921, but it soon collapsed. 'Its membership', he later wrote, 'contained too many of the old school and too few new men. Communist philosophy was not widely understood'. After the collapse Laidler became absorbed in Trades Hall Council activity. He represented the Shop Assistants and Warehouse Employees' Federation of Australia in 1921-25 and served on the T.H.C. executive and subsidiary committees. His daughter Bertha Walker remembered him going to the Trades Hall every night whether he had a meeting there or not. He also became president of the Victorian Labor College. He again became a prominent supporter of strike action, particularly the 1923 Melbourne police and the 1925 British seamen's strikes which the labour movement had hesitated to endorse.

Although he was an avowed Marxist, Laidler's lack of sectarianism and his readiness to support publicly any cause he believed worthwhile ensured the trust and respect of erstwhile opponents. His unique position found expression in the Victorian Labor Propaganda Group which he formed in March 1922 to promote within the T.H.C. a programme of industrial reform, child endowment and social security. The group also sought to revitalize both Eight Hours' Day and May Day as working-class celebrations and seems to have provided the ideological basis for Communist reformation in Melbourne during 1924. Laidler did not rejoin the Communist Party but he was relied upon for advice and for a period acted as the party's Victorian banker.

During the Depression Laidler became a sponsor of the Friends of the Soviet Union and a speaker on behalf of the Unemployed Workers' Movement. The Communist Party's promotion of a popular front after 1935 appealed to him and, once more identified as a communist, he spoke for anti-Fascist organizations, including Spanish Relief and the Movement Against War and Fascism. However, like many of the socialists from pre-war days whom he brought together to celebrate Tom Mann's eightieth birthday in 1936, he was not fully at ease with the Communist Party's 'Bolshevism'.

At Prime Minister Curtin's suggestion Laidler undertook educational work for the army during World War II, lecturing on Soviet Russia and socialist society. He was divorced in 1946 and on 2 July 1947 at the North Fitzroy Methodist parsonage he married fellow bookseller Caroline Isabella Kate Bradford. Laidler died of cerebro-vascular disease at Preston on 21 February 1958. He was survived by his wife and a son and daughter from his first marriage. At a secular service, orations were delivered by members of the Labor and Communist parties.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Walker, Solidarity Forever (Melb, 1972)
  • Communist Review, Oct 1936, June 1937
  • Guardian (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1958
  • B. Walker papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Thematic Essay

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Citation details

Andrew Reeves, 'Laidler, Thomas Percival (Percy) (1884–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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