With the end of World War I in November of 1918, Australians entered the new decade in a state of ambivalence about the past. Many were caught between feeling a great sense of loss for their brave men who had sacrificed their lives during the War, and a sense of pride for their nation which had, in the space of four years, developed a strong character that could stand proudly beside other nations of the world. Most people in Australian society did share the view that they were relieved to have made it through the War years and were looking forward to the future with optimism. Little did they know about the Depression which lay ahead.
Events leading up to the 1930s
Australia was a nation which had reached Federation less than two decades before the end of the War and had not developed any substantial military power or financial capacity. Yet, it had contributed a proportionately-large number of their resources to the War effort. Regardless of this, Australia's economy looked to be flourishing into the 1920s. It attracted the attention of many foreign investors and experienced growth from the high prices and the increasing demand for its exported primary products.
However, the Australian government borrowed £275 million over ten years from 1919 to 1929, primarily from the British. Australia was second only to Germany in having the highest level of debt in the world. The money was spent on areas such as transport and the construction of the nation's capital, Canberra, with the belief that these would turn out to be long term investments. In particular, the Returned Servicemen's Settlement Scheme was established out of the idea that returned soldiers would receive land from which they could extract a source of income and simultaneously develop the agricultural industry, sealing Australia's future. The problem was that many of the returned servicemen did not have agricultural knowledge or experience. Often the plots were too small or infertile to support a profitable income. As a result, one third of the men left their farms and the debt was left to accumulate. All of these loans had to be repaid eventually. It was thought that the money from wool and wheat exports would compensate for this, however towards the middle of the 1920s the prices of primary produce began to decline and Australia was importing more than it was exporting. See image 1
Australia was not the only country which experienced a false sense of security after the War. The economy of the United States prospered after the War, and the country lent large sums of money to foreign nations during the 1920s. In particular, the prices of shares on the American stock market were reaching all time highs, as had the production of goods. The problem was that consumer demands dropped and uncertainty surrounding the stock market increased. This resulted in what was known as the 'crash of the New York stock market.' This in turn meant people losing most of their money, companies being faced with bankruptcy and the countries which had been financially dependent on the States being forced to repay their loans. With the world economy in decline, Australia was one of the nations which were being forced to repay what they had borrowed. This particularly included the large sums from Britain and the United States.
The search for work
The Depression was said to have officially commenced in 1929, with the downfall of the New York Stock Market in late October. However, unemployment figures in Australia reached their peak in 1932, with 29 percent of Australians being unemployed.
The main problem with being unemployed in the 1930s was that there was tough competition to get a job or even find a vacant position, because nearly a third of the population was in the same predicament. It was a vicious circle in which employers could not afford to pay employees because not enough business was generated to pay for wages People, on the other hand, could not generate business because they could not find a job and as they were not earning any money, they had no money to spend.
Many people could not afford extra expenses such as newspapers in order to look for work. Consequently, they walked for miles, hoping that if a job came up they could be the first to claim it. Men who lived in the city which was overflowing with unemployed people, often went 'on the track' which was where they walked, travelling around the countryside in the hope they could pick up some odd jobs, perhaps on farms. Some of these men needed to travel such great distances and as they had no money to do so, would 'jump the rattler,' otherwise known as hitching the freight trains, without paying a fare. The problem with this was that jumping on or off any fast moving vehicle is very difficult. Therefore it was not uncommon for men to receive injuries, or even be killed, while trying to hitch a lift on the trains. In addition to the danger of injury, was the danger of being caught by the vigilant railway inspectors and police. See image 2
For those who could find work, their standard of living was not necessarily any better. In 1933, 17 percent of people earned less than four dollars per week. Paid employees had to take pay cuts and also were forced to look after relatives who were unemployed. Every day was a struggle. Sometimes down on the wharves, tickets would be thrown into the air amongst a group of workers to determine who received the shift for the day. The man who was able to secure a ticket was offered a day's work.
Alternatively, a few men were able to take part in the State government's 'work for the dole' scheme. This meant that they worked on public infrastructure such as improving the rail and roads, as well as building water towers and digging canals. However, the conditions were inadequate, they could be sent to remote areas and their dole payments could be cancelled if they turned down any work. The most demoralising factor was that for all of their hard work, they received an income which was below the basic wage.
Ex-servicemen particularly found themselves experiencing hard times. Having made it through the War they were now faced with an even greater struggle in the homeland which they had fought to protect. Many of those who had taken up the government's Soldier Settlement Scheme gave up on their land and moved back to the city, feeling that they had nothing to show for their years of hard work. They felt as though they had failed themselves and their families, as they were unable to support them. To make it worse, psychological trauma still afflicted many of them. It has been suggested that 10 000 ex-servicemen were dying each year in the hard times of the 1930s.
The effects in the country and city
It was particularly working-class people who were most affected by this drastic period of unemployment in Australia. In the country, the working class comprised those who relied on their small businesses, especially farms, to support themselves and their family. Those who were farmers had already been experiencing hard times, with drought having hit them long before the Depression did. Those who struggled to repay their loans during the drought and had no chance to do so during the Depression often faced eviction. If the farmers could afford to continue to pay their farm payments then they could at least have their livestock or agricultural produce as food. Often these goods were traded or given to other people in the community who were not as fortunate. In fact, it was not perceived as a complete disgrace to steal another person's sheep from their farm to provide food for one's family during these difficult times. In the city, such an offence would be condemned because any kind of stock, even a fowl, was a rare commodity and people did not steal from someone whose life was equally tough.
It has been suggested that so many men travelled to the country to find work because life in the cities was tougher than in the country during the Depression. Although there was no work available anywhere, there was at least food in the country. Many city people transformed their flower gardens into vegetable gardens in an attempt to provide some nutrition and some self-sufficiency. See image 3
In cities, peddlers and beggars became a common sight on the streets for the first time. They often went from door to door, trying to sell anything from shoe laces to their services which included cutting firewood and various household chores. They were often happy to be paid in money or food. See animation
Home and health
As a result of not being able to pay their rent, a large number of people were evicted from their homes during the Depression. It was recorded in Sydney in 1932 that over a period of twelve months, applications for evictions reached 5000. Many unemployed and homeless men in Sydney went to the iconic Mrs Macquarie's Chair (an area near today's Sydney Opera House), where they would huddle together underneath old newspapers to keep warm during the night.
Many families joined large groups of people who had to live in what were called 'shanty towns.' These towns usually comprised a number of shelters on the outskirts of a town. The shelters were made from scrap materials which included corrugated iron, cardboard, planks of wood, and hessian bags. It was particularly the 'Happy Valley' community in Sydney's La Perouse which was the best-known. Here, as in most other 'shanty towns', they had no running water, the inhabitants having to collect it from 1.5 kilometres away. The struggling residents also had to endure inadequate food, usually living on bread and dripping, the fat from cooked meat. Some also joined long queues to be fed by soup kitchens. With a lack of nutrition and sanitation, the areas became rampant with diseases such as dysentery, scurvy and lice. See image 4
During this time, people turned to charities to assist them. The number of people needing help quickly began to exceed the resources of the charities. The government had to implement strategies which involved imposing a tax on the wages of those who were earning an income to offset the relief expenditures. It also introduced a form of sustenance payments which was referred to as the 'susso.' The dole was initially in the form of fortnightly rations, usually including bread, meat, tea, sugar, jam, condensed milk, butter, cheese and soap. For families, rations were increased in quantity and variety to include golden syrup, rice, potatoes, onions, prunes and oatmeal, as well as baby foods.
Later on, the susso came in the form of food vouchers. The unemployed were then able to redeem them at selected stores and shops. No vouchers were ever issued for rent, electricity bills or clothing. By giving out vouchers rather than money, the government could ensure that they could only be used for food and not be wasted on alcohol, gambling and other temptations.
While the vouchers offered at least some assistance to families, the scheme posed larger problems. To be able to receive these payments, people had to have not worked for 14 days and could not have any money or property except for the family home. This was a problem for many who were not earning nearly enough to support their families, yet were not able to receive the susso.
Many unemployed men who needed the susso felt humiliated and ashamed. These men who had always been the hard-working wage earners of the family up until then had to line up and receive assistance in order to simply feed their families. With so much stress and pressure being placed on the men, particularly those with families, a number of them deserted their marriages and turned to alcohol and suicide. For most of them, however, their pride refused to be beaten. It was quite common to see these men presenting themselves as tidily as they possibly could while waiting for their unemployment payment.
Children also felt the force of the Depression. Schools tried to assist students by feeding them and clothing them with what resources they had. Despite this, many children were forced to leave school prematurely so that they could find a job or look after the household, enabling their parents to look for work. Often children and youths, which included anyone under the age of 21, were paid a lower wage than adults which made them attractive to employers. However, once these youths turned 21 they were often immediately dismissed and replaced with younger employees.