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For the Australian working class of the 1930s, the Depression symbolised a time when unemployment rates were at their highest in history. There were war heroes forced to live in the streets and humiliated families relying on food coupons and charity to feed their children. By contrast, the upper classes in Australian society in the 1930s, found this time no more difficult, possibly even easier than the time before it. Infact, the wealthy were able to capitalise on the circumstances of the poor, the struggling economy and the invention of new technology.

Context of the 1930s

The decade of the 1920s in Australia ended with the nation in massive debt. After the War ended, Australia had borrowed substantial amounts of money, particularly from Britain, to develop public infrastructure, establish the nation's capital and provide land to be utilised under the Returned Servicemen's Settlement Scheme. The theory was that these long term investments, along with Australia's growing primary exports would pay these debts off. However, the Soldier's Settlement Scheme was unsuccessful in providing for the future for Australia's agricultural industry. The world economy soon hit a decline which in turn pushed down the prices Australia was getting for her exports and the nation found itself sinking further into debt.

The United States, which was the cultural and socio-economic nucleus of the world, in 1929, went from unprecedented prosperity to a collapsed economy. Millions of people and companies went bankrupt and the United States was forced to recall the many enormous loans it had handed out to foreign countries. This cast a dark cloud, called The Depression, over the rest of the world.

The relationship between the wealthy and the poor

For the wealthy, or even those who were able to secure full-time work and earn a modest salary during the early 1930s, circumstances for many of them actually improved. Average wages dropped but the cost of living dropped to an even greater extent. This meant that their standards of living actually rose, because they could afford more than before. In response, many of the wealthy men who had business and financial acumen capitalised on the poverty of the less affluent classes. The wealthy did this by purchasing the exceptionally cheap land and homes of those who were no longer able to make their mortgage repayments. For similarly low prices, they also bought businesses and belongings from those who had been forced into bankruptcy. If they were willing to take a risk on the rise of the stock market, some people bought shares when the prices were at all-time lows. Even though the benefits of their purchases were not immediate, if they had enough financial resources at their disposal to keep their assets until the economy improved, these investors reaped the financial benefits. See video

Although it may have appeared patronising to the working-class women, it was popular for the more affluent women to travel in expensive cars to the markets in pursuit of bargains. Many well-off women turned to charity work during the Depression. For some of these women it was a chance to escape the monotony of their day-to-day lives and for others, it was the opportunity to do something good for their community. Some women, however, placed more emphasis on how charity work boosted their public image than on how it actually assisted their community in such desperate times. In the name of charity, it was not at all uncommon for balls to be held on Friday or Saturday nights in city and middle-class suburbs. Although these charity balls were in aid of the poor, the poor did not attend these events. Instead, wealthy parents and 'flappers' (young women who adopted a boyish-looking image which was popular at the time), were the ones who enjoyed the luxurious scenes, eating lavish food, drinking and dancing at these balls. See image 1

Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of tension between the wealthy and the poor. This division between the two had grown wider during the Depression, with the wealthy becoming better off and the poor reaching new depths of despair. In an attempt to defy the wealthy, a number of the poor refused their charity and attempted to find food and other commodities by resorting to, among other things, stealing.

Seeing the way the wealthy continued to shop at department stores and eat at restaurants, when the poor had to rely on soup from relief centres and clothing from charities, caused anger amongst working-class people. A number of them took to the streets in public demonstrations, protesting to the State and federal governments. Meanwhile many of the wealthy, some of whom were completely unaware that the nation was in a state of depression, came to fear the working class and their demonstrations which often ended in violence and had to be broken up by police. The upper middle class also came to be strongly against the policies of the New South Wales Premier, John Thomas (Jack) Lang who was a strong supporter of the working class. See image 2

Wealth and business

During the early 1930s the larger, wealthier businesses were also able to monopolise the market. For example, today's retail giants, including Coles Myer Ltd. and Woolworths Ltd., expanded significantly in the 1930s when their smaller competitors were struggling to stay in business. Coles Myer Ltd, which was then Myer Emporium Ltd, managed to increase sales with the slogan: 'Half the Price Twice the Turnover.' The Myer Emporium prospered and as a result, their employees were rewarded. Known for its revolutionary treatment of its staff, Myer established a hospital and a dental clinic in the store and gave employees company shares and fully-paid vacations. The founder of Myer, Sidney Myer, was not only kind to his employees but was known for his generosity to those less fortunate than himself during the Depression. In 1930 he held a Christmas banquet from ten in the morning until late in the afternoon for 11 500 of Melbourne's poor. See image 3

When it came to looking after employees, The Myer Emporium was the exception. There were a number of other companies which became wealthy from exploiting cheap labour. Women and even youths were often employed because they were not entitled to the same rates of pay as men. Even men had to take cuts in their pay, and work below the fixed rate, in a desperate attempt to keep their job when unemployment rates were so high. Further pressure was placed on men who had families to support and mortgages to pay.

Pawnbrokers also achieved great wealth through exploiting the plight of the poor by charging interest rates which reached levels of more than 100 percent.

The affluent lifestyle

The 1920s and the 1930s were periods which were particularly highlighted by the introduction of new innovative technology. Unlike the poor, the wealthy were able to capitalise on this technology which included major improvements in the area of transportation. Many wealthy families continued to indulge in trips to the beach and holidays, either travelling by motorcars including Rolls-Royces or Cadillacs, or on luxuriously-appointed trains such as the Sprit of Progress. The very wealthy who went on an annual trip to London from Australia, travelled on great ocean liners of the Peninsula & Orient (P&O) or the Orient Line.

Technology made an impact on the domestic front in affluent homes, many of which were located on the North Shore or in the Eastern Suburbs in Sydney and even on large properties out of the city. The 'wireless' (radio) became a common addition to household for an annual licence fee. Appliances such as the electric radiator, the electric cooker and the vacuum cleaner, assisted in making life easier for the upper classes who had often employed servants in the past to do their domestic duties. The increasing and varied use of electricity made all of this possible, but only for those who could afford it. See animation

During the difficult times of the 1930s working class in particular were in search of something to make them forget their troubles. It was, however, the upper classes that could really take advantage of the new and exciting era in entertainment. 'Talkies' (movies with sound) had become increasingly popular, as did theatre attendance. Great numbers also flocked to the cricket to see Donald Bradman and to horse races such as the Melbourne Cup.

The clothes of the middle class during the 1930s reflected how little they were affected by the high levels of unemployment and mass poverty around the world. Many of these women shopped at large department stores such as Myer and Grace Brothers and avidly followed the high-end fashions which they had seen in films. The charity balls were the perfect events at which to show off their new outfits.

The experiences of the wealthy during the Depression have not been documented as often as those of the poor. Many of the wealthy, however, played a significant role in Australian society during the 1930s. It was in that era that many of them, including Sidney Myer and the Packer family, began to make their fortunes.

Chapters: Unemployed Wealthy Stolen Children

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1. How did many of the poor feel about the wealthy members of society during the Depression?

They did not see them as being all that different from themselves

They genuinely liked them

They were afraid of them

They were angry towards them


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