People of my generation grew up hearing about the Great Depression. My father lived through it as a young man, though he remained in employment throughout, because as a young man he was cheap to pay. Part of his job, week after week, was to hand out the 'pink slips', indicating dismissal of workers. He never forgot how it hurt. Men would break down in tears in front of him, knowing that they may not work again for several years yet.
Australians suffered heavily during the Great Depression, roughly from October 1929 to possibly 1939. A new recruit to the 2nd AIF in late 1939 was told to present himself to the pay sergeant. He walked up to the desk, shot out his arm, and shouted the Nazi salute. 'What on Earth are you doing?' bewildered onlookers asked. 'I like that bloke Hitler', the soldier said, 'this is the first pay I've had for as long as I can remember'.
In NSW in June 1933, 29.9 per cent of the male workforce was unemployed, or 190,000 workers and 17.14 per cent of female workers unemployed, or 33,000 workers. The totals for Australia, overall, 25.47 per cent and 14.85 per cent unemployed respectively, or 405,000 men out of work and 76,000 women. Australia's total population in 1933 was 6.6 million people.
The effect of this was shocking. There was a minimal form of relief but thousands of people went hungry, malnutrition produced illness and disease, and there were evictions from rented houses throughout the suburbs. It was not unusual for the father of an evicted family to drape his AIF greatcoat over the family's few possessions, indicating that while he had served his nation in war and believed he would be protected by the government that had recruited him, he was now, simply, thrown out.
Eviction was cruel, shocking and very public. Armed with a court order a sheriff of the court would arrive at the door of, usually, a very rundown house and indicate to the occupants that they must now leave. Whatever possessions they had would be hastily gathered up. While dad went off to find a mate to help him move the stuff, the wife and children would wait on the nature strip open to the gaze of all and the sympathy of most.
While many people would have watched an eviction in progress, in reality it was not the norm for even the poorest Australians. But it did remain the telling and graphic image of Australia in the Depression. Somehow people battled on, but all had seen or read of evictions and it was a constant fear. Where was the evicted family to go? To other family, perhaps, to an even cheaper rental, if possible. Maybe to one of the shanty towns that grew up on vacant public land or to a camp down by the beach.
More common than eviction, and much less public, was the surrender of a mortgaged property when it was simply not possible to keep up the payments. In a marvellous exhibition in Melbourne recently, Love and War, the story was told of a war widow. Her husband had enlisted even though he had a wife and two children, leaving them secure, he believed, in their house in Caulfield. He had been killed in France in 1917.
Though she received the war widows' pension and dependent allowances it was not enough to feed the family and service the mortgage. So in 1931, all those years later, she returned her property to the bank and moved in with her parents. She never owned a house again in her life.
Those still in work sought to help the extended family as much as they could. One family I knew of had both the father and the son at work in a foundry throughout the lean years. So he and his wife made room at home for others of their families, fed them and housed them, all dependent on his continuing work and his son's. The generosity was impressive but not unusual.
The Depression hit Australia so hard because of the country's reliance on the rural sector for much of its wealth. Markets dried up alarmingly and income collapsed. Furthermore, Australia had paid for its contribution to the Great War of 1914-1918 by going into significant, debt. This debt continued to be serviced, making conditions in Australia even tighter.
Indeed challenging, the paying off of that debt caused enormous political ructions in Australia. So a British expert, Sir Otto Niemeyer, was sent out but, predictably, he advised the government that debt payments must continue lest Australia lose its reputation for financial probity
Charities helped the needy insofar as they could. And a generous community tried to help the unemployed who regularly knocked on doors looking for food or work. But governments did little to ameliorate the suffering of the people, in stark contrast to the imaginative socialism currently being adopted by the federal and state governments.
Imagine if the NSW or Victorian governments had ruled as early as 1930 that no landlord should be able to evict tenants for, say, a period of 12 months. So many sad outcomes would have been avoided.
Looking to save about one-eighth of the ongoing war pensions payments, the federal government consulted with ex-service organisations and it was agreed to make significant savings, as also with other pension payments. There was an across-the-board cut of about 22 per cent to payments which caused considerable suffering and anguish. But the books must be balanced.
Pensions paid to those dependents of deceased soldiers, widows and children, were exempted in this cutback, to the credit of those who recognised how unfair such cuts would be. These men died for us, people argued, and we should care for, as a first responsibility, their dependents.
If only governments then had the imagination and the courage to protect their people as currently governments in Australia are doing.
- Michael McKernan is a former deputy director of the Australian War Memorial.
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