The Great Depression was a time when many Australians faced extreme hardships through economic collapse and the prevailing rates of unemployment. But, they made it through, which is something to reflect on in the current times.
Throughout the 1920s Australia was a primary producer within the British Empire deriving much income from wheat and wool exports. As the British economy waned post the Great War, along with a growing global supply of produce, demand had already begun to fall for those exports at a time when Australia’s unemployment rate was rising from 6 to 11%. Then came the Wall Street Stock Market collapse on October 29, 1929, which would see economic markets around the world ruined.
Demand for Australian exports fell even further to the point industry stalled and unemployment escalated. Unemployment reached a record high of around 30% in 1932. It was atime of political upheaval, periods of social unrest, growth of radical and extremist movements, evictions, homelessness and shantytowns, and many turning to suicide. In comparison to the Australia of today in the age of universal health care and welfare assistance, they were unimaginably extreme times.
Of course, our grandparents heroically made it through, not only did they make it through, they went on to grow the nation exponentially. What can we learn from our forefathers to get through extreme times?
With determination and creativity, many turned unemployment into self-employment by using their skills to create all kinds of hand-made items. Items included hand-knitted clothing, utensils, crafts, souvenirs and such. They would hawk their wares at tourist spots and even go door to door.
Known as the Swagmen, men would hit the road traveling by foot in search of odd jobs they could do in exchange for food and shelter. It was supported by the government by providing Swagmen with food-ration coupons at country police stations as a way to keep people moving and discourage the forming of “hobo” camps.
Public charities were a large force in helping to alleviate the hardships many faced. The Brotherhood of St Laurence was formed during the Great Depression in Australia and still operates today. Churches were are a large part of daily life at the time and the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist
churches greatly expanded their social welfare operations. Some historians also note that it was a time of great comradery.
Historians note that many from the time drew inspiration from sporting heroes. Sporting figures of the time still stand as some of the greatest Australian sporting legends including Sir Donald Bradman, Phar Lap and Walter Lindrum. It was a time of movies and music, Roy Rene became a famed comedian of the time and the originator of Australian slang that’s lived with us ever since, such as “you beaut”, “strewth”, “fair suck of the sav”, “comin’ the raw prawn” and “strike me lucky”. Nancy Bird Walton became Australia’s youngest female commercial pilot inspiring many.
Many people turned their hand to gardening and growing there own food to supplement the weekly food rations. Any excess was preserved in jars which included making pickles, relishes and chutneys. Of course people had the time on their hands to do these things and can be seen as a relaxing and productive way to spend time. People also repaired things, soles on the shoes worn through? It’s likely that your uncle would shape up a piece of rubber off an old car tire and glue on a new sole for you instead of heading to the shops.
Luck & Hard Work
Kalgoorlie, for example, survived the depression quite well and perhaps by the end was prospering as the area had become a major exporter of gold. By the end of the 1930s gold was one of Australia’s export earners along with wool and wheat. It was also a time that Australia was entering into manufacturing giving birth to many industries that would go on to create prosperity for many years.
Living off the Land
Underground mutton, namely rabbit, became a popular source of protein as they were plentiful thanks to a growing rabbit plague and quite tasty when cooked up in a stew. An entire industry formed around the rabbit, with the carcass going into the pot and to butchers along with skins being used to make such things as Akubra hats and even exported.
Mateship and Unity
As people couldn’t afford rents and loan repayments evictions and foreclosures were commonplace. Community folk stuck together and tales exist of when farms went for auction, the local farmers would turn up en masse shielding anyone out from bidding and buy the property for pennies handing it back to the original landholder.
Government Relief – The “susso”
State government relief schemes kept many unemployed men and their families alive, and single men who could prove they were destitute were paid a sustenance wage (the ‘susso’) to work on government-financed public work schemes. Others had to rely on charitable groups that ran soup kitchens or provided some limited monetary assistance and basic food rations.
The completion of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was also a major source of national pride. The construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge took place from 1924 to 1932 providing employment for many me at the time and a source of inspiration and pride on its completion.