On Tuesday 29 October 1929 the Wall Street stock market in New York collapsed. Twenty-six billion dollars was wiped from the market, which continued to decline for the following three years.
Economic markets around the world were ruined. Income from Australian exports fell, local industries came to a standstill and unemployment rapidly increased. Australia had borrowed vast sums of money from overseas banks and would struggle to repay these debts.
Adding to economic woes, in May 1931 the federal Labor government and six state Premiers agreed to a 20% reduction in government expenditure, cuts to wages and pensions, and increased taxation. The agreement was a victory for orthodox economists and banks at the expense of ordinary citizens, who increasingly lost their jobs, their investments and their savings.
Despite workers striking, their wages were reduced and working hours increased from 44 to 48 hours per week. By 1931, 30% of New South Wales unionists were unemployed. By 1933 one in three Australian breadwinners was unemployed.
Most public works came to a standstill during the Depression, forcing many men onto the unemployment pile. Those who received the dole could be assigned to government relief work such as council maintenance. Relief workers dug ditches and built roads and pathways in many Sydney suburbs, including Concord. They were paid in cash but the hours of work and weeks on a job were rationed, so very few averaged the basic relief worker’s wage. Those unfortunate enough to be assigned to work in distant areas were forced to live in camps isolated from their families, and the few who refused to work had their sustenance relief (or “susso”) cancelled.
Although most public works were postponed, there was one outstanding exception – the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bridge was referred to as the “iron lung” because it created job opportunities and breathed new life into the city.
For men who faced constant rejection by employers in the inner city, they had no choice but to pack a swag (or “matilda”) and travel to country areas in search of work. Swagmen were entitled to receive food-ration coupons at country police stations if they could produce a traveller’s ration card showing that they had travelled at least 50 miles (80 kilometres) during the week. If not, they went hungry or had to cadge for food.
A TIME OF DISTRESS
The Great Depression of the 1930’s was a time of distress and heartbreak, stemming from world-wide unemployment. In the eyes of the man in the street, government, financial experts and economists seemed powerless to put matters right.
True, the sun rose every morning as usual, the birds still sang and all things came in their due season, but men and women had lost confidence.
In Drummoyne and Five Dock, as in other localities, local government did what it could to help local people.
In his Annual Report for 1930-1931 the Mayor of Drummoyne announced the receipt of two grants of £2,000 each from State and Federal Governments for unemployment relief. These grants enabled the council to give work to a large number of the unemployed in the area.
The Mayoress asked resident to help distressed families in the coming winter months by “offering contributions of unused clothing, footwear, groceries, vegetables, fuel or even monetary contributions.”
During the Depression and the lean years that followed, the pool of unemployment relief workers was used wisely on projects that would benefit the community. Together with reclamation and drainage of low-lying areas and parks maintenance, the building of Concord-Cabarita salt water swimming baths took almost seven years to complete, being ready for opening in November 1937.
Concord was regarded in Government circles as one of the progressive municipalities and received special allocations of finance for public works. Encouraged by what was described as a vast audience, the Premier, Hon. B.S. (Sir Bertram) Stevens, addressing the largest political gathering ever held in Concord (January 1935) promised aid for bigger projects.
The depression years found many in deep financial trouble so entertainment had to be restricted to the affordable free swimming at the baths when the tide was right.
Two other factors were responsible for Concord’s rapid recovery from the depression. An improvement in transport services, roads, sewerage and drainage facilities encouraged more builders, industrial expansion on Hen and Chicken Bay and Homebush Bay-West Concord areas enhanced the prospects for local employment.
Church and Sunday School activities, occasional trips to the Botanical Gardens and Zoo, or to Manly, where a return trip for a child was four pence (4 cents) and one shilling and ten pence (30 cents) for adults.
He gave details of the loans saying that the projects for which they were allocated would not only give work to the unemployed, but would increase the natural advantages of the district. For reclamation work in Hen and Chicken Bay, £74,800 had been set aside. Then there were moneys allowed for Homebush Bay drainage and for the sewerage schemes: Concord submains £34,000; Sydney Street main £70,000; Yaralla district main £50,000; Haslam’s Creek main, £50,000. These were just some of the works from which the municipality would benefit. (Concord: “A Link With the Past”)
SPORTING ACHIEVEMENTS HELPED RAISE THE SPIRITS
Extraordinary sporting successes did something to alleviate the spirits of Australians during the economic downturn. In a Sheffield Shield cricket match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1930 Don Bradman, a young New South Welshman of just 21 years of age, wrote his name into the record books by smashing the previous highest batting score in first-class cricket with 452 runs not out in just 415 minutes.
Between 1920 and 1931 the racehorse Phar Lap dominated Australia’s racing industry, at one stage winning fourteen races in a row. Famous victories included the 1930 Melbourne Cup.
During the depression I can always remember my father losing his job. He had to go down to the railway station every Friday with a suitcase and collect provisions. By that, I mean food. You weren’t given any money – just food.
My father said that the people that were giving out the food treated you like dirt because you were unemployed and they had a job.
Later on they altered the system and unemployed people were given jobs by the council, putting in sewers and other work.
The land around Rhodes and Homebush Bay was reclaimed and people who were otherwise unemployed worked on that. They were then given some slips to take to the local grocer instead. Dad used to come home with big loaves of bread and you used to put it in the oven in the brown paper bag and heat it up to make it edible.
You were only allowed to get the bare necessities, there wasn’t enough to get a lot of biscuits or soft drink or any of the groceries that build up in shopping trolleys today.
We never had biscuits – mum used to make gingerbread. On Saturday afternoon we were allowed to have a glass of ginger beer, made from our ginger beer plant.
(Anonymous contributor to “Reflections: Memories of Drummoyne”.)
I can remember my father telling me that during the depression he walked from Drummoyne to Ryde every day and worked in a quarry breaking rocks, which built all the roads around here. The roads around Gladesville, Ryde and Drummoyne were built utilising rocks from the quarry. (Extract from an Oral History.)