Impact of Depression on the Unemployed

'We're on the susso now
We can't afford a cow
We live in a tent
And can't pay the rent
We're on the susso now.
David Potts and His Myth
Tradition has it that the Great Depression of the
1930s swept through Australia like a raging flood,
tearing up the garden of the 1920s and imposing
terrible suffering on the population at large.. Ever
since, popular images of impacts have included men
and women evicted onto the streets, eating out of
dustbins, queuing for the dole, living in humpies, and
tramping the countryside in search of work.
Many of the respondents recalled painful
experiences, as he anticipated. But others spoke of
the early 1930s with affection. They said that they
had coped well, that the Depression ‘gave life
meaning’ and that ‘people were happier then’.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime?
They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When their was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always their right on the job
They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?
Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
It was recorded in
Sydney in 1932 that
over a period of twelve
months, applications
for evictions reached
As the depression ground on, chronic unemployment, high interest rates,
mortgages and rentals resulted in the eviction of many families from their
homes. Without a job for 3 1/2 years, Mr William Roberts, an original
Anzac, stands with his wife and two of their three children beside their
meagre belongings.
Between June 1931 and June 1932 a surreal, new type of public disturbance,
known as the ‘anti-eviction riot’, became a part of daily life in New South Wales.
Signs such an event was imminent appeared in defiant messages scrawled in
chalk on working-class cottages and terraces in suburbs like Redfern, Bankstown
and Newtown in Sydney, and at Tighes Hill in Newcastle. Huddles of determined
men then set about erecting barricades, using barbwire, sandbags and whatever
else came to hand. Negotiations to quit the property typically failed and the
police, as was their way during the Depression, went in hard. Chunks of bluemetal, stones and bricks ripped through the air. Doors were kicked in. Batons and
iron-bars rose and fell. In one instance, 17 bullets smashed into external walls as
police, in frustration, let loose with their guns.
The eviction riots were both tragic and ferocious. At Tighes Hill in Newcastle 200
men battled 60 police for over an hour with weapons including a sledgehammer.
Black Friday in Newtown
The Sydney Morning Herald described one such
battle in Newtown, Sydney in June 1931. "The most
sensational battle Sydney has ever known was
fought between 40 policemen and 18 Communists ...
All the defenders were injured, some seriously."
Bullets flew, one man was hit. "Entrenched behind
barbed wire and sandbags, the defenders rained
stones weighing several pounds from the top floor of
the building on to the heads of the attacking police,
who were attempting to execute an eviction order. "A
crowd hostile to the police, numbering many
thousands ... threatened to become out of hand ...
When constables emerged from the back of the
building with their faces covered in blood, the crowd
hooted and shouted insulting remarks."
In this context it is hardly surprising that
the Communist Party's propaganda
about the final crisis of capitalism and
the urgent need for a revolution struck a
chord. At the start of 1930, they had 300
members, by 1934 there were nearly
3,000. Its paper, The Workers' Weekly,
had sales of about 2,000 in 1928, but by
1931 this had risen to 10,000.
Unemployed Workers Movement
When the Great Depression first hit Australia and a great
wave of unemployment engulfed the country, there was
no unemployment insurance for eight months.
 A national Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) was
set up in Sydney in July 1930. In the big cities there were
repeated demonstrations of the unemployed. These
actions won the dole and the first payments were made in
June 1930.
 The UWM often spearheaded struggles against evictions.
Some of these actions were veritable battles against the
police attempting to evict people from their homes and
throw them onto the street. The UWM also fought for
improved conditions for the unemployed. These struggles
were successful in winning higher dole payments and in
gaining a rent allowance for the unemployed to stop
people being evicted from their homes.
Families unable to pay rent were evicted and
forced to live in substandard accommodation,
often with no running water, electricity or gas.
Sometimes, several families would share a
house, with each family crammed into one
Others lived in public spaces such as
Sydney’s Domain, in makeshift shelters
constructed of corrugated iron and hessian
The last resort was the makeshift SHANTY
TOWNS on the outskirts of towns. Engadine
began as a shanty town
Identify the building materials used to construct the homes
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.
What differences do you see
between the photos?
Conditions in the SUSSO
The shacks and tents, built by the unemployed at Happy Valley, were
constructed from scavenged scraps of corrugated iron, hessian, wood and
even cardboard. Walls were often made of cloth flourbags that were cut open
and resewn into squares to fit the timber frames. The 'bag’ walls were painted
with a mixture of lime and fat boiled up in salt water to make them
weatherproof. The roofs consisted of corrugated-iron sheets and the sand
floors were smoothed out and covered with more flourbags.
Another account of life in Happy Valley, 1934
We’ve lived, 400 men, women and children, in our bag humpies in this fleainfested stretch of grubby sand hills … sheltered from the southerly
busters*that sweep across Botany Bay. Have a look inside the shacks that
look so dilapidated from the road. Bags, these walls, flour bags bummed
from the baker,cut open and re-sewn into squares to fit the white-anted,
second-hand timber that forms the jerry built walls; painted with a mixture of
lime and fat boiled up in salt water to make them weatherproof. The roofs
are mostly made of scrap sheets of tin rescued from the garbage tip ... the
floors are wet sand, smoothed out and covered with more bags. Fleas?
Millions of ’em!
Worker’s Weekly, February 1934
Boat Harbour and Kurnell
Why here?
Living under a cliff at the
Domain 1932
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
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
“People were forced into all sorts of tricks and
expediencies to survive, all sorts of shabby and
humiliating compromises. In thousands and
thousands of homes fathers deserted the family and
went on the track (became itinerant workers), or
perhaps took to drink. Grown sons sat in the kitchen
day after day, playing cards, studying the horses
[betting on horse racing] and trying to scrounge
enough for a threepenny bet, or engaged in petty
crime, mothers cohabited with male boarders who
were in work and who might support the family,
daughters attempted some amateur prostitution and
children were in trouble with the police.”
For many families, survival depended on the women
having dual responsibilities of breadwinner and
homemaker. Employment for married women was
restricted and exploitation of cheap female labour and
cost cutting was common. The Australian arbitration
system set the basic female pay at 54% of the male rate
and wasn't enough to support a family.
Women worked in jam and pickle factories, sewed
clothing or were domestic servants living in the homes of
the wealthy. Employment in factories was dirty and
dangerous but always in demand. In many homes,
daughters, mothers and sisters came to provide the major
source of income.
The women were usually the ones in the household who
went without food or medicine for the good of their
children. The burden of keeping a household running was
placed on women and many were brought to the point of
Many city people transformed their flower gardens into vegetable gardens in
an attempt to provide some nutrition and some self-sufficiency
People frequently went hungry during the
Great Depression. They often ate bread and
dripping and 'cocky’s joy’ (bread and golden
syrup). 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.
During the tough economic times of the Great
Depression of the 1930s, the rabbit became a
welcome commodity rather than the pest it had been
to farmers. The skins could be sold for money and
the meat was often the only option available to poor
families. Rabbits could be caught fairly readily even
in the outskirts of big cities such as Melbourne, in
suburbs that are now densely populated.
Six o clock swill
Women seeking change
Change was sought by a referendum to
curb men's drinking, because they saw
men's drinking as jeopardising the
wellbeing and safety of people in the
home, of mothers and children, in all
sorts of ways. Drinking took the money
that was meant to go to clothing and
food, that drinking made men violent,
that drinking generally destroyed the
community of the family
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.
The Susso
Those who were unemployed were entitled to the
application of the 'susso', a sustenance or dole
payment. A person seeking this assistance had to
register and demonstrate that they had been
unemployed for at least the previous two weeks.
Payment was on a family basis, firstly in the form
of rations, then a cash order system was
The working class was demoted to an image of
dole queues, shanty towns, unemployed men and
protesting marchers. Those who had to queue for
the dole were humiliated; most states didn't
provide cash but merely food coupons.
The Government established “Susso” or relief camps to
occupy previously unemployed men. Comfort was not a
priority in these camps; men were issued with a tent, tent
fly, three sheets of corrugated iron to make a chimney,
two blankets, frying pan, wash dish, set of floor boards,
hurricane lamp and fencing wire.
Government Projects
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.
Reclaiming Manly Lagoon
A sustenence project
Feeding the Hungry; Schools and
Soup Kitchens
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.
St Vincent De Paul Boys
Orphanage 1936
The Great Depression caused hardship and suffering on the community, which
resulted in unprecedented demands on
the orphanage and its resources. Around 1935 permission was granted by
Archbishop Mannix to allow for an
additional fifty boys to be admitted to the orphanage. This involved enlarging
dormitories by building ‘sleeping-out
balconies’ across the front of the west elevations of the north and south wings. Also
a second storey was added to the
1850s building and the orphanage dining room was enlarged.
Mathew Talbert Hostel
It opened in 1938 as the Matthew Talbot
Hostel with 11 beds for overnight
accommodation, and about 100 meals a
day were served. By 1943 it had grown to
17 beds and 143 meals a day. Today the
building site in Kent Street Sydney is now
the Genesian Theatre
Sydney City Mission
In response to growing poverty during
the Great Depression, Sydney City
Mission established soup kitchens at
most of its services. Coffee bars were
also opened to distribute cheap meals,
clothing and blankets.
Diseases associated with undernourishment, such as rickets, were
 Other more serious diseases were
Tuberculosis, Diphtheria, Typhoid and
Whooping Cough
 Other health issues were alcoholism and
working class children consistently leaving school at
thirteen or fourteen years old
 married women carrying a greater domestic burden:
home-making was still considered a woman's role, so
even if a woman had worked all day scrubbing floors to
bring in some money, her unemployed husband would still
expect her to cook dinner and keep the house in order
 jobs being easier to find for young people, but the work
had little future career prospects and many young workers
were sacked by the time they turned sixteen, eighteen or
twenty-one years of age
 migrants, particularly those from Italy and southern
Europe, being resented because they worked for less
wages than others despite having relatively little in the
way of family or friends to call on for help
Why don't you work like other men do?
How the hell can I work when there's no
work to do?
Chorus :
Hallelujah, I'm a bum
Hallelujah, bum a gain!
Hallelujah, give us a handout
To revive us again.

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