People have been asking me a lot lately about how the economic recession we are experiencing now compares to earlier times of economic instability.
Unlike the situation we’re all in at the moment, which has come about largely because of the pandemic, the global recession in the 1930s (popularly referred to as the Great Depression) was triggered by a sudden stock market crash in America in October 1929. This crash led to a massive decline in global trade. Few nations escaped the impact of the economic depression, and Australia was no exception.
Australian primary exports halved between 1929 and 1933, and the level of unemployment rose dramatically. But it’s fair to say that many people in Australia were already struggling through the 1920s; our economy had been faltering since 1926.
In September 1929 (just before the stock market crash) 12.1 percent of the Australian workforce was already unemployed. That figure kept rising until 1932 when it peaked at just over 30 percent.
When we look back at the impacts of the Great Depression on Sydney, we see that it was many of the inner city areas that were hardest hit, with unemployment rates much higher than the national average.
Alexandria, Erskineville, Redfern, Darlington and Glebe all had unemployment rates above 35 percent. These were working class areas, where poverty was already the reality through much of the 1920s, and just increased throughout the 1930s.
I’ve been delving into the City of Sydney’s collections of oral history interviews with people who lived through the Great Depression, and noticed quite a few differences to today.
Most obviously, in the 1930s there was no universal medicare or welfare. Charities are still important today, but in the 1930s they were the only real form of welfare, and the Depression put a massive strain on their resources.
When the dole was first offered in the 1920s in New South Wales it consisted of coupons or food stamps that could only be used to get certain products. Only later was a payment offered and then it was tiny – a single man with no work at all received 5 shillings a week.
Local councils created relief, or sustenance, work. This was mainly construction work, aimed at male labourers, who might get one or two days work a week, then off for a week, then back on again. Many of the relief works were beautification projects, or brought about things we take for granted today, like ocean pools, or reclaimed wetlands that were turned into parks. Roads and drainage systems were also constructed.
Housing for the unemployed was precarious. With no legislation in place to protect them, evictions became common, as did the ‘midnight flit’, when people would leave their homes in the middle of the night to avoid the bailiffs who would turn them out and sell everything in the house to reclaim money the house owner had lost in rent.
While it can be bleak listening to the interviews, there were some lovely insights into how people came together to support each other as well. I noticed how much people relied on each other, and their own resourcefulness, and felt part of their community. Community, including family, neighbourhoods, churches, associations and clubs and political organisations, was essential to survival.
I’m giving a talk called ‘Sugar Bags and Specked Fruit’ online next Friday morning (11 September) during for History Week to talk more about this, and to share the oral histories I’ve been listening to (you can book online here), but in the meantime, you can listen to this great excerpt on the Dictionary here (or via the 2SER audio of course) in which interviewee Jane Lanyon talks about how she and her family would scrounge for fruit and vegetables on Saturday afternoons at Paddy’s Markets during the Depression, a little bit like the practice we call bin-diving today. The City’s Sydney Oral Histories website is also available here.
Check the History Council of NSW website here for the full History Week calendar to look for events either near you or that you can attend online too!
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio