History Talking: Surviving life in the dole-drums of the Depression

THE WORST OF TIMES: According to the Australian Government website, during the Great Depression unemployment in Australia reached 32 per cent, compared with the 5.6 per cent that it is today. Photo: FILE PHOTO

THE WORST OF TIMES: According to the Australian Government website, during the Great Depression unemployment in Australia reached 32 per cent, compared with the 5.6 per cent that it is today. Photo: FILE PHOTO

"WE’RE on the Susso now, we can't afford a cow. We pay no rent, we live in a tent. We're on the Susso now."

This was the song said to be sung by some of the thousands looking for work during the Great Depression which began in 1929  and lasted almost until the outbreak of the Second World War.

According to the Australian Government website, during that time unemployment in Australia reached 32 per cent, compared with the 5.6 per cent that it is today.

In fact, this country had one of the most severe rates of unemployment in the industrialised world, second only to Germany.

Many lost homes and lived in makeshift dwellings with poor heating and sanitation, while hundreds of thousands faced the humiliation of poverty and unemployment.

In Sydney many slept in the Domain covered by newspapers and others left families to tramp country roads looking for any work they could find.

The government offered basic gold fossicking equipment for people who would go to the gold fields to try their luck.

Suicide increased and soldiers recently returned from the First World War and still suffering from their experiences were very badly affected.

The government also provided sustenance payments, often given in the form of basic food like bread and potatoes and known as ‘the susso’.

An estimated 30,000 had to report to police stations every week to collect the dole.

Fast forward to today, when last month the Reserve Bank estimated that $27.5 billion was spent by Australians this Christmas, with credit card interest reaching $286 million.

As usual, the Oral History group pondered the changing world and the effect those more austere times had on our lives.

The emphasis in all our childhoods was on conserving what we had, making do and mending and never buying something unless we could afford it.

As Russell said, “waste not, want not” was a mantra forever in our ears as children and the others wholeheartedly agreed.

The majority of the group were born in or just after the depression but it still greatly influenced the way we lived.

Stuart told about people who had lost jobs and, with no money coming in, would “do moonlight flits” in an attempt to escape their landlord and join the ever-growing number looking for work, which was impossible to get.

Keith remembered the ‘swaggies’ who roamed the country roads, standing at the back door of his house until his mother offered them some food.

“Everything was saved, including water. We bathed only once a week and took turns in the same bath water according to age, with the eldest going first.

Sadly many were people were highly-trained, white-collar workers whose whole lives had collapsed around them.

In an effort to scrape a living some turned the rabbit plague to their advantage, by trapping and skinning rabbits, drying the skins and selling them to the skin buyer, while at the same time keeping body and soul together by eating the rest.

Bruce mentioned that it was common to line worn out shoes with newspaper and Hazel's little school friend wore three summer dresses at once in the winter in an effort to keep warm.

“Everything was saved, including water,” said Monica, who was one of eight children.

“We bathed only once a week and took turns in the same bath water according to age, with the eldest going first.”

Her younger sister, Pauline, commented wryly that she was the seventh child to have a turn.

Most people had two  sets of clothes: one for best and one for home, and mothers made most of them.

“I remember my first piece of new clothing,” said Russel.

“I was so proud of it that I didn’t want to wear it in case it was spoilt.”

Mothers were also innovative, making clothes from unexpected materials.

Dee's mother made her a nightdress from flour bags, while Dick had handkerchiefs from the same material and Rob was lucky enough to have shirts made of parachute silk.

Everyone seems to have had their own vegetable garden, chooks laid eggs and we were altogether fairly self sufficient.

The group paused here and we talked of the changing conditions in the world and the fact that our economies now depend on buying and selling to a much greater degree than ever before.

We no longer live in a world where each group is completely self-sufficient but depend greatly on trade with other countries.

Our wants and needs have changed too, influenced no doubt by advertising that has become smarter than ever before with clever use of ever advancing technology.

Consequently, we are easily convinced that the gadget we bought yesterday is practically obsolete the day after.

It is cheaper to throw away than to repair.

Our houses, even with smaller families, are bigger and more luxurious than we ever dreamed of in the past.

We can compare the different times and, while we cannot go back, we can perhaps learn a little from history and not make the same mistakes twice.

The Orange Oral History Group meets on the third Monday of each month at 10am at Orange City Library, located at 147 Byng Street.

Each month features a new discussion topic and all are welcome to attend.

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