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THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The Great Depression was triggered on October 24th 1929 when the New York stock market collapsed. This saw companies collapse, prices for raw materials like wool and wheat plummet and a surge in unemployment.
In Western Australia the 100th anniversary of foundation celebrations were just over and despite low commodity prices there was a great optimism about the future. When world markets collapsed the effects were eventually felt in almost every corner of the state. In the first six months unemployment went from 9.6% to over 15% and was to continue to rise to a peak of around 25% by December 1930.
A sustenance allowance was introduced and camps set up for single men with the first being at Blackboy Hill. As conditions worsened there were demonstrations in the streets and in march 1931, violence erupted outside the treasury buildings.
Although life in the country at least held the promise of milk and some basic foods, over 700 farms were abandoned in 1932 and in the following year Western Australia voted to secede from the federation, although this never eventuated.
Kalgoorlie was one of the few areas to feel little of the effects during this time and some people, those who managed to keep their jobs or who had money behind them could actually profit from the misfortune of others. By the end of the 1930s, gold had become a major export dollar earner for Australia. Production of gold had trebled but as the value had increased at the same time, the revenue earned was increased seven-fold. Gold became 11% of Australia's export earnings.
In some ways Western Australia was better off than other parts of the world. Many people, especially in the country, would do all they could to help out strangers and few people in need of food were ever turned away. The Australian ethos of mateship came to the fore and when the depression eventually ended there was much less bitterness evident here than elsewhere.
People certainly suffered during the depression, especially the 'groupies' in southern areas of the state many of whom lived on starvation rations, but Western Australia had bred a hardy self sufficient group of people who were used to hard times and who knew how to make do with what was available. The rabbit plague that had spread across the state now provided people in the country with 'underground mutton', there were still kangaroos to shoot and eventually in 1934 things slowly began to change for the better.
Apart from the hardships the depression imposed on many people, it also focussed the government's attention more on urban development. Prior to the Great Depression a great deal of effort had been invested in rural infrastructure but with the drift in population away from the country to the larger centres, there was suddenly an urgent need for greater emphasis on development in the urban areas.
Another effect of the depression was on immigration. During the Great Depression and immediately following it, World War Two, the state actually recorded a net migration loss during some years.
Government struggled to find ways to end the depression and sometimes came up with policies that only made things worse. In January 1931 the basic wage was cut by 10%. The government reasoned that this would put money back into the bosses' hands so they could re-invest it. It was thought that it would not unduly affect workers living conditions. While a 10% cut to someone earning 2000 pounds may have been manageable, the same cut to people on less than 3 pounds proved to be disastrous.
It was not until 1934 that workers started to get organised and look for ways to change their situation. Trade unions increased their membership and strikes increased by 60%.
The Great Depression had given bosses the perfect opportunity to reduce working conditions and wages and workers would have to fight to get back what had been lost.
Recovery may have started in 1934 but it took a very long time before people's living standards really recovered. It was not until after World War 2 that the real recovery began.
What was it really like?
It is difficult for us in an age of universal health care and welfare assistance to really understand what the Great Depression was like for those who lived through it.
Some sections of business, especially large companies, remained almost unaffected. In 1931 CSR reported no negative effects in Australia while G.J. Coles reported a profit drop of just 6%. Small business, farmers and ordinary workers suffered the most.
Many businesses sought to take advantage of the workers' plight. In 1931 the Chairman of BHP called for lower wages, a revision of the 48 hour week and the suspension of all wage awards.
Statistics from 1933 show that 12% of workers had no income at all, 25% earned less than 1 pound a week and 17% earned less than 2 pounds a week.
The average weekly wage for a family man with two children was over 3 pounds a week so 54% of the working population were earning less than 2/3 of the average wage.
Children sometimes dressed in 'fancy dress' and went begging on the streets, some even died of starvation. Men standing in line at unemployment offices collapsed from lack of food.
Vagrancy laws meant that people could be arrested and imprisoned simply for having nowhere to live and no job.
Men could not afford the price of a bus fare so they tramped all over the country looking for work. A good pair of boots was so valuable that those sleeping on the streets or in a hostel, would tie their boots around their necks to ensure they were not stolen.
Evictions were common and in some parts of the country there was organised resistance. Several people were shot and wounded during these protests. Some properties were deliberately set on fire and this helped convince some landlords that their property was safer with non-paying tenants than empty.
The future for anyone 'on the road' was bleak. In 1933 there were 33,000 homeless and another 400,000 living in makeshift shacks Australia wide. At the same time as all these people were living rough, 4% of houses across the country were vacant.
Farmers often stood by their community and if a farm was declared bankrupt it was not unusual for all the local farmers to turn up to the auction. Any strangers were taken to one side and told to get out or to keep quiet. Goods were then purchased for a few pence each and handed back to the original owner at the end of the auction. This was Australia mate-ship at its very best.
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