A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 11: Social life during the depression

Chapter 11: Social life during the depression

Author: Alistair Knox

The Great Depression came on gradually at first, but then burst into its full ferocity and culminated in the Wall Street crash in October of 1929, when millionaires jumped out of their skyscrapers and the whole hitherto prosperous economy vanished in twenty-four hours. The worldwide calamity generated by it affected Australia later than it did most other countries because it grew progressively as each overseas country became unable to pay for its own imports. A domino effect occurred, bringing with it a virtual cessation of trades and farming production which created the ogre of starvation in the midst of potential plenty. Thousands of tons of primary products were thrown into the sea because the only market they could attract was the hungry mouths that could not pay.

Kids collecting scrap during the depression Kids collecting scrap during the depression

The dust bowl in America, with its Grapes of Wrath consequences, condemned the once-universal belief in capitalism to become the breeding ground for communism and National Socialism. As countries examined their balance sheets they discovered that certain items were only assets on paper, that in real terms they were largely fictional. Capital had become primarily a matter of confidence, which dwindled overnight as credit became discredited and trust turned into distrust.

The prosperous postwar 1920s - which anticipated that there would never again be war because the new society would remove the inequities which cause such conflict - saw its dreams dissolve with scarcely a whisper. At about this time, the Oxford University students voted that they would never again fight for King and Country - under any circumstances. Warships were scrapped and armaments reduced to such an extent that the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism was substituted for the once-proud boast of the Empire on which the sun never set.

The Nationalist/Country party coalition was replaced by Labor Governments in 1929 in both the Victorian and Australian Lower Houses. There were attempts made by employers to reduce wages and spread the effects of the decline, but with little success.

Sir Otto Niemeyer leaving Premier Jack Lang's office, Sydney, 1930 Fairfax Corporation. (1930). Sir Otto Niemeyer leaving Premier Jack Lang's office, Sydney, 1930

The Depression gathered full strength in the latter months , despite all attempts at compromise. Australia sought the advice of a small group of international financiers led by Otto Niemeyer , who visited the country in 1930 and solemnly told us that we were solvent but would have to retrench. The Scullin Government passed a bill to produce 7,000,000 fiduciary money for public works, but its introduction was blocked by the Upper House. Mr Lang became premier of New South Wales and proposed the revolutionary concept of defaulting on all loan-interest payments. This unprecedented challenge to the sanctity of the rich to live without working shook colonial Australia to its patriotic roots.

NSW Premier Jack Lang NSW Premier Jack Lang Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica

The wealthy, ensconced in their divine right to rule, cried 'Treason!' and 'Murder!' The New South Wales governor Sir Philip Game eventually exercised his vice-regal authority and dissolved the State parliament and then dismissed the 'unspeakable' Mr Lang and stifled his pernicious activities for twenty years. The same imperial ruse was employed in 1975 to dismiss the Whitlam Labour Government. However, 1931 saw a compulsory countrywide wage reduction of ten percent and the interest on government bonds reduced from six percent to four percent. These proposals were more acceptable to most Australians - who had a tradition for the rights of the underdog as well as a deeply ingrained respect for the law and order which constrained them within the lower-middle-class bourgeois structures. Respectability had become the habitual part of our lifestyle. The belief in it had not been seriously challenged for half a century - except for a brief period in the 1890s Depression - despite the fact that Australia had played a leading role in the emancipation of women and in the trade-union movement. There had never been an Australian upper class which caused respectability and wealth to become interchangeable terms; the one had always implied the other. If one were wealthy, it was understood that he would also be respectable. If one were respectable, it would be almost unthinkable for him to be poverty-stricken. The Great Depression reversed the best-of-all-possible-worlds concept of the 1920s to the worst-of in the 1930s.

89 Armstrong St A house in Armstrong St from around this time

I was born in Danks Street, Middle Park, where my family continued to live for the next twelve years. In 1924 we had bought our first-ever house in Armstrong Street, close to the beach. It was only a few hundred yards from the building I was born in, but it was a triple-fronted building instead of the rented Danks Street single-fronted house and occupied a thirty-foot frontage almost twice the dimension of its predecessor. An offset front room still allowed for an entry into the house in the middle, with rooms arranged on either side. It turned hard right and gave access to the next two rooms, obviating the objectionable front-to-back view which the straight Victorian and Edwardian house passages generally featured. It was still prior to the time when bathrooms were placed adjacent to bedrooms; the idea of internal lavatories was still a distant vision of the future. The bathroom remained last on the left and the kitchen last on the right. There were six main rooms and a sleepout. The house's most serious limitation in the postwar world was that the side lane which gave access to the rear could not be adjusted to allow for a garage, which was soon to become part of our daily lives. The eventual decision to own a house proved a providential inspiration of my father's. He died about four years later, and in the oncoming Depression it gave my family a permanent significance and stability we greatly appreciated. We were only eight minutes by train from the city and the fare was threepence, which was also the same for the electric tram. This caused our establishment to become a social centre. Everyone was welcomed at any time, and the beach was just across the road. In addition, our household consisted of individuals of diverse ages and interests, and we all had many friends. There was always a sense of activity - day or night. In the summertime it was virtually a twenty-four-hour programme.

My maternal grandfather, who was the 'leader' of the church Meeting, had recently come to live with us. He was over eighty years old and physically and mentally as fit and devout as an Old Testament patriarch. He had surrendered all claims to property ownership and worldly possessions sixty years earlier, when he became my paternal grandfather's great friend and mentor. His wiry body was erect and functional and never gave any hint that his deep-blue eyes 'had been diminished nor his natural force abated'.

Grandpa occupied the first bedroom around the bend in the passage. If I were awake at 6 a.m., I would sometimes be aware of him rising to perform his devotions, which consisted of reading the first of the six Bible chapters he would read daily, followed by a time of prayer that I could I hear faintly from just outside his door. He expressed himself in whispers punctuated with slight 's' sounds through his beard - reminiscent of the rustle of tissue paper. At about 6.45 he would go down to the kitchen and make his simple breakfast, which always included a piece of bread, butter, and sugar for Vivienne - my elder sister's two-year-old child - who slept with her mother in the room next to the bathroom.

Uncle Bob's room, which was next to Grandpa's, always smelt of a wide assortment of liniments, cough mixtures, and weird concoctions he employed to alleviate his many hypochondriacal complaints. For a man who had started life so adventurously as a round-the-world sailor in windjammers, this was indeed strange. Because he always retained a great sense of natural bravery and resourcefulness in times of crisis, the family always wondered how he could convert a slight cough or a sore toe into a serious disease that would confine him to bed - with hot-water bottles, tam-o'-shanter on head, and a scarf around his neck - in a matter of an hour or so. My mother's room was next in order. Despite its great simplicity, it radiated a spirit of life, health, and joy. My mother was the essence of the very best of her late-Victorian-Edwardian tradition. Her oval-shaped face - crowned with masses of magnificent long straight jet-black hair - and her strong, discerning nose accentuated the spontaneous humour of her large brown eyes, which scintillated with wit, fire, love, and serenity in turn. She was moved by those around her but could never be hoodwinked by false attitudes or sanctimony. There was the hint of the seer in her nature, which made it useless to try to deceive her: she literally smelt what you were thinking and could read your thoughts on the spot. She was a friend to our entire community as well as the instigator of innovation for others to encourage them to make the best of themselves. She had a genius for designing and sewing new clothes for the neighbours and their children in a matter of an hour or so. Her needle would glint as it flashed across the cloth she was working on, and her scissors were busier than a Corsair's cutlass as they cut through the prejudices of the past to create the newest style.

The bobbed hairstyle of the 1920s The bobbed hairstyle of the 1920s
But her greatest delight was to cut off the long tresses of nervous neighbours and their daughters and introduce them to the popular new long-bobbed hair cut, and even to the 'worldly' shingle. My mother's only natural deficiency was an inability to sing in tune - probably a wise precaution on the part of the Creator whom she loved and followed, lest she turn into a Jenny Lind or a Sarah Bernhardt. My sister Muriel, whom we always called 'Peggy', was lodged next to my mother. She was a beauty five years younger than I was, the envy of my life because her skin tanned beautifully where mine would turn red, blister, peel, and then turn red again. Last of all came Isobel, who had married three years earlier and then had returned to live at home after a short, unsatisfactory experience with her erstwhile husband, whom she met in the bank where they both worked. He later became a well-known conductor and musician, but I always thought he played his fiddle slightly out of tune and that this discord was also apparent in his conducting, in his composing, and in his nature generally.

I greatly admired Isobel. She was an advanced thinker, a good writer, and an excellent teacher. She supported me and helped to form many of my lifelong opinions. She had attended the University High School, where she became a champion runner and swimmer and also succeeded in failing in all her examinations. When she returned home to live, she decided to get a University degree in English and history so that she could earn a living as a teacher. It took her two whole years to get her matriculation because of her mathematical deficiencies (mathematics was a prerequisite for admission to the University). Her good looks - combined with her ability to think like a man rather than a woman in those indeterminate times - attracted an excellent group around her; they ranged from Betty and Esther Patterson - two artists who lived next door - to a wide variety of university types who were more radical and free-thinking than are many of their present-day counterparts. Australia was a philosophical backwater - especially during the Depression, when the majority of thinking people still regarded Europe as the academic and cultural centre of the world. As every room in the house was chock-a-block, I was confined to the sleepout in the small, overgrown backyard. There were compensations, however, that made it attractive. Our house was the last building before the Marine Parade, so that the first elegant beach properties butted sideways onto our backyard in such a way that I became privy to various intimate activities simply by lying in bed quietly and listening. Attempts had been made to exclude a view of the adjacent two-storeyed houses fronting the beach by raising the fences to ten or more feet and covering them with creepers, though this only succeeded in making the voices of the neighbours more audible in this quiet haven.

Our house - because of its centrality, its heterogeneous collection of inhabitants, and its proximity to the beach - became a modest social hub of Middle Park. In the summer season we would have thirty or forty visitors a week. Most were not formally invited, and they came in a variety of guises such as cousins and friends and even friends of friends. Each room tended to attract its own group. One front room was more or less common ground where anyone might be found at any time, but the sitting room opposite was generally Isobel's or my preserve. Grandpa, opposite, would frequently entertain a devout friend, and Uncle Bob would generally be closeted in his room with visitors expressing concern for his health amid the aura of pharmaceutical smells. My mother, who was now universally called 'Maman', seemed to oscillate between her bedroom and the girls' room and the kitchen. Most doors would be closed to the passage so that as we passed each one we sometimes felt as though we were in a different country with a distinct language.

 Men looking for work, 1930. National Library of Australia Men looking for work, 1930. National Library of Australia

By late 1929/30 the Depression had descended on us with full force. The Wall Street Stock Exchange crash had gone from bad to worse, and millions of people were out of work in every European country; in the United States alone, there were fifteen million unemployed. My salary of 85 per annum became essential to my family's survival. It was remarkable how far our small income went because commodity prices were cut to the bone. A four-pound loaf cost ten pence, a packet of Camel cigarettes eight pence. Our guests would sometimes bring something to help out with the meals, and we were non-drinkers in the house no matter what we did outside. Ranging in the background was generous and cautious Uncle Bob, who underwrote both the electric-light and the water bills when the tension became too extreme. Our visits to the cinema, though they were inexpensive, were important outlets which enabled us to dream of romantic travel and foreign lands; but our main entertainments remained reading, music, talking, and the use of our natural talents. Two or three of us would walk down to the Palais pictures in St Kilda each week where the front stalls were available for one shilling a seat. A complication occurred when the government levied a tax of one penny, which was not hard to negotiate; but the front seats were the first to fill, and the main stalls cost one shilling and six pence and one and one halfpenny tax. This occasionally proved an insurmountable barrier, and we would just walk home disconsolately, acutely aware of the importance of a small amount of money.

Gloria Swanston poster Gloria Swanston poster

The 'talkies' had arrived, and occasional good films such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang , starring Paul Muni, were beginning to give the medium a universal following, which brought with it new topics of conversation and social challenge. I had been brought up with the understanding that we should not vote, presumably because the whole world was in God's hand and He would bring it to pass - do what we may. The political scene had been greatly enlivened by the Depression and by the obvious injustices that lay around on every side, and the feeling against the erstwhile Conservative party had grown. The degrading stories of men collecting minute sustenance allowances and being moved on from place to place did not affect us directly because we had just sufficient to keep us independent, but the gaunt faces of people whose savings had dissolved and who were not far from starvation - this was a complete reverse of the lifestyle of only three years earlier.

I began to ask questions about social/economic justice; these matters had never before disturbed my conscience in the little Christian cul-de-sac I lived in, where equality and fairmindedness were the inherent right of all. Isobel had university friends who were politically aware, and the general conversations were about political systems, so it was inevitable that I would be drawn in. These discussions inculcated in me certain prejudices, one of which would become a lifelong resentment of the upper classes, especially as their members were generally still well-esteemed in the orbit in which I moved. As the decade of the 1930s moved relentlessly towards war, we were generally blind to the precariousness of our situation: there was an abysmal void where the comprehension of politics should have been. The entire Australian society was treated as if they were children. There was very little valid commentary on world affairs. Until the start of the Second World War in 1939, one major method of reporting was for journalists to board overseas mail steamers as they came up Port Phillip Bay and interview any known personality regarding his views on current affairs. The published articles resulting from these interviews were generally titled 'well-informed source', notwithstanding that fact that the purveyor of the information had generally been at sea for the past month and that his opinions might be coloured by any bias - generally a very conservative one. Our country was too remote to be of consequence to anyone other than ourselves. We felt quite immune from the realities existent in other countries; we discussed the remote portents of distant lands as though they were coming from another planet.

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