The Great Depression in North Sydney

Published:
01/01/2022

 

In April 2020, the International Monetary Fund declared the worldwide ‘Great Lockdown’ to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Last year did not see much in the way of global recovery. It will be for future historians to fully analyse the social, cultural, and economic effects of the crisis.

We already have the benefit of hindsight when it comes to the Great Depression, which began not with a virus but with the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Like other countries, Australia’s economy took almost a decade to recover. In Sydney, nearly a third of breadwinners were unemployed by 1933. For thousands of people, unemployment meant eviction from their homes, with shanty towns springing up in some areas.

From 1933, North Sydney Council maintained an extensive relief work scheme, giving employment to as many as 1,400 men at one time on public works including roads, footpaths, and park improvements. The largest project was the Sydney Harbour Bridge – the ‘Iron Lung’ – which aroused both civic pride and hope for the future when it opened in 1932. Luna Park and the Olympic Pool followed soon after, opening in 1935 and 1936 respectively, on the site of the Dorman Long workshops used for the bridge construction at Milsons Point.

However, these schemes could only support so many, and only for a finite time. North Sydney Council’s correspondence archive reveals much of the distress suffered by local people during the 1930s. The desperation is palpable:

‘I am a married man with two children and have only worked six weeks in 16 months. I am just about against the wall now with the landlord threatening to out me. Hoping against hope that you will be able to place me somewhere,’ Mr Bennett, June 1930. 

Others took a more enterprising approach. Mr Black, a 60-year-old resident of High Street, North Sydney, applied in August 1931 for permission to play an accordion in the streets of the municipality. The mayor decreed it a matter for the police.

Mrs Bewley, of Crows Nest, requested permission in September 1931 to manufacture jams and pickles for sale by her husband, with produce from his local fruit run. The health inspector found her Christie Street premises suitable and recommended that the application be approved.

Among these hopeful entrepreneurs, there were a few irrepressible optimists:

‘A party of eight intend leaving the city to go to the country for the purpose of prospecting for gold. I am asking if your Council have some discarded shovels to donate which would be much appreciated by us,’ Mr L. Evers, Willoughby, October 1932.

The town clerk duly offered six old shovels to be collected from the Tucker Street depot. We can only hope that this party found some good fortune at such a grim time.

Historical Services, Stanton Library, North Sydney Council

Author:
Ian Hoskins, Contributor, North Shore Living Magazine

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