Tough Times in the 1920s

The dramatic collapse of the world economy known as the Great Depression is often dated from the New York stock market crash of October 29, 1929. This, the greatest depression in world history, saw the destruction of companies, families and individuals. Unemployment was rife. Fathers deserted their families seeking work, sons and daughters engaged in illegal acts to survive, mothers were forced to assume a greater responsibility in supporting their children and attendance at school became more problematic. Times were tough then and for several years after 1929. However the rigors of unemployment were not unknown to many individuals living in the municipalities of Chelsea, Mordialloc and Moorabbin prior to that time.

The Mayor of Mordialloc called a meeting of residents in June 1925 to elect a committee to find ways of alleviating the distress of unemployed men. The meeting, held in the Mordialloc Soldiers’ Hall, elected the mayor, Cr Bradshaw, as chairman of the committee. Other members appointed were Cr Blanche, Messrs Garrett, McLeod, Lowe, Gilmour, Holyoak, and the Rev Collocott. On that night the mayor was able to announce that three donations of money had been received and Mr Wells of Parkdale had collected £2/3/9. In addition the mayor said Parkdale Life Saving Club was organising an evening to raise money and the Mordialloc Thistle Club was arranging a concert for the end of the month. He urged people to attend what he believed was going to be something special because of the number of artists who had offered their services. ‘The greatest combination ever heard in Mordialloc in one evening’ he claimed. [1]

As time progressed more and more men found it impossible to obtain work. In 1927 the Public Works Department wrote to local councils offering up to £300 on a £ for £ basis to enable them to undertake projects where unemployed men could be engaged. The government money was provided on the condition that it was only spent on labour; expenditure on materials was not permitted. Although most councils wanted more than £300, they readily accepted the offer, seizing the opportunity to undertake projects requiring unskilled labour that had previously been languishing. The Mentone Progress Association promoted the idea of cleaning out the drains in the municipality while in the Borough of Carrum the need to top-dress Regent’s Park was seen as an opportunity to employ unskilled labour. The Carrum mayor attempted to temper the enthusiasm of his councillor colleagues by pointing out that the borough would struggle to find its financial contribution. Moreover, he believed it would not be easy to find sufficient unskilled jobs to employ the thirty five unemployed men who had already registered. [2]

Twelve months later, a deputation from the Parkdale Unemployment Committee was received by the Mordialloc council. Members of the deputation were particularly concerned about the high level of unemployment in Parkdale in relation to that existing in Mordialloc and Mentone. They explained their plan to ask residents for subscriptions to finance work. Shop keepers were to be exempt as it was believed they were already doing their bit to help those in need. The committee looked to the council to contribute £ for each £ they raised through the subscription process. A member of the committee, Mr Garrett, in supporting the argument for assistance cited a family of eleven with nobody working. ‘Imagine,’ he said, ‘a man seeing his wife and children without food.’ [3] The council agreed to contribute up to £50 on a £ for £ basis. Two months later the committee had raised £67 and this together with the £50 from the council was used to provide a few days work to the unemployed. Later a further £50 was provided by the council. [4]

The issue of unemployment really touched many members in the community and generated much discussion on why it had happened. Correspondents in the local newspapers wrote of their theories and offered suggestions how the situation could be rectified. Henry Ealey of Mentone thought the chief cause of unemployment was due to the practice of purchasing goods produced overseas, goods that could be produced locally, he suggested. [5] Groping challenged Ealey’s conclusion pointing out that Australia had tariffs that were amongst the highest in the world and under their shelter a wide range of manufacturing industries had been spawned yet unemployment seemed worse when imports were fewer. He advised greater thought was needed to identify cause and cure but went on to claim that the ‘go slow’ policy of some ‘sections of the wage earning classes’ was one of the causes of unemployment. He gave the example of the bricklayer who was only permitted by the unions to lay 400 bricks per day, suggesting they could lay more in that time without harming themselves physically. Dismissing the argument that this would mean fewer men employed, or employed for a shorter time, he suggested it would mean cheaper houses which were more affordable to purchasers, thus more sales resulting, in turn of more money being available to be spent on furniture and other fittings. He acknowledged that there were other causes of unemployment but believed if people thought about what he had written they would have a clearer idea of the problems. [6] Watchful suggested the adoption of the motto ‘One man one job’. He highlighted the practice of some Government employees, and others in equally secure positions, of taking a second job at night thus depriving others of a means of living. This he saw as an anomaly that needed fixing. He appealed to the better nature of man , and particularly those men of independent means, to refrain from doing an ordinary labouring man out of a job. [7]

Towards the end of 1928 Cr Denyer was nominated as the representative of the Mordialloc Council to attend a conference called by the City of Preston to discuss the unemployment situation. The attendees agreed the question of unemployment was a national problem and actions taken up to that time were only palliatives adopted to relieve the current position. Longer term action was needed. Suggestions included the extension of water reticulation and sewerage by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and augmenting its powers to levy land owners whose land would benefit from this extension. Another suggestion was that the Government should undertake works of interest to the community including the roofing of Jolimont yards, irrigation works and the construction of inner highways and arterial roads. Representatives at the meeting were urged to return to their colleagues and stress the importance of supporting Australian manufactures through absolute preferences to Australian manufactured goods. Tariffs were also considered. Higher tariffs were expected to make imported goods more expensive and thus less attractive to the local consumer. Therefore, a comprehensive revision of tariffs on imported goods was seen as an important measure to encourage a heightened demand for local products. To facilitate this process of tariff revision it was suggested that the Federal Government should call a conference of representatives of Australian industries to appoint a committee to provide the necessary advice. [8]

The council delegates to the Preston conference returned to their respective municipalities hoping that they had identified some options that could be used to turn the unemployment situation around. Sadly this was not the case. Almost before the conference was concluded disaster struck. On 29 October 1929 the stock market in New York crashed impacting on national economies around the world. Australia was not exempted. Levels of unemployment and social distress exploded causing governments at the national, state, and local levels to rethink how to provide relief for individuals who could not find employment but were able and willing to work. This became the focus of governments in the 30s to a much greater extent than during the 1920s.


  1. Moorabbin News, 6 June 1925.
  2. Carrum Borough Gazette, 4 June 1927.
  3. Carrum Borough Gazette, 26 May 1928.
  4. Carrum Borough Gazette, 14 July 1928.
  5. Carrum Borough Gazette, 14 July 1928.
  6. Carrum Borough Gazette, 21 July 1928.
  7. Carrum Borough Gazette, 21 July 1928.
  8. City of Chelsea News, 7 December 1929.
2 February 2009
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