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Growing Up In New Zealand 1925-1950

Part 11 - Impact And Memories Of The
1930s Depression - Part1

Dorothy 16/02/01

People who grew up during the 1920s and 1930s all had memories of the years of the worldwide Great Depression which hit New Zealand from the late nineteen twenties and continued till 1935. For thousands of New Zealanders it was a time of enormous stress, hunger and despair.

The impact of this time of hardship affected the attitudes to life of many families for many years. I interviewed some people who did not remember it themselves but remembered vividly the comments of their parents about these difficult years.

The Depression deprived many children of any education beyond the school leaving age. They were compelled to leave school and take any work, at however small a wage, to help the family to survive.

Most men who kept their jobs had cuts in salaries or wages. Many businesses struggled to survive or were forced to close. Many farmers unable to keep up their mortgage payments walked off their farms. Young people finishing their training or an apprenticeship might get only three months work in a year. Many people lost their jobs and men had to work for a pittance on schemes for the unemployed.

Relief work for married men
Married men were usually given relief work near to their homes, but as the depression grew more and more serious, even the relief days were rationed and a stand-down week was introduced after four weeks' work so that the meagre payments decreased still further.

In Christchurch during the Depression the Christchurch Drainage Board raised unemployment loans and relief workers cleared, deepened and widened the Heathcote River which had caused some flooding, and improved the main drains in the city and suburbs.

Some unique good results came from relief work. Skilled stone masons who were unemployed built the Takahe, the castle-like restaurant, originally designed as a walkers' rest house, on the Cashmere Hills. Evidence of the economies needed in those years is found in the huge kauri beams in the ceiling salvaged from an earlier bridge over the Hurunui and the stone quarried from rocky outcrops on the hills above. Pieces of packing cases were used for unemployed men with artistic skills to decorate with coats of arms to form the magnificent friezes.

Wallace remembers the impact of the Depression on his father in Invercargill:
"The Depression hit all businesses in the 30s and my father worked in the engineering industry that was one of the first to be affected. He was one of the unemployed and because he had three children he was allowed three days work at 15/- a day. His job was chipping weeds on the sides of the street and was a far cry from the intricate work he had done making patterns for the moulding shop. Once he was stood down he worked cutting a long hedge on the north road. It was dusty and he often fell through the top of the hedge. His shears broke and he welded them up. The owner then told my father that the benefit had fallen to 12/6 a day. He felt really down-trodden after all this long dusty work of cutting a six feet wide macrocarpa shelter belt."

Relief work for single men
Single unemployed men were sent to camps in isolated areas and usually lived in incredibly primitive conditions. Their huts had no floors and were often in areas where there was heavy rain and the camp became a sea of mud. There were usually no ablution facilities or washing and drying areas for mud encrusted clothes. The relief work was on road construction or drainage works, but there was no heavy machinery, just shovels and wheelbarrows. The men were paid on a piece work system and as most of them were unused to heavy manual work they often earned very little, sometimes as little as five shillings a week.

The road from Te Anau to Milford was one of the projects on which the men in the camps were employed. Work began at Te Anau in 1929 and 200 men built the road as far as Te Anau Downs Station. By 1934 the road reached The Divide. The severe winters in this area must have made working and living in the conditions provided for the relief workers almost intolerable.

The situation for married women
Few married women could help by going out to work as there were no jobs, except perhaps doing housework for the well-off. Most stayed at home and made such economies as sewing articles from sugar and flour bags, patching clothes, making new garments out of old ones, and preserving what was grown in the garden. They tried to keep cheerful and organise inexpensive fun for the children.

No relief for unemployed women
For single women or mothers with no husband to support them there was no dole. Their situation was desperate. Jane remembers that families who could afford to pay for it often had a woman to come and give household help. When her mother was unwell they had to have help.

"Many women were glad to earn the extra money. The woman who helped my mother was in a very sad situation, unfortunately not uncommon at the time. She was living with two children in real proverty in a damp basement flat in Tinakori Road, Wellington. She had no husband to provide for them. She began her day at 4 am cleaning offices in the Government Buildings, ate her breakfast and caught the tram to the foot of the zig-zag and struggled up to save a penny on her tramfare. She arrived full of coughs. Her son would walk regularly along the railway line to pick up coal."

A time of humiliating dependence
Church and community organisations ran soup kitchens and tried to help the needy in other ways.

Some people looking back on life in the city remember men in shabby clothes coming to the door asking their parents if there was any work they could do to earn some money, some food or a meal.

Roydon recalls, "My parents ran a boarding house in the inner city in Wellington and we took mostly elderly people in four upstairs bedrooms. "During the depression I remember visits from unemployed men tidily dressed in shabby suits and ties asking for food. My mother would sit them on the top step and give them a good feed. They would come again, perhaps in a month's time."

Pat H lived in the Christchurch suburb of Riccarton. She remembers going to each house in the neighbourhood and collecting a tin of food under the Pound Scheme. Each family was expected to contribute a pound of some food to be distributed to the poor.

Despair leads to violence
Unemployment increased until by the end of 1932 the number of men out of work has been estimated at 100,000. There were no records kept of unemployed women because they were not allowed to register for relief. Many families experienced real hunger which either made them apathetic through malnutrition or drove them to despair which ultimately expressed itself in violence. In Christchurch there was a Labour City Council which developed a policy of assistance to relief workers. This was the only one of the four main cities where there was no rioting.

Frequent demonstrations, street marches and outdoor meetings and some violent outbursts in Dunedin led to prominent citizens and grocers supplying 500 food parcels after one incident and the mayor of Dunedin sent a telegram to the Prime Minister urging the Government to end the stand down week without delay.

In Auckland in April 1932 there were two nights of rioting when unemployed men fought police, mounted police, special constables and sailors armed with batons. Many were injured and over eighty were arrested.

On April 13 there was a daytime march led by Jim Edwards, the Auckland leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement. Edwards managed to control the crowd so that a minor clash with the police did not develop into a major confrontation.

At an evening demonstration on the following day Edwards again tried to control the crowd, but with less success. Students and professional men had been enrolled as special constables and were resented by the protestors as they were reputed to have taunted them. When trouble began Edwards was clubbed with police batons and injured. After that the crowd went on a rampage of window breaking and looting. After two months in hiding Edwards was tried and sentenced to two years in prison for being involved in a riot.

At the beginning of May changes were made to the scheme for relief work - changes which left the unemployed even worse off. After meetings in Wellington to discuss the changes to the scheme delegates were sent to meet the Unemployment Board and ask for a return to the old scheme. This request was turned down and on May 10 a large meeting called for a strike of all relief workers. A crowd of some 5000 marched to Parliament and were kept waiting till after dark for a response from Gordon Coates, the Minister of Public Works. The response was that he would make an announcement the next day. That night some of the protestors expressed their frustration by smashing shop windows, but there was little looting.

When relief workers and their families gathered on May 11 for a report from their strike delegates the police intervened during the second speech. Witnesses said that police clubbed people in the crowd and many were injured. The police were exonerated from blame for this incident although there were many affidavits from witnesses of their brutality. The strike lasted until May 21 and achieved nothing. Gordon Coates never gave them the promised reply to their demands.

Watch for Life Not Easy For Most Families, Even Where The Bread Winner Had A Job - Part 2 of "Impact and memories of the 1930s Depression in New Zealand"

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