Oral history of the Great Depression

One of the most valuable aspects of oral history is being able to ask someone exactly what it was like to experience a certain event or era.  I was fortunate to record interviews with two people who had grown up in an Unemployment Relief Scheme settlement in Meadows during the Great Depression.  Their experiences were in stark contrast to the newspaper reports of the time.

When I first started researching the history of the Unemployment Relief Scheme settlement, I came across a newspaper article describing it in quite remarkable terms. The article is quite long, so I’m just including excerpts here.  It was published in The Advertiser on 11 June 1934, the week that the women and children joined their husbands at the settlement.  The husbands had arrived twelve weeks earlier to start preparing the land.  Here is the description of the new settlement given by Ernestine Hill:

Excerpt from The Advertiser of 11 June 1934, p14, describing the poultry settlement at Meadows.

Within the past week the little town of Meadows, an English village of old stone cottages and meandering lanes of hips and haws in scarlet berry, an hour’s run from Adelaide in the outer hills, has doubled its population and launched into a frenzy of pioneering work and progress associations unprecedented in its 90 years of history…

Half a mile from the village, a colony of dazzling new tin cottages has sprung up.  Roads have been made, streets named, and bridges built… The explanation of all this activity and enthusiasm is the newly-opened colony of potential poultry farmers and dairy workers established there by the Employment Promotion Council, in connection with unemployed relief.  Twenty-four families, with 130 children between them, who for a long period have been living on sustenance in the crowded city areas, have been lifted bodily, as it were, into the fresh air and free life of the hills.  For a fortnight and more, lorry loads of babies and fowls and furniture have been trundling down into the green valley at the rate of two and three a day.  This week every one of the brand new cottages is occupied by a happy family beginning life anew under the best circumstances.  Well housed and well fed, sponsored through the initial stages of their industry by a fairy godmother of a Government, they have every hope of success and prosperity, of virtually owning a little of Australia instead of eternally paying rent for a room in it…

A first glimpse of this new colony at the outset is most heartening.  The selectors are of a fine type.  The roomy tin bungalows are fitted with many windows, each with a 2,000 gallon tank and a first-class cooking stove.  There is also a community well.  Furnishings, the belongings of the settlers, are in all cases adequate and comfortable.”

Admittedly the settlement was new at the time the newspaper article was written, and one might expect the majority of people to be enthusiastic at that time about its prospects.  However Hill’s writing seems these days to be overly romantic, and describing the Government as a fairy godmother is in keeping with her reputation for colourful and sensational writing.

What was it really like?

One of the remaining cottages from the 1934 poultry settlement in Meadows, photographed in 2008.  It was being used as a garden shed.

Regardless of the newspaper description, what was it actually like to live in this settlement? What were the “roomy tin bungalows” really like?  Were the settlers “well housed”?  I asked the former residents of the colony these and other questions.

Lilian Gage was one of seven children who moved to the Meadows poultry settlement with her parents.  She described the layout of her family home:

And it was just divided up into three rooms.  One room Mum and Dad had; the middle room was everything – you ate, you cooked, we sat there, everything happened in there, and on the nights when you could have a bath if you carted enough water, well, they brought the tin bath in there and everybody had a bath; and the other room, the other side room, was us girls.  There was four of us girls to sleep in there, so we had a double bed, the single bed and just a little corner wardrobe and then just two like fruit cases, one on top of the other, and that was taking up the whole room, you know?”

There was no room in the house for her three brothers, so they had to sleep in a lean-to at the back:

On the back, as far as I can remember, was sort of the lean-to at the back of the house, like a veranda across the back.  They’d filled in one end of that and that’s where the boys slept, that was Harry, Sydney and my eldest brother Ted.  And I remember seeing my mum’s hands, they sort of put the bags in sort of a very light cementy sort of stuff and the lime out of the cement would eat into her fingers like mad; and then, while they were still wet, they’d tack them up for the sides and made a room out there for the three boys were out there.”

A house of many windows…

The newspaper article referred to the houses as having ‘many windows’, so I asked Lillian about these:

One of the three small windows in the cottages at the Meadows poultry settlement. Photo taken in 2008.


And of course if you’d seen one of the houses you’d know there was just three windows, one in the middle and one at each end, which got no air through at all in the summer, and just one back door, so you went straight out the back door and that was that.  Then my mother used to stand out there to do the washing and it was very tough, I think.”

Lillian went on to describe some of the other internal features of the cottage:

There was no bathroom, though, and just the wood stove in the middle room and everything had to happen in there, so it was pretty drastic.  And there was no ceilings in:  I remember that quite well because it was winter, and then when it got a dewy night, of course, the dew would settle on the roof and come through and there was no ceiling to stop it so if you went to get out of bed you had drops down your back and everything.  It was very, very primitive.”

Extremely hot, or bitterly cold

Given that the cottage was tin and not insulated, it could be very uncomfortable, as Harry Portlock recalled:

Summer was extremely hot.  We used to sleep outside as often as we could because the house was so hot; but being a little tin house it would cool down very quickly.  There would be a breeze come down through one of the gullies that cooled the house off a bit; but there was no heating, no cooling and no insulation in the house, of course, and it was dreadfully hot, dreadfully hot, during the summer and dreadfully cold during the winter.

Lillian and Harry had very detailed memories of their experiences, which I’ll continue in a future post.  In the meantime, you can read other stories about Meadows here.

Quotes from oral history interviews with Harry Portlock and Lillian Gage courtesy of the State Library of South Australia (OH 829-5 and 16).

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