Life in the Unemployment Relief Scheme settlement in Meadows: a social perspective

The Meadows poultry settlement was established in May 1934, as I described in a previous post.  Twenty-four families with a total of 130 children moved in.  At this time, the population of Meadows was about 290, so the settlement suddenly increased the population by over 60%.  What was it like for the settlers from a social perspective? And how did families come to participate in the scheme?

Who were the settlers?

Children from the poultry settlement in Meadows

The Employment Promotion Council chose men they thought were likely to make a success of their allotments, and those who had large families so that “a lot of children are removed from the city to be reared in the country.”

The council received 1600 applications, even though the scheme was never formally advertised.

There were several stages in the selection process:

  1. Questionnaire
  2. Interview.  Three times as many men were interviewed as there were places. The aim of the interview was to assess the capability and experience of the applicant.
  3. References.  Referees had to be prominent individuals who could comment the applicant’s character and on “what his behaviour has been during the past couple of years.”
  4. House inspection.  A woman inspector was sent to the applicants’ homes to give her opinion of “the cleanliness, tidiness, and suitability of the wife of the applicant.”

Although the Council stated that the settlers were supposed to have agricultural experience, those who were selected for the Meadows settlement did not. They had previously worked as wheelwrights, monumental masons, blacksmiths and painters for example, but none had been farmers.  Perhaps the settlers in the earlier colonies established at Echunga, Bridgewater and Yundi had more relevant experience, and those selected later in the scheme for Meadows.  If so, this was particularly unfortunate given the other circumstances that affected the Meadows settlers disproportionately (which are discussed in this post).

The settlers had all previously lived in inner city areas of Adelaide.  At least one family had migrated to Australia from England after World War I.  The average age of the original settlers was 46.  When some of the original families left, they were replaced by new families.

How long did the families stay?

If we assume that the families were indeed happy, well-fed and successful in farming, as suggested by contemporary newspaper reports, then one would expect them to stay in the settlement for many years.  By contrast, the majority stayed less than five years, as the graph below shows.

Graph showing the number of years that families stayed in the Unemployment Relief Scheme settlement in Meadows. As each family left, they were replaced by a new one. Source of data: Unemployment Relief Council Records; Sands and McDougalls’ directories.

When I interviewed former settler, Lillian Gage, she recalled:

Oh! Well, Surridges, they were the people I remember most: they only stayed months. They had three daughters but they sent two of their daughters back to town immediately and just the one, Dorothy, stayed. But they stayed no time at all, and I remember him saying nobody had to live in that condition, you know, and like that; and he left and I remember my father saying, ‘You’ll never be out of debt because you owe the government all this money for bringing us here and putting us here and you owe for the fowl sheds and the house and the everything’. And he said, well, he didn’t care, he was going anyway. So he left and then after he left different families started leaving almost within the next year or so.”

Of the 24 families who established the settlement in 1934, at least 18 vacated their properties and the leases were cancelled.  Another family left because the husband and father died.  New families came to replace them, and at least six of these families also vacated their properties.  The records are unclear for some families, but it seems that out of a total of 41 families who lived at the settlement between 1934 and 1948, only six families stayed, representing just under 15%.

Although the country may have been perceived to offer a more comfortable living during the Depression, these families chose to return to the city.  By the time World War II started, the exodus was almost complete, and many of the remaining settlers left to take up the new job opportunities that the war provided, and their sons left to fight.  Only 6 of the 44 families stayed in Meadows for 20 years or more.  None of them continued long-term in poultry farming.  The people I interviewed were from families who stayed in Meadows for many years.  They found life exceptionally difficult; presumably those settlers who left after a year found life intolerable.

As a consequence of the high turnover of families, it was difficult for the children to maintain friendships.  Harry Portlock recalled that he’d make friends, and then the families would leave.

Experience of school

When the Unemployment Relief Scheme was established in Meadows, the influx of large families caused the school population to double.

The number of children starting at Meadows School from 1920 to 1950 who had moved from a previous school. The peak in 1934 corresponded to the influx of children whose families were part of the Unemployment Relief Scheme settlement. Source of data: Meadows School register.

There does not seem to have been sufficient planning.  The buildings were too small to cope with the population explosion, and another building was added only two years later.  There not enough teachers.  One person recalled that planks of wood were placed across the gaps between desks to extend them. Another remembers children having to sit on the floor. Whether or not it’s related, it’s interesting to note that when the settlement started, the first two headmasters stayed at the school only 6 months and 3 1/2 months.

Children who had previously enjoyed going to school, dreaded going to school in Meadows:

But coming from Seaton Park we didn’t ever have any money but nor did anybody else, but that didn’t worry you; you were just kids that went to school and you were just treated everybody was the same.  But you came to Meadows and you were outcasts altogether, which – I didn’t ever think that was very fair or right or anything, but there wasn’t anything you could do about it.”

I was just a settlement kid and that’s all there was.  You accepted your place in society, you were a settlement kid and that’s what you were, a settlement kid.  And it was just something that you accepted.  You knew that you were of a lower rank, of a lower ilk, and that’s what you accepted, and we all did, we all did.”

The first two years or so there were very bad, you know, and no matter where you went you were only known as ‘settlement kids’.  Everything that happened it was ‘those settlement kids that done it’ and everything in the school was not for settlement kids, you know.  It was pretty rough.  Pretty tough.”

Becoming part of the town

It took many years for the settlers to feel a part of the town – and some never really felt part of the town.  For a few, particularly boys who played football, being in a sporting team helped.  For others though, sport just exacerbated the problem.  They couldn’t afford the appropriate uniform and shoes, and were excluded from playing.

The former settlers had extraordinarily intense feelings about their time in the settlement.  One person I was going to interview unfortunately cancelled the recorded interview because the memories were too traumatic for her.

These are just a summary of their feelings:

We went with high hopes… but they didn’t last long.”

If ever anyone was put down, it was us.”

We were more or less lepers.”

We were always settlement people, never Meadows people.”

We were never allowed to forget it.”

The benefit of hindsight

Could the scheme have been more successful? From a social perspective, one wonders if the students would have been better accepted if firstly, advance planning had ensured the school had adequate facilities for the all students, and secondly, if the settlement had been smaller and so the influx of students would have been proportionately less.  Such a dramatic increase in the school population at Meadows may have felt threatening and unsettling to the existing students, and stressful for teachers coping with burgeoning class sizes and inadequate space.  The other poultry settlements established by the Employment Promotion Council were much smaller than the one at Meadows, and so fewer children had to integrate into the schools.  Presumably existing students at those schools felt less threatened.  In Yundi, the poultry settlement was the town; the settlement resulted in the establishment of a new town and a new school.  All the children at the Yundi school were from the settlement and consequently could not be ostracised in the same way that those in Meadows were.

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

Further reading: Journal of Agriculture, June 15, 1934, pp. 1379-1381

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