This clip shows Eileen Pittman and Tibby Whalan describing life during the Great Depression (1929–39) in Australia. Eileen Pittman talks about building a makeshift shelter at Happy Valley, an unemployment camp in Sydney, and having to make do with handouts and visits to soup kitchens. She explains that life was even harder for Indigenous Australians in this period. Tibby Whalan sings a well-known ditty from the era, 'Hallelujah, I’m a bum’. The clip also includes black-and-white footage and photographs that show Happy Valley, a woman trying on donated clothing, soup kitchens and Indigenous women and children during the Great Depression.
Educational value points
- Australia’s dependence on the export of primary products such as grain and wool, and its reliance on overseas loans, meant it was among the countries worst affected by the Great Depression. Unemployment reached a peak in 1932 when 29 per cent of Australians were officially out of work. The working class was the hardest hit, and many people became homeless and destitute.
- During the Great Depression shanty towns or unemployment camps, such as the one depicted in the clip, sprang up on public land on the outskirts of towns and cities. People who could not afford housing lived in makeshift shelters. In Sydney, which had the highest number of unemployed, the camps were mainly south of the harbour on vacant crown lands at Brighton-le-Sands, Rockdale, Long Bay and La Perouse.
- Happy Valley was the largest and best known unemployment camp, situated in the sandhills of La Perouse in Sydney’s south. At its height, Happy Valley, which operated from 1930 to 1939, included 130 encampments and 330 people. It was established on the banks of a gully that provided shelter from the gusty winds of Botany Bay.
- The shacks and tents, built by the unemployed at Happy Valley, were constructed from scavenged scraps of corrugated iron, hessian, wood and even cardboard. Walls were often made of cloth flourbags that were cut open and resewn into squares to fit the timber frames. The 'bag’ walls were painted with a mixture of lime and fat boiled up in salt water to make them weatherproof. The roofs consisted of corrugated-iron sheets and the sand floors were smoothed out and covered with more flourbags.
- The clip refers to the 'trading post’ where donations for the camp were collected and distributed. Happy Valley was one of the most well-organised and close-knit unemployment camps, with residents forming a committee to assist one another in constructing shelters and distributing donated food and clothing equitably. The local fishers and Chinese market gardeners regularly donated leftover produce, while the Dairy Farmers Co-operative gave 16 gallons (about 72 L) of milk a day to the camp.
- As mentioned in the clip, soup kitchens were of great importance in the Great Depression. Although there were state government relief schemes to assist families, the need was so great that numerous charitable groups, such as the Red Cross and the St Vincent de Paul Society, stepped in to provide the destitute with some limited monetary assistance and basic food rations. The groups ran soup kitchens that supplied the unemployed with a cup of tea and a biscuit or soup and bread, usually in exchange for joining a prayer meeting.
- The clip reveals that Indigenous Australian women experienced extreme hardship in the Great Depression. Indigenous Australian women were ineligible for the New South Wales Government’s child endowment, which was paid to mothers with children under the age of 14 years, or for the Australian Government’s maternity allowance, since they were not recognised as Australian citizens until 1967.
- The photographs of Indigenous Australians shown here may have been taken at the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse near Happy Valley. The shared experience of privation led to interaction between the camps, and some Indigenous Australian families moved to Happy Valley where they had greater freedom.
- Songs about the hardships of the Great Depression, such as 'We’re on the Susso now’ (government employment relief), 'On the steps of the dole-office door’ and 'Soup’ (about the soup kitchens), were often satirical and acted as morale boosters. The song in the clip makes reference to the widespread misconception at the time that the unemployed were 'bludgers’, or people who consistently took from others without payment. It also refers to men moving from town to town looking for work, relying on handouts from householders.
- Bread and Dripping is an example of the type of documentary produced by Australian women filmmakers between 1970 and the early 1980s. Like Bread and Dripping, many of the feminist documentaries made in that period focused on women’s personal experiences, favouring autobiographical discourse, oral histories and the absence of an 'authoritative’ or controlling voice-over.
This clip starts approximately 9 minutes into the documentary.
Several children run up to a one room tin house. There is a landscape shot of shack houses. Entry to the shanty town has a do not enter sign overhead. Children walk up a road wearing rags. A woman tries on an ill fitting winter coat.
Eileen Pittman Well, they came from everywhere and set up homes in Happy Valley. Some people wheeled things out there in wheelbarrows, some had horses and carts to get their things here. And they’d gather up the old tin and make shacks. Bag sides and…whatever they could get. They’d build a home. We had to move out with all the other families and pack up a hut. Two rooms. And we had a trading post where people left clothes and very little food. Oh, you’d see poor little kids going to school, no shoes on, raggedy clothes, women with any kind of shoes on. Clothes that you’d never think of wearing, you had to wear then, because it was all handouts. Nothing new.
Close up shot of Tibby Whalan while she sings. There is footage of people waiting in queues for food and clothing. Rows of children eating in a hall.
Tibby Whalan The song of the Depression days, I know it was an American one, but everybody in Australia knew it. It started (singing) “Rejoice and be glad for the springtime has come, I’ll sell up my houses and go on the bum. Oh, I don’t like work and work don’t like me and that is the reason I’m so hung-ry. Hallelujah, I’m a bum. Hallelujah, bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again. I went to a house and I knocked on the door, and the lady said ‘Bum bum, you’ve been here before’. Hallelujah, I’m a bum. Hallelujah, bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again. I went to a house and I asked for some bread and the lady said ‘Bum bum, the baker is dead’. Hallelujah, I’m a bum. Hallelujah, bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again.”
Eileen Pittman is interviewed on a lounge. Images of Aboriginal women and children together.
Eileen Pittman We had to go up the soup kitchen in Ascot. A can of soup and a ticket to get a loaf of bread. Aboriginal people were hit hard when the Depression was on. They weren’t allowed to get the dole, they had to take rations, and they were terrible rations. Plain flour, sometimes, baking powder, tin of black tea, get a little cake of lard, sugar. Never any milk. And Aboriginal women weren’t allowed to receive the child endowment, nor a baby’s bonus. See, they had nothing.