WE may wonder how we can make ends meet these days.
We're just recovering from a pandemic and harsh lockdown restrictions with little real wage growth.
It couldn't get any worse, could it?
But, believe it or not, times were much tougher decades ago when the Australian economy bottomed out in the grim years of the so-call Great Depression, especially after the New York stock market crash of 1929.
Just ask parents or grandparents and listen to their tales of horror and privation: of scarce jobs, destitute men roaming the countryside in search of work and long queues at charity soup kitchens.
Today, we've thankfully learned the lessons of that epoch to prevent a total global catastrophe again. We've prevented the major social disaster of the years 1929-1932.
A timely reminder of that era has now appeared, with author Joan Beaumont's insightful new book Australia's Great Depression, covering the years 1919 to 1937.
As author Beaumont aptly puts it: "Some generations were born unlucky".
The book's sub-title, How a nation shattered by the Great War survived the worst economic crisis it has ever faced, says it all.
The worst? Well, read for yourself. It was a time of incredible hardship and tragedy.
Think, for example, when in recent times have we seen Hunter homeless so desperate that shanty towns sprang up at prominent places such as Horseshoe Beach opposite Nobbys?
Similar settlements were also at Newcastle Abattoir, 'Hollywood' above today's Jesmond roundabout, in abandoned Waratah tramcars and at 'Texas' in Carrington.
In Sydney, some unfortunates lived in ocean cliff caves or slept rough at the Domain. In Newcastle and elsewhere, shacks and furniture were cobbled together from scraps of timber, corn bags, canvas, bricks, kerosene tins and sheet iron.
At Platts Channel, in Mayfield, houses were built on stilts with the high tide lapping under them. The toilet was a hole in the floor; the waste dropped into the Hunter River.
The only "advantage" for residents living in humpies was being spared any immediate threat of eviction.
Sadly, the Depression came far too early in Newcastle. As early as 1921 to 1923, thousands of families in Newcastle came "close to starvation", Beaumont writes.
Thousands of families in Newcastle came close to starvation.
Even our mighty BHP Steelworks was forced to close temporarily for lack of steel orders, facing strong competition from overseas suppliers. Newcastle industries, however, managed to recover slightly in the mid 1920s, although the NSW coal industry became increasingly unprofitable in the 1920s.
Domestically, black coal was being replaced by brown coal and hydroelectricity. International markers also shrank with cheaper coal imported from South Africa, India and China.
To try to alleviate poverty, a Newcastle Anglican priest, Father Gerald Tucker, established the Brotherhood of St Lawrence here in 1930. In 1933 he moved to Melbourne, but the welfare organisation still exists.
In one Newcastle home riot, after 60 police arrived to enforce a family eviction, women and girls arrived to fling excrement at the men in uniform.
Professor Beaumont writes that Australians who survived the horrors of WWI (1914-1918) and the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed were ill-equipped to face the shock of the Great Depression.
Australia faced national insolvency. Governments resorted to austerity and deflation. There were violent street protests and the rise of new paramilitary organisations.
High levels of debt and the collapse of wool and wheat prices left Australia particularly exposed. More than one third of the nation's workforce was jobless in 1932.
Yet details of the crisis, especially from 1929 to 1932, seem to be forgotten today.
Australia's Great Depression is published by Allen & Unwin ($49.99)
Remember our little mystery last month about something sunk about 64 years ago in the middle of Fingal Bay, at Port Stephens?
At first, it seemed a little improbable because there was no obvious public documents, and even most locals knew nothing about it.
Former CMF soldier Peter Edwards, of Soldiers Point, had alerted us earlier to what was actually a submerged military vehicle, a "tank" to give it a general name for its size and shape. He was working at Gan Gan Army Camp at the time.
The "tank", now smothered in sand, is actually an amphibious army LVT (or landing vehicle tracked) used to carry about a dozen soldiers.
Weighing 13 tons and similar in style to a proper tank, or LVT4, it disappeared during a training exercise run by the Citizens Military Forces (CMF) probably in 1958.
Long-time Fingal Bay identity Ken Barry, now 93, later confirmed the sinking episode.
In a follow-up, Weekender was contacted recently by reader Robert Kelly, who described what he remembered as an actual witness to the Fingal Bay accident.
The former CMF lance corporal said he was operating a DUKW ('duck' or army amphibious vehicle) "well astern of the tanks when the LVT went down".
"At the time I was completing the part-time component of my national service and in my day job was also finishing my trade training at Stewarts & Lloyds, Mayfield works," Kelly wrote.
"(From memory) Joe Puncheon was a CMF volunteer sergeant and he also worked there as the works carpenter. I believe from his conversation on the day that he was operating the LVT when it went down," he said.
"The day was sunny and warm. He told me that it was hot in the tank. The operator's hatch was open and he was sitting up on it. Joe was steering the LVT with his feet on the levers.
"At just the wrong moment, two small waves collided, right over the LVT, flooding in and drowning the magneto ignition. It only took two more waves and it sank.
"Our colonel contacted the RAEME workshop at Adamstown to recover the machine. It could not be recovered and as we both know, it is still there," Kelly wrote.
Soon, on reflection, Robert Kelly said after so many years he could clearly recollect the events of that time but now couldn't be sure "whether Joe was the operator or had been simply discussing the event" with him.
Much earlier though, Peter Edwards told Weekender of his similar belief (although unpublished then) that the late Joe Puncheon was driving the LVT when it accidentally sank.
"Kelly's version of events differs from mine in the detail, but I was elsewhere at the time. His story sounds more likely. I wonder how close he was," Edwards said.
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