The 1930s ‘Unemployment Relief Fund’ Work

The Great Depression of the 1930s had a massive social impact and resulted in a Queensland unemployment rate of 30%. The state government introduced an unemployment relief system, arguing that the unemployed should be paid for work done as just giving them dole money would be ‘morally degrading’. An ‘intermittent relief work’ scheme was introduced in which men were paid for working on public works projects. Most of this work was done for the Brisbane City Council and included road works, laying drains, flood prevention, school ground improvements, eradication of mosquitoes, and laying cemetery footpaths. Single men were given 14 shillings in return for one day of work per week. By July 1937 there were almost 5,000 such men living in Brisbane, out of a statewide total of 10,000 unemployed.

The Brisbane City Council, which had taken control of the cemetery in 1928, employed these men to carry out part of an extensive programme of works in the cemetery during the 1930s and 1940s. This included upgrading internal roads, laying concrete paths, and constructing toilet blocks.

While unemployed men with families received a larger wage and could be housed in ‘camps’ in places like Redcliffe and Southport, accommodation for single men was difficult to find and large makeshift camps sprang up in public spaces around the city. There were shanty camps at various places round Brisbane, including one at Dutton Park that housed hundreds of men and was described in 1937 as having a ‘colourful profusion’ of the ‘most picturesque and best constructed tin and bag houses’.

Unemployed camp, Dutton Park, Brisbane, 1932. (State Library of Queensland)

The numbers of relief workers fell as the economy improved, and the work scheme was finally abolished in 1939.