A History by Design

Kedron Residence 1925

Depression Brisbane


Construction work on the new University of Queensland site at St Lucia, c1939

University of Queensland Archives, S178B73

In 1926 falling wool and mineral prices pushed Queensland into recession. The situation worsened in 1929 with the collapse of world stock markets. As the Australian economy plunged into crisis, the official national rate of unemployment reached 23 per cent in 1930, and rose to 28 per cent a year later. [1]

Due to its smaller manufacturing base, Queensland's rate of joblessness remained around ten per cent lower than the national average, but it was a catastrophe all the same. [2] Once workers on relief projects and ruined farmers were included in the tally, about 30 per cent of the Queensland workforce was out of work. The employed, moreover, had their hours lengthened and their wages cut, and set off to work each morning knowing there was every chance they could finish the day on the dole queue. Times for many were tough. "Food was always short," recalled one woman, "Saturday night we had our weekly treat – half an apple each." [3]

The impact of the Great Depression on Brisbane was multifaceted. In 1933 the city accounted for 31 per cent of the State's population but 55 per cent of all registered relief workers. [4] This vast army of jobless was augmented by workers travelling the 'Sunshine Track' from the southern states to North Queensland in search of work. The itinerant unemployed congregated in camps and hostels across the city, including 'The Gym' in Turbot Street (now the site of The University of Queensland's dentistry school), the Crystal Palace in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, and Victoria Park at Herston. Other camps could be found at Dutton Park, Mayne Junction, the Grammar School reserve, Moorooka, Tarragindi and Kelvin Grove. These sites were administered by the men themselves and became centres of unemployed activism for improved food relief, better living conditions and more relief work. [5]

Periodic attempts to evict the men were met with vigorous resistance, but many of the sites were eventually closed down. The State Labor Government also launched an ambitious plan to re-settle the local unemployed and urban school leavers on small rural holdings, where they were expected to eke out a living growing bananas or tobacco. Most of the settlers eventually abandoned the farms and drifted back to the city.

The 'Gym' in Turbot Street provided accommodation for the unemployed and a base for unemployed agitation during the Depression. It was demolished and replaced in the late 1930s by the University of Queensland dentistry school, shown here, constructed as part of the State Government's program of public works to stimulate economic growth.

Fryer Library, Alcock Collection, UQFL256, Image 0058

Other government programs were more successful. At the 1932 Premiers' Conference, Queensland's new Labor Premier, William Forgan Smith, criticised the orthodox nostrum that cuts to public expenditure were the solution to economic stagnation, and argued instead that "a vigorous public works policy be adopted for the absorption of the unemployed." [6] His government initiated a range of public works projects over the next few years, the most significant of which were the construction of the Story Bridge, the Somerset Dam, the Hornibrook Bridge linking Shorncliffe to Redcliffe, the deep water harbour at Mackay and the University of Queensland's new site at St Lucia. [7]

In keeping with this approach, the Government assisted the Brisbane City Council to maintain a program of public works by providing subsidies and supporting the Council's efforts to raise loan funds. [8] As a result, many of Brisbane's unemployed found relief work in the construction of suburban infrastructure. Between 1934 and 1940, 44 miles (71 kilometres) of bitumen were laid and 86 miles (138 kilometres) of graveled or metalled surfaces were added to the city's road network, mostly through the labour of relief workers. Many suburbs were sewered by crews of the unemployed. From 1934 to 1937, 190.5 miles (306.5 kilometres) of sewers were built across the city and over 7000 houses were connected to the sewer system. [9] Less fortunate workers, meanwhile, kept themselves alive by busking or begging on the streets. The entrances of picture theatres were a particularly popular venue. [10]

The Sewering of Brisbane.
The green area designates work done from 1933 to 1942, when much of the labour was provided by unemployed workers on government relief.

Fryer Library, JS8262.A2.G7 1959

Off the streets, the Depression produced visible changes as well. Due to falling incomes, house styles became simpler and more functional. As Rechner notes, "rather than two or more gables with decorative infill, verandahs with broad columns, balustrades with cut-outs and windows with sunhoods, styles with low-pitched hip roofs and minimal decoration became predominant in the 1930s." [11] But this was not a universal pattern. The State Advances Corporation continued to promote and sell a range of house styles to Queenslanders earning no more than £750 per annum. Even in the Depression year 1933–34, the Corporation found buyers for 15,865 of its homes statewide. [12]

For the minority of Brisbanites not unduly affected by the economic collapse, the combination of depressed prices and slashed wages presented an ideal opportunity to build homes of superior refinement and status. Thus, one legacy of the Depression was an even sharper class differentiation in the city's residential environment. The villas, hilltop and otherwise, continued to appear, and, for a fortunate few, Brisbane remained that "sweet young city laughing in the sun."

Financial constraints had the effect of simplifying Brisbane house styles during the Depression. Whereas multi-gable homes were common in the 1920s, in the mid–1930s many home builders were limited to a single gable, or abandoned gables altogether in favour of the earlier hip roof style. This home at Greenslopes has a single gable over the main bedroom and minimal adornment. Note, though, that in addition to two bedrooms and a sleepout, the plan allows for an office at the rear.

Plans for residence at Greenslopes, 1934
Architects: H.W. Atkinson & A.H. Conrad

Fryer Library, Conrad & Gargett Collection, UQFL228, Job 319    Click to view zoomable image

   Click to view zoomable image

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The Government administered and funded State Advances Corporation offered Queenslanders a range of home and finance packages to meet their budgets. From the SAC's 1935 catalogue, prospective home owners could choose from over thirty house designs, ranging from the modest design Number 35 through to plans for well-appointed gabled bungalows and Spanish mission style villas. All the packages provided a 1000–gallon water tank and electric lighting, but a septic system and drainage was not standard. During the Depression the SAC was an important conduit for new design ideas into Queensland residential architecture.

Fryer Library, NA7470.Q4S93 1935

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Not all Depression-era home builders were forced to scale back. As this 1936 plan shows, grand homes were still rising to dot the high slopes amidst the Depression gloom.
Architects: H.W. Atkinson & A.H. Conrad
Fryer Library, Conrad & Gargett Collection, UQFL228, Job 302