Early Canberra


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Early Canberra-Great Depression by Ann Gugler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://earlycanberra.webs.com/.


The Great Depression began in the Federal Capital Territory around June 1927 when the building work was slowed to an almost standstill after the opening of Parliament 9 May 1927.  Many fell behind in their rent and the travelling men, some with families, were not allowed to work in the Territory nor were men who were not on the electoral roll (excluding men under the age of 21 who could not go on the roll).  To get work in the Territory the men had to live in the Territory.  Two camps were established for the travellers - Parkes Barracks (former No 4 Sewer Camp) on the southern banks of the Molonglo River opposite Parliament House - for single men; and Mt Ainslie's Tradesmen's Camp for married men.  The men could draw basic rations.

The Unemployment Relief Committee was formed by the Locals and many public servants took a pay cut as well as putting part of their wages into this fund.  The Government added one pound for each pound raised and this enabled married men to be employed one week in three or four and single around a week in every five or six weeks.

The following articles are from those times:

Articles - Content

On the bread-line 1928:

Canberra Unemployed 1933:

Arrears in Rent Sept 1934:

Future of Brickyards 1935:

Plans to pull down Molonglo:

1936 Rent reductions Causeway, Westlake


Married men come first

Help unemployment - dance

Local Undemployment Policy

Full time work advocated

unemployment demonstration

Employment policy outlines

1931 Rations

Christmas Work - December 1933

Unemployment Relief Committee 1930-1933

On the bread-line 1928

The Canberra Times 13 July 1928




DEPUTATION TO GO TO FCC [Federal Capital Commission]

Unemployment is becoming serious in Canberra and at Russell Hill families are without bread, through the earning members being unable to get work.

Relief is need to provide food for 32 families in which there are 76 children, and a deputation representing the married residents will approach the Federal Capital Commission to-day to ask for preference over single men engaged by the Commission.

Additional dismissals are expected this week-end in various channels of employment in Canberra, which will increase the seriousness of the position.

Unemployment has been increasing in Canberra for sometime, and with the entry into the new financial year, matters have gone from bad the worse. It is stated that owing to over-expenditure in some departments of the Commission during the last half year, the full effect of the vote for the current year will not come into evidence.

In all suburbs, but chiefly in the workmen’s suburbs, the roll of unemployment is on the increase and further cuts in employment are feared. The reduction of employment applies to private enterprise, as well as to public undertakings.

The seriousness of the unemployment has been in evidence at Russell Hill for some weeks and frequently benefit movements have been conducted  by the residents in order to assist families that are wanting the bare necessities of life.

The matter was discussed at the joint meeting of the Russell Hill Social Service Association and the Children’s Welfare Association on Wednesday night at which the President, Mr Dobson, occupied the chair.


It was decided that in order t o assist to relieve the distress at Russell Hill benefit social dances be held in the Russell Hill hall every Saturday night.  The whole of the proceeds will be devoted to the relief of distress and the association is making an appeal to the people of Canberra to assist.

The ‘Canberra Times’ will receive any contributions which Canberra residents are prepared to make towards this cause, and will hand them over to the Russell Hill Social Service Association for distress purposes.


The growing unemployment was discussed by the meeting.  Attention was drawn to the facility offered by ‘The Canberra Times,’ to enable unemployed persons to seek employment.

It was considered at this meeting that the married men with families should come first and that in order to enable first preference to be given to them a deputation be sent to the Federal  Capital Commission to enlist its aid in securing preference for the married men at Russell Hill with families securing employment.

A list of 32 skilled workmen with families was compiled at the meeting and showed that in the 32 families were 76 children, making 140 in 32 homes which are without money.

Some cases of hardship were cited at the meeting. One case was of a man with six children who were without food.  It is alleged that 9/4 was due to him by the Federal Capital Commission, but on applying for the sum to buy food, it was deducted from his ground rent owing for his Russell Hill allotment, and received nothing but a receipt.

A deputation of three representatives from Russell Hill will endeavour to interview the Chief Commissioner to-day with a request for preference in employment and to ask that the ...(unreadable) charged for their allotments be remitted in order to relieve the distress.


Canberra Unemployed 1933

CANBERRA TIMES 4 November 1933




Work for the unemployed in Canberra will we found for them at an early date and will be continuous over the Christmas period.


With the expiration of the Christmas relief work, a number of men will be given employment in January on preparatory work in connection with the erection of the National War Memorial.


It is also expected that work will be commenced in the construction of the National Library early in the New Year. [This library was in Kings Avenue not far from the Patents Office – not to be confused with the present National Library.]


Mr Blakeley (Fed Lab) has made several requests to the Minister for the Interior (Mr Perkins) for the provision of work for the unemployed of Canberra, and yesterday he again asked the Minister in the House of Representatives what had been done in connection with affording relief to the Canberra unemployed from now or until after the Christmas period.


Mr Perkins stated that special relief money had been made available for the absorption of the local unemployed men over t he Christmas period.  As to when the work would commence he could not say, but stated that the work would be continuous over Christmas as the amount on the estimate should be sufficient for that purpose.  In regards to how long the work would last, Mr Perkins replied  that the men would be kept in work as long as possible.



Mr Perkins stated that the work on the National War Memorial would commence in January.  The preparatory work for the construction of the building would absorb a number of  unskilled men as there would be a considerable amount of excavating, levelling, terracing, the making of plantations for trees and shrubs, the laying on of water, electric light and sewerage.



The National Library will also be commenced early in the New Year.


The sub-committee of the Cabinet which was deputed to select the site has decided on the one near Parliament House  {Provisional}.  This site is one of several, but there is some little doubt as to whether it will be available under the Burley Griffin plan.  The plans for the building are well forward and before the end of the present financial year the building, it is expected will be well on the way.

[The grand entrance to the building the facade of which was in a grey stone and two storey in height was never completed.  I used the building on many afternoons after school in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the great joy was being allowed to go into the stacks and select the book/s I wanted to read.]


Arrears in Rent Sept 1934

The Canberra Times 11 September 1934





In appealing for more generous treatment to the unemployed workers and those on part time in Canberra, Col Goodwin moved a series of motions at the meeting of the Advisory Council yesterday.

Col Goodwin said that there had been many cases of extreme hardship in Canberra during the past four year. Those on relief works were little better off than if they were still on the dole.  The few weeks work barely sufficed to provide the necessities of life and if it had not been for gifts of clothes by the Defence Department and relief organisations, many workers and their families would have been without adequate clothing.

Col Goodwin moved that in view of the appalling conditions intermittently employed in regards to clothes, no deductions be made for arrears of rent for three months.

Mr Rain said that deductions were not made for arrears only when the man was working.

Col Goodwin retorted that a man after five or six weeks work could not be expected to make up for long periods of idleness.  He considered that a man was not much better off after three months work. The whole question, he said, should be fully considered.

Mr Rain said that the arrears for Molonglo, Causeway and Westridge Settlements amounted to 10,000 pounds.

Col Goodwin: Ninety-five percent of the manual workers in the territory are on relief. Very few are in permanent work.

Mr Daley: I suggest that the matter be postponed until next meeting. Some of these statements are not true.

Col Goodwin objected to his remarks being described as wild statements

Mr Daley said that it was not unreasonable to suggest that a man earning 16 pounds a month was not better off.

The motion was carried.

A further motion that the  question of remitting all arrears of rent incurred in respect of workmen’s houses  at Molonglo, Causeway and Westlake during the period the workmen were unemployed be given early consideration, was carried after a short discussion.

Col Goodwin said that the houses in the areas mentioned were built as temporary structures for the housing of Government employees during the construction of the city. The depression caused people to remain in Canberra as there was no place where work could be obtained in other parts.  Some of the residents owed 50 pounds to 60 pounds in rent and would be unable to pay.  The matter of meeting the situation could not be postponed indefinitely,

Mr Rain said that the Department had given consideration to individual cases. A total of 8,900 pounds was owing at the present time. He said that 20 to 25 percent of the residents owned motor cars and wireless sets.

Col Goodwin: And most of them are only just motor cars.

Two further motions were carried – one in favour of early action being taken to provide more work for single and married men, and the other that the allowance for relief workers be increased in the territory.


Future of Brickyards 1935

The Canberra Times 24 September 1935.


Addressing a meeting at Westridge Mr TM Shakespeare referred to many matters that he had been able to attend to for that centre.  Amongst these were the erection of chimneys in the wooded cottages and a permanent recreation area and tennis court.  He said that he felt that the maintenance of the brick kilns in full operation was the first thing in the minds of his hearers.  This could be done by the Government continuing its housing scheme and of erecting the workmen’s cottages and residences intended to accommodate residents of Duntroon in brick instead of wood.  The Government would not allow any private individual in any of the central city suburbs to build in wood, and should not itself build in other than permanent construction.

Mr Shakespeare dealt with the many developments schemes that awaited attention in the Territory and which would give full time employment over many years.

He also referred to the necessity for the Government wiping out all arrears of rent to those it had kept out of employment over the past four or five years.  He pointed out that t he money expended by the Government in erecting workmen’s houses at Westlake, Molonglo, Causeway and Acton, had long since been paid back with interest; and this fact should be borne in mind both in regard to arrears of rent and future reduced rentals.  No better example of how the Government profiteered in rent could be given than at the Capitol Hill Camp.  There were a few cubicles which had been on sale for 5 pounds each, had been assembled.  They were just shacks, without electric light, in which human beings could shelter.  They charged 3/- per week  for these and when the men were at work they deducted 6/-/  yet some of the inhabitants of these cubicles were 15 pounds behind for rent.  Could profiteering go further?

He also spoke of his desire to have  an educational committee established and on which private school would be represented as well as the appointment of a first class educationalist, to usher in full technical education, so that in future our children would face the world equipped for a definite calling.


Plans to pull down Molonglo

Above: Mologlo Tenements circa 1925

The Canberra Times 1 November 1935



Minister’s Statement

‘It was never intended that the houses at Molonglo should remain as permanent homes for residents,’ said the Minister for the Interior (Mr Paterson) in a statement to the House of Representatives yesterday.

Mr Paterson said that the settlement was originally established as a Concentration Camp during the war, and the existing buildings were subsequently remodelled to provide temporary accommodation for workmen.  About 80 per cent of the tenants were in arrears in rent varying in amounts up to 155 pounds, the total arrears approximating 2,800 pounds. The approximate cost to the Commonwealth of the dwellings was 40,000 pounds. There were at present 89 tenancies (50 three rooms and 39 five rooms) and the rentals charges were 5/6 and 9/- per week respectively including sewerage and water rates. Electricity was connected and individual tenants are expected to pay for current consumed.  Educational facilities were also provided. All services were maintained at the expense of the Government and considerable expenditure had been incurred in other necessary items of maintenance including repairs to doors, windows, roofs etc. The total rental payable in respect of the dwellings was about 1,628 pounds per annum but no separate record was kept of the total rentals collected from tenants at Molonglo as distinct from those in other localities.

In 1931 when an opportunity arose for the demolition of some of the buildings this work had been commenced, the then Minister for Home Affairs had directed that the work be not proceeded with in order t o allow temporary shelter being made available for non-permanent residents in necessitous circumstances.

‘Adverse comment has been made in the press concerning ‘slum conditions’, continued Mr Paterson. ‘But these references have been, and in fact, still are resented by a number of the residents.

‘From time to time, applications have been received from tenants at Molonglo desirous of transferring to the Causeway and elsewhere but a number of these have subsequently intimated that they do not desire to move.  This is no doubt actuated by reason of the fact that their present rents are reasonable, and they have made themselves comfortable in their homes, due mainly to the assistance afforded by the Department in way of maintenance.

‘Early in 1935, several tenants at Molonglo who had been offered superior accommodation at the Causeway refused to leave.


Mr Paterson announced that some of the new houses to be built to meet the situation would be located at Kingston and others at Ainslie.  The Kingston house would be for occupations by tenants the nature of whose employment warranted their allocation of houses in that locality.

It is proposed,’ said Mr Paterson, ‘ to give some of the Molonglo tenants who are regularly employed and whose rental position is satisfactory the opportunity of transferring to the new houses, while those who are in arrears will be housed elsewhere as the opportunity offers.  The Government intends demolishing the buildings at Molonglo as they become vacant, and it is hoped that the demolition will have been completed within about 18 months.

[The cottages remained until the 1940s and 1950s.]


1936 Rent Reductions Causeway, Westlake

Above Google map of Causeway - The full area of the original cottages sites can be seen - in the mid 1970s the cottages were pulled down and only those away from the flood prone area were replaced.  The Hall is still in use but the tennis courts that were nearby have gone.  The cubicle cottages were on the right.  The other cottages which were the same style as at Westlake and Acton - designed by HM Rolland - were in the other sections (100).  Another cottage - 121 Causeway was in the area below the red dot under Causeway on the opposite side of the road to the main blocks.  The Causeway Cottages were erected in 1925-26 and the hall went up in one day in late 1925.  The official opening of the then largest hall in the territory was early 1926. 

The Canberra Times 4 February 1936


None for Causeway or Westlake


A motion seeking s a substantial reduction in the rental of wooden houses at Westlake and Causeway was defeated by four votes to two at the meeting of the Advisory Council yesterday.

It was moved by Mr Shakespeare. ‘That this Council draws the attention of the Minister for the Interior in the fact that all the tenements erected at Westlake and most of those at Causeway have reached the demolition period as originally intended for such temporary construction and suggests that since the rent collected for  such occupation over the last twelve years has paid the capital cost, interest and ground charges, the time has arrived when the present rental value of 11/3 per week should be reduced to 7/6.’

Dr LW Nott supported the motion but it was defeated by four votes to two, Lt-Col Goodwin and Messrs Percival, Daley and Gourgaud voting against it.