Surviving the Great Depression

Betty Hocking

My life began in the years of the Great Depression, the last in a family of nine living children. Our Father, an English migrant who had fought in France during World War 1, was struggling to make a living on a small service allotment on the edge of a South Australian country town. Worn out with child-bearing and hard work, my Mother died when I was six months old. I was adopted by a childless couple to whom a son was born a year later, so I went quickly from being youngest to eldest.

Initially our circumstances were good. My adoptive father was employed as manager of a local store. However as the Depression worsened, he lost his job and had difficulty finding another. He was a practical and resourceful man. We rented a house on a ¾ acre block on which he grew vegetables, peaches and apricots, grapes and a variety of flowers. In the semi-arid climate, with the only water being rain collected in two large corrugated iron tanks, it was hard work just to keep the plants alive, let alone flourishing and productive. However, he succeeded.

The garden was watered with either buckets or watering cans. We saved every drop. Until part of the verandah was enclosed to make a bathroom, baths were taken in a large zinc tub by the wood-fire stove in the kitchen. A bucket underneath the only indoor tap collected water for dish-washing and food preparation. Even rinse water from the heavy white chamber pots we had underneath our beds was carefully re-used. I was lectured for pouring water from the chamber pots in the wrong place – on the rhubarb bush! The toilet was in the garden, the pan emptied once a week by an old man in a horse-drawn dray known as the “night cart”. Newspaper and white butcher’s paper were re-cycled in the toilet.

We ate well, in spite of a limited budget. Bread or Arnotts biscuits and milk for breakfast were acceptable – and enjoyed. We loved the weekly visit of the ice man, who struggled in with a large block of ice in a hessian bag. Sometimes it had to be chipped with an ice pick to make it fit in to the top of the ice-chest, and we got the pieces to suck. The block was wrapped in newspaper to make it last longer.

In summer we harvested large quantities of peaches and apricots. These were boiled or made into jam and sealed in jars with melted beeswax. Our father loved the flavour apricots kernels imparted to the jam and we used hammers to smash them. They would be added to the large aluminium pan which would be bubbling on the wood stove. the roof on the two-bedroom house was corrugated iron, so jam making was an annual endurance test.

The weekly wash was an outside affair. “Whites” were boiled in a cast-iron, wood-fired copper, lifted out with a wooden pot-stick into kerosene buckets and carried into the corrugated garage for rinsing in concrete wash troughs. Once in clear water the “whites” were passed through a hand-operated wringer into water coloured with blue-bags.

We had no car, so the garage was used by father as a workshop, where he turned his hand to making and fixing almost anything. He made me a wooden doll’s cradle which I cherished for years. He sanded down and restored cupboards and other furniture which had been purchased second-hand.

Raised on a farm, as well as having seen service in the Light Horse Brigade during World War 1, he was a crack shot with a rifl and we dined often on roast and stewed rabbit or hare and kangaroo tail soup. He collected the skins of foxes, rabbits and kangaroos which he sold to augment our income. His ointments and liniments were popular with friends and acquaintances.

Using his iron boot last he repaired our shoes with rubber soles and put steel tips on heels and toes. Until our shoes wore out we clicked along the concrete verandahs and wooden floors of the sandstone school. Father omanaged to get a part-time job as night watchman at a local flour-mill and, eventually, despairing of ever finding full-time work, he set up his own business as a dry-cleaner.

TV had not yet been invented. Our neighbours had what was then called wireless, but we did not. Sometimes we children would be invited to listen to the Sunday night play on the ABC. Occasionally we would enjoy the luxury of a Charlie Chaplin silent movie in the local Hall, or a charity concert for the blind. One of the performers was himself blind, and he could make his violin talk!

In our early teens we were given bicycles, reconstructed by father from bits and pieces collected over time. We were able to roam the countryside freely, sometimes taking our lunch and riding all day. Nobody worried about our safety.

I learned embroidery from an old German lady. She was a hard taskmaster, but kept me amused with local gossip while we worked. Later, as circumstances improved, a piano was purchased for £25 ($50) and I had music lesson every Saturday.

In the cooler months we played indoors; Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, the Germans versus Us. On hot days we played indoors; snakes and ladders, draughts, cards and Chinese checkers. During the war, when glass marbles or “alleys” were in short supply we used dyed stones from quandong fruit.

I joined a children’s club organised by “The Mirror” magazine, and wrote to pen-pals in Australia and overseas. I learned to knit socks for servicemen and we children worked hard for the Schools Patriotic Fund, collecting newspapers and scrap metal and picking olives from the wild olive trees which grew around the town.

When World War II broke out, afraid for our safety and a Japanese invasion, he built us an underground air-raid shelter, stored emergency rations for us in waterproof packs and taught us to use a rifle. Having done this, he left the business in mother’s hands and went to Adelaide where he joined an infantry Brigade in the Second AIF. When he came home on leave in his khaki uniform, we were so proud of him. Less than 12 months later he was dead – killed not by an enemy bullet but by a smallpox vaccination which somehow went terribly wrong.

However, we were busy and healthy and never felt deprived. I wonder sometimes if we were not better off than children today, who are bored without their electronic games and mobile phones, spend so much time in front of computer and television screens and who live in the ever-present fear of attack or abuse.