Battler: A toiler, one who struggles for a livelihood
G.A. Wilkes, A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, 1978
Battler is an iconic word, fundamental to the way Australians see their national identity. And long-lasting. Professor Wilkes recorded an 1896 example from Henry Lawson: “[ I ] told him never to pretend to me that he was a battler.”
It still resonates, as in the analysis of what a government policy does for “the battlers” , although these days your battlers may well be paying off mortgages on homes so big they would astonish their parents.
In Australia, the word carries a hint of “indomitable”, expressed in the old quip nil carborundum – “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. The battler may be on the losing side, but the spirit is unbroken.
In other countries, losers seem to be just losers. In Dorothea Lange’s photographs of impoverished farmers and field labourers in the US in the Great Depression, one looks in vain for anything other than hopelessness and defeat in their faces.
Australia's respect for the battler may also cause difficulties for our understanding of the Great Depression of the 1930s. How bad was it?
Do we focus on the evictions and rent riots, the men always on the move from town to town, begging for work or just a feed, the children lined up for soup and bread before school, the dirt-poor families subsisting in isolated bush shacks or in shanty towns around the cities?
Or do we focus on the individual grit, the social cohesiveness and the family support which allowed many people to cope with under-employment and poverty in the Aussie battler tradition? How do we evaluate the stories of our parents, telling of their happy childhoods full of love, hand-me-down toys and clothing, and bread and dripping?
Do we accept some well-argued academic studies that the Great Depression wasn't as bad as most people believe?
The questions re-emerged as I read the latest entry on the blog of 107-year-old Olive Riley (pictured – image from her blog).
Documentary film maker Mike Rubbo, who talks things over with Olive before posting the material to her blog, mentioned The Myth of the Great Depression, a book by David Potts. He asks Olive:
David has written this provocative book which proposes that the Great Depression of the thirties was not such a bad experience for many people. In fact reading his book, I can’t wait for the next one to hit us.
No, Ollie, seriously no one would wish that! But there were some strange side benefits to being plunged into poverty.
I’m going to go over bits in the book to see if the stories spark memories for you as someone who lived through that period.
As Rubbo reads information from the book, Olive's recollections support the view that many people did suffer distressing poverty, but also faced it with courage and what may be seen as a typical, dry, laconic Aussie humour.
Here's the blog: http://www.allaboutolive.com.au/
From a film catalogue, here's how Mike Rubbo came to be Olive's storyteller, going on to make a successful ABC documentary, All About Olive:
Mike Rubbo's team found and made friends with this amazing story teller 4 years ago. He was researching a documentary on the centenarian phenomenon. But when he met Olive, all thoughts of an essay on extreme old age went out the window and Olive took over.
Good humour in dire poverty
In 1932, NSW Governor Sir Philip Game, with his wife and their aides-de-camp, visited Happy Valley [the shantytown in the southern Sydney suburb of La Perouse]. Lady Game congratulated the women on the neat and clean interiors of their humpies.
“Why,” she said bravely, “I wouldn’t mind living in one myself.” From the back of the crowd, a voice rang out: “Want to swap?”
Of course, just looking out of the Government House windows may have disturbed Sir Philip and Lady Game – another shanty town sat in Sydney’s inner-city Domain park.
Or this, as a former Happy Valley resident recalls the day some socialite women visited.
Anyhow, four expensively dressed ladies from the committee arrived, and after they had been introduced, each gave a short talk on the importance of contraception. It was very technical and so tactfully described few women understood what they were talking about.
Then one of women opened her bag and produced a white enamel can, together with a notebook and pencil. The woman told them, ‘This is a douche can. It should be hung on a nail in a prominent position somewhere in the camp with the notebook and pencil nearby. When wanting to use it you should sign the book and when returning it should sign the book again.’ And that was that!
As a reminder of their visit, the women in the camp built a small cairn of rocks and stuck the thing on top as a monument to women who meant well but didn’t know how to go about it.
The anecdotes come from Australian Battlers Remember (Random House, 2003) a deceptively simple and non-glossy book crammed with fascinating yarns. Broadcaster and writer Keith Smith, who prepared the book at the age of 88 – wasn’t he the Pied Piper on ABC children’s shows decades ago? – interviewed dozens of elderly people about their recollections of the Great Depression.
Along with tales of people trudging from town to town, offering to chop wood for a feed handed out the kitchen door, the book tells of the shanty townships of unemployed people around the cities.
Former residents give a detailed account of life in Happy Valley, with its rows of huts cobbled together from scavenged building materials and hessian bags. The half-mile trudge to collect water in four-gallon kerosene tins from the tap in the NSW Golf Club, until its silvertail members extended the pipe and put the unemployed out of sight. The long walk into the city to collect dole coupons, with money too precious for tram fares.
But did the luckier ones care?
Perhaps this is a place one could note some darker aspects of Australia’s Great Depression experience. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that most of those Australians who were almost unaffected by the Depression preferred not to know about the lives of the victims.
People who kept their jobs could get by, even if the Arbitration Court cut their award wage or the boss put them on short time, because the prices of most goods and services dropped.
As Keith Smith says, newspapers carried few accounts of Happy Valley, but pages about socialite balls.
In his very readable biography, Riverboats and Rivermen (Rigby, 1976), steamboat skipper William Drage told of a Murray River cruise in 1932. A boat’s mate got four pounds for a week of unlimited hours and thought himself lucky to have a job. Drage (assisted by his co-author, Rigby publishing manager Michael Page) wrote:
But the economic situation did not affect everyone equally, and in March 1932 the Underwriters’ Association chartered the Ruby for a holiday cruise from Morgan to Mildura. Money and grog flowed lavishly, with a roulette wheel, poker and other card games continually on the go … A lot of money changed hands on that trip, and I know definitely that one man was 800 pounds richer when he left the boat on our return to Morgan.
It was a great contrast to the swarms of men and youths, some of them little more than boys, who wandered the riverbanks in search of work. Plenty of them were willing to work for nothing but a square meal and somewhere to sleep, and a good many were close to starving …
Depression battlers often hated the police, many of whom seemed too willing to evict destitute tenants or force the drifters out of town. There were exceptions, of course – a few country sergeants who’d put you in a cell for the night, give you a meal and a clean bunk in return for some chopped firewood, but even they’d want to see you on your way in the morning.
In Perth after World War II, my father might spit when he heard the name of one very senior police officer. During the Depression, Dad camped near the edge of the desert in WA until he found a blacksmith’s job on a gold mine at Wiluna. Gold mining was an industry which thrived in those hard times.
Before Dad went to Wiluna, the farming family who were to become his in-laws had given him a new blanket. The police, headed by the officer he was to hate for many years, dragged him in several times, demanding he admit having stolen the blanket.
Writing of the Rothbury Riot of 1929, a Cessnock coalfields union official and historian, the late Jim Comerford – who was there as a lad of 16 – said: “Other clashes occurred with police, not all of whom were guilty of the brutality which caused them to be named ‘The Basher Gang’. Most of the local police retained public respect. The few who enjoyed the experience earned the lifetime contempt of the Coalfields people and their fellows.”
In her autobiography, The Missing Heir, Kylie Tennant told how she befriended a young policeman during the Depression, only to be reproached by a colleague. “Once a policeman, never a man,” the president of the Unemployed Workers League assured her gravely. [I've heard the expression well after World War II.]
Kylie Tennant wrote powerful accounts of the Depression. We'll return to her.
Better nutrition with food relief
But let's first swing back to another work which argues the Depression wasn't as bad as most people believe. In A Bad Smash (McPhee Gribble, 1990), economic historian Geoffrey Spenceley contradicts many of what he sees as myths about the Depression.
He shows that the food relief to the unemployed often gave them better nutrition and health than they enjoyed in the good times, and that income support was better than generally understood.
But it's clear, too, that although relief did improve from 1932, it was desperately inadequate from 1929 to 1931. Spenceley does concede:
There is a case to be argued, however, that the main effect of the depression on people's health was to increase stress, as a result of the continuing battle to make ends meet, and the emotional traumas associated with the breakdown of normal daily routine and social relationships. The family was simultaneously the main buffer against the depression and the source of many of its tensions.
One can also agree with this:
The depression in Australia failed to produce its crop of serious-minded social investigators, leaving historians to rely on impressionistic reports.
Kylie Tennant is a good source of those impressionistic reports, and although she later described her politics as to the left of communism, her observations were perceptive and her writing had a blunt honesty.
That honesty showed in a book I take to be semi-autobiographical, Ride On Stranger, much of which is an affectionate satire – is there such a thing? – of the left-wing movements and individuals she encountered before World War II.
In Tennant’s first novel, Tiburon , published in 1935 after The Bulletin ran it as a serial, the Depression forms a backdrop to rather depressing portraits of people going about their lives in a rather depressing country town in New South Wales. Tennant noted: “Tiburon is not an existing town, but a composite of many Australian places.”
Tennant tried to be sympathetic to Tiburon’s characters, even to a bloody-minded police officer giving the unemployed a hard time, although whether she succeeded is a moot point.
Despite her claim that Tiburon is a composite of many Australian places, it's clear from The Missing Heir that it was derived from the NSW towns of Coonabarabran and Canowindra, where her schoolteacher husband Lewis Charles Rodd was posted after they married.
When they moved to Canowindra, Tennant wrote, “I began typing Tiburon which had all in it that I had seen and observed of conditions of the unemployed in Canowindra and Coonabaraban, and on the many walks I had taken through the mid-west.”. The Missing Heir also details her work providing relief and advocacy for the unemployed.
Later, Tennant borrowed a horse and van and went on the road to gather material about the itinerant unemployed for The Battlers, which was made into a film.
Hard times and high times
Trying to find more about Keith Smith, I come across The Palace of Signs, subtitled Memories of Hard Times and High Times in the Great Depression (Pan Macmillan, 1991), in which Smith describes his expulsion from Northcote High School in Victoria at the age of 13 because his parents had refused to pay the two guineas a term fee, and the debt to the Victorian Education Department had grown to 12 guineas.
Smith believed his parents refused on principle, but it must have been a factor that it was the early 1930s and his father, the sole breadwinner for a family of four, had been cut back to one week’s work in three in the furnishing department of Buckley and Nunn’s store in Melbourne.
After a time, which included a job in a foundry in horrifying sweatshop conditions – literally and figuratively – before he had turned 14, he found himself working as an office boy and later as an apprentice in a venerable old Melbourne signwriting business, the Palace of Signs.
For a lad with little worldly experience, it was a startling introduction to the adult world. His workmates were skilled signwriters and painters, proud of their craft and paid twice the basic wage, but they were also memorable characters, irreverent, uncouth and often bawdy. Their unceasing practical jokes on one another provide the High Times in the book’s subtitle.
High Times also refers to the tasks Keith Smith found most frightening, painting signs on the sides of buildings three or four storeys above the city streets, sitting or standing on a plank with no guard rails or harnesses. The painters hauled themselves up, pulling on ropes and tying them off on the hooks.
The cover of Australian Battlers Remember says Keith Smith is the author of 27 books but does not list them.
Note: Mike Rubbo has lent me his copy of Myth of the Great Depression, and I'll offer my opinion when I've finished it. So far, it seems convincing in its efforts to balance people's recollections with the historical evidence.