Kiwiosities: The Great Depression or The Slump

Excerpts from Kiwiosities, a book by Gordon Ell on the traditions and folklore of New Zealand.

The most traumatic civil event of 20th-century New Zealand. After the prosperous 1920s, New Zealand was plunged into a well of unemployment and social misery by the international breakdown that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. An economy dependent on primary produce sold overseas was particularly vulnerable. Many farmers, settled after the First World War and still owing money, were forced to abandon their properties. Soon there were an estimated 100,000 unemployed in a population of 1.5 million and at a time when comparatively few women worked. The pitifully small dole had to be worked for, often on make-work projects where manpower substituted for machines, just to fill in the day. Although in time unemployed were put to worthwhile public works, such as constructing the Lewis Pass road with pick and shovel and wheelbarrow, ‘the dole’ also produced the degrading sight of groups of men taking the place of horses to pull harrows, and jobs where one group dug holes, to be filled in by the next. The hopelessness of the ‘common man’ led to the election of New Zealand’s first Labour (socialist) government in 1935 and new schemes of social security and State-directed reconstruction.

New Zealand writers of the 1930s and 1940s were among the traumatised and their books and poems and journalism reflect the all-pervading gloom. There are two more recent social histories by Tony Simpson; The Sugarbag Years contains many recollections, while The Slump takes a readable approach to the origins and effect of the Depression (both published by Penguin books). The generations that lived through the Slump were then plunged into the Second World War; many of those who survived appeared happy to live in conformity after the war, secured by State subsidies and handouts, which they understandably believed they had earned. Ironically, many lived to see the institutions and welfare they had worked so hard for, pulled to bits by their middle-aged children, following the 1987 stock-market crash. The more prosperous survivors of the Depression were even lumbered with a tax surcharge for having too much – some ending their days with the label ‘Old Greedies’.


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Gordon Ell, a former journalist and wildlife film-maker, is the author of many popular books about New Zealand's historic and natural heritage.