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Oral History: Paid Work

Poverty: Hardship on 'the Flat'

Poverty was usually the fate of those without access to a male's wage because it was assumed that family incomes would come from this source. Women were especially vulnerable since their paid employment was not supposed to sustain a whole family- just themselves. Widows and abandoned wives faced difficulties making ends meet. They almost always had responsibility for children as well. Men who could not work were also at risk. Even in families with a working father access to his wages was not guaranteed. Some men drank or gambled away their earnings. Elderly people of either sex also faced the spectre of poverty in their declining years.

Glasgow street mapBetween 1890 and 1910 Maria Street in South Dunedin (later renamed Glasgow Street) was southern Dunedin's poorest street. It was a dismal area with one of the few examples of 'row houses' in Dunedin - a brick terrace smothered by black, sooty pollution from the nearby Hillside Workshops, the railway running sheds (where steam locomotives were housed) and the gasworks. Maria Street's households figured prominently in the casebooks of the Benevolent Institution. This section of map shows Glasgow Street running from the upper right to bottom right. The tiny sections of present-day Fox and Reid Streets are a prominent part of the centre left area. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

Tiny cottageAn original example of a tiny two roomed house in Caversham - very well kept and still in use today. (Caversham Project Archives)

HousesIn 1937 the government surveyed areas likely to contain 'slum' housing. This included most of South Dunedin, Kensington and much of Caversham, where two or three roomed cottages were packed on to small sections. The survey used a remarkably high standard but still judged only 5% of these homes as in the worst category, 'beyond repair'. It found that most of 'the Flat's' homes were owner-occupied and in satisfactory condition. There was no over-crowding and no slums. These workers cottages, close to the remaining gasworks buildings, are still occupied today. (Caversham Project Archives)

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