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Oral History: 1930s Depression

Community: Hard Times

Between 1890 and 1940 a number of events, some more devastating than others, effected the day to day lives of South Dunedin residents. Some, like the 1918 influenza epidemic and the sporadic outbreaks of polio filled the community with fear. These outbreaks required drastic measures which altered the pattern of everyday life - such as the closure of schools and picture theatres and the restricting of public meetings. Others like floods and fires were disastrous on a more restricted level while the Depression of the 1930s impacted on 'the Flat' in a manner unlike anything before or since.

Teatment stationNo sooner had the First World War ended than a deadly influenza pandemic swept the world. World-wide, more people died from the flu than had died in four years of war. The disease passed through New Zealand from north to south. Dunedin's outbreak was set off by the 11th November Armistice celebrations and peaked at the end of the month. Ordinary life was brought to a standstill. Schools were closed and public meetings banned. Prompt action by medical authorities helped contain the disease so that Dunedin suffered a lower mortality rate than the other main centres. But in the densely populated neighbourhoods of Caversham, South Dunedin and St Kilda the 'flu spread rapdily and these three areas were particularly hard hit. (Unidentified government treatment station, Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

FloodsIn April 1923 Dunedin was hit by unprecedented rainfall. Over two days nearly a third of a whole year’s normal rainfall fell. Flood waters from the Kaikorai stream washed through the old Caversham railway tunnel and spread out across 'the Flat'. Hundreds of people had to evacuate their homes and many suffered considerable losses. A similar flood occurred in 1929. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

Fire PicModern times brought with it a reduced risk of fire and an increasing ability to fight those fires that did break out. However, there was no call for complacency. Major fires still occurred in the southern suburbs. This photograph shows the ruins of Caversham's Wax Vesta Match Factory in 1913 after a devastating blaze totally destroyed the premises and put sixty female factory employees out of work. In 1915 the community was sent reeling again when fire stole another prominent landmark, the St Clair Pavilion. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

Polio ItemsInfantile paralysis, later known as poliomyelitis or polio for short, was one of many diseases that reached epidemic proportions and wreaked havoc on communities, including those of southern Dunedin. At various intervals from the 1920s polio epidemics led to restrictions on the holding of school classes and public gatherings. Polio's impact on community life continued until the defeat of the disease by the introduction of mass vaccination in 1962. This photograph show a range of leg braces, stirrups and other aids used by Dunedin children.
(Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

Workers rallyThe Great Depression of the 1930s changed New Zealanders'perceptions of social misfortune. At the end of 1931 there were more than 3,000 unemployed men in Dunedin. The official response to their plight was limited and largely ineffective. In this photograph, Dunedin workers are holding a rally to protest against government measures to limit unemployment. In 1933 the government introduced compulsory work camps for men claiming unemployment relief. These camps took the men away from their families and were highly unpopular. When the Department of Labour tried to force 200 married men at St Kilda to enter a camp or have their relief money cut by half, the men refused. Strong community support for their stand eventually forced the government to back down. Unemployment could no longer just be blamed on personal failings. A communal consensus was emerging that laid responsibility for social welfare on the state. After 1935 a new Labour government responded by developing a comprehensive system of social security.
(Otago Daily Times, 25 February 1932, Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

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