In one of the most notorious incidents of the Great Depression, around 2000 of the unemployed staged a march from Port Adelaide to the city. The marchers were protesting at the removal of beef from their relief rations. The march descended into a riot, now known as the Beef Riot, with many marchers and police hospitalised.

On 8 January 1931, the News in Adelaide published the following article:

Port Adelaide unemployed at a street meeting this morning decided to demonstrate tomorrow as a protest against the abolition of beer in the meat ration given by the Government.  A procession to Adelaide has been organised. Port Adelaide men will muster at the Waterside Workers’ Hall and will move off at 9 o’clock. Port road will be the converging point for other unemployed. It is expected that the procession will be greatly strengthened at Hindmarsh and at the intersection of North and West terraces. Demonstrators will visit the Government offices to seek an improvement in the ration allowance.

The marchers had legitimate grievances. During the Depression, South Australia’s unemployed were doing it tougher than those in other states.  In most states, including South Australia, relief was paid in kind rather than in cash but the value of that relief varied. In New South Wales it was 22/9d per week, in Victoria 27/6d and in Western Australia 35/- ($3.50). But South Australian families had to exist on the equivalent of just 18/3d ($1.82).

When the Depression hit and the number of unemployed expanded twelve times over, the South Australian government had reduced the value of relief rations to conserve funds. In 1928, the ration for two adults had been four loaves of bread, 3½ pounds of meat, 1 pound of sugar, 3½ ounces of tea, 8 ounces of rice and oatmeal or sago, one tin of jam, 2 ounces of raisins and a tin of condensed milk. After the election of the Hill Labor government in 1930 the value of groceries was reduced from 2/8d to 2/5d and the supply of bread was reduced from four loaves to three.

The principle bone of contention in the Beef Riot was the meat ration. With beef deemed to be too expensive, the meat supplied in exchange for ration coupons was mostly poor quality mutton chops and sausages. The marchers in the procession carried signs demanding beef. Others were more political, reading “Class against class” and “Down with Imperialism”. A flag at the front of the march bore the hammer and sickle.

The Beef Riot - marchers demand beef
Marchers in King William Street, Adelaide

Police were barring the way into public offices. In the reporting of the event, there seems to be some uncertainty regarding how the riot began – whether the police, as one observer said, “lost their heads” and became too free with their batons or the marchers began the attack using their placards.  There were several hospitalisations and many arrests, including six members of the Communist Party. Beef was eventually returned to the ration and the Beef Riot gained a place in South Australian history as a rare incidence of civil unrest.