The Wall Street crash of October 1929 heralded a worldwide depression that saw one in three Australian breadwinners unemployed.  In what became known as the Great Depression, hunger was commonplace, people ate bread and dripping or bread with a little milk and sugar. Soup kitchens were set up to feed the starving and sustenance payments, “the susso”, were made in the form of foods such as bread and potatoes.   

Soup for children during the Great Depression
Image: State Library of New South Wales

During the early 1930s, the response to the age-old question ‘What’s for tea, Mum?’ was likely to draw an ironic response. ‘Bread and duck under the table’ – meaning bread and nothing else – was often all that was on offer. The expression had other variations: ‘bread and pull it’, ‘duck under the table and catch it’ or ‘duck under the table and swing on the door’.

The Great Depression hit hard and fast. Demand for Australian exports fell, overseas financiers called in their loans, manufacturers were bankrupted and jobs evaporated. By 1932, 29 per cent of Australians were officially out of work. Banks foreclosed on mortgages and many were forced from their homes into shanty towns on the city fringes.

Those who still had a home and a back garden were the lucky ones. They could grow their own vegetables or raise chooks. But many were dependent on sustenance, ‘the susso’, which often came in the form of ration vouchers. Families queued up at soup kitchens and subsisted on bread and dripping, or bread and ‘cocky’s joy’ (golden syrup). Babies were fed on condensed milk and arrowroot biscuits. Aboriginal people weren’t eligible for the dole, and had no choice but to take rations: plain flour, sometimes baking powder, a tin of black tea, a little cake of lard and sugar.

Private charities supplemented the meagre government support. In the capital cities, the Lord Mayor’s Relief Funds funnelled money to the unemployed. Charity balls became a feature of the social calendar for the better-off. One event was even held on an ocean liner. The West Australian reported in September 1930 that ‘Illuminated by hundreds of electric lights, the Orient liner Otranto was a gay sight in Fremantle harbour on Monday night, when a ball in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Unemployment Fund was held on board’.

The great depression hit city workers in particular, with many factories closing down and whole industries destroyed. Many people moved to country areas, working as unpaid labour in return for housing and the chance to grow their own food. 

During the depression years, Australia’s rabbit plague proved a boon, with “underground mutton” replacing other meats on many tables. As a result, in later years, many people refused to eat rabbit because of its association with hard times.

Commodity prices fell during the great depression, with a drastic effect on Australian agriculture. Government assistance helped to support wheat farmers until prices rose again in 1935-36.  At this time Australia produced 3-4% of the world’s wheat, but it accounted for 18% of total world exports.