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Research Guides

Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression

Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression

The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth Government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information, the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth Government – a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, Australian society and the Australian people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. The main focus of the collection is material which documents Federal Government activities since Federation in 1901. There are also significant holdings of nineteenth-century records which relate to functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth Government at the time of Federation and subsequently. The records described in this guide are a small but significant part of the collection.

Access to the National Archives collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist reference staff and are provided with reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include the RecordSearch and PhotoSearch databases, guides, publications and fact sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and help by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

RecordSearch and PhotoSearch provide information about agencies, persons and series as well as descriptions of over two million individual records. They are available for online searching in reading rooms located in all offices of the National Archives, at the Australian War Memorial and on the National Archives website.

The National Archives website provides more information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. A visit to the site will help you determine whether the Archives holds records relevant to your research. Fact sheets on various topics are also available on the Archives website.

Using this guide

This guide aims to describe and facilitate access to records held in the National Archives of Australia that deal with the provision of unemployment relief during the Great Depression. It describes records covering a wide range of topics, including the manner in which successive Commonwealth and State Governments managed the unemployment crisis of the Great Depression and the political fallout that resulted from their policies and decisions. The guide also addresses the social and economic impact of Government policies introduced to relieve the plight of the unemployed, and details various public 'relief work' projects, both minor and major, set up in communities around Australia.

The guide aims at comprehensiveness. However, the collection of the National Archives runs to about 300 shelf kilometres of records and clearly only a proportion of items of possible interest to the readers of this guide have been located and identified. Accordingly, the search has targeted the most likely sources of relevant material.The guide is divided into six chapters, each covering a one-year period during the Great Depression.

Chapter 1 (1930) describes records about the Commonwealth Government's initial approach to the unemployment crisis, with particular emphasis on responsibilities for the welfare of the unemployed and early funding initiatives. The routine denial of access to relief work for unemployed women is also addressed.

Chapter 2 (1931) focuses on records about the social impact of unemployment policy in a climate of deepening economic depression; bureaucratic delays in the provision of relief work for the unemployed; the response of trade unions; and the serious political division that existed at both Commonwealth and State levels. This chapter also describes records associated with protests and riots, including the infamous 'Beef Riot' which occurred in Adelaide in 1930.

Chapter 3 (1932) provides information on records on the economic principles of the 'Premiers' Plan', the establishment of State Employment Councils, and the role of these councils in planning 'reproductive' (ie labour-intensive and financially self-liquidating) relief work projects. This chapter also details trade union accusations of inequity in the engagement of relief workers.

Chapter 4 (1933) describes records about funding inadequacies, the mismanagement of available funds, and the relationship between the Loans Council, the Commonwealth Bank and the private banking sector. Popular perceptions of relief work programs are also covered in this chapter.

Chapter 5 (1934) details records documenting the dawning realisation that the welfare of the unemployed was a national concern, and thus a Commonwealth – as opposed to a State – responsibility. This chapter includes an account of the Commonwealth Government's attempts to formulate a national plan for the relief of distress as a result of unemployment, and identifies records that outline a number of ambitious relief work programs suggested by various State Governments.

Chapter 6 (1935) identifies records dealing with the introduction of an expanded public works program to reduce unemployment; measures taken by State Governments to provide food relief, work-for-sustenance programs and reproductive relief works; a national afforestation work scheme; the 'Work for the Dole' program in NSW; and various other schemes for the relief of unemployment.

The appendixes include a chronological sequence of events and details of Commonwealth Government ministries between 1929 and 1932. Lists of senior public servants, economic advisers to the Commonwealth Government and Government agencies are also included as appendixes.

Record descriptions

Each entry in the guide describes a group of records maintained together as a series. A series consists of items, which are often individual files (sometimes volumes, sets of cards, photographs, etc) received into custody by the National Archives from the creating agency or person. Series usually consist of many items, but occasionally may consist of just a few or even a single item.

The description for each series describes its content and function. The entry concludes with a list of items selected from the series. In many instances, particular series have been found to contain relevant material on multiple aspects of unemployment relief during the Great Depression and have been referred to several times. The full description of each series is given only on its first appearance. As a general rule, this guide identifies rather than analyses the records. Researchers should make their own assessment of the content and value of any item.

1 General correspondence about public works projects in the Federal Capital Territory
2 Records in this series contain general correspondence about public works projects in the Federal Capital Territory. They include reports, plans and sketches. Some deal with unemployment matters, particularly with provision of relief work for the unemployed.
3 National Archives, Canberra
Quantity: 25.02 metres
Recorded by: 1930–32 Department of Works and Railways (Central Office) (CA 14)
National Archives, Canberra
6 Unemployment Relief Scheme – road of access to Westlake settlement, 1930–31. 7 A292, C1728
This item contains evidence of bureaucratic delay in the organisation of minor relief work.

Key to record sample

1 Table title – describes the subject area of records listed in the table.

2 Subject sub-heading – indicates significant subject areas – where there is more than one – of records listed in the table.

3 Location sub-heading – used to indicate the office of the National Archives or name of the institution in which records are located.

4 Title of record series – a series is the organisational arrangement used by creators of records to control and manage records. It may contain one or more record items. Some series may contain hundreds or thousands of items. The date range of the series contents is included at the end of the title.

5 Series number – the archives control number applied to the series. This number is necessary to identify records for storage and retrieval purposes. In cases where the series consists of a single item the series number will be sufficient information to allow for its retrieval.

6 Item title – A record item is usually a file or volume (it may also be a photograph, map or other format). The title is usually applied by the person or agency creating the record. The date range of the item contents is included at the end of the title.

7 Series number and item control symbol – The combination of series number and item control symbol identifies a record item and allows for its storage and retrieval. This information about an item is almost always required for it to be retrieved from storage.

Access to the records

All series described in this guide are listed in the RecordSearch database which is available in the reading rooms of all State offices of the Archives and on the Archives website. Indexes and inventories – available in reading rooms – may also be useful. Reference staff can assist researchers in using these lists.

Regardless of the type of research you undertake at the National Archives, you will only be able to examine open period records (ie 30 years of age or older) that are no longer considered to contain sensitive information.

If individual items within a series have not been examined, you may apply for access to them. There may be a delay while the material is examined. If items are withheld from public access following this examination, reference staff will explain the nature of the information, why it has been withheld, and how to appeal against the decision.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting them and when referring to them in written or published works. Using proper citations will not only help Archives staff to locate records more readily, but will also help other researchers to find them.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives of Australia is expressed as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: A9951, 74

The name National Archives of Australia may be abbreviated to 'NAA' provided the full name has been used in the first citation.

Locating additional information

Additional information on unemployment relief during the Great Depression can be located by conducting searches on RecordSearch. Because of the involvement of State Governments in unemployment relief programs, records are also held by State Archives. Suggestions for further reading are listed in Appendix 5.