The Depression is a universally recognised economic and social phenomenon that occurred in the decade between the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Sustained and continuous economic growth, associated with the Industrial Revolution of the 18thCentury, was rudely halted as industrial economies suffered downturn and recession. Economic developments had severe social consequences which have been studied and described at great length in the United States and Great Britain, the most advanced industrial economies. Australia too suffered severe repercussions from what was occurring elsewhere, though it seems likely that the impact was less serious in Queensland, still very much a primary producer, than, for instance, New South Wales, where manufacturing was much further developed. Australia’s economic woes inevitably had distressing social consequences for many people, though the extent of suffering is not easy to measure, and recent historiography has tended to emphasise positive aspects of experience rather than the traditionally accepted view that all was necessarily bad.
Within this context the Queensland experience has received only a limited amount of attention, and adult males have been at the forefront of investigations. With the shifting emphasis towards women’s and children’s history , it now seems appropriate to examine the experiences of Brisbane children during the Depression. This study will not attempt to look at all children and will disregard those whose social position might be expected to have protected them from the possibly damaging effects of the Depression. The plight of some members of the middle classes is a subject worthy of investigation but this enquiry will concentrate on the children of people in families at the lower end of the social scale who might be expected to have felt most strongly the consequences of the Depression. It will seek to discover if there was any commonality of experience that permits generalised conclusions about the lives of these children as a whole, but it will at the same time look for differences in experience that might inhibit the acceptance of sweeping generalisations. There may be no such thing as the typical Depression experience and the range of variables may well be too great to permit easy conclusions about what was happening to children in this period. It is inconceivable that children were, as one historian implies a homogeneous group, happily growing up oblivious to the harsh reality of the Depression. Nor were they, according to a popularly coined phrase, ‘all in the same boat.’ Circumstances and experiences varied enormously.
Another, and even more difficult, methodological problem is that of determining the causal links that can be clearly traced between the Depression and children’s experiences. In other words, this study will attempt to determine not only what children experienced during the Depression but also to assess how far this was consequential upon the Depression. In some matters the Depression could have provided simply a background or historical context in which certain essentially unrelated developments occurred. More generally it is assumed that developments were in most cases strongly influenced by the Depression, which exacerbated problems that would have otherwise have been much less severe. The precise role of the Depression as a factor in children’s lives is elusive, but it is clearly not enough to believe that it was no more than a time frame.
These two searches, for common and differentiating features in children’s experiences and for causal connections with the Depression will be carried out in five different spheres, those of health, home life, institutionalised and State assisted children, education and employment, and leisure. Together they will attempt to establish not any precisely quantifiable factors about the standard of living but some justifiable conclusions about the quality of life experienced by many Brisbane children during the Depression.