My First Eighty Years
Chapter 13 — The Slump
Of those years in the King Country, by far the most important event, either public or private, was the depression of the 'thirties.
Of course there had been reports of falling prices but that is chronic in a farming community. My notice was first brought to its gravity when, driving home one sale-day, I overtook a neighbour taking home a mob of sheep. The road was narrow and downhill and I was almost at the corner where I was to turn off. So as not to hustle the mob I shut off the engine and let the car roll slowly beside the man. He rode up to the car window and shouted explosively, ‘Run over them! What's the good of them? The useless mongrels, the perishing, unprincipled bimbos, the rotten, spindle-legged, god-forsaken …’ and other adjectives less often used in polite society.
I laughed, as I was meant to, and soon he explained the cause of the unusual outburst.
‘The sale was dead — dead as mutton. Not a bid. Aren't they a decent line of ewes? What's wrong with them? There wasn't a mouth opened for them.’
Henceforth never a word seemed to be spoken among farmers except about the staggering fall in the value of stock — sheep first and later cattle. We learned that the fall was not merely local: it was Dominion-wide. It was world-wide, and so sudden. Of course, there had been signs and portents and some prophets of evil, but price fluctuations are an integral part of the producers' game. Hope springs eternal and most of them thought it would be all over in no time. It was generally thought that we had page 205 just passed through a time of low prices which must now rise immediately.
From day to day the depression deepened. The farmers could hardly believe the prices they read in the papers. They talked of nothing else and it seemed to me that no man ever let another finish his sentence. Conversation was something like this:
‘It won't be over till we reduce….’
‘It all comes from America and the New York Times says….’
‘Dr Mcllraith gives this slump the same course as it took in the 'eighties.’
‘It was 1896….’
‘Oh, longer than that….’
‘It's no use pretending! No one knows any more than we do….’
The men spoke objectively as discussing an event. No one voiced his own fear that lay cold upon the hearts of most of them.
It was otherwise with the women. To them the tragedy was the frustration, the postponement of long-deferred desires, of hopes dashed in the dust. To put off once more additions to the house, so desperately needed, or the car, so nearly delivered that it seemed an accomplished fact, or the new electric stove, or the furnishing of the sitting-room. And, bitterest of all, there was no college or boarding-school for the bright son or the promising daughter. That had been postponed too long already and ‘youth's a stuff will not endure’ or wait till depressions pass by.
It was sometimes easy to detect signs of resentment against husbands who had refused amenities in favour of ploughing a new paddock or buying more stock. Now these things had been proved useless women felt they had pinched and denied themselves for nothing.
I own that I said to my husband, ‘Why didn't we snatch our trip Home? We couldn't have less than nothing.’page 206
To him it was dishonest to think in that way.
Soon we began to hear of bankruptcies among the big landowners of the old-established districts. Colossal figures (they seemed to us) that these men failed for. We knew that the whole civilised world was involved but it did not console us much. There was the less hope of our own quick recovery.
Then, but not till 1933, the Government raised the exchange rate of our pound. It undoubtedly was a measure of relief for the farmer but it was hard to understand. Men shouted scraps of undigested articles from the daily papers. Most of them were hostile to the innovation and the visible effect was to make Mr Coates exceedingly unpopular. It was by no means an original idea of his, nor even a measure peculiar to New Zealand. Every civilised country was flirting with some subtle means of inflating its currency. Mr Downie Stewart had been for some time studying its advantages and disadvantages but it was not a subject that could be thrown for discussion to the man in the street. Wild speculation might have resulted. It was said that Mr Stewart acknowledged its necessity but his long training in sound finance, added to his Scottish reverence for the sanctity of contract, forbade his being the instrument for the introduction of such a financial heresy. He preferred to resign and Mr Coates, well knowing the opprobrium it would bring, immediately put through the Bill.
The farmers had been facing ruin for well nigh a year before the workers of the towns and cities felt the full force of the blizzard. We country people had thought of it as our slump, our special ruin. Now we realised the indivisibility of calamity and that there were those still more naked to the blast than we. At least we could eat; the unemployed were hungry. It was brought home to us as we read such advertisements as: ‘Wanted, any work, anywhere, any wage’.page 207
‘My God! That's a desperate cry,’ said the farmer, and was not slow to send generous supplies of food to the depots which were being established in the towns.
It was ungratefully, if truthfully, said that the sheep and cattle slaughtered for this purpose were so shrunken in value as not to amount to a very munificent contribution. That was so, but they were given in the hour of the farmer's own desperate need and the gifts would jeopardise his chances of recovery in case of a rise in prices.
In spite of the constant declaration of the Prime Minister, Mr Forbes, that New Zealand would never descend to anything resembling an unemployment dole, the Government, like that of the U.S.A. and other countries, was obliged to provide food and shelter for the thousands of unemployed who flocked into the cities. Seventy-five thousand were registered and these did not include those who were too proud to register or those who did not think it worth while.
When relief was finally given it was to those only who had no resources whatever. Men hastily withdrew their small savings from the banks and either spent them or kept them in their pockets before applying for ‘sustainance’. A hundred-pound note was found on the floor of a business in Te Kuiti. The owner recovered this, but we heard of several sad losses. To those who save painfully from a wage it must be like drawing an eye-tooth to part with their nest eggs.
Then the cry went up that the youth of the Dominion, the men of the future, were being irretrievably ruined by enforced idleness. The boys, it was urged, had done well at school or college, had prepared for a career, only to find every door closed to them. Truly, there was nothing for them to do. Even the meanest and worst-paid jobs were eagerly snapped up by fathers of families. The women's societies added their powerful voices to this cry. One woman told her branch of the Division that she had employed her boys in planting cabbages during the day and had gone herself at night and deliberately pulled them up.page 208
During the long depression of the 'eighties commodities and services had gradually come down to something like the level of export prices. But the trade unions would not admit of this painful process. Whatever happened they insisted that their wages were not to be cut.
Things were bad indeed. One of the early moves of the Government was to impose 3d. in the £ on all who had retained their jobs for the relief of those who had lost theirs. It is strange to remember that this trifling tax was regarded as an atrocious imposition and it was freely asserted that no Government would be able to enforce it. We have travelled far since then. There is no doubt that those who were not losers by the depression were distinct gainers. Businesses, houses, farms fell to those who could pay for them at slump prices and even in a small way the woman with cash in her purse could pick up many bargains. It seemed only fair that the fortunate ones should be taxed for the benefit of those who, by sheer ill luck, had lost their means of livelihood. When whole firms became bankrupt and closed down it was the best as well as the worst of their employees who suffered.
I have heard it cleverly argued that if the social system had not been tampered with by moratoriums, exchanges, interest reductions and debt cancellations and other infringements of the rules of the game, the social order would have righted itself in the end with more fairness and justice and would have continued to work smoothly. I am not sure. It is true that sudden interference with the laws to meet emergencies always results in injustice, but hunger and cold are ‘not hereafter’. They must be dealt with in the present.
* * * *
As far as fear of losing our own farm lay, we were not, when the slump hit us, in a very vulnerable position. Most of the mortgage was in the Advances to Settlers Office and it soon became evident that if the Government were to keep farmers on their land it would be obliged to find ninety per cent. of its interest. Though tolerably safe, our hopes were page 209 shattered; we had no money nor could we see any possible way of making any. To retrench in the home might not be so bad, but if improvements on the ranch were to be suspended it meant that there could be no future.
‘If only the slump had waited till the land had been broken in we could have laughed at it,’ said my husband.
The real trouble in our prospects was that all unawares we had grown old — far too old to consider making a new start. My husband realised it, though, because our natural force was not abated, I did not. He was approaching the allotted span and I but seven years younger.
About that time, May 1932, if I remember aright, I received a telephone call from Wellington, telling me that it was proposed to send a commission of three women to enquire and to report upon female unemployment in the Dominion, and inviting me to be one of the women to undertake the work. A daughter, temporarily with us, was willing to run the home and my husband was, as usual, delighted that I should do such congenial work, so there was no bar to my accepting.
The commission was to visit all main centres and was authorised to give a certain amount of relief.
‘Your task,’ said Mr Coates who, as Minister of Unemployment,* spoke to us prior to our setting out, ‘is to see that no woman is without food and shelter. More we cannot offer. You will have some limited funds at your disposal but they must be used only where absolutely necessary and where you are unable to induce private charity to undertake the task. The relief must never be given directly, but always through organisations.’
The details of our work had been well planned. We made contact everywhere with the existing women's organisations. They helped splendidly and, as always, gratis. If the commission accomplished nothing spectacular it was certainly a highly necessary gesture. There is a type of public woman page 210 — a very vocal one — whose horizon is bounded by the grievances of her sex. Wherever such a woman can get an audience she voices her wrongs. The work of the small commission was so little known that on several occasions at the Women's Division Conference a shrill voice would demand apropos of nothing, ‘Why all this fuss about the unemployment of men? Why has nothing been done for women who have lost their jobs? Do we not need food? Do we not pay taxes?’
It was a great satisfaction to me to be able to state authoritatively and in detail exactly what had been done for women. As a matter of fact there was never a time in New Zealand when a decent woman need be without food and shelter and, as a rule, some sort of wage. In crises men come into their own as the protectors of women and there was always room for girls in domestic service. We look back and say that maids were ill paid and worse treated, but in saying so we are looking too far back. Already the attitude towards maids was changing and housewives were growing more reasonable.
We began work in the south and found that — especially in Dunedin — extensive charity had already been organised. But the ever-increasing applicants for relief made the problem too large for private handling. The scheme we were given to work upon was as follows. A town or city requiring Government help to cope with women's unemployment must elect a committee of reputable citizens, men and women. They must find a suitable building which should be converted temporarily into a domestic training school. Girls, unable to take housework because they had worked in shops and factories, were to receive an intensive training in housecraft. They were to be paid a sustenance wage of ten shillings a week, with three meals a day, provided at the kitchens and cooked by themselves under supervision. The course was to last six weeks after which time they were supposed to take any form of employment that could be found for them.page 211
The scheme was excellent — the local committees did their work well. The training kitchens were efficient, the girls came readily to take their ten shillings and gratis meals; but when they were asked to take domestic service, or indeed any service that took them from the part of the town with which they were familiar, they often refused point-blank.
‘What, me stuck over at St. Clair and me boy in Mornington? Not likely!’
And as for the country where they were needed, few indeed consented to go. That was indeed the last thing. Those who benefited from the scheme — and for whom it was probably worth while — were elderly, respectable, unattached women. For the most part these were not very strong and anything but efficient. They would now be on Social Security.
At the Auckland Training Centre I spoke to one of these who looked more capable than usual, about coming to me to work on the farm. She owned she was a married woman whose husband was out of work, and so not eligible for training. She said he was older than she and not fit for heavy work but could garden. She was not willing to be parted from him so I took them both as a married couple.
It was amusing, and not a little pathetic, to watch their shrinking gaze as the car left their populous and familiar haunts behind, and how the farmlands we thought so rich and beautiful were to them a barren horror. Our own farm is studded with outcrops of limestone rock which to us look like old ruined castles and add immensely to the picturesqueness of the landscape. They could not bear to look at these rocks — so bleak, they thought them. She proved an excellent woman in the house and he'was amiable, if not very useful in the garden; but the day — the very day — the stipulated six weeks expired they packed up and returned to Auckland. Probably she took another course in housewifery, which she did not need, with its accompanying page 212 ten shillings, which no doubt she did, endured another period of solitary incarceration in the country and repeated the routine till they were qualified to draw the old age pension.
Most towns welcomed the commission and were anxious for every form of relief that we were authorised to offer. Usually they found it little enough. The only exception was the West Coast. The magnates of the towns there met us courteously, offered hospitality, and told us politely that they were well able to look after their own destitute, and especially after their women. The Coast had always done so and hoped it would never fail in that duty.
As a sideline we visited, as a commission, the newly set up Youth Camps. These were a collection of well-pitched tents, wooden floored and boarded three feet up the sides. There was a fireplace in each and two comfortable bunks. There was also a large cookhouse or common-room where a man cook officiated. Firewood was provided and the boys received ten shillings a week pocket-money.
My city-bred colleagues were shocked at the amount of mud surrounding the camps and sent reports to the effect that loads of shingle were needed. I was less impressed.
Strange to say, these Youth Camps were, in the eyes of Labour, the Government's chief condemnation. Even to-day in political meetings one hears an interjecting voice shout, ‘Ten bob a week? That's your idea of a wage.’ Yet, compared with the small farmers whose land surrounded the camps, these boys were in the lap of luxury. The farmers received no ten bob a week. They never saw money. Every penny earned was already mortgaged to the dairy factory which allowed them the necessities of life — flour, tea, sugar, salt, soap. I won't say etceteras, for these were few indeed. Butcher's meat was to some unknown, unless the dairyman happened to run a few sheep. The boys of the camp, trooping back from their day's work to a good dinner at five o'clock, were keenly envied by these farmers. They (the page 213 farmers) were just getting in the cows for the important work of the day. It would be nine o'clock — what with milking, the evening meal, the children to put to bed, and the washing-up — before their day was done, and it had started two good hours earlier in the morning than that of the camp. You must remember that the only hope for ultimate prosperity lay in breaking-in the land and that for the most part they were living in temporary shelters rather than houses, working all the hours of daylight to clear the land and doing without every comfort. These poor conditions applied particularly to the King Country and were chiefly endured by those who had taken up the land without sufficient capital. This had been done in earlier times with success. We had seen it all round us in the Manawatu in the nineties, had even done it ourselves and had got away with it. The doctrine preached was that the wise labourer should save from his wages and buy land, thus relieving the labour market. Those who had succeeded were the shining examples for those who would grow rich in the 'twenties. They would lay down the law: ‘I saved out of a paltry wage of eight shillings a day, bought a small place, sold it, bought a larger, and so on. A man drawing to-day's wage should find no difficulty.’ Some men embarked on the farming venture heavily encumbered, trusting to the willing help of their families to see them through. They worked like galley-slaves and lived like coolies and when the limit of human endurance had almost been reached, there came, not prosperity, but the slump.
Some threw in the sponge: some hung on, submitting to an even lower standard of living. No wonder their hearts were filled with envy, malice and all uncharitableness at the sight of what they considered the pampered youth of the cities strolling home at five o'clock to a well-cooked dinner eaten to the sounds of jazz music, after a day's work that the farmer laughed at as child's play.
If all those optimistic settlers could, by any means, have page 214 been kept on their land, New Zealand would be reaping the benefit to-day and there would have been fewer disgruntled men and women among us.
The hardest cases of all were to be found among farmers in quite a sound position, so sound that though the money market had grown shy of land risks, they were still able to borrow further capital. These recognised that, at slump prices, the amount of stock they were carrying would not make profits. They therefore increased their indebtedness to break in more land. Fat stock for the local market was still almost holding its own, so they borrowed, to drain, clear or plough, put in turnips, buy stores, or whatever operation appeared at the time most hopeful. The crops were good, the stock fattened, but, alas, the market was glutted. The prices they were obliged to take spelt ruin, for fat stock can be kept no more easily than strawberries and the overseas market had gone.
Nor were dishonest agents, valuators, inspectors wanting to accentuate disaster. If, by reporting a man's case as hopeless, you drove him off his farm there would surely be pickings for the valuer. How was the farmer to know if his good two-tooths were replaced by culls at the sale, his own having changed hands beforehand at a private little deal between friends? Or, in a smaller way, his good brood mare might be replaced by a crock with three legs and a swinger, or a foal might lose itself before getting into the yards. True, the farmer might examine the accounts or even be present at the sale, but he seldom did. He was ruined already and his mind was on the new nook where fate or his efforts would toss him next. These men went out permanently embittered and the focus of their hatred was Gordon Coates; he was, they said, parroting every day that no farmer should be forced off his land and then setting his agents to do that very thing.
I remember my husband saying in this connection that the American practice of turning out the civil servants of the page 215 old Government when a new party came into power had a great deal to recommend it. Mr Coates — and earlier Mr Massey — was very ill served by his subordinates, probably because they owed their allegiance to a previous Government.
If the Farmers' Union, following the example of the trade and labour unions, had made it its business to investigate the case of every settler threatened with eviction and had set up a committee to fight the cause of those in a sound position, the union would have justified its existence for all time. Of what use is a union that cannot protect its members from victimization?
Another activity that was crying to be undertaken was work for the swaggers on the road, or such of them as genuinely wanted it. The roads were literally streaming with them. It was customary to jibe at this form of seeking employment but we sometimes forget that there was no alternative method established. They came in such numbers that they knew themselves the uselessness of asking for food from the cottages within a short distance of the road.
Happening to be in the Pio Pio store very early one morning I saw myself men who had slept on the roadside come into the store trembling with cold and asking for a smoke — just one cig. or a plug of tobacco. I marvelled that breakfastless men should give priority to a smoke, but the storekeeper told me that it was always so. With that stimulant they could trudge into Te Kuiti where depots were set up and meals available. I was able to do something for these men for, as a member of the Waikato Hospital Board, I had the right to distribute a certain number of meal-tickets and had not often been able to use them as we lived five miles from the village.
The absurdity was that these swaggers were daily passing the work they were looking for. There were still many farmers who wanted draining, scrub-cutting, ploughing. What, would have been simpler than to have had lists of page 216 jobs displayed in the store and to have paid the store's book-keeper to take the names and also the qualifications of the men as they passed through?
The Government eventually set up labour bureaux but only in the centres. If the Farmers' Union had set up small ones all over New Zealand it would have cleared the roads of all but the professional tramps who, indeed, were numerous enough.
Once, but this was later, when the Government had brought in the employment levy on all workers for the benefit of those who had no work, I picked up a lone swagger when driving from Hamilton. It was flouting all advice and instructions. It was supposed to be a most foolhardy thing to do. There had been cases where the stupid driver got knocked on the head and the car stolen for his pains. This, however, was a harmless-looking, slab-sided lout with a very small swag and his boots in the very last stages of disrepair. Enquiring about his destination and prospects, I found he had neither. He said that he could never take a job any more because he would have to show his work-book and show that he had paid his levies. He had no book and had paid nothing so he must just keep on walking and getting a meal for charity or in return for a bit of wood-chopping and then tramp on. He assured me that there were plenty of others on the road in the same plight. What strange results well-meant regulations can cause!
There was one other occasion when I disregarded advice and picked up a man on the road. It was night and the man ran up to the car and asked for a lift. His face in the light compelled me. It was young and drawn. He told me that he had heard of a billet in a bakery in New Plymouth which he could secure by presenting himself on the following morning. He had walked — or what we would now call hitch-hiked — from Auckland that day and would walk on all night, hoping for some lifts. With luck he would get there in time. He had a wife and two children and had not had a page 217 day's work for two years. There were many things said about the shiftlessness of the unemployed but they did not apply to this young man.
The towns were never as badly hit by the slump as the country. As an instance, the son of a well-known public man took his share of the patrimony and at the peak of the boom invested it in unimproved hill country not far from Pio Pio. The onslaught of the depression convinced him at once that the proposition was unsound and could never be made to pay. He quitted it immediately, losing everything but £300. He invested this remnant in a motor-garage in Hamilton and within five years had retrieved the whole of his loss made in land speculation. This sort of thing occurring all over the world naturally gave farming an evil name. The sons of a man who has lost heavily on land will find wisdom in sticking to the cities. They are more comfortable places to live in and grow more so every day.
* Name afterwards changed to ‘Employment’.