Between The Wars
In the early 1920s, Adelaide experienced a boom in house building and a rush of speculative subdivision on the suburban fringes. The War Service Housing scheme, administered through the State Bank of South Australia, assisted almost 8000 South Australian returned soldiers or their widows to find housing. Some were to live in a planned 'garden suburb', later named Colonel Light Gardens which was laid out to a design by the first government town planner, Charles Reade.
The skyline of central Adelaide gained a new symbol with the completion in 1926 of the T & G building, the city's first large office block. It dominated a King William Street thronged with electric tramcars, which had replaced the horse trams after 1909, and a growing number of automobiles.
In 1920, some 10,000 motor cars and 700 commercial vehicles were registered in South Australia. By 1929, their numbers had grown to 56,000 and 13,000 respectively. Integrated highway planning, abandoned when the Local Boards of Main Roads were abolished in 1887, was revived in 1926 with the appointment of a Commissioner of Highways. State and Federal revenues from petrol and motor taxes were to be devoted solely to road construction, initially in a programme of bituminous reconstruction of arterial highways within an 80 kilometre radius of Adelaide.
In the prosperous early 1920s, South Australia undertook an ambitious programme of railway reconstruction, re-equipment and extension. Capping this expensive investment was the completion in 1928 of the massive new Adelaide railway station. It symbolised both the dominance of the metropolis at the heart of its far-flung rural hinterland and the supremacy of the railway in the transport of people and goods.
Manufacturing industries also share in the general expansion. The number of factory employees increased from 20,000 in 1920 to 30,000 in 1926. However, with the onset of the Depression, it slid to a disastrous 16 600 in 1931 but returned to 30,000 in 1936. Most significant was the growth of the motor vehicle industry born during the war. In 1917, the saddlery firm of Holden and Frost, which began in the 1850s, was persuaded to build motor bodies for imported vehicles at its King William Street Premises. Following an agreement with General Motors Export Company of America in 1923, Holden and Frost moved to a site at Woodville, expanding its plant to 16 hectares and employing 5500 workers by 1926. In a similar arrangement, the carriage-building firm of T.J. Richards and Sons of Keswick, which was established in 1885, built motor bodies for cars imported by the American Chrysler Corporation. In 1926-27, these two Adelaide firms produced almost 54,000 motor bodies, the only significant manufacturing export from the State.
Three years of drought from 1927 proceeded the disastrous drop in world commodity prices in 1929 which reduced South Australia to an even more perilous condition that its neighbours. The expansionist programmes ceased abruptly, except that farmers were urged to cultivate even more land for wheat in a desperate attempt to maintain income in the face of falling prices. Even before the drought and the Depression, the soldier settlement scheme had resulted in some costly failures. Later official inquiries into the scheme found the causes of failure to be its administrative shortcomings, the lack of rigorous selection and training of would-be farmers, the poor design of irrigation blocks (which failed to consider seepage and salinity problems), and the allocation of dryland farms of uneconomic size. By 1929, one-third of the 4000 servicemen who had settled had left their blocks; many more were to leave in the next few years.
Before the onset of the Depression, South Australia already had the highest unemployment rate in Australia. In 1928, 15% of trade unionists were out of work, while in 1932, the worst year of the Depression, the figure was 34%. In the 1933 census, 27.6% of the male salary and wage earners and 13.7% of the much smaller female group identified themselves as unemployed. The rate of unemployment was highest in the metropolitan area and in some country towns; Wallaroo and Edithburgh were particularly sever 'black spots'. In the City of Adelaide, 41% of the male work force was unemployed, and 40% or more, in the working-class suburbs of Port Adelaide, Hindmarsh and Norwood. Even the suburbs of Brighton and Burnside recorded rates of 21% and 18% respectively.
In many rural areas, less than 10% marked in their census forms that they were 'unemployed'. The farmers practised frugality and worked harder to maximise their output. Some put their cars up on blocks and returned to horse travel. For the urban unemployed, there was only a meagre 'safety net' of weekly food coupons known as 'rations'. Local councils provided some work in gardens, parks and streets, but Federal and State governments seemed powerless to cope with the problems. Some of the homeless slept in the Adelaide Exhibition Building, erected in 1887 during a previous great depression. Other homeless set up flimsy huts of hessian on the banks of the River Torrens while in Port Augusta the unemployed took over a large group of concrete pipes in the railway yards, known as the Thousand Homes.
When the State celebrated the centenary of its foundation in 1936, the economic climate was slowly improving. The scourge of the Depression had forced its politicians, public servants and leading business people to reject their long-held assumption that the expansion of farming was the key to employment and prosperity. The State's new Auditor-General, J.W. Wainwright, was the most ardent advocate of a policy to stimulate industrial development, and won an enthusiastic convert in the Premier, Sir Richard Butler.
Wainwright argued that if South Australia was to overcome the disabilities of long distance from the main eastern markets for its manufactured goods and high cost of importing New South Wales coal for generating electricity, the government should offer incentives to manufacturers. As a first step, the government reduced company taxation rates and lowered wharfage rates on outbound goods, measures which may have persuaded General Motors-Holdens Ltd to remain at Woodville rather than move to Victoria. Further steps were the building of the Birkenhead bridge at Port Adelaide, the assistance to build a steel and concrete wharf to serve the Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd salt and alkali plant at Osborne, and the proclamation of the Lefevre Peninsula as a 'protected' industrial area. Government, business and the trade unions worked together harmoniously in moves to strengthen the State's manufacturing base and to ensure that not all the benefits flowing from Australia's tariff on imported manufactured goods went to firms in Sydney and Melbourne.
South Australia's planted forests greatly expanded during the inter-war period. Earlier plantings of a range of native and introduced timber species had demonstrated the marked superiority of Pinus radiata and the suitability of the South-East for growing this Californian softwood. After 1923, State forest plantings were financed from loans rather than revenue; for the next ten years annual plantings averaged more than 2000 hectares.
There were also considerable plantings by private softwood companies. A Swedish gang-saw mill was established at Mount Burr by the Woods and Forests Department in 1930, perhaps prematurely, but the enterprise was eventually justified, as plantings matured and the building industry recovered from the Depression.
The higher rainfall districts, especially the South-East with its trees and pasture, would in the future be a more important source of rural wealth for South Australia. In the 1930s, the degree of environmental damage and extent of farmer distress on the northern margins of the wheat-belt were becoming critical. Two parliamentary reports on the eve of the Second World War highlighted the problem.
The Report of the Soil Conservation Committee, in 1938 mapped the extent of soil erosion by wind and water. However, the committee was reluctant to identify as the cause the decades of too-frequent cultivation and excessive bare fallowing of wheat-fields. The practice of bare fallowing had been promoted by the Department of Agriculture's scientific advisers in the mistaken belief that it conserved a season's rainfall for the next season's crop. In the following two decades, much of the department's effort was to be directed towards the promotion of new conservational farming to arrest gully erosion and wind-drifts. The farmers were, for example, advised to replace fallows with legume pastures.
The Report of the Marginal Lands Committee in 1939 recognised the need to transfer many farmers to safer districts and to increase the size of properties on the northern margins so that wheat cultivation could be reduced and more livestock carried. The Committee identified 685,000 hectares as marginal. In these areas about 1270 settlers occupied land considered suitable for supporting only half of that number. In 1938, the Federal and State governments agreed to financial arrangements which encouraged many farmers in the marginal wheat areas of Australia to sell their properties to the State Governments; these properties were than amalgamated into fewer and larger farms. In South Australia, this reconstruction was largely accomplished during the Second World War. Hundreds of stone ruins now mark the sites of former homesteads established in the marginal lands from the 1870s to the 1920s.