Academic journal article Queensland Review

'Skilful Handling and Scientific Treatment': The Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane during the Great Depression

Academic journal article Queensland Review

'Skilful Handling and Scientific Treatment': The Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane during the Great Depression

Article excerpt

During the Global Financial Crisis of 2009, many commentators drew parallels with the Great Depression of the 1930s. While the suffering of those Australians affected by the recent economic turmoil cannot be dismissed, the impact of the Global Financial Crisis on the nation as a whole was modest compared with that of the Great Depression. The levels of unemployment that were reached during the Depression, and the ensuing poverty and social turmoil, would be unlikely to occur today on the same scale due to welfare provisions set in place by government and charitable institutions.

From its outset, the Great Depression had a profound and significant impact on Australian society. It looms large in the memory of many and left an indelible mark on an entire generation. The major consequence of the Depression was a severe downturn in economic conditions, which led to large-scale unemployment and drastically reduced the living standards of a considerable number of Australians. For the first time, many people needed to resort to government welfare and private charity to survive and make ends meet. In the words of the secretary of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) of Brisbane, 'families, who had never dreamed that they would ever need to seek assistance, have been compelled to make their wants known'. (1) This article focuses on the charitable work undertaken by the Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane during the years of the Depression, drawing from the extensive archival material available on the organisation, including correspondence, monthly and annual reports as well as the individual case files of charity recipients. It also traces and examines the ideology that underpinned the COS's work and the impact it had on the mechanisms of charity relief.

Governments and charitable institutions played a major role in the amelioration of poverty caused by the Depression. Welfare and charitable policies in Australia at the beginning of the Great Depression still, in many ways, embodied many colonial and mid-Victorian attitudes towards the poor. These policies also reflected the notions of care and control that were inherent in welfare and charity. Notions of care were most evident in the provision of welfare and charitable relief in the form of cash payments and in rations. Notions of control were less obvious, but still present, in the stringent assessment practices of both government and charitable institutions. These policies had a profound impact on the lives of individuals who became subject to them.

As the economic impact of the Great Depression deepened across Queensland, the Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane (COS) noted in one of its Annual Reports that 'no government is able to do everything and it rightly expects the community to do its share'. (2) The COS recognised the need for a concerted and combined effort, both with government and other charitable organisations, to solve the growing problems caused by the Depression. The COS, like many other charitable institutions in the city, had mobilised all the resources at its disposal in an attempt to alleviate the conditions of the poor and unemployed since the earliest days of the Depression. These organisations assisted many of those individuals who had fallen through the cracks of the government's welfare system. Nonetheless, throughout its operations during the years of the Depression, the COS continued to stress the primacy of its own unique approach to charity as the most efficient method to assist the poor.

On 30 June 1932, the office holders of the Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane met for their Annual General Meeting. The economic turmoil that enveloped Brisbane and Australia at large had made the previous year the busiest in the organisation's history. Amongst the dignitaries gathered for the occasion was the newly appointed Governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Orme Wilson. In his speech that evening, Sir Leslie succinctly summarised the organisation's attitudes and methods when he declared that the Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane eliminated 'the danger of indiscriminate giving which often did more harm than good'. …

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