The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to a worldwide economic collapse, which quickly spread to the Australian economy and signalled the beginning of the “Great Depression”.
At its worst in 1932, unemployment in Australia reached 32 percent, but this figure did not include women who had lost their jobs or teenagers who had never had one.
To relieve the distress caused by unemployment the Victorian Parliament established a sustenance relief fund.
Many families depended on these government payments and were called “sussos”, which was slang for sustenance.
Payments were only available for the truly destitute, who had been unemployed for a sustained period, and had no assets or savings.
Sustenance payments were made of 8s 6d per week for a man and wife, with an additional 1s 6d per week for each additional child, up to a maximum of 20s 6d per week. By 1932, more than 60,000 people depended on sustenance payments
And individuals receiving sustenance were obliged to work.
A central Unemployment Relief Works Board was formed to assess projects, and allocate money, while local relief committees were created throughout Victoria.
Forests Commission work, unlike major infrastructure projects like the Yarra Boulevard or Melbourne’s water mains, was considered very effective because most of the money was spent on labour, with only about 5 percent on materials.
It also provided much needed employment for rural communities, it could be quickly mobilised, and could employ large numbers of city and country men doing unskilled manual labour.
Other large state government agencies in rural areas such as the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Country Roads Board and the Victorian Railways also ran successful susso programs.
Although it must be said that the unemployment relief program was plagued by political interference, with largess flowing to marginal electorates and party supporters of the Ministers choosing.
Men employed by the Forests Commission often did silvicultural works like thinning, ringbarking and coppicing to release new growth, as well as firebreak construction, road works, nursery work and plantation establishment.
The works were arranged and supervised by Commission overseers.
But there was a certain irony to these susso programs during the Great Depression. Thin royalty revenues from the sale of sawlogs and forest products restricted the funds available to the Commission for much needed fire protection and silvicultural works.
The slump in revenue also led to the retrenchment of staff at the same time as the Commission had to manage the employment of large number of relief workers.
During 1931-32 a total of 5,735 men were employed on forest works. They mostly included married men. The total FCV expenditure from unemployment relief funds on forest works was £11,870 3s. 5d.
The following year, in 1932-33, unemployment relief funds gave work to 8,792 men, for periods up to 8 weeks. The total expenditure grew to £205,645.
The need for unemployment relief funds diminished by 1939-40 with the start of WW2.
Between 1931 and 1943 the Forests Commission spent approximately £1.5 million pounds and employed about 51,300 people. Some may have been employed more than once, and in different locations.
Better still, some of the men proved very capable and well suited to forestry work and found ongoing employment on the crew or as overseers with the Commission.
It took almost ten years for the Australian economy to recover from the Great Depression, but it affected people deeply for decades to come. It also radically changed economic thinking and policy in Australia. There were other smaller relief programs over the subsequent decades