During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Forests Commission ran a large unemployment program of firebreak slashing, building roads, erecting firetowers, silvicultural thinning, firewood cutting, weed spraying, soil erosion works and rabbit control. Importantly, most of the work was in country areas.
By 1935-36 almost 9000 men were employed for periods of up to eight weeks at a time. Their bush camps generally comprising 25 men with two-thirds being from the city. And despite the blisters, many remained in the country to make their future.
The Country Roads Board, State Rivers and Water Supply Commission and Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works also employed large numbers of men known as a sussos, which was slang for sustenance workers.
However, there was a special need to provide opportunities for young people.
Newspapers warned of long-term consequences of enforced idleness of youth of the Nation, claiming that if nothing was done “many would become permanently unemployable and would settle down to a life on the dole or turn to crime”…
With the support of two prominent Melbourne businessmen and philanthropists, Herbert Robinson Brookes and George Richard Nicholas (of Aspro fame), together with Forests Commission Chairman, A. V. Galbraith and the Minister for Forests, Sir Albert Lind, a unique and enterprising “Boys Camp” was established at Noojee in 1933.
The Commission provided a timber hall and other facilities, but the boys camped in tents and there was initially no electricity. Commission officers also supervised thinning and ringbarking of young stands of messmate, silvertop and mountain ash together with fire protection works on the 2000 acres of private land purchased and donated by Brookes and Nicholas.
Groups of about 30 young boys, aged between 16 and 19, were at the camp at any one time and were paid at rates applicable to Forests Commission workers, but money was deducted for food, accommodation and medical support. And if they didn’t work… they didn’t get paid.
The idea was a success and extended across Victoria to another 15 sites including a second camp at Noojee.
By June 1934, the Forests Commission ran Boys Camps at Noojee (X2), Bruthen, Bairnsdale, Powelltown, Acheron/Marysville, Gunbower Island, Otways, St Arnaud, Maryborough, Bendigo, Beechworth, Macedon, Daylesford and Ballarat.
Some 1276 boys had passed through the camps by 1936.
For many, it was their first experience of country life and Boys Camp proved one of the success stories of the 1930s and it was later reported two-thirds of the boys found employment.
With the outbreak of the War in September 1939, there was no longer a need for a youth unemployment program, but some of the camps were used by high school and university students to produce emergency firewood for Melbourne until 1942.
After the war, the Noojee camp was once again occupied as a temporary home for immigrants fleeing Europe. But all trace is now gone.