By Christine Bramble
I learnt recently that work will begin soon to (yet again) make a start on renovating the former Newcastle Post Office, that grand but sadly neglected Federation era sandstone building on the corner of Hunter and Bolton Streets. In preparation for the work the colonnade has been fenced off to deter the homeless from sleeping there. This latest episode in its history reminded me of the role that the Post Office has played in almost one hundred and ten years and how its treatment by government since its closure is a metaphor for another kind of neglect.
At the time that it was built and throughout the twentieth century the Post Office was an important piece of community infrastructure supporting communication for commerce and for private individuals. This was where you went to buy stamps and send letters and postcards, business letters, bills and telegrams before the age of electronic communications. By virtue of this role and its dominance in the streetscape it was – and is – a landmark, during the Great War an easily identifiable meeting point for displays of patriotism such as marches. This is why a memorial to Newcastle men who died in that conflict was installed outside the Post Office in 1916.
There is no way of knowing whether any of the homeless people evicted from the Post Office colonnade in 2017 were returned soldiers from Australia’s more recent involvement in overseas conflict. But there is no doubting that war is a great disrupter of lives and often leads to homelessness. Something that ought to disappoint every Australian during the centenary years of the Great War, when more than half a billion dollars is being spent by Australian governments and corporations on the commemoration – far more than any other participating country – is that the emphasis of commemoration has been on battlefields and heroes and has almost completely ignored the wider story of the war.
Long before the Armistice in 1918 soldiers deemed medically unfit began returning to Australia. They were often unable to find work either on account of illness and disability or high unemployment caused by the global downturn in trade. The war at sea made it more difficult for goods such as coal to be moved around the world and exports to enemy nations were curtailed. Unemployment made it more difficult for people to afford suitable housing. One reason for the difficulty in finding accommodation was profiteering by some landlords who sold their properties for a profit then invested in War Loans which were free of taxation. This reduced the stock of housing for rental and pushed up prices. Times of crisis bring out the best and the worst …
One solution to providing both homes and work for returned men was the Soldier Settlement Scheme. In NSW the state and commonwealth governments combined to create one such at Frenches Forest in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney. Here volunteers worked to build houses for homeless soldiers who were eligible for loans to buy small holdings that would support them and their families. Many other settlements of this sort were established throughout the country over the years. They were on the whole not a success. Some who took up land had no previous experience of farming; the nineteen-twenties in Australia was beset with especially extreme weather; and often the land provided was not really suitable for small-scale agriculture.
In 1919 the Australian Army had the task of repatriating several hundred thousand men from various theatres of war. Newspapers began reporting on groups of returned soldiers sleeping rough in the public places of the big cities and towns, a situation that continued for years. In Sydney it was the Domain. Under the headline “Homeless and Starving” it was reported that in May 1922 – three and a half years after the end of the War – thirty returned soldiers were sleeping in the Domain and that the Red Cross was stretched to breaking point in attempting to feed them. In the short term the NSW Government stepped in to provide more funding for the Red Cross. One of those sleeping in the Domain was hauled before Sydney Police Court on a charge of begging. He told the Court that he had walked all the way from Queensland, looking for work along the way without success and that he had sometimes not eaten for three days. The Commonwealth government was eager to send Australians to the horrors of the Western Front but there were no effective plans for their long-term care and rehabilitation on their return. And all too often the solution defaulted to the hands of voluntary organisations. The Limbless Soldiers Association of NSW resorted to fundraising concerts towards paying for a hostel for those of its members who were homeless.
It was not only returned men who became homeless as a result of Australia’s involvement in the Great War. In May 1917 the Sydney Sunday Times featured the story of a mother of four whose husband had joined the AIF. With no breadwinner to support her family she was living in a humpy, described as a “poor, makeshift tumbledown of a house”. For people of “enemy alien” status it could also be difficult to find work and accommodation. Communities on the Allied side of the conflict were outraged when a German submarine sank the American passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, with the loss of 1,200 lives. The truth was that the liner was carrying armaments as well as civilians and was thus a legitimate military target, but the censors didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good bit of propaganda. As a result some industries in Australia went on strike until any Germans in the workforce had been sacked. This was the fate of mine worker Bruno Domke who in June 1915 was sentenced in Newcastle Court to two weeks in gaol for vagrancy.
Perhaps the saddest story of homelessness amongst returned soldiers from the Great War comes from the German side of the conflict. By the end of 1918 the German economy was on its knees and its government in a poor position to provide meaningful help to returned men. The London Times Berlin correspondent reported that a returned German soldier, unable to find a cottage, had put skills learnt in the trenches to good use by building himself a dugout in a field. So just as our once proud post office has been effectively abandoned to the elements, governments and communities wave off the young and the strong as heroes to fight on their behalf but when they return damaged in body or in spirit either cannot or will not care for them.
The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do purport to represent the opinions of any other member of the Hunter Writers Centre.
[i] Honest History website: David Stephens, http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/stephens-david-constructing-emotions-centenary-spend/ & Douglas Newton http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/newton-douglas-first-world-war-centenaries-that-really-matter-are-looming/
[ii] Daily Herald (Adelaide, SA : 1910 – 1924), Thursday 4 March 1920, page 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/106503069
[ii] State Library of NSW, Soldier Settlement Schemes & Emma Brown, ABC Country Hour “First World War veterans faced ‘ongoing battle’ with farm resettlement scheme”
[iv] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Wednesday 17 May 1922, page 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223949010 Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Tuesday 16 May 1922, page 7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20543748; Northern Standard (Ulverstone, Tas. : 1921 – 1923), Saturday 20 May 1922, page 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article232741490
[v] Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), Saturday 15 July 1922, page 9, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article54008031
[vi] Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 29 July 1921, page 10, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15933244
[vii] Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sunday 27 May 1917, page 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122789373
[viii] The Guardian Australia, 1 May 2014, “Lusitania divers warned of danger from war munitions in 1982, papers reveal”, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/01/lusitania-salvage-warning-munitions-1982; National Archives UK, “Propaganda 1914-1918”, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/g6/background.htm; Bramble C, “What will you give? – The Home Front”, in Broadmeadow to Villers-Bretonneux, Newcastle Regional Museum 2002, pp38-39
[ix] Reported in Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), Monday 21 March 1921, page 1, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84745193