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U3A Writing: Hobos

...According to my very favourite historian, Russell Ward, "Australia suffered from the depression rather earlier and more severely than most countries". Russell says, "For a time nearly 30% of breadwinners were unemployed. Long queues of men would be seen seeking one job and thousands tramped bush roads with a swag and billy."
Mildura in the harvest season, with hundreds of acres of sultanas to be picked, dried and packed, became a Mecca to these people. There were few cars that made the 600 km trip from Melbourne on those rough dusty roads so mostly the journey was made on shanks's pony or by "riding the rattler", which meant jumping into an empty freight carriage and hoping not to be caught by a railway security guard...

Ken Carr tells of hobos - most of them good family men who had become victims of an economic crash.

My Mum was a product of middle-class inner suburbia, who, at the age of 24, arrived in Mildura to marry my Dad. The fact that she stayed for nearly 15 years makes her, in my opinion at least, a hero.

From her genteel upbringing in North Fitzroy, where among other relative comforts, they had gas stoves, paved streets, sewered toilets, and shops that sold whatever took your fancy, she settled in Irymple, one of Mildura's satellite towns, a place that at that time would have seemed like the wild, wild west.

My father's arrival in Mildura had preceded my mother's by a few months. Engaged to be married, but unable get work in Melbourne due to the depression of the 1920's, - a forerunner to the big depression of the 1930's, - Dad had, as a last resort, successfully applied for a box-making job at the Irymple Packing Company, and had gone north to 'test the water' so to speak, before Mum's arrival.

As they made their plans Mildura seemed to both of them, like the end of the earth. They realised that they would be isolated from friends and family by 600 kilometres of dusty, mainly unmade roads or a twelve-hour train trip, and they had heard plenty about the lack of suburban comforts. They had also heard of the day-after-day 100-degree heat in the summer and the wild dust storms that often accompanied the prevailing northerlies.

Mildura is now a thriving regional city with all the modern facilities for first class living, but to my parents, and others who came in those almost pioneering times, it was hard going, and I reckon it was only a combination of love and desperation that led them to the town that was ultimately to be my birth place.

According to my very favourite historian, Russell Ward, "Australia suffered from the depression rather earlier and more severely than most countries". Russell says, "For a time nearly 30% of breadwinners were unemployed. Long queues of men would be seen seeking one job and thousands tramped bush roads with a swag and billy."
Mildura in the harvest season, with hundreds of acres of sultanas to be picked, dried and packed, became a Mecca to these people. There were few cars that made the 600 km trip from Melbourne on those rough dusty roads so mostly the journey was made on shanks's pony or by "riding the rattler", which meant jumping into an empty freight carriage and hoping not to be caught by a railway security guard.

Some of these itinerates were able to scrape together enough cash to buy a ticket on the train, but few had enough left for food or accommodation. Many spread their swag by the river and did the rounds begging for food, until they were able to get a job picking grapes on one of the fruit blocks. Those with wives and children back in the city would most likely send a goodly part of their earnings home.

The dole didn't really exist. The government provided sustenance relief, better known as "The Susso". It was a bit like "Work for the dole", but it went only to those in the worst circumstances and provided for very little. For some reason we called these men "hobos", which was an American term, while others gave them the good old Aussie title of "swaggie".

Most of the hobos were good, honest family men who had simply been caught up in an economic crisis that was not of their making, and over which they had no control. They were often forced to beg for food from those who had work. Few were refused at least a sandwich and a cup of tea. There were of some course that took advantage of such kindness, but my mum thought she had them pegged.

"George," she said to my dad when he arrived home from work one day. "Some of these people who come begging for food aren't really hungry at all. Two of them called today and pitched a story about how desperate they were for food. I cut them some sandwiches, but later, as I walked down the street, I saw them picking out the bread and jam, before throwing those away and eating the meat ones"

"Well, Beryl" Dad replied, "next time show the b...s the axe. If they are really hungry they won't mind chopping a bit of wood to earn their keep".

Hot and all as Mildura was in the picking season, there was always wood to be cut for the kitchen stove or the copper and Mum was a slave to both. Unlike in her previous life in suburban Fitzroy where cooking was done on gas, in Irymple, like all the other mothers, Mum was forced to prepare our meals in a kitchen where the often 100 degree natural heat was added to by a continuously burning one-fire stove.

Not that the kitchen was my mother's only sweatshop work place in the summer.
The washhouse, usually a tin shed at the back of the house, contained a copper set in a brick fireplace where the fire was lit to boil water for washing the clothes every Monday. Monday was washing day. It was almost a ritual. Even if Tuesday promised to be 20 degrees cooler, the washing had to be done on Monday, and when Monday came you could bet that Mum would be in the washhouse, using a stick to stir the dirty clothes, as she leaned over a steamy copper full of boiling water, while the hot sun beat down on the tin roof.

Anyhow back to the hobos, and the wood heap, the place where Mum reckoned that she could sort out the good guys from the free-loaders.

After her experience with the blokes who threw away the jam sandwiches, Mum was determined to do the wood cutting test before she gave away any of the food bought with Dad's hard earned wages. On each occasion that a tramp came looking for a feed and a cuppa she would lead him to the wood heap with instructions to keep cutting while she prepared the sandwiches and boiled the kettle.
There were a few that suddenly lost their hunger, but then again, I don't remember Dad having to cut wood in the picking season.

Despite Mum's vigilance, however, there was one that got under her guard.
"Blimey missus I'm desperate," was his opening pitch as Mum opened the door to his knock, "I've walked all the way from Melbourne looking for work so that my wife and kids can eat. It's been weeks since I have seen them, so I don't know how they are. I want to write to them, but I haven't got twopence for a stamp."

What mother could resist him? Wiping a tear from her eye Mum forgot the wood heap and invited the man to sit on the verandah and have a cool drink while she made something to eat and found her purse.

Soon our worthy hobo was on his way out of the gate with his stomach full of cheese and lettuce sandwiches and a slice of Mum's fruitcake, and with two pennies jangling merrily in his trousers pocket.

As for Mum, she felt like the Boy Scout who had done a whole week of good deeds in one day. "George," she said over dinner that night, "it really gives you a good feeling to help someone who cares for his family. I just know that that man will feel much better now that he can write home".

Ah well, it's good to feel good, even if the feeling lasts only for a day.

When Mum spoke about the episode to Mrs Nice, her next-door neighbour, the following day she was informed that Mrs Nice had also opened her purse and parted with tuppence, as had my aunty Bertha who lived two houses away, and, as it turned out, had about half the women in Irymple.

"Some letter it was," said Mrs Oliver, one of the many victims. "It was shaped like a wine bottle and wrapped in a brown paper bag. I saw him with it beside the railway line at the back of our place. Had it up to his lips, but I can assure you he wasn't licking a stamp".

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