Unemployment Relief Work
FCV - Neerim South
(Derived from notes made by Jim McKinty about his experiences in Neerim South in 1937.)
The Forests Commission had gained a reputation for providing labour-intensive works for untrained men at short notice. The type of works were generally of a silvicultural nature, being, principally:
- thinning – removing stems not required in final crops: to provide growing space and additional moisture for the retained stems; to remove undesirable species; or, as in the case of the Mount Disappointment Forest, to manipulate the species-mix to create pure stands of Messmate
- second thinning – as above, but at a later date
- coppicing – similar to thinning by the knocking of suckers and attempting to kill unwanted stumps in thinned stands
- cleaning – removing competing scrub from pole-sized stands of valuable timber to increase growth
- ring-barking – to kill defective trees over-topping useful pole-sized stands; or to induce seed-fall on areas cleared of regrowth.
Funds were supplied from Commonwealth-State Aid, Unemployment Relief Funds, the National Recovery Loan or the Forestry Fund.
Men were allotted by municipal authorities to go wherever the funds had been made available. Some unemployed men were despatched to towns where the level of unemployment was low – such as to Creswick where they drew rations and prospected for ‘spuds’ of gold while waiting to be called up for work. The size of the ‘intake’ could vary – usually between 10 and 20 men – depending on the funds available. Single men were committed for a certain number of weeks; married men for a longer period, and youths for about the same period as single men.
The conditions of employment were under the scrutiny of the Australian Workers Union and the men required to camp in the forest were provided:
1 tent, 2 chaff bags, 1 billy, 1 tent fly, straw, 1 fry-pan, 3 sheets of corrugated iron, 2 blankets, S-hooks, floor boards, 1 wash dish, toasting fork, boards for a table top, hurricane lamp.
Shower bucket, wet-weather gear, kerosene supply, 4-gallon tin, bucket, first-aid kit, phenyle, washing copper and stand.
Fern hook, files/whetstone, grindstone, heavy slashers, portable forge, axe, maul and wedges (replacement handles were cut from bush poles), anvil.
The men would be bussed (often in a furniture van) to the area where they were to work then placed under the control of the Forests Officer. They were supervised and their work inspected by two or three regular ‘permanent’ employees, one of whom was well trained in silvicultural works.
On 28th April 1937, 18 men from the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine arrived in a furniture van at the Neerim South Forests Office. They had been offered relief work while the mine infrastructure was being repaired following a tragic explosion. Quite a few were tipsy, several were edgy and hostile. Most of them filed into the office to enrol - to give their name and dependent’s address, and to lodge an order for meat and groceries. Several, however, went to the toilet behind the office and store sheds. Jim found that they had quietly looted the store and loaded six tents into the van which was due to return to Wonthaggi. Proceedings were halted, and all were sacked and ordered back into the van for return to Wonthaggi. After the sensible men had the culprits return the gear to the store and apologise to the Forests Officer, the draft proceeded. A contractor then loaded them onto his truck, collected their parcels of provisions from the stores in the town then took them to a prepared camp-site in the forest at Neerim East. While assigning the men to the tents, the camp boss mistook Jim for one of the party and directed him to a tent.
When the local stores lodged their accounts at the Forests Office for payment for the meat and groceries, it was found that 19 orders had been placed for the 18 men who had gone to the camp. Jim was assigned the task of resolving the matter. He started by looking for similarities in handwriting. When he found two men (and only two) who had ordered “sauges” from the butcher, the case was solved and the man concerned had to accept a debit against his next order and not have a discussion with the Police.
On July 14th, after 10 weeks carrying out stand improvement works, the gang was paid off and transported back to Wonthaggi. They took with them items collected from the forest, including tree ferns and parrots in bush-made crates. A fortnight later, a new gang arrived, the camp re-occupied, and the work continued.
There was only one instance known to Jim in which one of the men brought his wife and new-born child with him to Neerim as they had been unable to find suitable accommodation elsewhere. They were allocated a tent separated from the all-male camp.
Other camps were operating concurrently with that in Neerim – at Jindivick, Labertouche, at Flatman’s old mill site on the Upper Latrobe River, and two ‘Boys’ Camps’ at Noojee. A “lad foreman” at these camps (Bill Fisher) subsequently became a full-time Overseer with the Forests Commission and had a long and successful career.
In the Mountain Ash regrowth forest on Hell’s Gate Range, all the scrub and litter was cut by hand and burned to benefit the growth of the Ash stems and to protect them from ground fire. Wet soaks traversed by walking tracks were corduroyed with fallen tree ferns – which eventually regrew fronds that had to be slashed. The men retained a patch of scrub around a high Ash stag to protect a lyrebird which was nested on the stump and was semi-tamed by the men.
On pay-day (13th May), three of the men at Flatman’s mill obtained liquor from Noojee and became “nasty and obnoxious” and had to be sacked to maintain discipline. Most of the men, however, were of a serious disposition and did the best they could. Jim saw a one-armed man painfully wielding an axe to ringbark the huge Messmate culls (his signature on his pay slip was an ‘X’). One man refused to accept delivery of registered letters which occasionally were directed to him. Another at Neerim camp had two names and it was not possible to sort out which man it was.
As well as supervising the works, paying the men, their store accounts and their allotments to their wives was a constant office effort and entailed regular visits and miles of walking to the camps and work sites. When Jim bought his motorcycle it was pressed into use – Jim travelled to Iona, Bunyip and Warragul Hospital to pay men not in the forest; he transported a man from Hell’s Gate to the Police station for a witness statement; and an injured man from Flatman’s camp and another from Neerim Junction to Warragul Hospital.
The supply of water to the camps was important and as far as possible streams or springs were tapped; water being brought to camp in channels of bark stripped from poles. In dry country, cooking and drinking water would be carted to a tank in the camp; a nearby dam provided washing water.
Although showers were set up for personal hygiene, the nature of the work and close confinement saw a prevalence of skin complaints. The damp from the vegetation and sweat caused rashes, called ‘scrub-itch’ on the elbows and armpits; ‘nettle-rash’ (‘dogwood itch’ or, north of the Divide, ‘ironbark-itch’) or hives was common as was Tinea transmitted from the boards of the communal showers. There was always a danger of ‘The Itch’ (Scabies) caused by a parasitic mite, or infestations of head or body lice which could be transmitted from the toilets – which comprised poles for squatting over open pits. In one case when body lice were found and the means of combatting them were being discussed, one of the men suggested that he had a “blue ointment” which might help. “Oh! Have you!” Was the reaction, and he got rough treatment for bringing the complaint into the camp. In the Ash forests, the workers were plagued by leeches, and in East Gippsland they could be attacked by ticks.
During the Second World War, areas which had been treated by the relief workers began to yield produce towards aspects of the war effort:
- Pole-sized thinnings were converted to foot-long blocks, loaded into rail trucks at country sidings and railed to Melbourne to provide domestic firewood (as occurred at Mount Disappointment Forest where Peppermint had been cut out to produce pure stands of Messmate).
- Where ringbarking had been carried out, the timber was cut into billets and fed into on-site charcoal retorts to produce fuel for the gas-producers fitted on cars that were used for commerce and recreation. Retorts were set up in such places as Red Knob in Nowa Nowa and Gunbower.
The works carried out were recorded on plans and records of the operational costs maintained. It was possible to use this information to ensure that the price for the produce was adequate when it was sold.