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Camping along the Torrens

Helen Mayo Park (Park 27)

In the City of Adelaide during the Great Depression, it was estimated that around 100-200 men were camping along the river, stretching from the Adelaide Zoo to the Torrens Weir.

photo-icon Camps of the unemployed on banks of Torrens, State Library of South Australia, B 7325, circa 1937
photo-icon Flooded tents along the Torrens, State Library of South Australia, B 5993, circa 1931
photo-icon South Bank of the Torrens, State Library of South Australia, B 5800, circa 1930

Adelaide saw continual development following European settlement, apart from the depression in the 1840s and the 1890s. The discovery of copper reserves in the north of the state increased its prosperity. The city's streets and buildings developed, with its population peaking at around 1915, at 43,000 people.

The South Australian government's spending and borrowing between 1919-1929 were higher than other Australian states per capita. Simultaneous severe local drought events led to depressed conditions in the state, before the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 (also known as the Great Depression). This affected Adelaide and the rest of Australia, leading to high unemployment rates. The Bureau of Census and Statistics indicated that by the end of 1930, almost 30% of the workforce in Adelaide was unemployed. The level of unemployment in Adelaide from 1927 to 1935 was projected to be higher than any other capital city during this difficult period.

The average unemployed person faced continual struggles to find adequate food, clothing and shelter. As a result, many resorted to erecting camps in public spaces, especially single men. When not struggling to find work, these men often grouped together in camps along the river. It was even reported that large numbers of unemployed men camped along the river from the city to the Adelaide Hills in the hopes of uncovering gold, as a method of "getting rich quick".

Throughout the Great Depression, it was estimated that around 100-200 men were camping along the river, stretching from the Adelaide Zoo to the Torrens Weir. Some even camped behind police barracks and cemeteries, took shelter on government-owned land or used empty rail carriages as refuge. Most did not have the bare necessities. so dire was the situation that in 1927, one reported noted: "... no sanitary arrangements are visible and one can hardly describe what an atmosphere pervades the place. Every necessity of physical cleanliness and mere decency is missing". Men who camped in Adelaide were often being harassed and moved on by police.

The State Government intervened in 1928. They sought to break up the camps and push all single, unemployed men into the country in search of work, as these camps were seen as "an embarrassment". In 1930 the Unemployed Relief Council was established to house the homeless ad unemployed in the Exhibition Building (demolished in 1962), with numbers reaching 450 men. Other charitable organisations, benevolent societies, churches and individuals also sheltered the unemployed. in 1938, the last of the camps were finally removed.

The River Torrens is called "Karrawirra Pari" (Red Gum Forest River) in the Kaurna language. The Kaurna people are the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the Adelaide Plains.

City of Adelaide acknowledges the traditional Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pays respect to Elders past and present. We recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. We acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today. We also extend that respect to other Aboriginal Language Groups and other First Nations.

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