The Sydney Poor





© Warren Fahey


[From the Report of the Select Committee on the Condition of the Working Class. Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of N.S.W., I860.]

A large number of persons belonging to the working classes are at present, and have been for some time past, suffering much distress from want of employment. In too many instances this is [due to drunkenness] or improvidence on the part of the sufferers; but, supposing these cases to be undeserving of, or beyond relief, there are still left several distinct forms of distress, which cannot be so easily explained, and ought not to be found in a well-ordered and progressive state of society. As might be expected in so large a city as Sydney there are many persons of better education and social habits, who are reduced to much suffering for want of any kind of employment for which they are fitted, and who make their distress the more severe by their struggles to conceal it. And of this class there appears to be competent clerks and accountants, who cannot obtain situations.

Since the discovery of gold, the unsettled courses of many working men, and their frequent absences from home, seeking their fortunes at the diggings, have left numbers of women and families in Sydney without protection or any regular [income] and the consequence is a large amount of destitution and misery. There seems to be among those who have resided for any length of time in the city a feeling of unwillingness to accept employment as labourers in the country.

Some raise objections because there are no schools for their children; others have heard unfavourable reports from the interior and are [afraid] of ill treatment; and others again prefer the cheap and ever-present enjoy-ments of the town. It is also shown that some men will not accept reduced wages [and this] refusal appears to be dictated by the fear of permanently injuring their class by the reduction, and a feeling that they would not be more secure of future employment themselves, if the lower rate were submitted to. But in the face of this evidence there is the fact that wages have greatly receded—in some cases to about one-third of former rates—during the last few years; and it is to be admitted on one hand that neither the desire to keep up the present standard nor the feeling of reluctance to leave Sydney operates in all cases, while on the other, the prevalence of such feelings is strongly denied.

The house accommodation of the working classes of Sydney is admitted on all hands to be deplorably bad; even in the more recently erected dwellings the means of drainage and ventilation are almost entirely neglected, and many of the older tenements are so unfit for the occupation of human beings, that one witness declares them to be “past remedy without a general fire”. The opinions of several of the witnesses on this subject are quoted in their own words:—

The Inspector-General of Police: “Houses of very defective character both as to cleanliness and ventilation”.

The Health Officer: “I think they are worse than in any part of the world that I have seen—worse than in London”.

[From the Report of the Select Committee on the Condition of the Working Class. Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of N.S.W., I860.]