An interesting and amusing memoir of a Melbourne boy growing up during the Depression is the book The Palace of Signs: memories of hard times and high times in the Great Depression by Keith Smith, published in 1991.

Keith was born in Melbourne in 1917 and lived in Northcote, attending Northcote High School. At the age of 13, during the Depression, he was forced to leave school because his parents (who believed in free education) refused to pay his school fees (2 pounds per term) which had accumulated to 12 guineas.

He filled in his time at home for a few months then worked briefly at a Northcote foundry. It was heavy work for a skinny thirteen year old so he was grateful when he obtained an apprenticeship as a signwriter. He thought that when he left school his education was over but, he says, after gaining the apprenticeship, it really began.


Smith worked in A C Mence building, Elizabeth Street east.

Smith worked as a signwriter in the A C Mence building, Elizabeth Street east, H36133/487

He tells amusing stories about working in the city. Here he describes trying to place a fifteen foot Father Christmas on Foy’s building (p.176):

‘With another apprentice I climbed out of a window on the first floor and balancing ourselves precariously on a narrow ledge behind the cut-out and above the heads of shoppers below, started to untie the wires that held the thing in place…It took us half an hour to unfasten all the wires then Bill went downstairs to the street…when suddenly, without warning, a gust of wind caught the figure…While Bill watched, horrified, the merry old gent took off, with me still hanging on to the loops behind…over Bourke Street. There were loud screams from shoppers but it glided past them and…levelled out over the road, missing cars and lorries by inches  and finally made a gentle landing with me flat out underneath it.’

An article from The Argus, January 1931, on an unemployment demonstration

The Argus, Tuesday 13 January, 1931

In his 2003 book Australian battlers remember: the Great Depression, Smith recalls, on page nine, the domestic realities of the Depression:

‘Spending money on frequent haircuts was out of the question for most. The ‘basin cut’ was in, especially for one’s children. Boot and shoe repairs? Most families became cobblers. Home remedies for illnesses? Camphor Ice, Bidomka and Clements Tonic…Some mothers made soap of their own left-over kitchen dripping, mixed with one or two cheap chemicals. Toothpaste? Plain salt was quite popular.’

 Photograph taken of "The Elevator", the Salvation Army men's hostel, Bourke Street, Melbourne, ca. 1930

 Salvation Army Elevator, H25418

After serving in New Guinea and the Solomons during the World War II he moved to Sydney and became well-known in radio and later compered and produced children’s television programs including A word from children, as this 1955 article from the The Australian Women’s Weekly highlights.

Smith also wrote several books for children. He died in Sydney on 2 June, 2011 aged 93, and an obituary was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Library holds many resources on Australia’s Depressions, including oral histories, diaries and books.

Written by Gerry Brody
Librarian, Australian History and Literature Team

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