Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Build on: Armidale Teachers' College survives the Great Depression

The Parthenon on the Hill. "You are very fortunate to be in such a nice institution", Minister Davies is reported to have told students, somewhat reluctantly. This is the sixth in Jim Belshaw's series exploring the early days of tertiary education in New England. 
Armidale, March 1936. The weather was unsettled, threatening the forthcoming Armidale Show. Up at the College on the hill, the corridors were thronged with new and returning students and College staff.

Now established, the Armidale Teachers’ College was well on its way to becoming a jewel in the crown of NSW education. And yet its very survival had been at risk just six years before.

As work got on the new College building in the first half of 1929, few realised just how vulnerable Australian had become to international downturn. Import competition within the domestic market was increasing. Government public works funded by heavy overseas borrowings – fifty million ponds in 1928 alone – meant that ever more export income had to be used to pay interest and dividends to overseas investors; by 1927-28 these totaled 28 per cent of export income.

New South Wales was particularly vulnerable. It was already affected by growing import competition, while the growth in its metropolitan population, and hence the numbers in building, construction and public services, had been particularly marked.

In 1929, the worst possible combination of events happened. Export prices fell, while overseas borrowings stopped as a consequence of the closure of the London capital market to Australia.

In March and April 1929 as the building contract was let and work commenced, the State's London overdraft rose to three to four million pounds.. By June, the State was in a financial vice which tightened as the year proceeded: Not only could New South Wales not raise long-term loans, but the State's bankers were resisting any further increase in overdraft levels. Equally importantly, the State now faced declining income tax collections, rising losses on railway and transport services, and rising welfare costs.

By the time the new College’s foundation stone was laid on that day of hope and speeches in November 1929, Australia was in the grip of recession,. By early 1930, the expected State deficit for 1929-30 had risen to over three million pounds.

Soup Kitchen, NSW c 1932. As depression deepened, Drummond pushed forward with construction of the new Teachers' College building regardless
C B Newling later surmised that Drummond pushed construction of the building forward because he wanted to beat the growing collapse. I don’t think that’s true for at least the first part of 1929 because the scale of the crisis wasn’t yet recognised. What is true is that Drummond continued to push construction  regardless.

Drummond lost office in 25 October 1930, leaving his Labor successor William Davies with an almost completed but partially empty building because of reduced student numbers Drummond faced a withering storm of criticism, but was unrepentant.

There were moves to close the College. Drummond persuaded Labor Minister William Davies to visit Armidale in March 1931 to inspect the situation for himself. “You are very fortunate to be in such a nice institution”, Davies is reported to have told students, somewhat reluctantly. “It is one of the finest buildings in New South Wales”.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 May 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.   

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