Kathleen didn’t know what to think. Living in a cave! How much lower could she go? But at least it would get Gabriel away from Darlinghurst and the likes of Tilly Devine. And Lottie thought it was a good idea – they were living on her pension, so she should have final say. ‘All right, we’ll go,’ she said, and stood to gather the cups. [‘Orphan Rock’, Transit Lounge: 2022, p434]



When the Depression created from the Wall Street Crash hit Australia’s shore in 1929, its economy had already been suffering from falling wheat and wool prices for a number of years. It had been borrowing vast sums of money to compensate, but these had dried up, and foreign investors too had stopped investing in Australia, so that the economy had already slowed.

But with the Crash, Australian banks stated calling in their loans. This spelled disaster for those who had borrowed heavily to invest in the short boom following World War One, and many found themselves facing bankruptcy. Banks and building societies collapsed, business closed, people were thrown out of their homes – or left before the landlord could demand his rent – and the few jobs available were bitterly fought over.

Family living in shanty town

At the peak of the Great Depression, Australia had a 32% unemployment rate. The government lowered wages, the ‘susso’ [the dole] and the age pension by 20%, then lowered them a second time. Many had no choice but to live in the streets and shanty towns sprung up everywhere. In Sydney, some made a home in parks, whilst others bedded down in the Botanic Garden, using newspapers to keep out the cold.

The coastal cliffs of Kurnell

But a few left the city to live in the caves on the Kurnell Peninsula. From carvings in the rock faces of the caves, it is believed that the Gweagal people lived there, prior to European settlement the region, and were guardians of the sacred white clay pits on their land, now known as the Kurnell Peninsula. During the Great Depression, there were no roads to the Peninsula, and ferries ran regular services from Sans Souci and from La Perouse, weather permitting. The caves were about a third of the way down the clifftop, and about forty metres above sea level.




Cave dwellers dug passage ways through the rocks, built wooden doors at the entrance of the caves and also lined the floors with wood. They had fuel stoves and kerosene lamps, hammered spikes into the walls to hang clothes, and carved recessed shelves into the walls to store their few belongings. Some even built small platforms further down the cliff so as to have somewhere from which to fish, and in June and July, they could watch humpback whales migrating to warmer waters.

Many continued to live there after the Great Depression, then paying rates to the local council, but in 1961 the NSW Lands Department ordered them to leave.

Inside a cave dweller’s home on the cliffs at Kurnell Peninsulla

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