A Depression story in the National Archives

This post is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about findability of National Archives of Australia collection items for the 2008 Australian Society of Archivists conference. The idea is that anyone’s description of a record could be put to work in the service of findability. So the following is an example of a description, of a single page from a single file (of 220 pages) from a single series (of 13,749 files) from the National Archives collection (of around 45,000 series). (You can see why findability is an issue for us!)

The whole paper is available from the National Archives of Australia website.

In February 1934, Victor Fitzgibbon wrote a note to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. The Department had provided him with four weeks’ work so that he could leave Canberra with his family. Having saved enough in that time to buy and recondition a truck, Mr Fitzgibbon sought a grant to register the vehicle for three months.

Grant for three months' truck registration

Victor Fitzgibbon’s request to the Department of the Interior for a grant to register his truck for three months so he could leave Canberra with his family.
National Archives of Australia: A659, 1939/1/16561

This note – the raw record – was used the same day it was written. CS Daley, the Assistant Secretary of the Civic Branch of the Department of the Interior, inserted Mr Fitzgibbon’s handwritten page into a typewriter to make his recommendation, which was to approve the grant ‘as a debit to the Alleviation of Distress, on the grounds that his continued residence in Canberra would be a greater burden to the Alleviation of Distress than the amount requested’. The Secretary of the Department must have been away, because he then added a further annotation: ‘In view of urgency, take action as proposed and resubmit for covering approval on Secretary’s return. CSD, 16.2.34′.

Another annotation suggests that the grant was issued four days later, and HC Brown, Secretary of the Department, noted his approval about a week after that.

In this first phase of the record’s life, it has served its purpose as attestation – to the need for the grant; and as documentation – of the Assistant Secretary’s recommendation for approval, and on what grounds; of the funds’ disbursal; and of the belated approval for such.

By reading the other documents in the file that relate to Mr Fitzgibbon, a fuller picture of the situation is revealed. It was the tail end of the Depression. Victor Fitzgibbon had arrived in Canberra after 1929, so he was ineligible for the rations available to other residents in similarly difficult circumstances. He was living at Ainslie married camp, with his pregnant wife and infant child. Several months prior to writing the letter described here, he had agreed to leave the Territory by mid-January if he was unable to find work. From the Department of the Interior’s point of view, the Fitzgibbon family had received special treatment up to that time, on account of the young child and Mrs Fitzgibbon’s pregnancy. In fact, one document notes that several years prior to this time, Victor Fitzgibbon’s father had been granted transport to go to Melbourne in 1929, and that he had returned ‘unannounced’ with Victor and his family.

Probably, the Department was keen to see the back of the Fitzgibbons, its sympathy having expired. The final instalment in the archival story is a small note pinned to the letter. ‘CD’ (presumably the Assistant Secretary, CS Daley) states ‘Has Fitzgerald [sic] actually left on the vehicle.’ Another hand has written ‘Please verify from police.’ A final note states ‘Fitzgibbon left Canberra Thursday last 22.2.34 – destination unknown’.

You can also see this record in Vrroom – virtual reading room.

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