Come back with me 100 years, if you will.
As you may have picked up from others of my reviews, Port Adelaide was, by the end of the 19 century and into the 20th century a thriving Port and many people were making lots of money – but not everyone.
Work at sea and within the port was hard, the hours were long, working conditions were seldom good and the pay was poor. This was especially so for unskilled labourers. Trade unions were only in their infancy in the late 1800s and social security payments were unheard of.
If you wanted work you had to go out and look for it. Workers and those with work on offer would congregate here at the intersection of Lipson and Divett Street (beside what is now the South Australian Maritime Museum) in search of work and workers respectively. Invariably, and even in the Port’s heyday, there were more looking for work than offering it. This corner became known as Poverty Corner.
Men who sought work on the ketches and other sea vessels gathered on the northeast pavement of Poverty Corner. The shipping owners would select those they wanted and off they would go on a trip which would often last days. They were paid basic wages and typically had to provide their own food. On completion of the trip they would return to Poverty Corner seeking their next engagement.
Lumpers gathered on the opposite side of the pavement. Lumpers were land working men seeking work with shippers or truckers. It was very heavy work such as “lumpimg” (carrying – hence the term) 80kg sacks of grain on their shoulders all day. This was hard work and took a heavy toll on those so employed.
Those not selected for work on a particular day went home to return again the next day hoping they would have better luck.
This pick-up system often referred to as the bull system or bull run (where the strongest and least troublesome men were chosen for work) remained in place for recruiting wharfies until WWII when unions in general, and the maritime unions in Australia in particular, consolidated their strength with the shortage of labour caused by the war.
On the corner you will see a “soundpost” ( picture 1). Press the button on it to hear a bit more on the story of Poverty Corner. As you do so, imagine the hectic scenes of hustle and bustle for work that would have occurred here 100 years ago.
Incidentally, the voice you will hear is that of long time Port Adelaide maritime worker (wharfie) and unionist, Rex Munn, who passed away November 2012. Rex’s name is the most recent addition, in 2013) to the Workers Memorial outside the Tourist Office.
Address: Interection of Divett and Lipson Streets
Directions: Outside the South Australian Maritime Museum