Essay on The Unsuspected Slums
Oswald Fredrick Barnett (1883 -1972) and The Unsuspected Slums
by Elizabeth Downes
"A lane off a lane. All the houses face back-yards… The woman living in the first house with the verandah was so desperately poor that she resolved to save the maternity bonus, and so, with her last baby had neither anaesthetic nor doctor."
-Oswald Fredrick Barnett
While many Melburnians were proud of their suburban homes and gardens in the late 19th century, there was considerable poverty in the city, especially in the inner suburbs where many of the working poor, recent migrants, the unemployed, elderly and sick lived. During the 1930s Depression one dedicated campaigner brought the plight of these residents to the public’s notice.
After encountering an inner city slum in the 1920s, Fredrick Oswald (Os) Barnett, an accountant and devout Methodist, campaigned to establish homes for children removed from the slums. But he soon realised, “You can’t lift every baby out of the slum…It meant lifting the whole family out. That would mean slum abolition. It was a natural conclusion…”. In the 1930s he waged a concerted campaign for housing reform to remove the sub-standard conditions found in many of these areas.
He was an astute political campaigner who coordinated letter writing campaigns and lectured throughout Victoria using many of his own photographs. These poignant and striking images are reminiscent of American Walker Evans’ famous photographs of poor American sharecropping families published in 1941. Barnett’s commerce degree thesis on the economics of the slums was published as a booklet, The Unsuspected Slums in 1933.
Barnett took the Victorian Premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan and other politicians on tours through the poverty stricken neighborhoods and public facilities. After one tour it was said the Premier was so overcome he couldn’t sleep for days. In 1936 Dunstan established the Slum Abolition Board, while in 1938 Barnett became vice-chairman of the newly established Housing Commission of Victoria.
Barnett wrote many books and pamphlets on the issues of housing, poverty, and even a book of revised nursery rhymes, since he believed all the traditional ones had “very unhappy endings”. He was one of the few public housing advocates who objected to the construction of high rise flats for public housing in 1952.
The State Library of Victoria has an extensive collection of photographs taken by Barnett and his fellow campaigners in the 1930s and 1940s. Many were used as lantern slides for public lectures on Melbourne slum housing and conditions and to illustrate government reports and pamphlets.