FCV Provided Employment in Difficult Times

Brian Fry (bio)

Many forestry people and rural Victorians would recall that, from time to time, the Forests Commission (FCV) provided employment under government employment relief schemes for those facing difficulties.

However, not many would be aware of the scale of the involvement. For more than seven decades numerous schemes were undertaken including repatriation of returned servicemen following the First and Second World Wars, employment during the Great Depression, work for 'aliens' and prisoners during and after the Second World War, drought relief work, relief to assist rural communities severely affected by very low commodity prices, training opportunities for Aborigines and young people and work experience training. Many tens of thousands were employed and benefitted from the various schemes.

The reasons governments called on the FCV were that the work was in rural areas, the programs were able to be established quickly and were eficiently managed, the work was useful and satisfying for most of those employed, the tasks had relatively high labour content and camping accommodation in earlier times was easily established at low cost and was generally enjoyed by many of the employees.

The programs were generally successful with benefits to governments, the people employed and the FCV. Governments were able to efficiently provide meaningful employment to people in stressed circumstances during difficult periods. Anecdotal information indicates most of those employed enjoyed the work and were committed to completing the work to a good standard. The FCV benefitted through the completion of forest works including silvicultural tasks in native forests and plantations, works in nurseries, fire protection and roading works, and work to eradicate the Sirex wood wasp. Some people initially engaged in the employment schemes subsequently secured full-time positions with the Commission and became skilled forest workers; some completed formal training as Forest Overseers.

Other decentralised government bodies such as the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission and Lands Department also employed people under the various schemes

Most of the information about the various schemes described below has been extracted from the respective Forests Commission Annual reports.

Work for Unemployed Miners Following the Gold Rush

1880 to 1910

Extensive areas of forest were cleared and degraded during Victoria’s Gold Rush and rehabilitation commenced in the 1850s. Plantings at Macedon were extended and new plantation projects were commenced at Creswick (1888) and the You Yangs (1889) to provide work for miners who were unemployed following the decline in gold production after the Gold Rush.  Principally of commercial softwood species, the plantings were aimed at rehabilitating badly eroded mined areas and to produce softwood timber to reduce the volume that was imported. (“Forestry in Victoria” Eighth All Australian Timber Congress, Melbourne, 1972).

1916-17 Annual Report Extract

“Improvement felling and cleaning work was continued in the young hardwood forests throughout the year, excellent progress being made in many valuable reserves. Nearly 300 men were employed for short periods, redgum being treated at Yarrawonga, Shepparton, Moormurng (in Gippsland), and at Mildura; ironbark and grey box at Chiltern, Crosbie, Heathcote, Dunolly, Maryborough, Kingower, Painswick, St. Arnaud, Kamarooka, Rushworth, Tarnagulla, Tunstall, Northern Otway, and Warrowitue; bluegum and messmate in the Southern Pyrenees, Wombat, Derril and Clonbinane, and Stanley reserves; and cypress pine at Timberoo, near Ouyen, in the Mallee District”.

Repatriation of Discharged Soldiers

1918-19 Annual Report extract

“EMPLOYMENT OF DISCHARGED SOLDIERS. In addition to men who have been allotted work in the State Nursery, a number of forest improvement camps have been established in the Heathcote and Rushworth Districts, where over 190 discharged soldiers have received employment. The provision made at the camps gave the men reasonable comfort, the dietary scale was liberal, and cooks were provided. The Repatriation Department gave the men blankets, working boots, and oilskins for the winter season, in addition to a railway pass and sustenance money”.

1920-21 Annual Report extract

“FORESTRY IN RELATION TO REPATRIATION. In all cases where employment is available preference is given to returned men, and a similar policy is adopted in the allotment of areas for grazing, saw-milling, eucalyptus oil distilling, bee-farming, and all other means of obtaining a livelihood from the marketing of forest produce”.

Similar entries in Annual Reports carried through until the early days of the Great Depression, but then a major increase in money spent, numbers of men employed and works programs followed.

Employment During the Great Depression

1927-28 Annual Report extract

“UNEMPLOYED RELIEF WORKS. In order to assist in the relief of unemployment in the city, gangs of unemployed men were engaged during the year, under the supervision of the Commission's foremen, on the construction and cleaning of firebreaks, and or improvement works. These gangs were employed principally in Niagaroon, Upper Yarra, and Wombat Forest Districts”.

1931-32 Annual Report

“UNEMPLOYED RELIEF·WORKS. By the provision of grants from unemployment relief funds 5,735 men, comprising 5,392 married and 343 single men, were employed on forest works during 1931-32. The total expenditure from unemployment relief funds on forest works for 1931-2 amounted to £11,870 3s. 5d.”

1932-33 Annual Report extract

“UNEMPLOYMENT RELIEF WORKS. Grants from unemployment relief funds enabled the Commission to give work to 8,792 unemployed men, comprising 8,288 married and 504 single men, for periods up to 8 weeks. The total expenditure in this direction for the year 1932~33 amounted to £205,645”.

Similar information appears for a number of following years with diminishing figures until 1942-43 when the amount spent on Unemployment Relief Funds was £72. 1s 6d. Total funds spent on Unemployment Relief from 1931-32 to 1942-43 was approximately £1,512,401. 11s. The total number of persons employed was 51,300. Some persons may have been employed more than once and in different areas.

The information on employed were obtained from FCV Annual Reports over this period, however the figures reported above may not be completely accurate as some entries do not include precise detail on employed numbers.

Employment was provided on a short-term basis, usually up to a maximum of three months. Accommodation was supplied in camps scattered through out various forest districts.

During this Great Depression era a similar project was commenced to provide employment for youths.

Youth Employment During the Great Depression

1932-33 Annual Report extract

“UNEMPLOYED BOYS. Arising out of the period of depression, one of the most acute problems is that of providing suitable employment for the army of youths who have just left schools or other training centres. With a view to testing the value of forestry work as a temporary outlet, the Government on the recommendation of the Employment Council approved of the establishment of a camp for unemployed boys and arranged for the allocation from funds raised by unemployment relief taxation of the sum of £600 to assist this experiment.”

State Coal Mine - 1937

In 1937 miners from the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi were provided relief work following an explosion at the mine.  The men were camped at Neerim South and undertook silvicultural work such as thinning regrowth and ringbarking trees.

Drought Relief

In the late 1960s, parts of Victoria were in the grip of drought and this led to more work projects in the forests.

1967-68 Annual Report extract

“Drought Relief funds provided employment, mainly in the western half of the State; the maximum number of employees engaged at any one time was 676.”

1968-69 Annual Report extract

“The State Drought Relief Committee made funds available to the Commission, up to the end of September 1968, for the relief of rural workers who were unemployed as a result of 1967-68 drought.
Twenty-three forest districts employed an estimated 1,600 men for varying periods. Northern and western parts of the State were badly affected by drought and hence most labour was employed in these areas. Work was concentrated on jobs with a high labour content in order to provide as much employment as possible. Many District Foresters have commented favourably on the value of drought relief work. The ease with which a large number of men were usefully employed illustrated the inadequacy of funds provided in recent years for forest works.
Native Forests - Liberation felling, Regeneration felling, Thinning.
Softwood Plantations, - Clearing, Planting, first rotation, second rotation, Renewal Cleaning, Pruning, Thinning, Zinc spraying,
Hardwood Plantations – Clearing, Planting, Thinning.
Nurseries - General works, Despatch of plants
Forest Protection - Fire lookouts (manning)
Hazard reduction - Firebreak maintenance
Sirex eradication
Road Construction – surfacing, maintenance, Track clearing
Miscellaneous works”.

Rural Relief Works

Due to a downturn in rural commodity prices in the 1971-72 years a further employment scheme was initiated for rural areas.

1971-72 & 1972-73 Annual Report extracts

“Works under the scheme commenced on 14th December, 1971, and within three weeks 383 men had been assimilated into the work force.
Up to 30th June, 1972, a total of $738,137 was spent on the scheme through the Commission's activities and a total of 750 individuals had been employed. There was considerable turnover of employed persons initially; but natural wastage had settled to less than 20% in the last few months of the financial year. A peak of 512 men was reached in early March.”
“From the inception of the scheme and up to the 30th June, 1973, an amount of $2,297,587 became available through this scheme. Priority was given to works with a substantial labour component and which will provide lasting benefits to the State.”

Regional Employment Development Scheme

Drought conditions in Gippsland in 1972 triggered the creation of further work projects for 84 men, bringing the total for Rural Unemployment Relief and Drought Relief schemes to 557 men.

1975-76 Annual Report extract

“Employment under this scheme commenced in November 1974 and Relief Works continued to December 1975. The numbers employed reached a peak of 738 in August 1975. Expenditure for the financial year totalled $1,735,360. Works were carried out in 35 Forest Districts.”

As with earlier schemes this work concentrated on labour-intensive projects as well as updating work depots and office facilities.

Employment of Aborigines


Commonwealth Government finance was provided for the employment of Aboriginal men on forest works. Employment of a small number of Aboriginal men was financed under the Commonwealth's Aboriginal Advancement Scheme. This continued for some 3--4 years.

Special Youth Employment Training Programme and the Education (Work Experience) Programme

1978-79 Annual Report extract

“Temporary positions were made available in 44 localities for 70 young people. The training obtained by many of these young people enabled them to obtain positions with other employers”.

1979-80 Annual Report extract

“Temporary positions were made for 96 young people”.

1980-81 Annual Report extract

“Temporary positions were made for 90 young people and a further 291 students were given tuition relating to their expressed interests under the Education (Work Experience) Program”.

As can be seen from the above, forest work for unemployed persons from rural and city locations, disadvantaged rural groups and young people wishing to gain employment in forestry activities has been of great benefit to the State of Victoria for many years.