Appearing before His Honour Mr. Justice C. Heydon in the Court of Industrial Arbitration of New South Wales in November 1913 was Mrs Annie Fairs of 17 Broughton St Glebe. Questioned by Mr Connington, and also by Mr Rolin, Annie was giving evidence at an Inquiry into the Cost of Living and the Living Wage. Page by page the hardships of the working poor in Glebe just over 100 years ago are revealed.

Annie Fairs was one of 18 ‘respectable women’ from the inner suburbs of Sydney selected to appear, and the only one from Glebe. Mick Connington was acting for the Domestic Workers’ Union which had been set up in 1908.

Annie was married to Ted Fairs, a carter, who drove a two-horse cart for McKeowns, carriers, based at Wentworth Park Rd.

The couple had four sons; the eldest of whom was fourteen at the time of this enquiry.

Annie had provided the court with a copy of her account book showing over a period of five weeks what she had spent on food and other payments – her entire housekeeping record. And as the questioning progressed every expenditure was examined, and how they lived was revealed.

Ted Fairs’ weekly wages at this time were two pounds and seventeen shillings, which was shillings above the award. This approximates to $302 (2017/2018). (Pre-decimalisation, in 1966, the Australian currency was based on a pound (= two dollars); one pound was equal to twenty shillings, one shilling was equal to twelve pennies (or pence) and one penny was made up of two half pennies (ha’pennies)).

17 Broughton Place today (end of row) – believed to have been the home of the Fairs family in 1913 (image: Phil Young)

From the evidence and the line of questioning it appears that there had been other presentations to the inquiry on the way that ‘working classes … could live much more economically than they do’ such as by buying a neck of mutton rather than other cuts of meat.

Thus, at one point the questioner refers to a neck of mutton and asks Annie to explain why, rather than buying this cut of meat, she would choose to buy round steak at four pence a pound. ‘By buying the neck of mutton by the pound you get three small chops, and the knuckle has so much bone in it that it is dangerous to cook it for children.’ She is then asked: ‘what about frying the [mutton] chops?’ When she answered that they are fit only to be stewed, back came the question ‘Why not stew them?’ Subsequently she says: ‘a pound of mutton neck chops provides much less meat than a pound of steak’.

Later in the questioning the issue of stewing steak is raised. This, according to Mr Connington, had been suggested as another cheap method of living. He went on to ask Annie ‘what is stewing steak?’ Annie informs him that this is skirt steak, and in response to additional questioning, says that it must be stewed with onion and some other vegetable such as parsnips and carrots, and further, that without the vegetables the stew would not be palatable.

She said that stewing steak requires trimming and cleaning and by the time that is done there would be nothing left. This is the meat that is ‘cut up and left on the bench in the butcher’s shop, amongst the dust and the flies … it is not really fit to eat’.

Buying a better cut of meat would ensure no waste and she explained to the hearing how she would make rissoles with the entire piece of steak with added onion. Each day she aimed for one pound of meat for the whole family, with the Sunday roast or sometimes leg of mutton providing more. She was asked whether she had sufficient meat to eat and replied: ‘No, I think I should have much more.’ ‘Because I don’t think one pound of meat is sufficient for six people; we have meat once a day, and the children get very little.’

Annie was well aware of reasonable nutrition: ‘If it is ever so small amount of greens with potatoes I think it is better to have the greens than go without them’. Cabbage was the most frequently bought vegetable at three pence a small head, a small bunch of (three or four) carrots cost three pence and parsnips cost one penny each. Annie never spent more than one shilling on vegetables when she shopped, and she also bought one shilling’s worth of fruit once a week. However, the family subsisted in large part on loaves of bakery bread and butter – 15 loaves of bread and four pounds (less than 2 kg) of butter each week. Annie made cakes because her husband Ted liked to take cake to work for his breakfast and lunch breaks. The number of eggs she used depended on the cost of eggs – sometimes she could buy a dozen, sometimes only three.

Their terrace, which they rented for fourteen shillings and six pence a week, provided a dining room, bedroom, veranda room for the boys and a very small kitchen. Asked if she had sought cheaper accommodation she replied that although she checked the newspaper she was not likely to find better in proximity to her husband’s place of work. When asked ‘what becomes of married couples who are wanting houses?’ she replied that they have to live in rooms.

For heating and cooking the fuel they used was wood and coal that Ted would pick up at docks, which therefore was free. Kerosene or oil was used for lighting, but at night a candle burnt in the bedroom. There was much discussion between His Honour Mr Heydon, Mr Connington, Mr Rolin and Annie on the relative merits of different kinds of candles – the imported Gouda (sperm oil) the Duck (thinner candles) and the Diamond Fluted (Annie’s selection). As the men discussed the quality of candles, their merits and their relative costs, His Honour pointed out ‘You cannot expect the housekeeper to get half a dozen brands and have an experiment in a perfectly still room and see which is the cheapest.’

Bebb’s cash butter shop, 121 Glebe Point Rd. Perhaps Anne Fairs bought her butter from here (from Glebe Project 1980 book)

Milk for the family was bought from Kurtz’s dairy as Annie believed it to be better, fresher and a little more generously measured than the milk that could be bought from the cart that came around. Occasionally if she were out of milk she would go to the local corner shop.

Annie’s responses showed how looking after a family was a financial balancing act. She was asked why she dealt with the local corner shop, and explained that the shop would permit her up to a month’s credit if it was needed, for example if her husband were ill. ‘If I dealt at McIlwraiths, and the week’s groceries came to the door and I had not the money, they would not leave them.’ If the rent payment had fallen into arrears she would pay it in full but go into arrears in paying (for example) a time payment on credit that had been provided by the Marcus Clark store or another store where she shopped. Because she had a good name as far as managing credit was concerned, she was able to access ongoing credit. As Judge Heydon noted ‘these are all the results of living right up to the mark.’

Health cover came mostly from membership in the Rechabites Lodge (which met monthly in Record Reign hall). In the case of Ted being unable to work, his Union membership in the Draymen’s and Trolleymen’s union, the Lodge and his employer’s contribution gave him three pounds and eight shillings per week. However, if medical assistance was sought outside the Lodge’s medical cover, then each doctor’s visit cost seven shillings and six pence.

Annie and Ted’s boys went to a local nun’s school – St Ita’s in Bellevue St. The nuns did not require payment of fees if there was no available money in the household. The boys’ clothing came from the Marcus Clark store. On his day off Ted would re-sole the boys’ boots when it was needed.

Although Annie was managing her household by care and frugality, all clothing and shoes or boots, other than Ted’s boots, were bought on time payment where they paid interest on the amount owing but had the use of the items. The furniture in their house had been acquired in this way, but at the time of this enquiry the furniture was paid off. Annie set aside six shillings a week to pay off clothing items. She was asked if six shillings is a high amount to pay for clothes. And she answered ‘No. I think I really ought to be paying twelve shillings to have the quantity of clothes I ought to have, but I could not afford to pay more than six shillings.’

Through unloading his cart at a client’s, by working overtime and by taking on other tasks at work, Ted got extra money, and Annie kept this money for extras or emergencies. When asked ‘If you had the two pounds seventeen shillings only could you provide little extras for Christmas time and your husband’s [new] suit [for Easter]?’, Annie replied ‘No, I could not pay my creditors with the two pounds seventeen shillings alone’.

Many thanks to Max Solling for making available the transcript of this hearing and for sharing additional information.