This story reveals how one Australian family experienced Christmas in the year 1934. All of the family’s preparations for Christmas that year came to nought. For this family, Christmas 1934 was long remembered as a very “un-Merry” Christmas.
NOTE: A list of references I used in preparing this story is found at the end of the post. References are numbered and noted throughout the text by brackets: [X].
In 1934, Australia was still in the grip of The Great Depression. The Depression, triggered by the Wall Street (United States of America) stock market crash in October 1929, affected the entire world during the 1930s. The worldwide Depression hit Australia’s economy very badly. Unemployment in Australia soared, reaching a peak of approximately 32% in 1932. 
With their menfolk out of work, many Australian families found themselves on the breadline. People learnt to “make do” with the little they had. These were the years of “bread and dripping” and a smidgeon of “cocky’s joy” (golden syrup). Tens of thousands of unemployed men hit the road, looking for work. Some took their families with them, living in make-shift homes in so-called “unemployment camps”.
Some men were fortunate enough to gain relief work on projects funded by state or local governments. The truly destitute relied on government sustenance payments (known as “the susso”) for their very survival.
In 1934, Australia’s population numbered an estimated 6,705,677.  (This is approximately one-quarter of Australia’s population today.) The Prime Minister was Joseph Lyons (Australia’s 10th) and Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs was Governor-General. Joseph Lyons served as Prime Minister from 6 January 1932 until 7 April 1939, his term in office covering most of the Depression years.
In 1934, Australia was still very much part of the British Empire, acknowledging King George V as its sovereign head of state. King George V reigned from 6 May 1910 until 20 January 1936. At 2:00 pm Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) on Christmas Day, King George V delivered a Christmas message to his subjects by radio, a device that was considered at the time a “wonder of modern science”. This was King George V’s third so-called “Empire broadcast”. 
How one Australian family prepared for Christmas 1934
In contrast to those Australian families who found themselves on the breadline or destitute during the 1930s, the Beaumont family, of Rannes, fared reasonably well. Donald and Flora Beaumont and their family lived on a small rural property, “Woolein View”, about 104 kilometres (65 miles) southwest of Rockhampton, in central Queensland.
Donald purchased the undeveloped prickly pear block at Rannes in 1912 and he and Flora and their two-year-old son moved there in 1915. By the 1930s, Donald had successfully cleared the block of prickly pear, was growing crops, grazing cattle and operating one of the most “modern” dairies in the district.
By 1934, the couple’s family comprised three sons and one daughter. Donald and Flora lost a second daughter under tragic circumstances in 1920, when the child was just 15 months old. I’ve written about this previously in A lock of hair: A treasured keepsake (January 20, 2018). Their eldest, Harold, would turn 21 in October; Evelyn celebrated her 18th birthday in January; Leslie would turn 12 in May and Alan, the youngest, 10 in August. All four Beaumont children lived at home. The younger two were still at school; Harold and Evelyn assisted their parents to manage the farm and operate the dairy.
Despite being blessed with a permanent home and a guaranteed source of income, the Beaumont family was not wealthy. Donald and Flora were very careful with their money. They scrimped and saved. “They watched their pennies”, as the saying goes. But, like so many other Australian families of their day, they made an exception when it came to celebrating Christmas.
1934 was no different. Donald and Flora and family planned for a large extended family get-together at their home on Christmas Day. Their home was a large highset timber Queenslander with a spacious, airy dining area on the ground level. That’s where they planned to have their Christmas Dinner (Christmas Day lunch). In Australia, it is common for people to call the midday meal “dinner” and the evening meal “tea”.
Flora took charge of food preparations. As early as October, she ordered a leg of ham and bought a (live) turkey. The family kept chooks, so they had chicken at their disposal. They also grew their own vegetables (in season – pumpkins, beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, etc.) and summer fruit (watermelons, rockmelons, grapes), so Flora didn’t have to purchase these Christmas Dinner essentials.
As she had done for 20 years or so, Flora made the family’s Christmas cake and Christmas “plum” pudding. She baked the cake 6-8 weeks before Christmas and made the Christmas pudding a couple of weeks later. In 1934, with many families still struggling to make ends meet, it’s not surprising that enterprising home cooks devised recipes for a “Depression Christmas Cake” and “Depression Plum Pudding”.  Flora, however, chose to make a traditional rich fruit cake and a classic rich plum pudding (with the addition of threepences and sixpences, of course).
The months and weeks leading up to Christmas 1934 were incredibly busy for the Beaumont family. In mid-October, Donald and Flora hosted a party at their home to celebrate Harold’s 21st birthday. It was quite a large social gathering. Harold and his father Donald played cricket for the Rannes Cricket Club, and the family was well-known and well-connected in the district. This is how a Rockhampton newspaper reported the event :
On Saturday 1 December 1934, the Beaumonts hosted another party at their home. This time it was a pre-wedding party for Miss Enid Barrett, a friend of the family, who was soon to be married to a Mr H C Harvey, of Biloela. It was another large social gathering, marked by a fine supper and dancing and singing that went on into the early hours of the morning. 
After these two parties were over, the Beaumont family set about finalising their preparations for Christmas. Donald and his two young sons found a fledgling Casuarina tree growing on the banks of nearby Woolein Creek. It became the family’s Christmas tree.
Donald stood the 5 foot (approximately 1.5 metres) high tree in a small steel drum filled with sand. The boys crumpled red cellophane paper and placed it around the base of the tree, covering the sand. Then, from top to bottom, they wove twisted crepe paper streamers over and under its branches and through its wispy foliage. Finally, they hung colourful fold-out honeycomb tissue paper bells, and homemade cardboard stars, on the branches.
As for Flora, as well as making the almond icing (marzipan) and decorating the Christmas cake, she washed and ironed and cleaned, making sure everything was ready for the influx of visitors on Christmas Day.
All was going to plan, until the week before Christmas.
Throughout the year, the residents of Rannes and district had been on their guard. In February 1934, local government reports warned that typhoid fever had once again broken out at Rannes.  At the time, Rannes was the administrative centre of the Banana Shire in central Queensland, south-west of Rockhampton.
In 1934, the spectre of typhoid fever still hung over the residents of Rannes and district. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the Banana Shire, and Rannes, recorded more than their fair share of typhoid fever cases, including a number of fatalities. I’ve written about this previously in A deadly disease: Rannes, Queensland, in the 1920s and 1930s (March 26, 2020).
Donald’s sister, Beattie, the youngest of his nine siblings, was one of the fatalities. Beattie contracted typhoid fever during a visit she made to her family at Rannes in August-September 1929. Beattie and her 3-year-old son came from Lithgow, New South Wales, where her husband Josiah was head surveyor at the Lithgow colliery.
On their trip home to Lithgow, after travelling by train as far as Brisbane, Beattie came down with a fever and ‘flu-like symptoms. She was hospitalised but failed to respond to treatment. She died suddenly on 7 September 1929 and was buried in Brisbane’s Lutwyche Cemetery.  Beattie was just 28 years old.
In December 1934, just a few days before Christmas, one of Donald’s and Flora’s own, 18-year-old Evelyn, fell victim to typhoid fever.
The illness came on suddenly and with little warning. Evelyn experienced a high fever, unquenchable thirst and delirium while alone on horseback checking cattle in a back paddock. She remembered being so thirsty she got down on her knees and drank the muddy water in a waterhole used by the cattle. Fortunately, she managed to get back on her horse and ride home.
Evelyn’s parents recognised the early symptoms of what they suspected to be typhoid fever. They were devastated. “How can this be happening?” “Not again.” “Lord, please spare our beautiful Evelyn.” “She is too young to die.”
With Evelyn’s life in the balance, Donald and Flora thought no more about Christmas. Saving Evelyn was all that mattered. They knew they had to act quickly.
Christmas 1934: All plans go awry
On Christmas Eve, 24 December, Donald and Flora took Evelyn by car to Rockhampton, where they stayed overnight with relatives.
On Christmas Day 1934, Evelyn was admitted to Rockhampton’s Tannachy Private Hospital. The hospital was located on Victoria Parade, by the Fitzroy River, within walking distance of the city centre. Dr Talbot, one of two doctors in charge of the hospital, attended to Evelyn. Not surprisingly, Evelyn didn’t remember much about that day, except that she was packed in ice. Evelyn’s temperature was around 104-105 degrees Fahrenheit (40-40.5 degrees Celsius).
Besides a critically high temperature, Evelyn exhibited a number of other symptoms typical of typhoid fever: headache, delirium, a slightly distended abdomen and diarrhoea.
In 1934, there was no quick fix for patients with typhoid fever, no antibiotic treatment. The only antidote was medical treatment of the symptoms and good nursing.
Given that it was Christmas Day, Dr Talbot took Evelyn’s parents to the Blue Bird Café in East Street (Rockhampton’s main street) for a meal – Christmas Dinner. He was trying to make their day a little brighter.
Most of the day Donald and Flora sat on the hospital verandah, overlooking the river, waiting anxiously for updates on Evelyn’s condition. The news was not good. Evelyn’s temperature remained critically high throughout the day. Dr Talbot assured Donald and Flora that he and the nursing staff were doing all they could to look after Evelyn.
Donald and Flora felt helpless. They couldn’t be with their daughter. Given the highly infectious nature of the disease, Evelyn had to be isolated from other patients and visitors (including her parents). Although Donald and Flora understood this, it didn’t alleviate their anxiety and distress.
The couple stayed in Rockhampton for at least a week, until Evelyn’s fever subsided and her condition gave promise of recovery. Not that her recovery was quick or easy.
Evelyn spent about four weeks in hospital. She was still in hospital on 14 January 1935, her 19th birthday. When Evelyn was well enough to be discharged from hospital, Donald and Flora arranged for her to spend a couple of weeks with relatives at Yeppoon, a small seaside town near Rockhampton.
By the time Evelyn left hospital, most of her hair had fallen out. At Yeppoon, while convalescing, she had her head shaved.
When Evelyn finally returned home, about 6 weeks after she left so suddenly on Christmas Eve, everything looked different.
There was no Christmas tree. The long tables in the downstairs dining area were bare. The crepe paper streamers that had adorned the area were gone. The only reminders of Christmas 1934 were a couple of pieces of Christmas cake that Flora had set aside and kept for Evelyn on her return.
I’m not sure how the rest of the Beaumont family celebrated Christmas 1934. But it was certainly not the one that Donald and Flora had planned.
I was born nearly 20 years after that fateful Christmas. Evelyn was my mother, and Donald and Flora my maternal grandparents.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, I spent many a joyful Christmas with my grandparents and extended family at Rannes. I have only pleasant memories of those Christmases.
As a child, it would never have occurred to me that Christmases are not always happy, or that some folk’s experience of Christmas is far from celebratory. As an adult, I know differently.
For my family, Christmas 1934 is one such example. It was a very “un-Merry” Christmas – one my mother and grandparents never forgot.
- National Museum of Australia. ‘Defining moment. Great Depression.’ Retrieved on December 10, 2022, from https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/great-depression
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. 3141.0 – Australian Demography Bulletin No. 52. Summary of Australian Population and Vital Statistics, 1934 and previous years. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from https://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/free.nsf/0/DBE0323B5B5F6060CA25764E001E1BB2/$File/31410_No52_1934.pdf
- Christmas Round the Radio Dial (1934, December 23). Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1926 – 1954), p. 22. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97793368
- Household Secret (1934, November 29). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 20. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35631807
- RANNES CELEBRATION. (1934, October 25). The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1930 – 1956), p. 24. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70343256
- PRE-WEDDING PARTIES (1934, December 4). Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article54779570
- TYPHOID AT RANNES (1934, February 3). The Evening News (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1924 – 1941), p. 8. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article201261566
- BREVITIES (1929, September 9). Lithgow Mercury (NSW : 1898 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved December 17, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article220710407