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Prest's Social Survey of Melbourne 1941-43

This study of housing conditions in wartime Melbourne - conducted by economists at the University of Melbourne under the leadership of Wilfred Prest - was not only the most ambitious Australian social survey of the war years, but also remains possibly the most extensive conducted by a non-government agency in an Australian city. The survey originated in the intellectual history of its director, the Melbourne tradition of social reform and the domestic imperatives of postwar planning.

Prest was steeped in the British tradition of welfare-oriented but rigorously statistical social surveys. Born in York and educated at Leeds and Manchester universities during the early depression years, Prest went on to teach Workers' Educational Association classes in the industrial north and economics at St Andrews before coming to the Economics Department at the University of Melbourne in 1938. The classics of the survey method (Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth) were part of his undergraduate culture, and the 'second-generation' surveys of Merseyside, London and York were conducted during his graduate and early teaching years. Social surveys were virtually unknown in Australia; reliable demographic data were sparse, and on the outbreak of war the 1941 census was postponed indefinitely. Prest and his colleagues Richard Downing and Jean Polglaze decided that economists and policy-makers urgently needed accurate and up-to-date social statistics. F. Oswald Barnett's anti-slum crusade of the 1930s had alerted politicians and planners to the overcrowding in Melbourne's inner suburbs, and the proscription of further building on the outbreak of the Pacific War guaranteed severe postwar housing shortages. When postwar planning commenced in 1942, housing and employment were central, and the collection of detailed information became an even higher priority.

The Department of Post War Reconstruction provided £1650 of the £2900 cost of the survey, with the balance coming from the university (£950) and a group of Melbourne businessmen (£350). A sample of one in every 30 addresses was drawn from Sands and McDougall's Melbourne directory for 1941, with residents receiving a circular letter declaring that 'we believe that our results will be particularly valuable in planning the new social order that it is hoped to build after the war'. From September 1941 to April 1943, despite wartime disruption, more than 90% of the selected households were contacted, and the visitors' reception was overwhelmingly positive. The survey was halved to one in 60 households in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs so that interviewers could return to the western suburbs in February 1943 to assess the impact of the war on working-class living conditions in a heavy industrial area transformed by the intensification of the war.

The 35 interviewers, paid 2 shillings and sixpence per completed interview, were mainly female senior undergraduates or recent graduates. They travelled by public transport, sometimes through the blackout, collecting data on housing conditions, the composition of households, sources and amounts of household income, occupations and places of employment, the means and costs of travelling to work, and the life histories, social and political attitudes and expectations of their mainly female informants. First-hand experience of appalling housing conditions shocked the generally middle-class young women, and confirmed the convictions of those who were communists or 'fellowtravellers'. The notes of conversations with informants and their own reactions, recorded on the reverse of the printed forms, are as valuable as the responses to the standardised questions on the front.

Coding, punching of Hollerith cards, processing and analysis were protracted. Prest published papers on dwellings in Melbourne (1942) and on rents (1945), and his student Donald Cochrane reported on 'travelling to work' (1946), but the survey data were employed in a synthetic way only in Prest's monograph Housing, income and saving in war-time (1952), which focused on the western suburbs. However, the findings were communicated to postwar planners. For instance, the survey demonstrated that the census's confusion of dwellings with households had led to over-enumeration of houses by some 10%. This was corrected in subsequent censuses, which also collected improved data on housing amenities. Only from 1950 did the Commonwealth statistician adopt the sample-survey method.

The data, now in the University of Melbourne Archives, have been used in Lack's study of home-workplace relationships (1980), Kate Darian-Smith's On the home front (1990), Andrea Gaynor's thesis on domestic gardens, Seamus O'Hanlon's Together apart: boarding house, hostel and flat life in pre-war Melbourne (2002) and a recent study of its gendered nature (Women's History Review, 12(4) 2003), but no extensive and synthetic use of the data has yet been made. Coming between the delayed censuses of 1933 and 1947, the survey offers the possibility of establishing some continuities in data otherwise fractured by a 14-year gap, as well as illuminating social conditions in wartime Melbourne. The surviving interview sheets, with their wide-ranging information on households and their members, are especially attractive given the destruction of Commonwealth manuscript census schedules.

John Lack

Davison, Graeme, and John Lack, 'Planning the new social order: the Melbourne University social survey, 1941-43', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol. 17, no. 1, March 1981, pp. 36-45. Details
Davison, Graeme, 'The social survey and the puzzle of Australian sociology', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 34, no. 121, March 1983, pp. 139-62. Details
Lack, John, 'Residence, workplace, community: local history in metropolitan Melbourne', Historical Studies, vol. 19, no. 74, April 1980, pp. 16-40. Details