Unemployed and on The Street
During the early 1930s, in working-class areas of Sydney and Melbourne, unemployment peaked at more than 30 percent. Because welfare recipients were paid in goods or coupons, rather than money, and few owned homes of their own, the result was a wave of evictions. In poor suburbs, it was common to see bailiffs (today called sheriff’s officers) dumping furniture — and families — onto the road.
The confrontation that inspired the children’s game occurred on June 19, 1931, in Newtown, Sydney. As Iain McIntyre describes in his book Lock Out the Landlords! Australian Eviction Resistance 1929–1936, members of the UWM had barricaded themselves inside a house with sandbags and barbed wire to defend a family facing eviction.
When police attempted to force their way into the house, UWM members pelted them with bricks and stones. Eventually, the police broke through and violently ejected the UWM members. One man was shot and two others were hospitalized with fractured skulls. A crowd of locals — reportedly numbering in the thousands — heckled police as they attempted to leave the scene.
The UWM wasn’t only active in Sydney. In July 1930, in Brunswick, Melbourne, hundreds of unemployed split off from a protest march to prevent an eviction. According to firsthand accounts, a bailiff was already in the property marking furniture to be seized and sold when protesters flooded the house, pushing the bailiff onto a couch while “an enterprising gentleman tipped a dish of water over him.” The bailiff was then “bundled unceremoniously down the passage and thrown out of the house where they were seized upon by a crowd numbering several hundred.”
During the first years of the Great Depression, the UWM coordinated many actions like these. They set up local anti-eviction committees, approached renters at risk of eviction, and provided food, childcare, and help with moving. If the tenant wished, the UWM would organize an eviction defense. In the lead-up, the UWM would usually visit the landlord or real estate agent to warn them that an attempted eviction would be resisted. If landlords tried anyway, the UWM would chalk messages on footpaths or send bicycle riders around neighborhoods banging on tin cans, to stir up a crowd.
The UWM’s tactics were so successful that they won every single eviction case they took on during the first half of 1931.