Wollongong has been a major industrial centre since the 1930s. Yet its transition from rural mining community to steeltown was not an easy one. Essentially a farming community, the district had not fully shared in the general Australian prosperity of the early 1920s. The announcement in 1926 that a new steel plant was to be built at Port Kembla, eight kilometres from the township, was therefore welcomed as an augury of better times. In the event, the timing could scarcely have been more unfortunate for, before the plant was complete, Australia was engulfed by the Great Depression.
The Bitter Years examines the response of the Wollongong labour movement to the Depression. Despite the limited amount of work available, men continued to drift into the district looking for work. The social and administrative structure of the district was placed under enormous strain and the result was desperate living conditions, an acute