Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History

Philanthropy and the “Management” of Working-Class Women: The West Gate Bridge Disaster

Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2020), 119, (1), 143–172.


The West Gate Bridge collapse in 1970 is one of the worst industrial disasters in Australian history. Closely examined for the engineering lessons it provides, scholarly interest in its historical, social, and industrial import is far less extensive. This article examines the role of union leaders, employers, and a private welfare organisation called the Citizens Welfare Service (CWS) in the management of funds raised to support the victims and families of the disaster. More broadly, it reveals philanthropic attitudes and practices adopted to manage working families’ needs in the 1970s that were not altogether dissimilar from those of nineteenth-century philanthropists. Despite the families’ raw grief in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, “home visitors” from the CWS felt entitled to offer heavily gendered and class-based advice to widows about frugal budgeting, domestic order, and composed behaviour. The case management style employed by this welfare agency demonstrated a derivative commitment to capitalist mores that promoted hard work and thrift, while stigmatising welfare dependence.

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Author details

Gregson, Sarah

Humphrys, Elizabeth