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Shearing In The Riverina, New South Wales by Rolf Boldrewood

[Thomas Alexander Browne]





"Shearing commences to-morrow!" These apparently simple words were
spoken by Hugh Gordon, the manager of Anabanco station, in the district
of Riverina, in the colony of New South Wales, one Monday morning in
the month of August. The utterance had its importance to every member
of a rather extensive "CORPS DRAMATIQUE" awaiting the industrial drama
about to be performed.

A low sand-hill a few years since had looked out over a sea of grey
plains, covered partly with grass, partly with salsiferous bushes and
herbs. Two or three huts built of the trunks of the pine and roofed
with the bark of the box-tree, and a skeleton-looking cattle-yard with
its high "gallows" (a rude timber stage whereon to hang slaughtered
cattle) alone broke the monotony of the plain-ocean. A comparatively
small herd of cattle, 2000 or 3000, found more than sufficient
pasturage during the short winter and spring, but were always compelled
to migrate to mountain pastures when the swamps, which alone in those
days formed the water-stores of the run, were dried up. But two or
three, or at most half-a-dozen, stockmen were ever needed for the
purpose of managing the herd, so inadequate in number and profitable
occupation to this vast tract of grazing country.

But, a little later, one of the great chiefs of the wool-producing
interest--a shepherd-king, so to speak, of shrewdness, energy, and
capital--had seen, approved and purchased the lease of this waste
kingdom. Almost at once, as if by magic, the scene changed. Great gangs
of navvies appeared, wending their way across the silent plain. Dams
were made, wells were dug. Tons of fencing wire were dropped on the
sand by the long line of teams which seemed never tired of arriving.
Sheep by thousands, and tens of thousands, began to come, grazing and
cropping up to the lonely sandhill--now swarming with blacksmiths,
carpenters, engineers, fencers, shepherds, bullock-drivers--till the
place looked like a fair on the borders of Tartary.

Meanwhile everything was moving with calculated force and cost, under
the "reign of law". The seeming expense was merely the economic truth
of doing all the necessary work at once, rather than by instalments.
One hundred men for one day rather than one man for one hundred days.
Results soon began to demonstrate themselves. In twelve months the dams
were full, the wells sending up their far-fetched priceless water, the
wire fences erected, the shepherds gone, and 17,000 sheep cropping the
herbage of Anabanco. Tuesday was the day fixed for the actual
commencement of the momentous, almost solemn transaction--the pastoral
Hegira, so to speak, as the time of most station events is
calculated with reference to it, as happening before or after shearing.
But before the first shot is fired which tells of the battle begun,
what raids and skirmishes, what reconnoitring and vedette duty must
take place!

First arrives the cook-in-chief to the shearers, with two assistants to
lay in a few provisions for the week's consumption of 70 able-bodied
men. I must here explain that the cook of a large shearing-shed is a
highly paid and tolerably irresponsible official. He is paid and
provided by the shearers. Payment is generally arranged on the scale of
half-a-crown a head weekly from each shearer. For this sum he must
provide punctual and effective cooking, paying out of his own pocket as
many "marmitons" as may be needful for that end, and to satisfy his
tolerably exacting and fastidious employers.

In the present case he confers with the storekeeper, Mr de Vere, a
young gentleman of aristocratic connexions who is thus gaining an
excellent practical knowledge of the working of a large station and to
this end has the store-keeping department entrusted to him during
shearing.

He does not perhaps look quite fit for a croquet party as he stands
now, with a flour-scoop in one hand and a pound of tobacco in the
other. But he looks like a man at work, and also like a gentleman, as
he is. "Jack the Cook" thus addresses him:

"Now, Mr de Vere, I hope there's not going to be any humbugging about
my rations and things! The men are all up in their quarters, and as
hungry as free selectors. They've been a-payin' for their rations for
ever so long, and of course now shearing's on, they're good for a
little extra!"

"All right, Jack," returns de Vere, good-temperedly, "all your lot was
weighed out and sent away before breakfast. You must have missed the
cart. Here's the list. I'll read it out to you: three bags flour, half
a bullock, two bags sugar, a chest of tea, four dozen of pickles, four
dozen of jam, two gallons of vinegar, five pounds pepper, a bag of
salt, plates, knives, forks, ovens, frying-pans, saucepans, iron pots,
and about a hundred other things. Now, mind you, return all the cooking
things safe, or PAY FOR THEM--that's the order! You don't want
anything more, do you? You've got enough for a regiment of cavalry, I
should think."

"Well, I don't know. There won't be much left in a week if the weather
holds good," makes answer the chef, as one who thought nothing too
stupendous to be accomplished by shearers, "but I knew I'd forgot
something. As I'm here I'll take a few dozen boxes of sardines, and a
case of pickled salmon. The boys likes 'em, and, murder alive! haven't
we forgot the plums and currants? A hundredweight of each, Mr de Vere!
They'll be crying out for plum-duff and currant buns for the afternoon;
and bullying the life out of me, if I haven't a few trifles like. It's
a hard life, surely, a shearers' cook. Well, good-bye, sir, you have
'em all down in the book."

Lest the reader should imagine that the role of Mr Gordon at
Anabanco was a reign of luxury and that waste which tendeth to penury,
let him be aware that all shearers in Riverina are paid at a certain
rate, usually that of ONE pound per hundred sheep shorn. They agree, on
the other hand, to pay for all supplies consumed by them at certain
prices fixed before the shearing agreement is signed. Hence, it is
entirely their own affair whether their mess bills are extravagant or
economical. They can have anything within the rather wide range of the
station store. PATES DE FOIE GRAS, ortolans, roast ostrich, novels,
top-boots, double-barrelled guns, IF THEY LIKE TO PAY FOR THEM--with
one exception. No wine, no spirits! Neither are they permitted to bring
these stimulants "on to the grounds" for their private use. Grog at
shearing? Matches in a powder-mill! It's very sad and bad; but our
Anglo-Saxon industrial or defensive champion cannot be trusted with the
fire-water. Navvies, men-of-war's men, soldiers, AND shearers--fine
fellows all. But though the younger men might only drink in moderation,
the majority and the older men are utterly without self-control once in
the front of temptation. And wars, 'wounds without cause,' hot heads,
shaking hands, delay and bad shearing, would be the inevitable results
of spirits A LA DISCRETION. So much is this a matter of certainty from
experience that a clause is inserted, and cheerfully signed, in most
shearing agreements, "that any man getting drunk or bringing spirits on
to the station during shearing, LOSES THE WHOLE OF the money earned by
him." The men know that the restriction is for their benefit, as well
as for the interest of the master, and join in the prohibition
heartily.

Let us give a glance at the small army of working-men assembled at
Anabanco--one out of hundreds of stations in the colony of New South
Wales, ranging from 100,000 sheep downwards. There are seventy
shearers; about fifty washers, including the men connected with the
steam-engine, boilers, bricklayers and the like; ten or twelve
boundary-riders, whose duty it is to ride round the large paddocks,
seeing that the fences are all intact, and keeping a general look-out
over the condition of the sheep; three or four overseers; half-a-dozen
young gentlemen acquiring a practical knowledge of sheep-farming, or,
as it is generally phrased, "colonial experience"--a comprehensive
expression enough; a score or two of teamsters, with a couple of
hundred horses or bullocks, waiting for the high-piled wool bales,
which are loaded up and sent away almost as soon as shorn;
wool-sorters, pickers-up, pressers, yardsmen, extra shepherds. It may
easily be gathered from this outline what an 'army with banners' is
arrayed at Anabanco. While statistically inclined, it may be added that
the cash due for the shearing alone (less the mess bill) amounts to
1700 pounds; for the washing (roughly), 400 pounds, exclusive of
provisions consumed, hutting, wood, water, cooking. Carriage of wool
1500 pounds. Other hands from 30 pounds to 40 pounds per week. All of
which disbursements take place within from eight to twelve weeks after
the shears are in the first sheep.

Tuesday comes "big with fate." As the sun tinges the far
skyline, the shearers are taking a slight refection of coffee and
currant buns to enable them to withstand the exhausting interval
between six and eight o'clock, when the serious breakfast occurs.
Shearers always diet themselves on the principle that the more they eat
the stronger they must be. Digestion, as preliminary to muscular
development, is left to take its chance. They certainly do get through
a tremendous amount of work. The whole frame is at its utmost tension,
early and late. But the preservation of health is due to their natural
strength of constitution rather than to their profuse and unscientific
diet. Half-an-hour after sunrise Mr Gordon walks quietly into the vast
building which contains the sheep and their shearers--called "the
shed," par excellence. Everything is in perfect cleanliness and order--the
floor swept and smooth, with its carefully planed boards of pale
yellow aromatic pine. Small tramways, with baskets for the fleeces, run
the wool up to the wool tables, superseding the more general plan of
hand picking. At each side of the shed floor are certain small areas,
four or five feet square, such space being found by experience to be
sufficient for the postures and gymnastics practised during the
shearing of a sheep. Opposite to each square is an aperture,
communicating with a long narrow paled yard, outside of the shed.
Through this each man pops his sheep when shorn, where he remains in
company with the others shorn by the same hand, until counted out. This
being done by the overseer or manager supplies a check upon hasty or
unskilful work. The body of the woolshed, floored with battens placed
half an inch apart, is filled with the woolly victims. This enclosure
is subdivided into minor pens, of which each fronts the place of two
shearers, who catch from it until the pen is empty. When this takes
place, a man for the purpose refills its. As there are local
advantages, an equitable distribution of places for shearing has to be
made by lot.

On every subdivision stands a shearer, as Mr Gordon walks, with an air
of calm authority, down the long aisle. Seventy men, chiefly in their
prime, the flower of the working-men of the colony, they are variously
gathered. England, Ireland, and Scotland are represented in the
proportion of one half of the number; the other half is composed of
native-born Australians.

Among these last--of pure Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic descent--are to
be seen some of the finest men, physically considered, the race is
capable of producing. Taller than their British-born brethren, with
softer voices and more regular features, they inherit the powerful
frames and unequalled muscular development of the breed. Leading lives
chiefly devoted to agricultural labour, they enjoy larger intervals of
leisure than is permissible to the labouring classes of Europe. The
climate is mild, and favourable to health. They have been accustomed
from childhood to abundance of the best food; opportunities of
intercolonial travel are frequent and common. Hence the
Anglo-Australian labourer without, on the one hand, the sharpened
eagerness which marks his Transatlantic cousin, has yet an air
of independence and intelligence, combined with a natural grace of
movement, unknown to the peasantry of Britain.

An idea is prevalent that the Australians are, as a race, physically
inferior to the British. It is asserted that they grow too fast, tend
to height and slenderness, and do not possess adequate stamina and
muscle. The idea is erroneous. The men reared in the cities on the
seaboard, living sedentary lives in shops, banks, or counting-houses,
are doubtless more or less pale and slight of form. So are they who
live under such conditions all over the world. But those youngsters who
have followed the plough on the upland farms, or lived a wilder life on
the stations of the far interior, who have had their fill of wheaten
bread and beefsteaks since they could walk, and snuffed up the free
bush breezes from infancy, they are MEN.--


Stout of heart and ready of hand,
As e'er drove prey from Cumberland;


--a business, I may remark, at which many of them would have
distinguished themselves.

Take Abraham Lawson as he stands there in a natural and unstudied
attitude, 6 feet 4 inches in his stockings, wide-chested, stalwart,
with a face like that of a Greek statue. Take Billy May, fair-haired,
mild, insouciant, almost languid, till you see him at work. Then,
again, Jack Windsor, handsome, saucy, and wiry as a bull-terrier and
like him with strong natural inclination for the combat; good for any
man of his weight, or a trifle over, with the gloves or without.

It is curious to note how the old English practice of settling disputes
with nature's weapons has taken root in Australia. It would 'gladden
the sullen souls' of the defunct gladiators to watch two lads, whose
fathers had never trodden England's soil, pull off their jackets and go
to work "hammer and tongs," with all the savage silence of the true
island type.

It is now about seven o'clock. Mr Gordon moves forward. As he does so,
every man leans towards the open door of the pen in front of which he
stands. The bell sounds! With the first stroke each one of the seventy
men has sprung upon a sheep--has drawn it out--placed its head across
his knee--and is working his shears as if the "last man out" was to be
flogged, or tarred and feathered at the least. Four minutes--James
Steadman, who learned last year, has shorn down one side of his sheep;
Jack Holmes and Gundagai Bill are well down the other sides of theirs;
when Billy May raises himself with a jerking sigh, and releases his
sheep, perfectly clean-shorn from the nose to the heels, through the
aperture of his separate enclosure. With the same effort apparently he
calls out 'Wool!' and darts upon another sheep. Drawing this second
victim across his knee, he buries his shear-points in the long wool of
its neck. A moment after a lithe and eager boy has gathered up fleece
number one, and tossed it into the train-basket, the shearer is halfway
down the sheep's side, the wool hanging in one fleece like a great
glossy mat, before you have done wondering whether he did really
shear the first sheep, or whether he had not a ready-shorn one in his
coat-sleeve--like a conjuror.

By this time Jack Holmes and Gundagai Bill are 'out,' or finished; and
the cry of "Wool!' Wool!" seems to run continuously up and down the
long aisles of the shed, like a single note upon some rude instrument.
Now and then the "refrain" is varied by "Tar!" being shouted instead,
when a piece of skin is snipped off as well as the wool. Great healing
properties are attributed to this extract in the shed. And if a shearer
slice off a piece of flesh from his own person, as occasionally
happens, he gravely anoints it with the universal remedy, and considers
that the onus then lies with Providence, there being no more that man
can do. Though little time is lost, the men are by no means up to the
speed which they will attain in a few days, when in full practice and
training. Their nerve, muscle, eye, endurance, will be all at, so to
speak, concert-pitch, and sheep after sheep will be shorn with a
precision and celerity even awful to the unprofessional observer.

The unpastoral reader may be informed that speed and completeness of
denudation are the grand desiderata in shearing; the employer thinks
principally of the latter, the shearer principally of the former. To
adjust equitably the proportion is one of those incomplete aspirations
which torment humanity. Hence the contest--old as human society--
between labour and capital.

This is the first day. According to old-established custom, a kind of
truce obtains. It is before the battle, the "salut," when no hasty word
or too demonstrative action can be suffered by the canons of good
taste. Red Bill, Flash Jack, Jem the Scooper, and other roaring blades,
more famous for expedition than faithful manipulation, are shearing
today with a painstaking precision, as of men to whom character is
everything.

Mr Gordon marches softly up and down, regarding the shearers with a
paternal and gratified expression, occasionally hinting at slight
improvements of style, or expressing unqualified approval as a sheep is
turned out shaven rather than shorn. All goes on well. Nothing is heard
but expressions of goodwill and enthusiasm for the general welfare. It
is a triumph of the dignity of labour.

One o'clock. Mr Gordon moved on to the bell and sounded it. At the
first stroke several men on their way to the pens stopped abruptly and
began to put on their coats. One fellow of an alert nature (Master Jack
Windsor) had just finished his sheep and was sharpening his shears,
when his eye caught Mr Gordon's form in proximity to the final bell.
With a bound like a wild cat, he reached the pen and drew out his sheep
a bare second before the first stroke, amidst the laughter and
congratulations of his comrades. Another man had his hand on the
pen-gate at the same instant, but by the Median law was compelled to
return sheepless. He was cheered, but ironically. Those whose sheep
were in an unfinished stage quietly completed them; the others moving
off to their huts, where their board literally smoked with
abundance.

An hour passed. The meal was concluded; the smoke was over; and the
more careful men were back in the shed sharpening their shears by two
o'clock. Punctually at that hour the bell repeated its summons DE CAPO.
The warm afternoon gradually lengthened its shadows; the shears clicked
in tireless monotone; the pens filled and became empty. The
wool-presses yawned for the mountain of fleeces which filled the bins
in front of them, divided into various grades of excellence, and
continuously disgorged them, neatly and cubically packed and branded.

At six o'clock the bell brought the day's work to a close. The sheep of
each man were counted in his presence, and noted down with scrupulous
care, the record being written out in full and hung up for public
inspection in the shed next day. This important ceremony over, master
and men, manager, labourers and supernumeraries, betook themselves to
their separate abodes, with such keen avoidance of delay that in five
minutes not a soul was left in or near the great building lately so
busy and populous, except the boys who were sweeping up the floor. The
silence of ages seems to fall and settle upon it.

Next morning at a rather earlier hour every man is at his post.
Business is meant decidedly. Now commences the delicate and difficult
part of the superintendence which keeps Mr Gordon at his post in the
shed, nearly from daylight till dark, for from eight to ten weeks.
During the first day he has formed a sort of gauge of each man's temper
and workmanship. For now, and henceforth, the natural bias of each
shearer will appear. Some try to shear too fast, and in their haste
shear badly. Some are rough and savage with the sheep, which do
occasionally kick and become unquiet at critical times; and it must be
confessed are provoking enough. Some shear very fairly and handsomely
to a superficial eye, but commit the unpardonable offence of "leaving
wool on." Some are deceitful, shearing carefully when overlooked, but
"racing" and otherwise misbehaving directly the eye of authority is
diverted. These and many other tricks and defects require to be noted
and abated, quietly but firmly, by the manager of the shed--firmly
because evil would develop and spread ruinously if not checked; quietly
because immense loss might be incurred by a strike. Shearing differs
from other work in this wise: it is work against time, more especially
in Riverina. If the wool be not off the backs of the sheep before
November, all sorts of draw-backs and destructions supervene. The
spear-shaped grass-seeds, specially formed as if in special collusion
with the Evil One, hasten to bury themselves in the wool, and even in
the flesh of the tender victims. Dust rises in red clouds from the
unmoistened, betrampled meadows so lately verdurous and
flower-spangled. From snowy white to an unlovely dark brown turn the
carefully washed fleeces, causing anathema from overseers and
depreciation from brokers. All these losses of temper, trouble, and
money become inevitable if shearing be protracted, it may be, beyond a
given week.

Hence, as in harvest with a short allowance of fair weather,
discipline must be tempered with diplomacy. Lose your temper, and be
over particular: off go Billy May, Abraham Lawson, and half-a-dozen of
your best men, making a weekly difference of perhaps two or three
thousand sheep for the remainder of the shearing. Can you not replace
them? Not so! Every shed in Riverina will be hard at work during this
present month of September and for every hour of October. Till that
time not a shearer will come to your gate, except, perhaps, one or two
useless, characterless men. Are you to tolerate bad workmanship? Not
that either. But try all other means with your men before you resort to
harshness; and be quite certain that your sentence is just, and that
you can afford the defection.

So our friend Mr Gordon, wise from many tens of thousands of shorn
sheep that have been counted out past his steady eye, criticises
temperately, but watchfully. He reproves sufficiently, and no more, any
glaring fault; makes his calculation as to who are really bad shearers,
and can be discharged without loss to the commonwealth, or who can
shear fairly and can be coached up to a decent average. One division,
slow, and good only when slow, have to be watched lest they emulate
"the talent," and so come to grief. Then "the talent" has to be mildly
admonished from time to time lest they force the pace, set a bad
example, and lure the other men on to "racing." This last leads to
slovenly shearing, ill-usage of the sheep, and general dissatisfaction.

Tact, temper, patience, and firmness are each and all necessary in that
Captain of Industry who has the very delicate and important task of
superintending a large woolshed. Hugh Gordon had shown all in such
proportion as would have made a distinguished man anywhere, had fortune
not adjusted for him this particular profession. Calm with the
consciousness of strength, he was kind and considerate in manner as in
nature, until provoked by glaring dishonesty or incivility. Then the
lion part of his nature woke up, so that it commonly went ill with the
aggressor. As this was matter of public report, he had little occasion
to spoil the repose of his bearing. Day succeeds day, and for a
fortnight the machinery goes on smoothly and successfully. The sheep
arrive at an appointed day and hour by detachments and regiments at the
washpen. They depart thence, like good boys on Saturday night, redolent
of soap and water, and clean to a fault. They enter the shed white and
flossy as newly combed poodles to emerge, on the way back to their
pasturage, slim, delicate, agile, with a bright black A legibly branded
with tar on their paper-white skins.

The Anabanco world--stiffish but undaunted--is turning out of bed one
morning. Ha! what sounds are these? And why does the room look so dark?
Rain, as I'm alive. "Hurrah!" says Master Jack Bowles, one of the young
gentlemen. He is learning (more or less) practical sheep-farming,
preparatory to having (one of these days) an Anabanco of his own.
"Well, this is a change, and I'm not sorry for one," quoth Mr.
Jack, "I'm stiff all over. No one can stand such work long. Won't the
shearers growl! No shearing to-day, and perhaps none tomorrow either."
Truth to tell, Mr Bowles' sentiments are not confined to his ingenuous
bosom. Some of the shearers grumble at being stopped "just as a man was
earning a few shillings." Those who are in top pace and condition don't
like it. But to many of the rank and file--working up to and a little
beyond their strength--with whom swelled wrists and other protests of
nature are becoming apparent, it is a relief, and they are glad of the
respite. So at dinner-time all the sheep in the sheds, put in overnight
in anticipation of such a contingency, are reported shorn. All hands
are then idle for the rest of the day. The shearers dress and avail
themselves of various resources. Some go to look at their horses, now
in clover, or its equivalent, in the Riverina graminetum. Some play
cards, others wash or mend their clothes. A large proportion of the
Australians having armed themselves with paper, envelopes, and a
shilling's worth of stamps from the store, bethink themselves of
neglected or desirable correspondents. Many a letter for Mrs Leftalone,
Wallaroo Creek, or Miss Jane Sweetapple, Honeysuckle Flat, as the case
may be, will find its way into the post-bag tomorrow. A pair of
youngsters are having a round or two with the gloves; while to complete
the variety of recreations compatible with life at a woolshed, a
selected troupe are busy in the comparative solitude of that building,
at a rehearsal of a tragedy and a farce, with which they intend, the
very next rainy day, to astonish the population of Anabanco.

At the home-station a truce to labour's "alarms" is proclaimed except
in the case and person of Mr de Vere. So far is he from participation
in the general holiday that he finds the store thronged with shearers,
washers, and "knock-about men," who being let loose, think it would be
nice to go and buy something "pour passer le temps." He therefore
grumbles slightly at having no rest like other people.

"That's all very fine," says Mr Jack Bowles, who, seated on a case, is
smoking a large meerschaum and mildly regarding all things, "but what
have you got to do when we're all HARD AT WORK at the shed?" He speaks
with an air of great importance and responsibility.

"That's right, Mr Bowles," chimes in one of the shearers, "stand up for
the shed. I never see a young gentleman work as hard as you do."

"Bosh!" growls de Vere, "as if anybody couldn't gallop about from the
shed to the washpen, and carry messages, and give half of them wrong!
Why, Mr Gordon said the other day, he should have to take you off and
put on a Chinaman--that he couldn't make more mistakes."

"All envy and malice, and t'other thing, de Vere, because you think I'm
rising in the profession," returns the good-natured Bowles, "Mr
Gordon's going to send 20,000 sheep, after shearing, to the Lik Lak
paddock, and he said I should go in charge."

"Charge be hanged!" laughs de Vere, with two very bright-patterned
Crimean shirts, one in each hand, which he offers to a tall young
shearer for inspection. "There's a well there, and whenever
either of the two men, of whom you'll have CHARGE, gets sick or runs
away, you'll have to work the whim in his place, till another man's
sent out, if it's a month."

This appalling view of station promotion rather startles Mr Jack, who
applies himself to his meerschaum, amid the ironical comments of the
shearers. However, not easily daunted or "shut up," according to the
more familiar station phrase, he rejoins, after a brief interval of
contemplation, "that accidents will happen, you know, de Vere, my boy--
apropos of which moral sentiment, I'll come and help you in your
dry-goods business; and then, look here, if YOU get ill or run away,
I'll have a profession to fall back upon."

This is held to be a Roland of sufficient pungency for de Vere's
Oliver. Everyone laughed. And then the two youngsters betook themselves
to a humorous puffing of the miscellaneous contents of the store:
tulip-beds of gorgeous Crimean shirts, boots, books, tobacco, canvas
slippers, pocket-knives, Epsom salts, pipes, pickles, painkillers,
pocket handkerchiefs, pills, sardines, saddles, shears and sauces: in
fact everything which every kind of man might want, and which
apparently every man did want, for large and various were the
purchases, and great the flow of conversation. Finally, everything was
severely and accurately debited to the purchasers, and the store was
cleared and locked up. A large store is a necessity of a large station;
not by any means because of the profit upon goods sold, but it
obviously would be bad economy for old Bill, the shepherd, or Barney,
the bullock-driver, to visit the next township, from ten to thirty
miles distant, as the case may be, every time the former wanted a pound
of tobacco, or the latter a pair of boots. They might possibly obtain
these necessary articles as good in quality, as cheap in price. But
there are wolves in that wood, oh, my weak brothers! In all towns
dwells one of the 'sons of the Giant'--the Giant Grog--red-eyed, with
steel muscles and iron claws; once in these, which have held many and
better men to the death, neither Barney nor Bill emerges, save pale,
fevered, nerveless, and impecunious. So arose the station store. Barney
befits himself with boots without losing his feet; Bill fills his
pocket with match-boxes and smokes the pipe of sobriety, virtuous
perforce till his carnival, after shearing.

The next day was wet, and threatened further broken weather. Matters
were not too placid with the shearers. A day or two for rest is very
well, but continuous wet weather means compulsory idleness, and gloom
succeeds repose; for not only are all hands losing time and earning no
money, but they are, to use the language of the stable "eating their
heads off" the while. The rather profuse mess and general expenditure,
which caused little reflection when they were earning at the rate of
two or three hundred pounds a year, became unpleasantly suggestive, now
that all is going out and nothing coming in. Hence loud and deep were
the anathemas as the discontented men gazed sadly or wrathfully at the
misty sky.

A few days showery weather having, therefore, wellnigh driven
our shearers to desperation, out comes the sun in all his glory. He is
never far away or very faint in Riverina. All the pens are filled for
the morrow; very soon after the earliest sunbeams the bell sounds its
welcome summons, and the whole force tackles to the work with an ardour
proportioned to the delay, every man working as if for the ransom of
his whole family from slavery. How men work spurred on by the double
excitement of acquiring social reputation and making money rapidly! Not
an instant is lost; not a nerve, limb, or muscle doing less than the
hardest task-master could flog out of a slave. Occasionally you see a
shearer, after finishing his sheep, walk quickly out and not appear for
a couple of hours, or perhaps not again during the day. Do not put him
down as a sluggard; be assured that he has tasked nature dangerously
hard, and has only given in just before she does. Look at that silent
slight youngster, with a bandage round his swollen wrist. Every "blow"
of the shears is agony to him, yet he disdains to give in, and has been
working "in distress" for hours. The pain is great, as you can see by
the flush which occasionally surges across his brown face, yet he goes
on manfully to the last sheep, and endures to the very verge of
fainting.

There was now a change in the manner and tone of the shed, especially
towards the end of the day. It was now the ding of the desperate fray,
when the blood of the fierce animal man is up, when mortal blows are
exchanged, and curses float upward with the smoke and dust. The
ceaseless clicking of the shears--the stern earnestness of the men,
toiling with a feverish and tireless energy--the constant succession
of sheep shorn and let go, caught and commenced--the occasional savage
oath or passionate gesture, as a sheep kicked and struggled with
perverse delaying obstinacy--the cuts and stabs, with brief decided
tones of Mr Gordon, in repression or command--all told the spectator
that tragic action was introduced into the performance. Indeed, one of
the minor excitements of shearing was then and there transacted. Mr
Gordon had more than once warned a dark sullen-looking man that he did
not approve of his style of shearing. He was temporarily absent, and on
his return found the same man about to let go a sheep whose appearance,
as a shorn wool-bearing quadruped, was painful and discreditable in the
extreme.

"Let your sheep go, my man," said Gordon, in a tone which somehow
arrested the attention of nearly all the shearers, "but don't trouble
yourself to catch another!"

"Why not?" said the delinquent, sulkily.

"You know very well why not!" replied Gordon, walking closely up to
him, and looking straight at him with eyes that began to glitter,
"you've had fair warning. You've not chosen to take it. Now you can
go!"

"I suppose you'll pay a man for the sheep he's shorn?" growled
out the ruffian.

"Not one shilling until after shearing. You can come then if you like,"
answered Gordon, with perfect distinctness.

The cowed bully looked savagely at him; but the tall powerful frame and
steady eye were not inviting for personal arbitration of the matter in
hand. He put up his two pairs of shears, put on his coat, and walked
out of the shed. The time was passed when Red Bill or Terrible Dick
(ruffians whom a sparse labour-market rendered necessary evils) would
have flung down his shears upon the floor and told the manager that if
he didn't like that shearing he could shear his------sheep himself and
be hanged to him; or, on refusal of instant payment, would have
proposed to bury his shears in the intestines of his employer by way of
adjusting the balance between Capital and Labour. Many wild tales are
told of woolshed rows. I knew of one squatter stabbed mortally with
that fatal and convenient weapon, a shear-blade.

The man thus summarily dealt with could, like most of his companions,
shear very well if he took pains. Keeping to a moderate number of
sheep, his workmanship could be good. But he must needs try and keep up
with Billy May or Abraham Lawson, who can shear from 100 to 130 sheep
per day, and do them beautifully. So in "racing" he works hastily and
badly, cuts the skin of his luckless sheep nearly as often as the wool,
and leaves wool here and there on them, grievous and exasperating to
behold. So sentence of expulsion goes forth fully against him. Having
arrayed himself for the road he makes one more effort for a settlement
and some money wherewith to pay for board and lodging on the road. Only
to have a mad carouse at the nearest township, however; after which he
will tell a plausible story of his leaving the shed on account of Mr
Gordon's temper, and avail himself of the usual free hospitality of the
bush to reach another shed. He addresses Mr Gordon with an attempt at
conciliation and deference.

"It seems very 'ard, sir, as a man can't get the trifle of money coming
to him, which I've worked 'ard for."

"It's very hard you won't try and shear decently," retorts Mr Gordon,
by no means conciliated. "Leave the shed!"

Ill-conditioned rascal as the shearer is, he has a mate or
travelling-companion in whose breast exists some rough idea of
fidelity. He now takes up the dialogue.

"I suppose if Jim's shearing don't suit, mine won't either."

"I did not speak to you," answered Mr Gordon, as calmly as if he had
expected the speech, "but of course you can go."

He said this with an air of studied unconcern, as if he would rather
like a dozen more men to knock off work. The two men walk out, but the
epidemic does not spread, and several take the lesson home and mend
their ways accordingly.

The weather now was splendid; not a cloud specked the bright blue
sky. The shearers continue to work at the same express-train
pace; fifty bales of wool roll every day from the wool-presses; as fast
as they reach that number they are loaded upon the numerous drays and
wagons which have been waiting for weeks. Tall brown men have been
recklessly cutting up hides for the last fortnight, wherewith to lash
the bales securely. It is considered safer practice to load wool as
soon as may be; fifty bales represent about a thousand pounds sterling.
In a building, however secure, should a fire break out, a few hundred
bales are easily burned; but once on the dray, this much-dreaded "edax
rerum" in a dry country has little chance. The driver, responsible to
the extent of his freight, generally sleeps under his dray; hence both
watchman and insulation are provided.

The unrelaxing energy with which the work was pushed at this stage was
exciting and contagious; at or before daylight every soul in the great
establishment was up. The boundary-riders were always starting off for
a twenty or thirty mile ride, and bringing tens of thousands of sheep
to the wash-pen. At that huge lavatory there was splashing and soaking
all day with an army of washers; not a moment is lost from daylight
till dark, or used for any purpose save the all-engrossing work and
needful food. At nine o'clock p.m. luxurious dreamless sleep, given
only to those whose physical powers have been taxed to the utmost and
who can bear without injury the daily tension.

Everything and everybody were in splendid working order, nothing out of
gear. Rapid and regular as a steam-engine the great host of toilers
moved onward daily with a march which promised an unusually early
completion. Mr Gordon was not in high spirits, for so cautious and
far-seeing a captain rarely felt himself so independent of
circumstances as to indulge in that reckless mood--but much satisfied
with the prospect. Whew! The afternoon darkens, and the night is
delivered over to water-spouts and hurricanes, as it appears. Next day
was raw, gusty, with chill heavy showers; drains had to be cut, roofs
to be seen to; shorn sheep were shivering, washers all playing
pitch-and-toss, shearers sulky; everybody but the young gentlemen
wearing a most injured expression of countenance. "Looks as if it would
rain for a month," says Long Jack. "If we hadn't been delayed might
have had the shearing over by this." Reminded that there are 50,000
sheep yet remaining to be shorn, and that by no possibility could they
have been finished, he answers, "Suppose so, always the same,
everything sure to go agin the poor man." The weather did not clear up.
Winter seemed to have taken thought, and determined to show even this
land of eternal summer that he had his rights. The shed would be
filled, and before the sheep so kept dry were shorn, down would come
the rain again. Not a full day's shearing for ten days. Then the clouds
disappeared as if the curtain of a stage had been rolled up, and lo!
the golden sun, fervid and impatient to obliterate the track of winter.

The first day after the recommencement, matters went much as usual.
Steady work and little talk, as if everyone was anxious to make
up for the lost time. But on the second morning after breakfast, when
the bell sounded, instead of the usual cheerful dash at the sheep,
every man stood silent and motionless in his place. Someone uttered the
words "roll up!". Then the seventy men converged, and slowly, but with
one impulse, walked up to the end of the shed where stood Mr Gordon.

The concerted action of any body of men bears with it an element of
power which commands respect. The weapon of force is theirs; it is at
their option to wield it with or without mercy. At one period of
Australian colonisation a superintendent in Mr Gordon's position might
have had good ground for uneasiness. Mr Jack Bowles saw in it an EMEUTE
of a democratic and sanguinary nature, regretted deeply his absent
revolver, but drew up to his leader prepared to die by his side. That
calm centurion felt no such serious misgivings. He knew that there had
been dire grumbling among the shearers in consequence of the weather.
He knew that there were malcontents among them. He was prepared for
some sort of demand on their part, and had concluded to make certain
concessions of a moderate degree. So looking cheerfully at the men, he
quietly awaited the deputation. As they neared him there was a little
hesitation, and then three delegates came to the front. These were Old
Ben, Abraham Lawson, and Billy May. Ben Thornton had been selected for
his age and long experience of the rights and laws of the craft. He was
a weather-beaten, wiry old Englishman, whose face and accent, darkened
as the former was by the Australian summers of half a century, still
retained the trace of his native Devonshire. It was his boast that he
had shorn for forty years, and as regularly "knocked-down" (or spent in
a single debauch) his shearing money. Lawson represented the small
free-holders, being a steady, shrewd fellow, and one of the fastest
shearers. Billy May stood for the fashion and "talent," being the
"Ringer," or fastest shearer of the whole assembly, and as such truly
admirable and distinguished.

"Well now, men," quoth Mr Gordon, cheerily meeting matters half-way,
"what's it all about?" The younger delegate looked at Old Ben, who, now
that it "was demanded of him to speak the truth," or such dilution
thereof as might seem most favourable to the interests of the shed,
found a difficulty like many wiser men about his exordium.

"Well, Muster Gordon," at length he broke forth, "look'ee here, sir.
The weather's been awful bad, and clean agin shearing. We've not been
earning our grub, and--"

"So it has," answered the manager, "so it has. But can I help the
weather? I'm as anxious as you are to have the shearing over quickly.
We're both of one mind about that, eh?"

"That's all right enough, sir," struck in Abraham Lawson, who felt that
Ben was getting the worst of the argument, and was moreover far less
fluent than usual, probably from being deprived of the aid of the
customary expletives, "but we're come to say this, sir, that the
season's turned out very wet indeed. We've had a deal of broken
time, and the men feel it very hard to be paying for a lot of rations,
and hardly earning anything. We're shearing the sheep very close and
clean. You won't have 'em done no otherways. Not like some sheds where
a man can 'run' a bit and make up for lost time. Now we've all come to
think this, sir, that if we're to go on shearing the sheep well, and to
stick to them, and get them done before the dust and grass-seed come
in, that you ought to make us some allowance. We know we've agreed for
so much a hundred, and all that. Still as the season's turned so
out-and-out bad, we hope you'll consider it and make it up to us
somehow."

"Never knew a worse year," corroborated Billy May, who thought it
indispensable to say something. "Haven't made enough, myself, to pay
the cook."

This was not strictly true, at any rate, as to Master Billy's own
earnings; he being such a remarkably fast shearer (and good withal),
that he had always a respectable sum credited to him for his days'
work, even when many of the slower men came off short enough.

However, enough had been said to make Mr Gordon fully comprehend the
case. The men were dissatisfied. They had come in a roundabout way to
the conclusion that some pecuniary concession, not mentioned in their
bond, should come from the side of capital to that of labour. Whether
wages, interest of capital, share of profits, reserve fund, they knew
not nor cared. This was their stand. And being Englishmen they intended
to abide by it.

The manager had considered the situation before it actually arose. He
now rapidly took in the remaining points of debate. The shearers had
signed a specific agreement for a stipulated rate of payment,
irrespective of the weather. By the letter of the law, they had no
case. Whether they made little or much profit was not his affair. But
he was a just and kindly man, as well as reasonably politic. They had
shorn well, and the weather had been discouraging. He knew too that an
abrupt denial might cause a passive mutiny, if not a strike. If they
set themselves to thwart him, it was in their power to shear badly, to
shear slowly, and to force him to discharge many of them. He might have
them fined, perhaps imprisoned by the police-court. Meanwhile, how
could shearing go on? Dust and grass-seeds would soon be upon them. He
resolved on a compromise, and spoke out at once in a firm and decided
tone as the men gathered up yet more closely around him.

"Look here, all of you! You know very well that I'm not bound to find
you in fine weather. Still I am aware that the season has been against
you. You have shorn pretty well, so far, though I've had to make
examples, and am quite ready to make more. What I am willing to do is
this: to every man who works on till the finish and shears to my
satisfaction, I will make a fair allowance in the ration account. That
is, I will make no charge for the beef. Does that suit you?" There
was a chorus of "All right sir, we're satisfied. Mr Gordon
always does the fair thing." &c. And work was immediately resumed with
alacrity.

The clerk of the weather, too gracious even in these regions as far as
the absence of rain is concerned, was steadily propitious. Cloudless
skies and a gradually ascending thermometer alone were the signs that
spring was changing into summer. The splendid herbage ripened and
dried; patches of bare earth began to be discernible amid the late
thick-swarded pastures, dust to rise and cloud-pillars of sand to float
and eddy--the desert genii of the Arab. But the work went on at a high
rate of speed, outpacing the fast-coming summer; and before any serious
disasters arose, the last flock was "on the battens," and, amid
ironical congratulations, the "cobbler," or last sheep was seized, and
stripped of his rather dense and difficult fleece. In ten minutes the
vast woolshed, lately echoing with the ceaseless click of the shears,
the jests, the songs, the oaths of the rude congregation, was silent
and deserted. The floors were swept, the pens closed, the sheep on
their way to a distant paddock. Not a soul remains about the building
but the pressers, who stay to work at the rapidly lessening piles of
fleeces in the bins, or a meditative teamster who sits musing on a
wool-bale, absorbed in a calculation as to when his load will be made
up.

It is sundown, a rather later time of closing than usual, but rendered
necessary by the possibility of the "grand finale." The younger men
troop over to the hut, larking like schoolboys. Abraham Lawson throws a
poncho over his broad shoulders, lights his pipe, and strides along,
towering above the rest, erect and stately as a guardsman. Considerably
more so than you or I, reader, would have been, had we shorn 130 sheep,
as he has done to-day. Billy May has shorn 142, and he puts his hand on
the five-foot paling fence of the yard and vaults over it like a deer,
preparatory to a swim in the creek. At dinner you will see them all
with fresh Crimeans and Jerseys, clean, comfortable, and in grand
spirits. Next morning is settling-day. The book-keeping departments at
Anabanco being severely correct, all is in readiness. Each man's tally
or number of sheep shorn has been entered daily to his credit. His
private and personal investments at the store have been as duly
debited. The shearers, as a corporation, have been charged with the
multifarious items of their rather copious mess-bill. This sum total is
divided by the number of the shearers, the extract being the amount for
which each man is liable. This sum varies in its weekly proportion at
different sheds. With an extravagant cook, or cooks, the weekly bill is
often alarming. When the men and their functionary study economy it may
be kept very reasonably low.

The men have been sitting or standing about the office for half-an-hour
when Mr Jack Bowles rushes out, and shouts "William May!" That young
person, excessively clean, attired in a quiet tweed suit, with his hair
cut very correctly short, advances with an air of calm intrepidity, and
faces Mr Gordon. Gordon, now seated at a long table, wearing a
judicial expression of countenance.

"Well, May, here's your account":--

So many sheep, at 1 pound per 100... xxxx pounds
Cook, so many weeks................. xxxx pounds
Shearing store account.............. xxxx pounds
Private store account............... xxxx pounds
                                     ----
Total............................... xxxx pounds
                                     ----


"Is the tally of your sheep right?" "Oh! I daresay it's all right, Mr
Gordon, I made it so and so; about ten less."

"Well, well! Ours is correct, no doubt. Now I want to make up a good
subscription for the hospital this year. How much will you give? You've
done pretty well, I think."

"Put me down a pound, sir."

"Very well, that's fair enough. If every one gives what they can
afford, you men will always have a place to go to when you're hurt or
laid up. So I put your name down, and you'll see it in the published
list. Now about the shearing, May. I consider that you've done your
work very well, and behaved very well all through. You're a fast
shearer, but you shear closely, and don't knock your sheep about. I
therefore do not charge you for any part of your meat bill, and I pay
you at the rate of half-a-crown a hundred for all your sheep, over and
above your agreement. Will that do?"

"Very well, indeed, and I'm much obliged to you, Mr Gordon."

"Well, good-bye May! Always call when you're passing, and if any work
is going on you'll get your share. Here's your cheque. Send in Lawson!"
Exit May, in high spirits, having cleared about three pounds per week,
during the whole term of shearing, and having lived a far from
unpleasant life, indeed akin to that of a fighting cock, from the
commencement to the end of that period.

Lawson's interview may be described as having very similar results. He,
also, was a first-class shearer, though not so artistic as the gifted
Billy. Jack Windsor's saucy blue eyes twinkled merrily as he returned
to his companions, and incontinently leaped on the back of his
wild-eyed colt. After these three worthies came a shearer named
Jackson; he belonged to quite a different class; he could shear very
well if he pleased, but had a rooted disbelief that honesty was the
best policy, and a fixed determination to shear as many sheep as he
could get the manager to pass. By dint of close watching, constant
reprimand, and occasional "raddling" (marking badly-shorn sheep and
refusing to count them) Mr Gordon had managed to tone him down to
average respectability of execution. Still he was always uneasily aware
that whenever his eye was not upon him, Jackson was doing what he ought
not to do with might and main. Gordon had, indeed, kept him on from
sheer necessity, but he intended none the less to mark his opinion of
him.

"Come in, Jackson! Your tally is so-and-so. Is that right?"

Jackson.--"I suppose so."

"Cook and store account, so much; shearing account so much."

Jackson.--"And a good deal too."

"That is your affair," said Mr Gordon, sternly enough. "Now look here!
You're in my opinion a bad shearer and a bad man. You have given me a
great deal of trouble, and I should have kicked you out of the shed
weeks ago if I had not been short of men. I shall make a difference
between you and men who have tried to do their best. I make you no
allowance of any sort, I pay you by the strict agreement. There's your
cheque. Go!"

Jackson goes out with a very black countenance. He mutters with a surly
oath that if "he'd known how he was going to be served he'd ha'
'blocked' 'em a little more." He is pretty well believed to have been
served right, and he secures no sympathy whatever. Working-men of all
classes are shrewd and fair judges generally. If an employer does his
best to mete out justice he is always appreciated and supported by the
majority. These few instances will serve as a description of the whole
process of settling with the shearers. The horses have all been got in.
Great catching and saddling-up has taken place all the morning. By the
afternoon the whole party are dispersed to the four winds; some, like
Abraham Lawson and his friends, to sheds "higher up," in a colder
climate, where shearing necessarily commences later. From these they
will pass to others, until the last sheep in the mountain runs are
shorn. Then those who have not farms of their own betake themselves to
reaping. Billy May and Jack Windsor are quite as ready to back
themselves against time in the wheat-field as on the shearing-floor.
Harvest over, they find their pockets inconveniently full, so they
commence to visit their friends and repay themselves for their toils by
a tolerably liberal allowance of rest and recreation.

Old Ben and a few choice specimens of the olden time get no further
than the nearest public house. Their cheques are handed to the landlord
and a "stupendous and terrible spree" sets in. At the end of a week he
informs them that they have received liquor to the amount of their
cheques--something over a hundred pounds--save the mark! They meekly
acquiesce, as is their custom. The landlord generously presents them
with a glass of grog each, and they take the road for the next
woolshed.

The shearers being despatched, the sheep-washers, a smaller and less
regarded force, file up. They number some forty men. Nothing more than
fair bodily strength, willingness and obedience being required in their
case, they are more easy to get and to replace than shearers. They are
a varied and motley lot. That powerful and rather handsome man is a New
Yorker, of Irish parentage. Next to him is a slight, neat, quiet
individual. He was a lieutenant in a line regiment. The lad in the rear
was a Sandhurst cadet. Then came two navvies and a New Zealander,
five Chinamen, a Frenchman, two Germans, Tin Pot, Jerry, and
Wallaby--three aboriginal blacks. There are no invidious distinctions
as to caste, colour, or nationality. Every one is a man and a brother
at sheep-washing. Wage, one pound per week; wood, water, tents and food
"A LA DISCRETION." Their accounts are simple: so many weeks, so many
pounds; store account, so much; hospital? well, five shillings; cheque,
good-morning.

The wool-pressers, the fleece-rollers, the fleece-pickers, the
yardsmen, the washers' cooks, the hut cooks, the spare shepherds; all
these and a few other supernumeraries inevitable at shearing-time,
having been paid off, the snowstorm of cheques which has been
fluttering all day comes to an end. Mr Gordon and the remaining
"sous-officiers" go to rest that night with much of the mental strain
removed which has been telling on every waking moment for the last two
months.

The long train of drays and wagons, with loads varying from twenty to
forty-five bales, has been moving off in detachments since the
commencement. In a day or two the last of them will have rolled heavily
away. The 1400 bales, averaging three and a half hundredweight, are
distributed, slow journeying, along the road, which they mark from
afar, standing huge and columnar like guide tumuli, from Anabanco to
the waters of the Murray. Between the two points there is neither a
hill nor a stone. All is the vast monotonous sea of plain--at this
season a prairie-meadow exuberant with vegetation; in the late summer,
or in the occasional and dreaded phenomenon of a DRY WINTER, dusty, and
herbless as a brickfield, for hundreds of miles.

Silence falls on the plains and waters of Anabanco for the next six
months. The woolshed, the washpen, and all the huts connected with them
are lone and voiceless as caravanserais in a city of the plague.



End of Shearing In The Riverina, New South Wales
by Rolf Boldrewood [Thomas Alexander Browne]





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