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Title: The Pastoral Life, Past and Present
Author: John Arthur Barry
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eBook No.: 1302311.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: May 2013
Date most recently updated: May 2013

Produced by: Author: John Arthur Barry

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Title: The Pastoral Life, Past and Present
Author: John Arthur Barry


The Pastoral Life, Past and Present
The Big Men and the Little Men
By John Arthur Barry

(Author, of "Steve Brown's Bunyip," "Red Lion and Blue Star." "The Luck
of the Native Born," "In the Great Deep," etc.)

Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW)
Wednesday, April 19, 1905


The pastoral life for both employer and employed has within the last
few years altered radically, and altered for the worse. At one time a
youngster, energetic, active, and with an average supply of common
sense, added to a liking for the bush, might, with fair confidence,
look forward to something of a career. From jackaroo, or even from the
men's hut, in exceptional cases, to overseer, from overseer to manager,
while with the prime of life yet some distance away, was nothing
unusual. And the salaries were very different at the top of the tree
then, to the beggarly pittances now offered. Most of the stations were
owned by the individual, as against the company. Also, the seasons
were, on the whole, better; nor were the multitudinous pastoral plagues
of the present day nearly so much in evidence as they are now. There
was more room and fewer fences, and, consequently, stock, both large
and small, throve better, and paid better. In those spacious days a
drought in one district, in place of, as now, meaning decimation to
those concerned, meant simply an emptying of the stock on to more
favoured portions of the State; any State, to "travel for grass and
water," until better times came on the afflicted runs. Nor, so far as
could be seen, was anybody much the worse for the proceeding. Now,
however, what with travelling stock routes, of ridiculous inadequacy of
width; permits, declarations, applications, and a mass of red tape,
generally a man hesitates ere allowing his stock off his run, not to
look for grass or water, because that would be looking for the
impossible, but merely to travel to market, if it happen to be a
distant one.

At the present day it is extremely difficult to place a youngster on a
station, with a view to having him taught a knowledge of stock and
station life. The old-time squatter had no objection to having half-a- dozen
or so of these young men in the "barracks;" but his modern
prototype, the "Company," or the "Bank," has little or no use for
pastoral cadets of the kind. They require quarters, a servant to wait
upon them, and are thus a source of extra expense. Besides, since
"station" has given way to "estate," the hundreds of thousands of far
flung acres to the consolidated blocks of freehold, a manager and a
working overseer, with three of four men, all of them paid at the
lowest rates, are made to do the work of the old-time big staff. Five
and-twenty or thirty years ago, however, station life for the neophyte
was a pleasant enough experience. No matter how green he might be, he
took his share in the work from the very jump. Ignorant of the saddle
though he were, he was at once put on a horse's back--and often as
promptly off it. He assisted in mustering; lamb-marking, burr-cutting,
fence repairing, branding, and all the rest of the ordinary station
work. Then, after a few years' experience, if smart, he might probably
find himself offered a billet as assistant overseer on some large
property, should there be no room on the one he had been "serving his
time" upon. The work was often desperately hard, beginning with the
sun, and ending long after the stars were shining. But the fare in the
barracks was good, and plentiful, and now and again, when the busy
seasons were over, would come long intervals of comparative leisure,
during which the men who intended to stick to the business read the
best authorities they could get hold of on stock; studied the Land Acts
of their State, even becoming more complicated and bewildering, and
otherwise fitted themselves for what was then looked upon as the highly
responsible and honourable position of station superintendent.

This cadet system bred good men, and in an infinitesimal proportion it
still does so. But so poor is the remuneration now offered for station
management that there is not much incentive to any preparation for it
as a possible career. To make it worth one's while to go through the
mill now, there should be a future prospect of being able to also go on
the land for oneself. Without some such prospect the initiation
nowadays to a pastoral profession means, at the end of it all, perhaps,
for a first-class sheep overseer the magnificent sum of 80 per annum;
or a managership at double the money--and lucky to get either position.
Of course, there are some still in receipt of large salaries. But they
are, as a rule, travelling inspectors with under their charge a group
of perhaps a score of company stations, whose managers it is their duty
to supervise, and whose noses, it is requisite in the interests of
shareholders, should be kept very close to the pastoral grindstone. And
it would be very easy to count these highly-paid persons throughout
Australia on the fingers of both hands, and, then, perhaps, have a few
digits to spare.

To parents, however, who can afford to pay a fairly stiff premium, a
pastoral cadetship for their sons is, in many instances, still open.
Otherwise, and lacking influence or relationship, it will be found
extremely difficult to exchange an apprenticeship for "tucker" and
lodging. The institution once known as the "barracks," a building
specially set aside for the youngsters, is fast disappearing; hence
there is nothing available between "hut" and homestead. The first for
the gently nurtured is impossible; the second, is seldom available. In
fact, the jackaroo is vanishing with his one time employer and patron,
the squatter, per se. There is little room for the species; and there
will be less as station and squatter continue to merge faster into
"pastoralist" and "estate." However, as has been said, the life is to
be had yet in places. And a little of it will injure no boy. Rather do
him much good; for it is an open-air, hearty, wholesome existence, and
one that is no poor preliminary for the battle of life in other fields.
But as a means to an end, to the embracing of the pastoral calling, it,
without capital, can lead absolutely no whither.

It would be somewhat difficult to say how many men are to-day managing
their own properties, with an altogether free hand, untrammelled by
financial obligations, unharassed by ever-increasing overdrafts, able
to do exactly as they please with stock or land. But the percentage of
large holders in this country so situated is a comparatively very small
one. For the most part, "black care" sits behind most of the Crown
lessees of the present; and even if they are still allowed to retain
the management of their properties, they only do so on sufferance, and
must show themselves amenable to all orders from "down below." By which
term is meant, not the nether regions, but merely the capital of
whatever State the property may be situated in. But the life of the
"untied" man is idyllic. It goes without saying that his property is
fully improved; probably the greater portion of it is freehold. Unlike
his less fortunate contemporaries, he is not forced to "stock up"
against his better judgment, as to the carrying capacity of his
country. Therefore, the worst droughts find him, as far as possible,
prepared to meet them, and his losses are comparatively small, while
the runs of his overstocked neighbours are turned into boneyards.
Throughout, too, he is making money by the sale of what in ordinary
seasons would be known simply as "stores," but which now are fetching
the prices of "primes." There are still men left, individually owning
great estates, who are in this happy condition of independence. But, as
has been already remarked, they are not to be found everywhere. And for
the most part they, too, have had their earlier hardships and
struggles; have seen the time when the dreadful overdraft was growing
ever larger and larger; times when it seemed impossible to keep their
heads above water much longer. Then perhaps would come along a
succession of good seasons, everything they adventured throve, and
finally, pulling out of the slough of despond, they emerged triumphant
on to firm footing. With all of these men, however, the personal
equation has had almost as much to do with success as the fortunate run
of the seasons; competent management, and the foresight that is a sort
of instinct, are just as much required to work a station properly and
remuneratively as they are to ensure prosperity in any other sort of

A quarter of a century ago, a writer on pastoral subjects would have
had little to say of the small holder, who at that period had not
obtained the grip on the land he now possesses. Even in those days
there was much talk of "bursting up the big estates," but few people
regarded the idea as other than an idea, and a visionary one. The free
selector was fighting desperately for a foothold on the land, and his
defeat by the great tenants of the Crown appeared almost certain. But
though the struggle was a long and a bitter one, the big battalions won
through at last; the might of squatterdom was broken, and the
appropriation of the wide-stretching areas began, and has been going on
ever since, until now there seems to be little or nothing left of them
worth the taking. They have all been absorbed by conditional purchase,
homestead lease, grazing farms, or some process of a similar kind. And
there can be no doubt that, on the whole, the policy of closer
settlement has been a wise one for the country, whatever it may have
proved in many instance for the individual. The men who originally took
up small selections, and kept adding to them and improving them as
occasion offered, are now, the majority of them at any rate, well
to-do. To their sheep-farming they have added the cultivation of wheat,
with miniature poultry and dairy farms as minor adjuncts. The later
settlers, as a rule, do not thrive so well as the older ones, who have
borne the heat and burden of the day, and have emerged scarred but
triumphant. They lack experience; and many of them go under, devoured
by the local storekeepers, much in the same fashion as aforetime were
their foes the squatters, by financiers on a much larger scale. But
always others spring up to take their places, to rekindle the fires on
the empty hearths, to re-stock and re-plough the waste paddocks:
Throughout the country it is eminently the day of the small holder--once
laughed to scorn, harried and worried by his big neighbour. And it is
to him as a class that in the future Australia will have to look for
much of her prosperity. Already his first rude slab "humpies" have
given way to neat weatherboard cottages; and they, in their turn, in
many instances, have been superseded by houses of stone and brick,
solid, enduring, the houses of a people who have felt their feet, and
have come to stay. Late and early, year in, year out, they have tolled
incessantly, to make a not too responsive earth yield up its fruits,
wet and drought, fire and flood, have destroyed their crops and their
flocks, their very homes even. But ever the stubborn Anglo Saxon strain
has conquered in the.long run. To go on the land in Australia in these
days is no picnic; it is a struggle of the toughest, ending in the
survival of the fittest. And those who survive the ordeal, and achieve
success are very fit indeed.

The pastoral life on a large station is like an open-air life elsewhere
in other countries, consisting of much the same unvarying round of
familiar duties. Incident of any kind is rare; each season has its
appointed work, among the stock; lamb-marking, weaning, breeding,
shearing, as the case may be. On far-out properties, the arrival of the
mail is the main event of the week; and should it and Saturday night
chance to arrive together, then so much the better. Sunday is the day
for reading, and bar bush fires, the one specially set apart for
"pulling up the back news," both in the "House," "Barracks" (if there
are any), and in the "Hut." Sometimes visits are paid to neighbouring
homesteads; but generally station people, who have been in the saddle
all the week, prefer to "lie back," and take it easy on the seventh
day. At shearing time, the great yearly wool harvest, there is,
however, very often no Sunday at all; and at times the work keeps all
hands going nearly night and day. It is a season of strenuous endeavour
and toil for every soul in the place; and there is but little rest for
homestead or hut until the last great waggon-load is on its way to the
nearest railway terminus, and the last shearer and rouseabout is paid

Now, however, that the shearing contractor has come so much to the
fore, the yearly event has ceased to cause, much stir. The station
hands do the mustering, and bring the sheep to the shed. The contractor
does everything else; he takes the wool off; rolls it; presses it; and,
if necessary, would doubtless deliver it to the city firm to whom it is
consigned. Thus the pastoralist and his executive have all the trouble
and worry of the business taken off their hands. The small holder at
one time shore his few hundreds of sheep anyhow and anywhere. His press
was a square hole in the ground, around which he suspended his bale,
and then jammed the fleeces in with a spade. But now, although he may
not shear by contract, he sheers his sheep by the thousand in a fine
woolshed; presses his bales in the most up to-date press procurable;
consigns them to his own agent--and places the resulting cheque to his
own credit.


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