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Title: Shearers & Some Sheds
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1304781h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2013
Most recent update: Aug 2013

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Published in The Australian Town and Country Journal
Wednesday, August 29, 1906

Shearing throughout Australia will soon be in full swing, and already in some districts early sheds are "cut out," and have relapsed into their usual condition of dormant quiet, relieved only by an occasional "drafting match," or a visit from a party of swagmen seeking shelter in the deserted huts. But during next month, in the majority of sheds, will still be heard the incessant whirr and drone of the machines as the golden fleece is peeled off the animals' bodies by the sturdy toilers, whose harvest, as well as that of the sheepowners, the present season provides. With varying localities so does the work differ in its essential features. In the more settled districts of the Eastern Division, where the flocks are comparatively small, there is seldom or never any trouble. Year by year the same procedure obtains; the work is carried on without trouble; all things run smoothly. Often the same sure hands appear on the board and take their old stands, remaining until the last "cobbler" disappears and the bell sounds for the last time. In such sheds there is generally a good understanding between employer and employee. The former is personally acquainted with most of his men; they are, indeed, often themselves small holders in the neighbourhood. They know his price, the "cut" he requires, and they strive to give the satisfaction that shall ensure another engagement. This type of shearer is essentially a good one, reliable, steady, an expert worker; a family man, as a rule, who has a home and interests in the district. About him there is nothing flash or rowdy; there is no gambling in the hut o' nights; no "flutters" with his "prads" on Sundays. He wants his hard-earned money to improve his holding, to purchase some fresh stock, to clothe and feed the "missus an' the kids." Lucky the sheepgrower who can fill his board with shearers of this class; he may depend on getting his wool off well and quickly and to the accompaniment of none of those "rows" which so often mark the progress of shearing in many sheds where owners are not so fortunate in their men.


Further out the pastoralist has to take chances. The population is to a large extent nomadic. To the great stations of the Far West muster all sorts and conditions of the genus shearer and rouseabout, containing elements that, given opportunity of the slightest, become boisterous and unruly to a degree; in some instances even dangerous. So long as things go smoothly, plenty of sheep, no wet weather, no lost time, there is no friction. But, directly the men fancy they have a grievance, then they begin to "make things lively," and at such periods it takes a strong hand to keep then within bounds. Sailors are proverbially accredited with being the greatest growlers in existence. But they are not "in it" by comparison with the average western shearer. He begins to growl and complain directly, to use his own peculiar vocabulary, he "gets his kidneys lined," or, in other words, feels the comforting effects of sound feeding, after, perhaps, a long period of enforced abstinence. He growls at the sheep, their owner, the man over the board at his food, and the man who cooks it; at the machines, the engine that drives them, the shed itself, and all that it contains. There is no pleasing this type of shearer; the only thing satisfactory about him is that he works while he grumbles. And if he does his work well then his ill-conditioned manner may be endured. But, at times the greatest growler proves the most inefficient shearer, the one who ruins his fleeces, and flays the sheep entrusted to him. Nevertheless, it is quite on the cards that incompetent hand as he is, he still is a ringleader and a favourite among his fellows. Sack him, and the chances are that the whole crowd will, if not incontinently knocking off work, still of set purpose shear so disgracefully as necessitates their also being sent about their business. Or they will, after their petty fashion, strive to annoy and irritate their employer and his servants in every possible fashion that occurs to them. They will swear the sheep are wet, although there may have been no rain for months; dispute their tallies; sulk in their hut and pretend sickness; and do all in their power to delay the carrying on of the work. Of late years, however, and owing to the influence of the Australian Workers' Union, the Pastoralists' Union, and that of the new body known as the Machine Shearers' Union, matters have in most western sheds been greatly improved by the introduction of a more respectable class than the rowdy one which aforetime used to "boss the whole show" at shearing time.


The interior of a big shed, containing, say thirty stands on each side of its spacious floor or sixty machines in all, is well worth a visit There is, in fact, nothing like it to be seen elsewhere. The whole scene is eloquent of the importance of the national industry, and of the fashion in which its primary operations are carried on. Let us suppose that a start is about to be made and that the moment for action has arrived. The catching pens are stacked full of sheep; each shearer stands by his machine; the classer and his assistant rollers and skirters are at their tables; picking-up boys are dotted here and there about the floor; the man in charge stands at his desk, all eyes fixed upon him; an expectant hush reigns throughout the great building. Suddenly, the overseer rings his bell, in signal to the engineer. At the long blast of the latter's whistle, 60 men, with a simultaneous rush, hurl themselves upon the pens, and emerge, each grasping a struggling, kicking sheep. Machines are thrown into gear, and each bent back in the long rows becomes instinct with strenuous exertion, as the deft hands guide the whirring cutters around and about the animal's body. Silence everywhere again, but for the incessant hum of the machinery; the soft pit-pat of naked feet, as the boys rush around and collect the fleeces, and bear them to the sorting tables. If the shearers are a good, fast lot, it will be a pleasure to watch them at work—their overseer's billet is a sinecure. Fleece after fleece will come rolling off with the swiftness and exactitude born of long experience; there will be no cuts, either in the staple itself, or on the skin; as one peels a ripe orange, so will the sheep be denuded of its coat without hurt or rough usage, until in a few minutes it slides down the shoot into the outer pens naked, shivering, and amazed. So rapidly are they shorn, so constant is the cry of "Sheep, oh!" to the penner-up, that it appears almost impossible the pace should last. But if the men are veterans fresh from other sheds, in prime form and training, there will be no slacking off; they will run as fast and surely as the machines, whose movements they control, and they will turn out their hourly tallies at a rate varying from anything between 80 and 120 per hour. In such a shed as this the below 80 man has no place. As time passes, and the bins at the rear of the classers' tables begin to bulge with combing, clothing, and "pieces" of various grades, the great press, sometimes a pair of presses, comes into action, worked either by steam power or by sheer muscle and sinew. And presently in the wool room row upon row of neat bales, all stencilled with signs denoting the quality of their contents, the brand of station or owner's initials, or both, and the number of the bale itself, begin to make their appearance. In a shed manned after this fashion the overseer will scarcely need to open his mouth; indeed, the less he has to say the better for himself and his men. Up one side of the floor and down the other he may march until the bell goes for "smoke oh," Then, while the workers drink their hot tea and bolt big mouthfuls of "brownie," he will find time to count out the pens of shorn sheep, entering each one to the tally of the man who is dropping his sheep into it from the floor above. Good men will run each other until they are almost exhausted with the hard and incessant effort. And the faster an expert shears, the better and cleaner his work generally is. But, as may be imagined, the constant strain on every limb and sinew and muscle is tremendous. Nor do bulk and strength always make for the largest tallies. The lightweight, lithe, and wiry, rapid of movement, and sure of hand and foot, not seldom "rings" the whole shed and tops every score.


There are, however, other kinds of sheds, where, from beginning to end of the season, confusion and irritation are the keynotes to the whole business. An owner, owing to some unforseen circumstances, only succeeds in getting a scratch lot of shearers together, men who do not care much whether they shear or not, so long as they are fed. The first species are about getting licked into shape by the time the shed is cut out; with the second, life is one continual squabble. Some men, accustomed to hand shears, will fancy they can acquire the knowledge of how to use the machines without any trouble. Once it so happened that the whole outfit consisted of hand-shearers, who, because there were no others procurable, were sent to work the machines. A minute after the whistle blew to start, the board presented an extraordinary spectacle of men, sheep, and machines all intermixed, and rolling about in every direction. Disentangled at last, they were given another show, but to even worse purpose; and in the long run recourse was forced to be had to the shears. With these the men proved themselves expert enough. But each one of them had previously averred that he could use a machine to perfection.

In the smaller sheds of "out back," affairs may be generalised as "higgledy-piggledy. Unlike their contemporaries of "inside," the owners have to take what they can get, and be thankful. The man who is out for a "big cut" passes them by despitefully; the rouseabout even gives them a wide berth, so long as he can get anything better. Thus, before now, it has happened that an unfortunate small holder in the more remote districts has had to practically shear his own sheep with what help his family could afford him. And, perhaps, in the end, it has been to his advantage to do so; for the lordly operator of a run of big sheds, with several fat cheques in his pocket, even if prevailed upon to stay his township-bound footsteps, would probably treat the "cocky's' sheep with scant ceremony, nor employ any artistic skill in "taking their jackets off." Not so many years ago the small sheep farmer "inside" was also forced to employ any sort of shearer he could manage to get hold of. Now things have materially changed with him. He shears no longer on tarpaulins spread under a roof made of bark. No longer does he dig a hole in the ground and pack his fleeces into it with a spade. Sheds of the best, if small; presses of the latest construction; and not seldom three or four machines of the most approved pattern all witness the advance made by the "man on the land" in the successful working of his chosen industry. Some day perhaps, as steam has superseded the old "tongs," so will electricity supersede steam in the woolsheds of Australia. But no matter what developments may happen in the motive power that drives the combs and cutters through the fleece, it is pretty certain that the skill and control of the shearers' hand will always be found necessary.


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