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Title: How Our Men Earn a Living in the Bush Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402631h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2014 Most recent update: October 2014 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Transcriber's Note: In the original newspaper articles, some chapter numbers were omitted or wrong. The chapter numbers have been corrected to be sequential.
I. — The Dairyman
II. — The Farm Hand
III. — The Wayside Publican
IV. — The Fencer
V. — A "Sport" of the Track
VI. — The Cane Cutter
VII. — The Hawker
VIII. — The Mailman
IX. — Tanning Bark Strippers
X. — The Floating Storekeeper
XI. — The Drover
XII. — Rabbit Trappers
XIII. — Fruit Pickers
XIV. — The Shearer
XV. — The Potstickers
XVI. — The Tobacco Grower
XVII. — Shed Hands
XVIII. — The Carrier
XIX. — The Splitter
XX. — Gum-Getters
XXI. — Squattage Hands
XXII. — The Tanksinker
XXIII. — Odd Jobbers
XXIV. — Miners and Prospectors
XXV. — Road Workers
Just now the dairyman is one of the workers who is very prominent in the public mind, since his produce has become so precious in many quarters that it is only distributed in half-pounds to regular customers at the shops. Under ordinary circumstances this shortage of supplies would mean good business to the dairymen even with the decreased output that winter always brings. At such times when there is a scarcity, and prices are high, one is accustomed to hear the remark that the farmers must be making good money; but to-day, when prices are fixed, everybody knows what they are making. Where the drought has affected the industry the returns do not amount to much, and naturally these complain that they are not allowed to take advantage of the position, and so make up with a big price for their decreased output. Still, with butter at 150s a cwt. wholesale, the producer is getting much above the usual winter price; and in spring and summer, when supplies are heavy, and the rates little more than half those now ruling, his industry is one of the most lucrative that can be engaged in on the land.
Needs Very Little Training.
Dairying is also a calling that nearly any one can engage in with very little training. With creameries established within easy reach in all dairying centres, it is only necessary at the beginning to know how to milk, and a person can become competent at that in a few days. To start business with a dairy farm of his own is another matter. He requires some knowledge of stock, and of general farm work, and a good lump of capital at the outset. It is an old saying among dairymen that a few good cows on a good pasture are as good as a banking account. He is assured of a regular income, and though long spells of dry weather affect him, he is not so much dependent on periodical rains as the agriculturist. By judicious management in the storage of fodder in the good season he can easily pull through a bad winter and tide over a considerable drought that would be ruinous to a man depending on crops alone. But there are few occupations on the land that call for a greater outlay at the start. A few years back a man of small means could take up a selection, and buy a mob of heifers at two or three pounds a head. That is impossible to-day; the high price of cattle would require a couple of hundred pounds to establish a small herd alone, for first-class milking strains are more valuable than butcher's meat. Then there is a heavy rent in desirable centres, as in the north-eastern corner of the State, or a big price for the purchase of an estate, running to £50 and £60 an acre. Still, there are more ways, than one of making a start, and ultimately earning an independence.
All big dairies employ a number of hands, men and boys. The latter begin at 10s a week, with board and lodging, and gradually rise to 25s. The workers' personal expenses being very small, a thrifty youth may save enough by the time he reaches manhood to acquire a leasehold in a new neighbourhood; and then he proceeds to stock it bit by bit by buying poddies from dairymen who usually have little room for young cattle. In three or four years this young stock will be worth many times their original cost. He keeps only what promises to be profitable dairy cattle, and sells the rest to the butcher. The money thus obtained enables him to build yards, shed and hut. That much accomplished, he should be in a position to start dairying, and thereafter depend wholly on the product of his cows. Unless there are many other settlers around him, intending to engage in the same capacity, the drawback will be the want of a creamery or butter factory. Most such concerns in the northeastern districts are worked on the co-operative principle, and where there are sufficient dairymen that difficulty is easily overcome. This is the easiest and cheapest way in which a group of new settlers get going with a small capital; and generally when land is made available there is sufficient simultaneous settlement to start a new centre of activity.
It is not necessary, of course, that the creamery should be within coo-oe of the dairy farm. The Dorrigo may be taken as an example as to how pioneer dairying is carried on. The Dorrigo is very rough, scrubby country, entailing years of hard labour in clearing and planting with grass. But the fact that this is done proves the great importance of the dairying industry. Crops of maize may be grown the first year or two on a good portion of the land, the grain being simply planted with a hoe. Dairying commenced here before there was any thought of a North Coast Railway. Most of the settlers did their own separating, and conveyed the cream to a main road, where it was picked up by a cream coach, and taken to the factory. From some of the homesteads, planted back among the steep hills, it was carried in cans on packhorses; from others in slides, and in milk carts, and waggonettes. Kyogle factory, from which comes some of the best butter in the State, employs cream coaches, the drivers of which are paid about £2 10s a week.
The Calves and the Pigs.
At many of the big factories milk is delivered direct from the yard, each dairyman taking back with him his proportion of the separated milk. This he feeds to the poddied calves and pigs, the latter being a very valuable side line. In main centres bacon curing is an adjunct of the dairy, as in the famous Byron Bay works. From this factory alone over a thousand tons of butter are annually shipped to Sydney, and nearly £25,000 a month is paid to the producers who supply it. Cheques are paid monthly to the producers, each man receiving an amount equivalent to the amount of cream he has sent in, and according to the ruling price of butter at the factory which, in ordinary times, fluctuates in accordance with the quantity in the market. The average price before the war was about 9d; and a dairyman with 30 or 40 first-class milch cows makes a very good income when butter is only 6d a pound at the factory. Among the bigger operators £100 a month is a common cheque in normal seasons. Beyond labour, if he has no family of his own, his expenses are nothing to speak of. He grows his own fodder, working a small plantation between the morning and afternoon milkings; and he has unlimited supplies of bacon, eggs and vegetables. His estate supplies him also with all the fuel he wants, with much of his meat, and other necessaries. When he has a family the children supply the labour, so far as milking is concerned—and perhaps a boy or girl will take the milk or cream to the factory. A big family is an advantage to a dairyman, for every boy and girl old enough to milk is a help. On odd places the children are set to work at a very early age, milking so many cows in the morning before they go to school, and hurrying home in the afternoon to milk them again before tea. Though the work is light to strong lads, it is hard on young children, and the hours are long and wearisome. This child slavery is the worst part of the dairying business, but, fortunately, it is not very prevalent. It is most noticeable on the farms worked on the share system, and in such cases it is practically compelled by the landlords.
The Share System.
The share system enables a man to start dairying without capital. The farmer does all the work of the dairy; the landlord provides the farm and grazing area, and undertakes to keep the milking herd up to a certain number all the year round, besides supplying all necessary plant. He receives half the profits, while the farmer takes the other half. The calves are also sometimes divided between them. Whenever a landlord requires a partner in this sort of transaction he invariably advertises for a man with a family. When the agreement is signed between them it is thus an obligation on the family to work. Under favourable conditions a man with three or four strong boys and girls in their teens can use this means as a stepping-stone to a dairy of his own. He can live well, and put by a sum month by month, until he has sufficient capital to buy a grazing area, or to lease land as another intermediary step, and buy stock and plant. For a poor man it offers the quickest and surest road to independence in the dairying line, but it demands continuous work and good management. When he has acquired his own herd and pasture, he gets full value for his labours, as a deduction of 1½d from the wholesale price of butter covers the cost of operations at the factory. It is calculated that grass land in the north-east of the State, without any assistance from artificial feeding, returns the dairyman £5 an acre per year in cream.
Over £1,000,000 a Year.
The industry, which is worth over a million a year for the State, and is continually growing, employs a great amount of labour, and offers more employment for lads than anything else along the eastern coast. In a district where dairying is almost exclusively carried on, there is not much hired labour to be had among the settlers, as these require all their own boys at home; and as soon as the sons are old enough to marry they start on their own hook. There is, therefore a constant demand for Sydney boys from the Pitt Town Training Farm, where suitable boys are given two or three months free training by the Government. They are then placed with a reputable farmer, the agreement as to wages and conditions being fixed up by Government officials before they leave Sydney. In these troublesome days, therefore, dairying offers a home, with healthy surroundings, and constant employment, besides prospects of ultimate independence, to youths who are looking for a career.
Tied to the Milking Stool.
The worst part of the work is that the dairyman is continuously tied to the milking stool. He has his mob to put through morning and evening, every day in the week, Sunday included, wet and dry, winter and summer. Arrangements are generally made, however, for the operators to get off every second Sunday. They have to begin work early, and between milkings there is the cleaning up to be done, odd jobs about the yards and sheds, and a bit of cultivating or gardening to do. None of the work is heavy, but there is always enough to keep every person busy. There is very rarely any slack time on a dairy farm.
Agriculture ranks as the first and greatest of all industries, the one that is more necessary to man than any other, and in this field an enormous amount of labour is always employed. It is an industry that is continually expanding with the growth of settlement, and every year absorbing still more labour, whereas the purely pastoral pursuits, which held pride of place in Australia for nearly a century, grow less with the progress of the nation and the development of the country. There is nothing like a big war to demonstrate the importance of the man behind the plough; his products, whether wheat, sugar, maize, lucerne or potatoes, are needed even more than ammunition; and so from the outset of the European conflagration he has been appealed to from all sides to get an extra move on, and to plough more than usual. It is he who has to feed the soldiers and the people who are crowded in big cities; he is the main basis on which all depend to avert famine, and to ensure victory. In relation to other workers he has the advantage in that he can always provide for himself and family. For all that his calling is not a bed of roses.
Hard as Navvying.
Farm labour is never easy. Taken all the year round, it is as hard as navvying, or breaking stones on the road. It may be classed as unskilled labour, and again, to a certain extent, it is not. The navvy pursues one kind of work throughout his job, and the veriest novice can turn to it without experience. To be a competent farm hand a man has to have a knowledge of many things, which are not learned in a day or a week, and be able to handle many intricate pieces of machinery. He has a lot of heavy ploughing, grubbing and lumping on his season's programme. At all times, whatever his particular occupation may happen to be, he works in a field where any suggestion of the Government stroke is anathema. Still, farm life is frequently prescribed by doctors for city youths whose constitutions are not as robust as they should be; and many a lad has been sent into the country to go through the whole mill, whose parents were wealthy or in good positions in Sydney. Numbers of other city lads are every year placed on training farms directly their school days are over, with the object of fitting them for a rural life, ensuring constant employment in a healthy calling, and enabling them to work their way to an income-producing home of their own.
A City View.
Country lads often show a preference for squattage life, the saddle and stockwhip being more attractive and easier than the plough; but the city youth, when his thoughts go beyond suburbia, happily thinks there is nothing as nice as being on a farm, where there is plenty of room to turn round; where there is shooting and hunting; where milk flows like water, eggs are picked up in the grass, and fruits have only to be pulled off the trees. At first sight the farm, with its growing crops, its quiet cows and horses, its poultry, pigs, bees and a hundred other products, to the average boy is an enchanting place; but when he has known it a month or two the charm wears off, and he begins to look on the neighbouring cattle run with envy. Later on, as experience comes to him, the thought of squattage life is distasteful; the farm takes hold of him, and his interests become centred in agriculture. He is not a boy then. He has passed that period of apprenticeship that is so distasteful to all boys, and which comes rather as a shock to those who go to it fresh from Sydney. These generally get their first training at the Government Farm at Pitt Town, where they spend two or three months; and having passed this probationary period without losing in zest and courage, they are launched on an agricultural career by being placed out with farmers in different parts of the country.
It is then the disillusionment commences. The Government training farm is one thing: the common farm is quite another, He finds now that he has to get up at daylight in summer, and much before daylight in winter, to hunt up the horses and cows, harness and milk, feed calves, pigs and fowls, and do other duties before breakfast. He is bustled around as though life depended on getting everything done in record time. Breakfast over, he goes down the farm to plough, harrow, harvest, or whatever the work may be, till dinner time. The heat and dust and hard toil has got him pretty well wearied by then; but he is at it again in an hour, and continues till sundown. Then, having let the horses go, he feeds the pigs and chops wood for the morning. On a maize farm he has to rush off in the grey dawn, through frosted grass and woods, to hunt away cockatoos. He knew nothing of this on the Government farm, where it isn't necessary to get a living out of farming, and so he begins to think that he has mistaken his vocation. The shrewd farmer who understands something of human nature takes his boy steadily at first until he is used to the place, and his muscles get trained to the work. With a prosperous, kind-hearted family, and such are not scarce in any part of the State, he will get along smoothly enough from the outset, and be satisfied with his change of life. With experience he finds the work comparatively easy, and has much more time to do it in.
The First Wages.
At the start he gets 10s to 12s 6d a week and keep. After the first year he gets a rise about every six mouths until he is getting; 30s a week. A ploughman receives up to 35s a week, and his keep. There is a good deal of labour about a farm at times that does not require experience, and such casual labour is usually paid for at the rate of 25s a week and keep. At harvest time, when this casual labour is in most demand, six and seven shillings a day is paid in wheat areas. Here and there, when labour has been scarce, and the case urgent, one pound a day has been paid to good workers. But harvesting doesn't last very long, and under the contract system of stripping one batch of men operate on a number of medium-sized farms, On a good many of the small places, no matter how good the harvest may be, the farmers have plenty of help in their own families without requiring any from outside sources; and those who have no sons or daughters able to work, generally get all necessary assistance from their neighbours. It is an old-time custom among them to lend each other a hand when difficulties crop up, when there is an accumulation or sudden excess of work. One will give his neighbour so many day's work, and the neighbour returns the obligation when occasion demands it. Those who employ outside labour as well pay the ruling rates in the district for ordinary work. On big farms hired labour is employed all the year round, and at harvesting time the number of hands is considerably increased. Modern machinery, however, economises in this direction.
With a single stripper and winnower, the cost of harvesting wheat is about 4s an acre. When five strippers are used to one winnower, the wages of four or five men are saved. The combined harvester—a Victorian invention, and an expensive piece of machinery—makes a greater saving still. It strip's off the heads of the wheat, threshes the grain, cleans and bags it as it goes, treating altogether eight acres a day. It is worked by one man, who receives 7s a day and keep. Putting the keep at 2s 6d a day, sewing and odds and ends at 4s 6d, we get 14s as the cost of harvesting eight acres. Including horseflesh, carting and wear and tear of machinery, the cost could be set down at half a crown an acre. Wheat provides more employment in the preparation of the soil and in planting than in harvesting, though the grain gives a lot of work after it leaves the farm. On small areas the single-furrow plough is much in use, and a man who can do seven acres a week with it is a good worker. The double-furrow is equally common, and it is calculated that the cost of ploughing with this is about 6s an acre. On big fields multi-furrow ploughs are used.
Taking the whole State, good and bad years, wheat averages about 12 bushels to the acre. Maize under suitable conditions, yields up to 50 bushels an acre. The cost of the work from planting to harvesting this crop with hired labour is about 40s an acre; but a farmer who has family help and working early and late, makes it a good deal less. One of the most profitable crops is lucerne, which yields half a dozen cuttings a year for eight or ten years before it is necessary to plough up the ground again for another crop. Five tons an acre is considered a fair yield for a year. On these farms there is not much ploughing or other tilling after the crop has been sown at the start of operations. The main work is cutting and hay-making, which keeps many hands employed nearly all the year. It is a continual round of harvesting. Machinery is used almost throughout, from mowing to pressing—or chaff-cutting. It is light, clean work, but requires practised hands. Here the expert shows his skill in loading and in stack-building. Work among oaten hay is even more agreeable; the drying hay has a sweet scent, which lucerne has not. When hay-making—turning the cut with pitchforks and throwing it into little heaps—the men are served with afternoon tea in the fields. Once a crop has been cut, speed is necessary to get it in if the weather is uncertain, and so deftness is a first qualification in the farm hand in this branch of his work.
A Rush Time.
Harvest time is always a rush time, especially in wheat areas, which in the past has caused a good deal of trouble with rural workers who are employed only for that period. The casual hand objects to working at high tension from daylight till dark, when he sees the "sack" at the end of the job instead of a well-earned holiday. The crop, on the other hand, represents the farmer's whole year's labour, and it might be ruined by wet weather, or swept away in a few minutes by a bush fire, which is always threatening him in hot weather when the wheat fields are ripening, or ready for harvesting. For him it is an anxious time, and consequently he desires to utilise every moment of daylight. The success of his crop is never certain. A dry year may leave him in debt; while a rich harvest and high prices may have to pay for three hard years of toil.
The harvest hands receive plenty of good, plain food: there is never any stinginess shown in the tucker bill; but their lodgings are not as good as they might be. The temporary employees have to accommodate themselves the best way they can. It they have no tents they have to pack into the barn or any old shed available, and make up bunks with whatever material they can find about the premises.
Most farms specialise in some particular line of produce, but nearly every farm has several side lines. One of the most important of these is potatoes, which employs a good many hands in the digging season. On some places the tubers are ploughed out; at others they are dug up at sixpence a bag. Maize is sometimes shelled and bagged by piece-work also, and at a similar price. The farm hand who has spent a year or two on one farm, is generally capable of working on any farm, the diversity of crops grown and other work to be done giving him a wide experience. His work is never monotonous. He goes from one thing to another, some of it heavy, some of it very light; and if he works long hours in the planting and harvesting season, there is a period in every year when there is very little to do.
There is not a great deal of difference between one publican and another to the traveller until he gets to the wayside hotel, or to the caravansary that constitutes the principal part of what is known outback as a "one-horse-town"—a place that mainly consists of one hotel, one store, one house, a lockup, and a Chinaman's garden. Then he finds a type of man who might be anything from a butcher to a road contractor. On a far-back roadside there may not be enough traffic, or sufficient population around him, to bring him enough business to keep him prosperously employed all the year round. He is, therefore, often a rugged working man, who will leave some hard toil to go behind the bar, like a navvy straight off the road, to serve a casual customer. Generally, his wife looks after the hotel while he is at work. When engaged on a contract he is only on hand at night, and at times only at weekends. That is in the slack season, for he really has what he calls a busy period, the time when mustering, shearing, or other local work is going on that employs a number of men; and then a man's presence is necessary in the hotel.
On other roads the mail coach passes two or three times a week. At some of the wayside places it arrives in the day; at other places at all times of the night. Passengers want refreshments, and, of course, the publican is ready for business at all hours. Perhaps he is the mail change groom, and whilst his wife attends to driver and passengers, he attends to the horses.
In certain situations he is also postmaster or receiving-officer; and may, in addition, be general storekeeper, teamster, cattle-buyer and drover. It all depends on the commercial and industrial activity in his neighbourhood. The duller the locality the greater the multiplicity of his occupations. In places at certain times of the year his turnover might amount to £100 a month; and between whiles he might be a whole week raking in sixpence.
Starting in Business.
A selection is frequently the site of an hotel. Perhaps a small diggings has broken out in the neighbourhood, or a growing traffic on the highway has prompted the selector to enlarge his dwelling to the necessary dimensions of a wayside hotel, or rebuild by the road, having first ascertained that there would be no police objection to his application for a license. It does not require much of a building to conform with the regulations. The wayside pub is neither commodious nor elegant, and as the wholesale houses accept promissory notes from almost any bush licensee, it does not require much capital to start business as an hotelkeeper. The building and furnishing of the house practically sums up the whole of his outlay at the start, plus the cost of license, which varies from £15 to £30 per year, according to locality. Yards and stables are necessary, but these are built by himself with rough timber in the same way as selectors build their yards and outhouses; and most of the work is left until after he has opened the hotel, and is then done in his spare time.
A Handy Groom.
If he has no big girls of his own, he keeps one general servant, whom he pays a pound a week, and where he does a fair regular business he keeps a groom as well. This man, who is paid about 25s a week, has to do a lot of the rough work of the hotel, look after horses, milk cows, cart wood and water, cut timber and put up fencing, help to paint the hotel and vehicles when such require a new coat, also help the publican with the shoeing of horses, dig the garden, muster cattle, and attend to many other miscellaneous small jobs. It has happened more than once that this handy sort of groom has himself in time become a publican. A good character, backed up by a capital of about £300, is all that is required to set him up in that position.
The Travellers' Rest.
The wayside pub has an appeal to most travellers, to whom its lights at the close of a long, wearying day are as the welcoming lights of home, signalling from some far hill that there awaits him rest, comfort and refreshment. In some districts the bush pub acquired an unenviable reputation in years past, through the practices of a few unscrupulous persons who would stop at nothing short of plain robbery to possess themselves of a travellers' cheque, and through the vile adulterated liquor that was sold over the bars when there was no inspection to speak of. There were seldom any soft drinks to be had, beyond home-made hop beer, carriage rates being too high to make soft drinks profitable. Only a few strong liquors were kept in stock. Being long distances back from port or railway station, carrying rates for all goods were necessarily heavy, and the price of drinks and meals had to be regulated accordingly. The goods, too, were pretty frequently sampled on the road. Casks of beer would be tapped—mostly under the hoops; and on the course of a long, lonely road something was bound to fall occasionally on a case and smash a bottle or two; sometimes they broke through being violently thrown together without damage to the case. The contents would be caught in a bucket, and appropriated by the teamsters. This alone was expensive; and it all had to be made good, and a big margin of profit provided for, reckoning on legitimate sales, by the addition of water, black tea, tobacco juice, and in other ways more or less openly practised.
Rum is the most profitable tipple to the backblock publican; it "makes," and is a good patient in the doctor's hands. When it gave out under exceptional circumstances, in some of the rough places, in the old days, an imitation made from chemicals, or an extract of boiled down casks, strengthened with pain-killer, methylated spirits, or anything of that kind was substituted. Much of the wine sold was made from chemicals. The Pure Foods Act has done away with that, except where an odd genius practises it in his own cellar. Whiskey was not so easy to adulterate. A fairly good liquor was served out to any sober man who was likely to be a judge; but as he progressed through the various stages of intoxication he went through a course of bottles containing as many grades and qualities of alleged whisky till he was finally drinking a weak concoction, resembling the water the glasses had been washed in. Backblock grog of every kind bore a bad reputation. Hard drinkers wanted it strong, and heavy carriage rates didn't allow much profit on the best brands. But there were other ways of making up for that.
In moderately good hosteleries one would almost invariably find what was apparently the same blend of spirit kept in separate bottles, which were used in accordance with the condition or social standing of the customer. There would be the magistrate's or sergeant's bottle, the squatter's bottle, the boundary-riders' bottle, the drunks' bottle, and the blacks' bottle. The latter contained a vile mixture composed of the dregs from the glasses, and sometimes included a promiscuous blending of every liquor that had been served out for a month past. The drunks' bottle contained mostly water; occasionally it contained something that put the recipient to sleep, when he might be conveniently stowed away in the dead-house—minus his cheque. That was considerably diminished, if not wiped out, for him while he slept. When he came to his senses he found a horrifying array of bottles strown about him, and concluded that he had been having a glorious time. He felt bad enough, anyhow, to have swallowed a distillery.
The Days of "Lambing-Down."
In the days of lambing-down this class of backblock publican grew fat and independent. He dispensed some astonishing mixtures to the unfortunates who came to soak at his shanty, known as tanglefoot, snake juice, paralysers, double-distilled lightning, and mulga rum. At that time it was customary for a man to hand his cheque to the publican with an injunction to notify him when it was "cut out." Then the customer would proceed to paint things red; every available man within cooee would be called up to assist in the process; and after a few "stiffeners" the whole lot of them would be spread out in various attitudes about the place. Then empty bottles would be dropped surreptitiously around them, and especially in the quarters the cheque-man was supposed to occupy. Not infrequently a man would come in with a pair of good horses and a first-class outfit, and a fortnight later tramp away with a scanty swag on his back, and a head like a volcanic mountain. Even after the days of lambing-down had passed, men with cheques were still beguiled into squandering habits by the wayside. The wily publican would hail a passing traveller to inquire about some fictitious team or horseman, then drift into conversation, criticise his horses, try probably to make a deal of some sort, offering special inducements on various prextexts—and eventually the unwary traveller was lured to the bar—where he stopped. This kind of publican had a special brand of intoxicant that was guaranteed to stop anybody at the second round.
When shearing was on at any shed within a radius of ten miles or so, the shanty-keeper sent out a waggonette on Saturday afternoon, and particularly at the cut-out, for the convenience of any of the men "who would like a run down for a change." It was not uncommon to see the daughter of the shanty on the seat behind the driver, who lost no opportunity of expatiating on the delights of a dance they were going to have at night; and by this means a good many shearers and rouseabouts were induced to improve Saturday night's business at the hotel.
By these various means the wayside hotel got a bad name that has been hard to live down in the lonely parts of the country. But supervision is more strict to-day; and houses and people have altered with the times. The average wayside hotel is a respectable, well kept place. Compared with city hotels, it is rough in its general arrangements in remote localities; but the cheque-man, especially a bushman, knows that he is a great deal safer there when he is drinking than in some of the houses in Sydney.
In the old days of pastoral supremacy fencing was a calling that kept a great number of men in constant work in every district from the coast to the far runs of the interior. It still provides much employment everywhere, though under altered conditions. A more rapid and less stable process generaly prevails to-day, when sub-divisions take place, or when land is taken up by fresh settlers, and new lines of fencing are erected. On big runs the lines are kept in repair by boundary riders, or by men permanently employed as fencers. More repairing is needed on a sheep run than on a cattle run. Sheep poke through small gaps that cattle wouldn't notice; and a mob, when frightened by a dingo—which cattle take little notice of, unless young calves are present—will crowd on to a fence and damage it. Then heavy rains cause washaways in gullies and creeks, which are more frequent in the open sheep country than in the more sheltered cattle country.
Wages and Working Hours.
The usual pay of these men is from a pound to 30s a week and keep. The pay depends on the locality and the nature of the work. In parts of western Queensland they are paid up to £2 a week and rations. A single ration is 10lb. of flour, 12lb. of meat, 2lb. of sugar, and ¼lb. of tea. On most places there is no limit to meat, and extras are also given. A married man receives double rations. Excepting for an outcamp, or sub-squattage, where the wife is required occasionally to cook for musterers, married men are not employed permanently on weekly pay to any extent.
The working hours are about 10 a day for five days a week, and 8 hours on Saturday. Under the Rural Workers' Award, which was to have come into force on October 1, 1914, but was suspended on account of the war, the working time is fixed at 48 hours a week, and the pay at 8s 4d a day and keep, or 10s 6d per day where the employee finds himself. It is also provided that permanent employees shall be granted two weeks' holiday each year without deduction of weekly wages, in addition to the ordinary public holidays, which are New Year, Anniversary, Eight Hour, Good Friday, Christmas and Boxing Days, King's Birthday, and any other day proclaimed as such. At present only three of these days are recognised, plus race days and show days; but an employee can have a fortnight or a month off in slack times without pay.
It often happens that Sunday work is necessary, as at mustering time, and when bush fires are raging, or when a damaging flood has occurred on particular parts of the run, but no additional pay is allowed for this, beyond a holiday when the work is completed. Under the award overtime rates will have to be paid, equalling time and a half ordinary rates, and all time in excess of 8 hours at two shillings an hour.
Bush fires make heavy work for the fencer. Together with other employees he has to protect the lines, saving as much from being burnt as possible. He follows the lines behind the firefighters, clearing away burning wood, chopping off burning splinters and sapwood with a tomahawk, and throwing water into the mortise holes that, have caught alight. Rails and posts are burnt through here and there, and a panel or two are smashed in places by falling trees. The damage is repaired temporarily, the work sometimes keeping him going till late at night. Afterwards he goes along the line with a horse and cart, carrying tools and campware, and spare rails and posts. Where the work is more than a couple of miles from the homestead, he camps out, cooking for himself. Much of his work is far out on the run, and in such cases he returns home only on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes he is alone; at other times he has a mate.
He shifts camp every second day or so; where there is only a rail to put in or a broken wire to mend, he takes his cart and campware with him in the morning, driving along till near sundown, when he turns out at the nearest water. In big-timbered country water is nearly always handy. Game is also plentiful in lagoons and swamps, and, therefore, he occasionally includes a gun among his accoutrements, and takes a brace or two of ducks home with him for Sunday. In the same regions wild bees' nests are frequently found, and if the trees are not too big he cuts one out now and again. After the honey has been extracted at home, a brew of honeymead is made from the broken comb.
Long lines of new fencing are generally erected by contract, the work being let in sections at so much a mile. The price varies according to specifications, the nature of the country, and the supply of timber. No man can estimate correctly the cost of fencing without inspecting the country he has to work over, judging the quantity and splitting quality of the timber, and the distance it has to be drawn to the line. Knowing this, the fencer calculates from experience what he can put up in a week, and so arrives at a contract price that will leave him a little margin of profit over and above ordinary weekly pay. Competition among tenderers, and a fairly accurate knowledge of the work possessed by employers, does not allow him to mark off enough to run quickly into riches. It is a work that requires experience. An expert will make good money, earning, in favourable situations, and by working early and late, twenty pounds a month, whereas on an exactly similar contract an indifferent worker would make little more than his tucker. There is a knack even in sinking postholes, in splitting and mortising. Skill with the adze is another necessary accomplishment; and while some men have trouble in keeping a straight line, to others it comes as easy as falling off a log.
Sometimes the material is laid on the line, the fencer doing only the erecting; at other times he does the whole of the work from splitting to putting up. Again, a big contract is occasionally sub-let, which brings in a superfluous middleman to mop up the profits. Under the award mentioned, piecework is only allowed on condition that it works out at the log rate, or the difference is made up if it falls short of that. Where gangs are employed on piecework the principle of share and share alike applies, and no sub-letting of piecework is permitted. On big contracts, the splitting, mortising or boring, delivering, and occasionally, posthole-sinking, are not infrequently let separately to others by the general contractor.
Pretty well every period of Australian settlement has had its own style of fencing, the stages of development being even more marked in this way than in the dwellings of the settlers. The dog-leg fence, and the cockatoo fence are notable pioneers. These are impressed as fixedly in our early annals as the old bark hut. Together they formed the picturesque features of a selector's home. To men who had lots of time for building, they were cheap, for the material was cut as it was required along the alignment. It was put up quickly; the main work was keeping it in repair after it was up, and guarding it from fires.
The chock-and-log was heavier, and entailed more labour, besides being a greater risk. The brush fence also made a lot of work, and required a good deal of attention after it was "finished." The combustibility of each of these four kinds of the fencer's handiwork was their main fault; they made a great blaze that was hard to extinguish, without demolishing a lot of it, once it got alight; and in their day grass grew saddle deep in the home paddocks, for there was not so much stock about then. It was also these fences that brought the kangaroo and the emu into disfavour, for if they bumped against the structure, or hit it in jumping over, some of it fell down.
The sapling fence was a quick makeshift on selections and farms. It was known as the lazy-man's fence, or the cocky's boundary—so designated in scorn by stockmen and squattage hands. It was the cheapest all wood enclosure that could be built, but it caused a lot of friction between squatters and selectors, for stock frequently broke through it.
On Big Runs.
The squatters' fences at that time were substantial three and four-rail affairs, with huge gate posts, standing 12ft. high, often 18 inches in diameter at the small end, with a heavy cap across the top. The yards were built of five or six rails, and all the gateways were capped. A big mustering yard, with the necessary horse yard and small paddock provided a 12 months' contract for a couple of men, who generally had the assistance of a bullock driver. Timber was very plentiful and handy, and the contract was worth from £300 to £500. The big stub sheep yards of the far west, built of round timber, or round timber split in halves, most of it standing on end, cost up to £500 each. These need attention at least once a year, for the stubs rot and break off at the butts, and drifting sand piles up against them. One such yard, which cost £500, was completely buried under sand in south-west Queensland while it was yet practically new. Several dust storms, following in close succession, beat the shovellers.
The Poet's Fancy.
The common cattle boundary in later times was the two-railed fence. There are old lines on coastal runs, built of ironbark posts and grey gum rails that have stood for three quarters of a century. Until wire and swing gates came into general use, the two-rail structure and the sliprails were familiar wherever one went. The Australian poet still sings of the sliprails, as the place where his hero meets the girl what time the sun goes down, or says good-night when the mopoke is calling by the creek. They have their history, these old fences, and many a poetic fancy clings about them still.
The two-rail was followed by the top-rail and three wires, which in turn gave way to a great extent to the all-wire fence. Wire makes quick work, and it was a boon to the great open spaces of outback. It lessened the fencers' employment, though the ravages of bunny made amends for him in compelling the erection of thousands of miles of rabbit proof netting. Between these two the sub-dividing lightning fence is common on far back sheep runs. The posts stand about 30ft apart, with a couple of wire supports between standing on the ground. Big cheques were made in the building of netting fences, but nowadays the landowners can work out the cost of a mile to a pound or less, and the contractor rarely gets a chance to make more than good wages, unless he works long hours. Still most old hands prefer piece work. In both branches a large number of men are constantly employed throughout the State.
Far out, where the racecourse is indicated by a few sticks standing, in a wide circle, the tops of them wrapped in newspaper to prevent short-sighted jockeys from getting lost on the way round, and where the grandstand, if there is any such thing at all, resembles a henroost without a roof, and the judge's box is a stump or a packing case, you meet a man who is a race-horse owner and trainer without appearing to be either. A shrewd person generally, a good horseman, and a good judge of horses; but you might take him to be anything from a boundary rider to a stock inspector. He travels extensively, and on the road he is just the ordinary mounted traveller who is looking for a billet. Though he might look hard up, it is rarely that he is without a good deal of money in his pockets. It is part of his business at times to wear a seedy appearance. He stays at the hotels by the wayside and in little towns, but no matter how many may be drinking there, he contrives always to keep sober. At such places he gets information about coming race meetings and about horses in the district. In all such matters he is well informed, and though he is known to a few here and there outside his home latitude, there is seldom anything known about the quadrupeds he is travelling with.
He has generally two horses, occasionally three. Outbackers are sometimes suspicious of a third horse, for they have bumped a flyer in that animal too often. It is not an indispensable to the customary traveller, whose objective is work. So the man who is looking for races, and wants to pick up a bit in occasional matches, travels lightly and as much as possible with only two horses. One he rides, the other he packs. If he rides his racer, he doesn't ride him very far in a day, and if he packs him he takes care that the swag and campware isn't a burden that the animal would knock up under. He never goes out of a walk, and rarely averages a greater distance per day than a footman covers. If there is a race meeting not far off, the footman would easily beat him on the road. His horses are grass fed, though he gives Mulga Bill, the racer, other feed when he can get it cheaply. He is careful of his route, and particular where he turns out for the night, always giving more thought to the horses than to his own comfort and convenience.
From a Bridle to a £10 Prize.
There are many little race-meetings held outback at wayside hotels, and at other places where picnickers congregate for a day's outing, where he may win anything from a bridle to a ten-pound prize. For these Mulga Bill begins his preparation on the road. He has a gallop in the morning on some level flat, or straight along the highway, after which he is well rubbed down, and then hobbled out, or tethered on a patch of dry mitchell grass, until it is time for the afternoon exercise. He gets that in making the journey to the next camp. Suitable grass may not always be handy, and where the "sport" knows or a dearth in front he cuts a bagful and carries it with him. When he has arrived in the vicinity of the races, he pitches camp in a secluded corner and gives his whole time to training. All entries being made on the ground, it isn't necessary for him to put in an appearance until the day of the races.
"Got a Bit of Foot."
However, he mostly arrives at the depot or thereabouts, the day before. Mulga Bill is then carrying the pack, and he looks rough, with his coat brushed the wrong way, his tail full of burrs and grass-seed, and his mane unkempt and matted, for that is a part of the grooming that is purposely neglected. The owner looks the reverse of prosperous. From the talk about him, he hears, apparently for the first time, that there is going to be some racing in the neighbourhood, and inquires if a traveller might have a cut for some of the prizes. He's got an idea that old packhorse of his has got "a bit of foot," and he'd like to try him. Mulga Bill being an old warrior who has scored in good company, the trial is very often a profitable one.
Sometimes the prizes at such meetings are too small for our friend, while there might be plenty of money to pick up among the local sports. So he rides a bad race, and comes nowhere. Circulating subsequently about the crowd, he is loud in his excuses for the animal's defeat. Wearing a mystified air, and being the worst-dressed man present, he generally succeeds in getting himself laughed at. He is a good actor, this man, who lives partly on his wits, and partly by means of Mulga Bill. Eventually he challenges a winning owner to a match for ten or twenty pounds. Near the end of a merry day, this challenge is not infrequently accepted, and in more cases than not Mulga Bill wins; for his owner makes pretty certain what he is running against before he risks his money.
For the regular meetings at little way back towns, where only grassfed horses are allowed to compete, Mulga Bill has to be paddocked for a couple of weeks or more before the races. An official keeps an eye on the paddocks to see that the rules are not being broken. The owner of Mulga Bill keeps an eye on the official, and if there are good prizes to win, he takes no chances. Feed is smuggled into the paddock at night, and however cunning the official is, he contrives somehow that Mulga Bill's training is not neglected. If no opportunity is offered for a gallop in daylight, he gives him a spin down some quiet valley after dark. To do this, he has to make an opening in the fence; and after using that entrance two or three times, he makes a new opening at another place, so as not to make a beaten track, and to avoid being caught. It means a lot of trouble, but it is all a part of his business. Nor does he stop always at working his own horse. If he gets a chance he will give some of the others a gallop, too. It is seldom a difficult problem to find a congenial spirit when he wants a jockey to ride with him. The locals who are interested in sport, and men of the track who know the district and want to pick up a pound or two, are all eager to know the merits of the various horses. It is a proceeding, however, that is never safe, for half the owners have suspicions against some of their fellows, and one now and again makes an unexpected visit to the paddock. That isn't always satisfactory either, for when the honest man happens to meet the rogue at the enclosure, there are mutual recriminations, and the honest sport is liable to bring suspicion on to himself.
Bets and Sweeps.
Anyhow, the owner of Mulga has a fairly accurate measure of his opponents before he comes to measure strides with them. Whether he can win the big handicap or not is immaterial to him, providing he knows what can win. Another man's horse can sometimes win as much money for him as his own, for there is not much stiff running among backblock amateur sports. The professional bookmaker is unknown on the courses where they race, but there is generally a sweep, the tickets being auctioned after the drawing, and the amount pooled. At an ordinary meeting this pool might be worth from twenty to fifty pounds. A knowledge of the contesting horses is valuable in this kentucky auction. It enables Mulga's owner at times to hedge when he is doubtful about his own chances.
Then there are perhaps two or three double books among local sports, the odds being usually about £5 to 5s; and straight-out wagers can be made among enthusiasts.
Carbines in Disguise.
A shrewd party with a reliable dark horse can have a very good day at one of these little meetings. He falls in now and again, despite precautions, and is surprised to see Mulga Bill desperately chasing a cloud of dust when he was expected to romp in an easy winner. There are odd flyers among the stockhorses outback, and there are a good many track sports wandering about with Carbines in disguise. Some of them are racehorses that have made a name on the turf, and have been disqualified for crook running in some big eastern or southern town. Such a horse, unless suited for stud purposes, is thereafter only useful as a hack in his old haunts. The track sport buys him cheaply, takes him outback, and, running him under another name, scoops the pool from the average muster of grassfed hacks that are opposed to him. He doesn't stick to one name, except at registered meetings in districts where he has become known. The owner, too, has as many different names as his horse.
Years ago racehorses were frequently stolen from eastern towns. Not third-raters, or in and out performers; nor was a stallion often interfered with, as such an animal was too conspicuous for a traveller to be going about with. The thief picked some first-class mare or gelding which had proved itself in good company or country courses. The racer was taken from the stable or paddock at night, and ridden away into some lonely part of the bush, where it would be kept awhile, until it lost the sheen of its coat, and, gorged with grass, looked more like a traveller's hack. The brand in the meantime would be faked, and perhaps its appearance would be further altered by means of a star or a white stocking. Then it would be taken into the back regions by unfrequented tracks, and, once there, it was safe to race in its natural aspect.
Shearer and Drover Too.
The track sport is not always bent on racing. Meetings do not occur frequently enough for that. Between times, he engages in various occupations. He is ostensibly looking for work all the time. His favourite pursuits are droving, shearing and mustering, though now and again he will take a billet of boundary-riding, which enables him to give his horses a spell, or to train them at his leisure if he so desires. The boundary billet is convenient when there is a race-meeting two or three months ahead. Droving carries him over country on good wages, and gives him an opportunity of making a bit at many centres he passes through. He in not the sort of person who studies a drover's convenience; he is ready to drop out anywhere. The shearing shed is generally profitable to him in two ways. He makes a good cheque at shearing, and generally at the races when the shed cuts out. Shearers' races occur all over the back country, particularly at the cut-out of a big shed, when there is some time to spare before the next shed starts, and when two or three ordinary sheds in the neighbourhood cut-out about the same time. As nearly all the competing horses belong to shearers and rouseabouts, and are straight off the grass, the chief races are often a gift to him, for here as elsewhere, he does not neglect his equine hero of the track.
With the exception of a short season in New South Wales, in a restricted area, mainly confined to the Clarence River district, the cane cutter's field of operations lies in Queensland. In the early days of sugar growing, the mother State held pride of place. The first acre of cane, in fact, was grown at Bathurst about the year 1865, the acre producing about 220lbs. of sugar. Bathurst, however, was never seriously a cane growing district. The Northern Rivers was the only part of New South Wales where this crop was successfully grown on a large scale. Frost, which nips the top of tbe cane, and spoils the mature stalks, if it does not kill the young cane, was the drawback in the more southern parts. Even on the Clarence and Richmond Rivers it gave great trouble to growers. Many who embarked in the industry in these districts gave it up after a very few years, and went in for maize growing or for dairying. The ruins of several old mills, and others falling into decay on the Clarence River, bear evidence of an early promise that was not fulfilled.
N.S.W. and Queensland.
New South Wales as a sugar producer was at its zenith in 1897, when 18,194 acres were cut, yielding 320,276 tons of cane. As this is not an annual crop, being cut only every second year, there were some thousands of acres beside carrying unproductive cane. Since then there has been a rapid decline, whilst the acreage in the northern State has steadily increased year by year. For the seasons 1913-14 the total area under crop in the Commonwealth was 160,976 acres, of which 147,743, or 92 per cent., were cropped in Queensland. For the same period, the yield of sugar in the Commonwealth was 2,271,558 tons, of which quantity Queensland contributed 2,085,588 tons. Whilst the total product in New South Wales is small, the average yield per acre is much higher than in Queensland, being about 23½ tons to 16½. In 1913-14, which was a record season, the respective yields were 30 and 20 tons per acre.
The acre yield is a matter of considerable importance to the cane-cutter, for he is paid accordingly. It takes from 8 to 9½ tons of cane to produce one ton of sugar. The yield of sugar, of course, varies with the density of the juice, but may be set down at about 9 per cent. for an ordinary season.
Not an Annual Crop.
If we follow sugar from the planting to the refinery, we find numerous branches of industry, including distilling, which employs many tens of thousands of men. The cane cutter is one of the harvesters on the plantation, whose period of work is short, and strenuous, and, like shearing, comes but once a year. He can, however, engage in other work, though at less remunerative rates, in the same fields, for in the planting of crops a good deal of labour is required. It is calculated that clearing, planting and tending the first crop costs £15 an acre. Once established, the crop grows for six or eight years, being cut every second year. About four cuttings are thus yielded before it is necessary to replant. On most big farms crops are so planted that there are alternate cuttings every year. The mills require this regulation, or there would be a super abundance for crushing one season, and perhaps very little the next.
Mr. Coghlan estimated the cost of growing cane at 2s 11d a ton with black labour, and 3s 5d a ton with white labour. In the northern State the kanaka has figured very prominently in connection with sugar production. He was recruited from the islands, being indented for a number of years at a mere pittance, including rough tucker and just bare covering in the way of clothes. By some recruiting was carried on under a system that would not always stand the light of day. What was known as black-birding, around which many an unsavoury story has been written, was rife in the days when the kanaka was the predominate cane-cutter. Some wild scenes were witnessed in northern towns in season, when kanaka gangs assembled in the evenings and on holidays. Sometimes there was a free fight between rival factions, and occasionally, when Queensland rum had flowed too freely, things became so serious that reinforcements of police had to be rushed to the place of disturbance to protect the property of the few whites, and prevent a local war.
Black and White Labour.
Black labour considerably predominated up to 1906. The following season the positions were reversed, on account of the bounty allowed by the Federal Government, and thereafter every year marked a greater ascendancy of white labour in the canefields. The following table is supplied by the Government Statistician for the season 1903-4:
Sugar produced by white labor
Sugar produced by black labor
For the season 1913-14, ten years later, 17,240 tons were produced in New South Wales by white labour, and 55 tons by black labour; and in Queensland 198,437 tons by white labour, and 8759 tons by black.
The cane-cutting season begins in July and August, but stripping in preparation for cutting commences much earlier. All the leaves have to be stripped to the ground from the standing stalks. This work is done by hand, and it is a hot, unpleasant, task, for little air enters the dense field, and face and hands smart from cuts and scratches inflicted by the stiff, sharp-edged leaves, whilst the ground becomes heavily covered with the crackling thresh. The cane forms an excellent harbour for snakes, which the stripper encounters now and again entwined in the bunches or stools. Stripping is generally done by contract at a price per acre that varies according to the density of the growth. On some farms the lower leaves are stripped off as the cane grows, the leaves forming a mulch. The continually decaying vegetation also enriches the soil. The stools are comparatively clean by the time the final, stripping takes place. There is always considerable risk from fire, on account of which strippers are not allowed to smoke in or about the cane. The thresh is burnt off after cutting.
The standing cane is sold to the mill or the sugar company, which employs the cutting gangs. The average price paid to the grower to 1911 was about 10s 6d a ton for the standing crop.
Besides this the employer of white labour received a bounty of £2 per ton of sugar, equal to about 4s 5d per ton of cane. In 1911 the planters received from 9s to 15s a ton, and a bounty of 6s. From a crop averaging anywhere about 20 tons to the acre, the planter obtains a very handsome return. In comparison with most other producers, he is in a fortunate position, for he does not have to harvest his crop, nor does he have to replant till after the third or fourth cutting. He can also obtain an advance on the young cane.
Cutting the Cane.
One gang of cutters may go from farm to farm, as shearers go from shed to shed. The contract price varies accordingly as the yield is heavy or light, the average paid being about 3s 3d a ton. All the cutting is done by hand. Though several attempts have been made to invent a machine for this purpose, none have so far succeeded. The cutter takes a single cane in one hand, chops it off near the root with a heavy knife, then lops off the top and throws it down. The tops are used in dry times for feeding stock, very good prices being obtained for them when other fodder is scarce. In very bad seasons much of the young cane is sold to local milk men, who pay about 30s a ton for it. This was done extensively in Queensland, in respect to the 1914-15 crops, the production of sugar for the subsequent seasons being thus materially affected.
Cane-cutting records and cane cheques are as much a matter of argument in sugar centres as shearers' tallies and earnings are in sheep country. From the Mossman in Queensland to the big Harwood mill on the Clarence, this matter is argued in and out of season. Some gangs cut out in three months or less, whilst others are almost continuously cutting for six or seven months. There is thus considerable variation in the actual working "seasons" of different gangs. Disputants do not always calculate on a time basis, and so the issue is frequently clouded. What is considered the biggest cheques for any season were made by W. Maher's gang on the Mulgrave, and by F. Toy's gang on the Clarence River. The first averaged £115 per man clear of tucker, the second £112 clear. The season of each of these gangs lasted about six months. Good cheques are consistently made year after year in the Mulgrave sugar fields. Four gangs on those plantations averaged over a hundred pounds a man in one season, whilst several others at the same time came very close to the century. Maher's gang was long noted in the district as uniformly good men, who hold the record of earning considerably over a hundred each, for three seasons in succession. Yet other gangs on a time basis have made better money. J. Johnson's gang, for instance, cleared £105 each in four and a half months on the Mossman—the North Queensland region where the employers of kanaka labour used to say the white man couldn't work in the cane field.
At North Kolan, Bundaberg district, in September, 1906, A. Chapman, operating in a crop estimated at from 26 to 32 tons to the acre, cut 9 tons 17 cwt. of cane, in 7½ hours. This constituted a record in that district for white labour.
When the Cutters Have Finished.
The work is heavy, requiring strong men. Exertion falls principally on wrists and back, as in shearing. In choosing a gang, the chief picks as uniform a team as possible, for the men share and share alike, and a slow or unskilled worker is a handicap to his fellows. They provide their own accommodation, usually tents, though on many of the small farms the farmers' barns or other sheds are available; and on most of the big Queensland plantations there are huts for the men.
After the cutters have finished, the field is strewn with a tangled mass of cane and thresh that is difficult to walk over. The cane is loaded into specially made carts, either loosely or in bundles, and conveyed to the riverside, unless the mill happens to be close to the plantation, where it is run down chutes into huge cane punts or barges. The carts are provided by the mill or the company, but the planter has to find the horses and do the carting. A good many men are employed on every field in carting and clearing up, and in the transport of the cane to the mill. The punts, sometimes a string of them one behind the other, are hauled down the river by a steam launch. Loading and unloading the punts is strenuous work, but when the one lot of men does both, there is a pleasant interval between the two operations. Work among cane, from field to mill, is full of interest. The pay is always good for the willing worker, and a gang that has given satisfaction has the privilege of returning season after season.
Whether he is a general dealer, or merely a book canvasser, or a sewing-machine agent, the bush hawker is a quiet, inoffensive person. If he has a raucous voice about him at all, it is reserved for the campfires, where now and again he brushes the rust and cobwebs off its machinery with some catch song of the period. He is generally welcome in the backblocks, except to country store keepers and the squatters across whose runs he sometimes finds it convenient to take short cuts. He is not restricted to the back regions, his tilted cart being familiar on nearly all country roads, but he does more business, and can charge more for his wares where stores are not handy to the scattered settlers, and especially on roads that are not traversed by mail coaches. The parcels post system, which enables outlying settlers to get cheap goods direct from the main business quarters of their State, is as objectionable to him as to the storekeeper. It has resulted in lowering the prices of both, and still much trade that each of them regards as belonging to his district goes elsewhere. Away from the railways and coach roads the hawker flourishes.
It does not pay him to specialise in a single line of business, for the houses are too far apart, and the most optimistic does not expect to find a customer at every one he comes to. The sewing-machine agent is different, and the more thickly populated areas suit him best. He is seldom a good bushman, and he finds that his experiences in town travelling avail him little when he comes to travel among backblock settlers. He has to look out for grass and water, as well as provide for his own victualling; he has to camp out very often, wet and dry; he is at once groom, coachman, canvasser, clerk, cook, and wood and water joey. He meets with disaster so often that it becomes monotonous; and he encounters difficulties in everyday travelling that are not presented to the ordinary hawker, or to the teams and caravans of the peregrinating shows.
The machine man often has his course mapped out for him by people who know nothing about the districts, by simply taking a list of names from the directory. These, the agent has to call on, and in looking for them, he not infrequently follows timber tracks, and after hours of wandering through scrub and forest, pulls up at a sawn stump, which doesn't want anything to-day, thank you, or at a timber-getter's camp. They don't want a sewing machine either. He is a sour-tempered, disgusted machinist then; but the wood warriors are sympathetic—and amused—and they tone him up on the best they have, make him comfortable for the night, while giving him a rigmarole of directions that ties him in forty knots next day. The worst happens to him when he loses his horse; when that dumb servant knocks up twenty miles from anywhere, and the cupboard is empty; or when his trap sinks down and sticks in a boggy crossing.
I once came upon a broken trap by the side of a lonely road. The owner was absent, probably looking for a house, and tacked upon a tree was this notice: "For sale, cheap, one first-class sample sewing machine. Also one horse, running at large, and one light waggonette, slightly damaged, owner retiring from business." That notice was eloquent of the humour of the traveller; he had reached the limit of endurance when he could make a joke of his own predicament.
The book canvasser gets along much better, though in many localities he is treated with suspicion. Some have gone before him, taken orders, received deposits on them, and then disappeared. This business was well worked by the unscrupulous at one time, which made it bad for the honest trader who came after him. They sometimes dealt in many lines, carrying only samples, and none of the orders they received ever materialised. Buying on that line, or on the instalment plan, unless the goods were produced on the spot, became unpopular. The wandering book-exchange was a better speculation. The librarian carried a stock of cheap books, which he sold at double or treble their value, or exchanged at considerable advantage to himself. He found business nearly any where, even with swagmen on the track; and at squattages, mining camps, and shearing sheds he did very well. Men who knock about, such as shearers, don't want to carry books they have read, excepting one or two, to swap with; and these he buys cheaply, and so keeps a stock in hand for months, augmented by parcels received here and there through the post or by team.
His Cargo and Team.
The ordinary hawker, with his tilted cart, and his cargo of drapery, toilet requisites, fancy ware, tobacconist goods and "brummagem" jewellery, keeps generally to the main roads, along which, with regular periodical trips, he works up a good connection. He has two to four horses, which pick up their living by the roadside. Where feed is scarce, he steals them into a good paddock if a chance offers, and it is sometimes neccessary to open a fence to water them. Consequently, he has some adventures occasionally on his travels. He drives slowly, for his road is long, and much of it heavy. Sometimes he drives all day without seeing a house, and on some dreary stretches he doesn't take a sixpence in a week. Then he may strike a spot where he will take £20 or £30 in one night.
His best business places are shearing sheds, selections and squattage huts, navvies' camps, wayside pubs, and mustering camps. At some of these he may stay a week. His stand is mostly on the road, as near the huts or tents as possible, and trade is done principally in the evenings, his travelling shop being well lit up, his goods displayed along the tailboard to the best advantage; men gather round his fire, sometimes yarning for hours. So he becomes known to hundreds over a vast extent of country. Wherever he pulls up, some cheerful voice greets him with, "Hulloa, Jimmy! How's business?" And Jimmy says there's plenty of sale, but very little profit. Too much competition nowadays. Somehow, he always seems to have something which he is selling at a loss to get rid of, though the price suggests to the purchaser, that it is a profitable line to be carrying. Jimmy knows his marks, and his price varies according to the customer he is dealing with.
A Roaring Trade.
At shearing sheds he takes "orders" for goods, the orders being paid by the manager, and debited to the shearers' accounts. On selections money is not always available when clothes and clothing material are wanted, and credit is given till the next trip, which may be three or six months hence. When he finds good customers there, he is just as well satisfied that way as with cash, especially as he makes ample allowance for booking. Another lucrative place for him is the wayside hotel. Many a bushman, after being a little while thereabouts, becomes overflowing with generosity. He takes the children—anybody's children—to the wandering warehouse, and treats them all round; he buys silk handkerchiefs and jewellery for the girls, sometimes he orders silk dresses for them; and an odd one buys a stock of beads and gaudy red and white handkerchiefs for the lubras who wash his clothes for him. With half a dozen such customers, "Jimmy" does a roaring trade besides in tobacconists' goods, and for an hour or two he is a paragon of smartness and affability.
Blacks' and Drovers' Camps.
A blacks' camp near a squattage is a good stand for a night or two. The young men of the camp work on the run, some of the women work at the house, and others wash for the men; so most of them have money, and nearly all are liberal with it. Playing cards, looking-glasses, pocket knives, pipes, print dresses, and coloured handkerchiefs are the principal wares he unloads at these places. A drover's camp is another place he never misses if he can help it. When the men have been long on the road, there are many little things they are in need of, from pipes and tobacco to hats and clothes. They are not particular about the price, and the hawker is not behind-hand at making them pay for the convenience of doing their shopping at their own campfires. He gets his dinner and breakfast with the drovers, and, perhaps, a few days supply of meat to take with him. On a far western stock route, in a fair season, he does a very good business, clearing on an average seven or eight pounds a week.
Flood and Drought.
With feed and water plentiful, everything goes well with him, and here and there he can camp and wait for the drovers and other travellers to come along. His cart at such times becomes a roadside shop, drawn up close to the track by a well-used camping ground. But there is always a deal of uncertainty in travelling on western tracks. Rain makes heavy going on black soil plains, and floods come down the creeks with surprising suddenness. Either of these eventualities may hold him up for a week in an uncomfortable spot. Then wash always make difficult crossings, and it happens now and again that he has to unload in the bed of a creek, and carry his goods to the top of the bank; and occasionally his cart breaks down in a place where repairs are not easily effected. His pole or a swingle bar may break, for instance, where there isn't a stick of timber within five miles. The hawker who travels these roads is generally handy enough to do his own repairing, and shoe his own horses, using a squattage forge and workshop for the purpose.
Droughty conditions are his main handicap in the far west, and many roads are barred to him in dry summers. He travels principally in the cooler months, for then shearing is on, and there is more activity on the runs and on the roads; but a drought that prevents teams from getting through with stores promises a rich reward for the hawker if he can reach the isolated regions, and sometimes he risks the trip and succeeds after much hardship and struggling. He may reap a couple of hundred pounds profit for his dash, but he is always threatened with disaster through scarcity of feed and the drying-up of waterholes.
The Afghan Hawker.
Women in the far backblocks who rarely go to town enjoy the luxury of shopping afforded them by the hawker. As they do most of their own sewing they are good customers to the hawker. They look for him, and have generally a pound or two by to spend when he comes.
The Afghan hawker, despised by most outbackers, pokes into out-of-the-way nooks and corners for odd sixpences—and occasionally gets into a tight fix. Nobody has much sympathy for him in his troubles, yet he flourishes in all parts of the bush. Living cheaply and travelling cheaply, selling shoddy goods at exorbitant prices, and taking his hoard elsewhere, he earns the undying enmity of the "general storekeeper" when he opens shop on a vacant lot, or on the outskirts of a township. For all that he passes no place where he can get picking for his horses, and all nights to him are Saturday nights.
In addition to the hawker with his familiar tilted cart, there are others who travel with smaller turnouts, some of them on foot. The latter circulate principally in well-populated centres; when one is met with in wide spaces he is invariably a Chinaman. Swagmen, as a rule, do not peddle. Exceptions are the greenhide workers who plait whips, bridles, halters and ropes, and sell them to stockmen and drovers; "Waterbags," who carries a roll of canvas, and makes bags, with the neck of a bottle for a mouth, along the road; "Horns and Hoofs," who polishes bullocks' horns, and horse and bovine hoofs for people in town and country, often carrying specimens on top of his bundle; the wood carver, who makes stockwhip handles and needlewood pipes; the barber who opens temporarily at shearing sheds sharpening razors and shearing the shearers; and "Pumps," who puts the house pump in order, attends to valves and suckers at the wells and tanks, and doctors the engine. The two latter are travelling tradesmen, but not hawkers. None of them makes more than a living, and most of them engage in ordinary work, peddling only when out of a billet.
A certain succession of stages invariably marks the growth of mail service in the inland settlements. At the outposts it is infrequent and irregular. Some places get their mails only at long intervals, and then by private carriers. Where homesteads are scattered and remote the Government mail travels a main route, leaving letters and papers in boxes, the owners of which may live far back from the road. The boxes, of varying shapes and sizes, are nailed to trees, and are often the only signs of a habitation in the locality. Sometimes the receptacle is a biscuit tin, or merely a hollow in the trunk of a tree. These are the 'bush post offices,' conspicuous on every backblock road along which a mailman or a mail coach goes. Some squatters and other scattered denizens have not even this convenience, and have to get their mails once a week from the nearest town. A boy employed on a distant squattage at about 15s a week and keep carries these mails on horseback, serving everybody along his track. Where there is much to carry, a man is sent with a light buggy. His pay is from 25s to 30s a week and keep, but mail-running is only a portion of his work. He goes in one day and out the next, receiving refreshments and fresh horses from the intermediary places he serves.
The pioneer mailman of all is the aborigine, who, on foot or on horseback, crosses the untracked bush between new camps and the nearest mail route or squattage homestead. At the latter depot mails may accumulate for a month or more, and when they reach their destination they are more avidly read and more appreciated than in districts that have a frequent and properly accredited service. There is a romance also in the lives of these people which gradually fades as the links with civilisation become closer and more firmly welded. They have grown patient and philosophical in a life that calls for the best and noblest in humanity, a life in which each one has to rely on his own resources, and is not pampered by Governments even to the extent of a macadamised road.
But this primitive service in time becomes inadequate to the growing importance of the new district; the department calls for tenders, and an officially-qualified mailman rides through once a fortnight, or once a month, according to population and accessibility. A one horse mail of this kind may be run for £200 to £400 a year. Prices depend greatly on the locality, the weight of mail matter, and competition. The mail man has to provide his own horses and gear. He needs several changes on a long track, and if the mail is heavy he requires a pack horse, which doubles the number of horses he has to keep at the stages; and if there is not enough natural feed all the year round he needs a sum equal to five or ten shillings per head for fodder. Again, a weekly mail to a far-distant place would require an assistant, working the opposite end, to carry it through, in which case his contract price is doubled.
A good type of the hardy, self-reliant men who civilise the great inlands is this bush mailman—a good rider, inured to hardship and solitude, skilled in bushcraft, resourceful, and tireless. More than any traveller is he looked for on his lonely rides. He is the friend of everybody, and everybody is his friend. No one begrudges time or labour in looking after his horses and attending to his personal wants when he arrives. His contract seldom allows him much time to waste on the way, and a lost horse, or delay in catching one, means a lot to him. Sometimes his horse goes lame, or becomes otherwise unfit for awhile, and then his friends of the road come to his assistance. No one on the far tracks who can help it sees a mailman stuck, and he does them many a little favour in return in carrying verbal messages and light parcels. Through rain and shine, through flood and drought, he has to ride on, often in the lonelier hours of night. Though the department makes no allowance for drought, there is a specified height as to floods, when the mails must not be risked in crossing creeks and rivers; but wet, boggy flats and plains make hard going for him in rainy weather. In dry summers, he has the road much to himself, and has to battle through the worst single-handed; but in good seasons he does not want for company, and, with fresh horses, his occupation is not at all unpleasant.
To the Fringes of Civilisation.
With a fortnightly mail he goes out one week and back the next. At times he is blocked for days by floods; and occasionally in summer, on far western tracks, his horse knocks up or dies, and he has to do part of the journey on foot, carrying the mailbags on his back. Besides carrying the mail news of the world to the fringes of civilisation, he is the constant purveyor of local news, gleaned up and down the long track he travels. There is always something of interest in the bush for the dwellers therein, and the mailman, knowing everybody and calling regularly at so many places, misses little of what happens.
Small branch lines running a horse mail are often taken by a settler or a townsman who has a few horses running idle, and a promising son similarly engaged. He can run a 50-mile line (up and down once a week) for £50 a year. His horses are grass-fed; though sometimes he grows a little green stuff and corn, and gives them a 'bite' occasionally.
But a village springs up in the wilderness, and with the increasing importance of the district the horse-mailman passes, and much of the romance of pioneering life goes with him. The next stage in the service is the shanghai—a light vehicle drawn by two horses, and adapted for quick travelling on rough bush roads. As the passenger traffic develops, and the postal matter grows heavier, the shanghai in turn disappears, its place being taken by the heavy mail coach. If more prosaic than the lone horseman, the big, lumbering vehicle, familiar over thousands of miles of Australian roads, is still clothed with a glamour begotten of the stirring, adventurous days of the past.
While any bushman with a few horses can run a mail with packhorse or shanghai, the coach contractor requires some capital to establish a working plant. The Government requires him, before his tender is accepted, to find securities that the contract will be faithfully carried out. Then he has to arrange for changing depots along his route, at each of which a groom is needed. A fair distance between depots is about 20 to 25 miles, but on some roads they run to 35 miles apart. Much depends on the sort of road, and the nature of the country. There are roads so monotonously level and easy that the coach-driver could go from one change to another in his sleep; there are some that keep him hardworking through the greater part of his trip; and there are others, as in the mountainous regions, that require skill and continual watchfulness to negotiate.
The average driver is patient and enduring. In normal seasons his life is not one of ease and leisure. When the roads are sticky and boggy, and the coach is groaning under its heavy load, his best efforts have to be put forth to battle through on the long stages. On outback roads there are few bridges and culverts, and a small flood renders many crossings difficult, at times dangerous. But a long, dry period affects him worse than anything. To the contractor it may result in serious loss. An instance in point was given during the drought of 1902, which, in Queensland, temporarily held up Cobb and Co., probably the biggest mail coaching concern in the world. Their subsidy for one year was £20,200 for the carriage of mails over Queensland roads aggregating 4000 miles; and during the same period the cost of feeding the 1400 horses that were required amounted to £22,900; besides which they paid £20,000 a year in wages, and they valued their plant, including horses, at £45,000. Expenses, of course, were exceptional at that time. Cost of feed had risen 100 per cent., and there was no grass or herbage to help. Passenger fares had also slumped, as few people travel at such times in the interior.
Subsidies and Fares.
It very often happens that the subsidy doesn't pay feed and wages. The contractor tells you that mail carrying is a cut-throat business; competition keeps him down, and he has to depend on passengers' fares and the carriage of parcels to make it pay. Perhaps when he starts there is plenty of grass, horse feed is cheap, and his horses in good condition. But a long spell of dry weather alters all that, and if sufficient passengers don't happen along to meet the increased expenditure, the ledger begins to tot up too much on the wrong side. Still, the experienced man isn't blind to these possible circumstances when he puts in his tender, Very often a bigger subsidy is paid on a 50-mile line than on a 100-mile line, and it not infrequently happens that a horse mailman gets more for a weekly trip than a coach contractor gets for running a biweekly mail, distance being equal. The 'road business' is the principal factor in the determination of the subsidy required by the contractor. On a 200-mile western line, on which the passenger fare was £6 each way; in the busy season it was not uncommon to see the coach packed, going up and down, for several trips in succession. There were two mails a week, and an average of one passenger each way gave an income of £1248 a year from this source alone. The parcels post matter was very heavy on this line, but still left room for the carriage of outside parcels to the extent of another £250 a year. In dry summers even bags of chaff were carried, stacked high on the roof of the coach. This line was also heavily subsidised, for there was hardly any competition, the road being mostly dry, and required a costly plant.
Effect of 'Road Business.'
On a line in the north-eastern corner of New South Wales, a contractor of long standing went a little higher than usual one year, stating that the line didn't pay, and lost the contract, but he still kept his coaches running, undercutting the other man in fares and carrying charges. This meant loss for both, but eventually he regained command of the road, and after that, instead of a 'rise,' he carried the mails at reduced rates. In the same locality a ferry punt was for years subsidised by Government, the amount being fixed by tender. Suddenly a number of people saw money in that punt, and the subsidy dropped quickly from £50 to a few shillings. Eventually, the ferryman paid the Government for the right of plying there, the right being sold by tender. Possibly, the same thing would happen on some 'business roads' in the case of mail coaches if the vehicles could have the same kind of monopoly as that which is enjoyed by the ferryman. The road business, at all events, very materially affects the subsidy where two or more coach proprietors want the same line.
Cost of Running a Mail Coach.
The cost of running a mail coach depends greatly on the route. Roughly, a 200-mile line would require ten changes, and a team of six horses and two emergency horses at each. Eighty horses at 7s 6d per head costs £30 a week to keep; five grooms at £2 10s (including keep), £12 10s; five grooms (at wayside pubs and selectors' huts), at 15s, £3 15s; two drivers at £3 10s (including board and lodging), £7; repairs, shoeing, &c., £2 15s; total, £56 per week, or £2912 per annum. Two coaches are kept in constant running, meeting half-way, and as a substitute can't always be borrowed when one breaks down, three emergency vehicles are necessary, one at each end, and one at the meeting places. Then there is the harness and other paraphernalia; and an agent at one end of the line, usually a publican, who receives a commission on fares, and other little pickings; and there is the wear and tear. Setting down the capital invested at £2000, five per cent, depreciation brings the total cost to £3012 per annum. The subsidy for such a line may be anything from £500 to £3000 or more per year. On a good passenger-carrying line the subsidy is low; but on a line which carries much parcels post matter and few passengers the subsidy is high.
Drivers on some short lines are paid only 30s to 40s per week, arrangements being made by the contractor for their board and lodging. The ordinary wage is about £2 10s to £3 a week, though some are paid £4 a week. On some long lines a driver may be on the box for two nights, and the better part of two days, going down, and the same going up, snatching a little rest on the way if the travelling is good. He has three whole days and nights out of the seven to rest and sleep. Short lines, though the drivers may be on the box every day, are picnics in comparison.
It would be hard to find a more striking example of lack of enterprise in Australia than in the case of the tanning bark industry. Before the war the scarcity of tanning materials in the world's markets was causing grave anxiety everywhere, yet Australia could have supplied the necessaries in infinite quantities. No country was more bountifully endowed by Nature in this respect, and if advantage had been taken of this favourable position tens of thousands of men would have been systematically and constantly employed in growing and stripping, instead of a few thousands in little scattered communities working the indigenous scrubs and clumps in the bush.
The bark of our wattles is the best that is known for tanning purposes. So valuable is it that vast fields of the trees are cultivated in South Africa. The seed, obtained from South Australia, was first sown in Natal about 1886. Twenty years afterwards the wattle bark industry was worth over £100,000 per annum to the State, and the planted areas, which had before been waste, jumped up in price as though towns had sprung up there. In 1907 26,700 tons were exported, a thousand of which came to New South Wales! In 1914 about 70,000 tons, valued at over £400,000, were exported from South Africa, and it was estimated that the area then planted with full-grown wattle trees was 160,000 acres, a large proportion of the produce of which was used in the States. South Australians, from whom the Natal planters purchased their seed, metaphorically kicked themselves on finding that the purchasers had so soon developed into serious competitors in the important industry. South Australia's exports ten years earlier were valued at £70,000, while those of the colony of Natal were set down at £45,000. In 1910 the value of exports for the Commonwealth was nearly £120,000; then there was a rapid decline, until in 1913 it had dropped to £60,411. The great expansion of cultivated areas in South Africa, together with the working out of the wild trees in Australia, was the reason of the slump.
A Great Natural Heritage.
The wattle tree is one of the great natural heritages of Australia, being plentiful in all the States. South Australia is the largest producer, the industry yielding a considerable revenue to landholders and strippers in the hilly districts around Adelaide and along the coast. The bulk of the bark and wood is used in the Commonwealth. Victoria comes next in relation to quantity marketed, and then New South Wales and Queensland. The latter State does a big trade in mangrove bark, and West Australia in mallet bark, the stripping of which employs a great number of men in the thickets and scrubs, besides providing work for carters and teamsters for at least half the year. In New South Wales the wattle grows abundantly and luxuriantly throughout the eastern region, but inaccessibility through a bad railway system results in three parts of the bark and wood being wasted. The wattle is a shortlived tree, and should be harvested when five or six years old. Some do not strip them till, the seventh year. The bark of young trees is too thin, but there is light and heavy on all trees when the branches are stripped as well as the trunk. The first is known as the clippings, the main bark as the fleece. The expert stripper classes his bark on the ground, sorting the thin and light from the thick and heavy, the highest price being obtained for the latter. Before the war Sydney quotations were: For best, £10 10s per ton; medium, £10; light, £8 10s to £9 10s. The older trees have thicker and more numerous branches, much of which produce a good medium bark; but trees seven years old and upwards are often grubby, scaly, and gummy, and so are not always as profitable as the five and six year olds.
Stripping the Bark.
In the bush the men follow the creeks and gullies and mountain valleys in regions where the wattle is most abundant. In the wild state the wattle grows mainly in thickets and clumps, and there is consequently a large proportion of small stuff and a mixture of damaged old trees. There is also a considerable quantity of small branches that have to be cleared away. The bark can only be stripped when the sap is up, and the season varies with different species. With a tomahawk or light axe the stripper opens the bark near the ground, and tears it off in long strips. Some climb the trees, others use a light ladder, to strip the main branches, the naked trees being left to die and waste, to be swept away eventually by bush fires. But near a steamship service or railway the trees are cut down, and the timber adds a nice little sum to the strippers' incomes. In such situations experts earn up to £10 a week; where there is a plenitude of sound commercial trees, necessitating little waste of time in shifting camp and hunting around, they sometimes make more than that. In depending on the wilds for their harvest, of course, their weekly earnings must show considerable variation, for one area will give a handsome return for little labour, whereas another will exact much work for a less result. Then the wattle is very plentiful in spots, and scattered in others. As the areas become worked out—for a season or two—they have to go farther and farther back, which entails more carting and greater expense in delivering the goods.
Products of the Wattle.
When handy to a market there is absolutely no waste in the wattle tree. Even the flowers, which are produced in rich abundance, are always saleable. The wood, which is light, soft, and elastic, is used for cask staves, spokes and felloes, axe and pick handles, and for other purposes requiring a tough, and durable grain. The wood is also excellent fuel, and all faulty timber is sold for this purpose at about 10s a ton. Branches that are too small for stripping, and twigs and leaves—known as the thresh—have also a market value, a fluid extract containing nearly 40 per cent. of soluble tannin being obtained from them. There is, further, a considerable sale for wattle seed, of which a healthy tree produces a heavy crop, and which is easily gathered. Besides their use for cultivation, they have medicinal properties, as also have the pods and curls. Other products are gum and jelly, which are sold in Sydney shops.
The strippers, except in cultivated areas, lead an open-air life, always amid wild surroundings, in sweet, open forests where the only intruders are cattle and wild animals and an occasional stockman, riding through. They pitch their tents on the bank of a creek close to their work, and as one area is cut out they shift camp to another. Some have carts, others use only pack-horses with which their bark is conveyed to a central depot, whence it is taken to a wharf or railway siding by a teamster. The pack horse is not much of a convenience, except to begin with in sparsely-cropped districts. It soon gives way to a light cart, which is handy for gathering up scattered heaps of bark and timber, and for shifting camp. In thick clumps a load can be thrown together by hand. Many of the strippers, working together from two to half-a-dozen men in a camp, have their own teams—a heavy dray and three or four horses. The wet bark is made into small bundles, and, when dry, is roughly pressed into bales or put into bags for delivery to agents. In these fields there is generally plenty of game, and good fishing is had in permanent creeks and holes; so that with guns and lines the men live well and cheaply. In most camps there is a rifle or two in readiness for kangaroos and wallabies; and in the infested districts, poisoned baits are laid in odd hours for dingoes and foxes, the scalps and skins of which add a fair sum to the earnings of the camp.
Weather has a good deal of influence on the strippers' work. A dry spring and summer renders stripping difficult, at times impossible. In such seasons there is a considerable advance in price and men who regularly follow this avocation are tempted to put in a lot of extra work for a smaller output. A heavy waste of prime bark results, but while the rest of the products can be marketed the strippers can still make good money at it.
The method of depending wholly on the natural production of the bush, is itself wasteful. When areas are worked right out there is no provision for the future, and the time lost and the expense of carrying from long distances could be saved by yearly plantings. Since South Africa so strikingly demonstrated the possibilities of this industry the Rip Van Winkles of Australia have begun to rub the sleep out of their eyes and look with a new interest on their national emblem. There are wattle plantations here and there in New South Wales, mostly worked in conjunction with dairying. In West Australia there are plantations under the control of the Forestry Department. The Western State formerly exported large quantities of mallet bark—approximately £85,000 worth in 1911—but this trade gradually dwindled as the supplies of the brush became exhausted; whilst in South Africa, where this tree also was cultivated from Australian seed, the industry expanded. The principal customer, outside Australia, for both mallet and wattle barks was Germany.
Wattle farming is a very profitable industry. After ploughing and sowing very little cultivating is required, as the trees, once they are well rooted, can take care of themselves. An acre carries 500 trees, planted a little less than 10 feet apart, though some plant as closely as 6 feet, which works out at 1210 to the acre. A tree yields from 301b. to half a hundredweight of wet bark, which loses about a third of its weight in drying. At 20lb. of dry bark per tree the yield per acre would be about 4½ tons, worth, say, £40. Stripping, chopping, bagging, carriage to port, freight, cartage, and commission run to about £4 per ton, leaving a balance of £22 on the acre. Then there is the initial ploughing and planting, besides fencing, all of which may be set down at £500 for a 200-acre farm. As a set-off against this and the alternate ploughing and planting there are the commercial timber, fuel and thresh. As the trees are stripped only when five or six years old, the farm would be planted in five sections of 40 acres each, extending over a period of five years; so that after the first section matured there would be 40 acres to harvest and re-plant annually. The best bark for tanning is obtained from the green and black wattles. These trees, when mature, are about five or six inches in diameter. Some planters, instead of planting in sections, cover the whole area, then strip only every third tree at the first harvest; a similar number is stripped the next year, and the balance the following year. This gives an increased weight, estimated at 14lb. to the tree, for the second and third strippings. On this basis it is calculated that the aggregate yield for the first seven years is £120. Though the stripped trees are replaced almost immediately, there is a break, however, before the fourth harvest is ready, and the young trees do not grow so well when planted among those of advanced growth.
He is found on nearly all the navigable rivers of Australia—the smart, handy, genial person who is a ship's captain, storekeeper, wood-cutter, and other things rolled into one. . . . Naturally, he is not the soft-handed, pale faced sort of shopman that one is accustomed to meet behind the drapery counter in town, but a roughened, sun-browned, vigorous man of business, who is equally at home on land and water, in the city or in the bush. He lives on his ship—his floating palace—but as he ties up at night, and between times at depots where there is any trade to be done, also when he wants a fresh supply of wood for stoking purposes, he spends a good deal of time on land. When he is doing well he buys a considerable portion of his fuel at the waterside, but otherwise, when his supply is low, he ties up adjacent to a good timber patch, and he and the mate shoulder axes and cut their own wood, which they also lump on board. When steaming along between depots he has a gun beside him for ducks, and in the warm evenings he smokes his pipe on deck whilst a fishing line dangles over the side. He likes the streams where the towns are few, where there are shearing sheds, sugar mills, timber-getters' camps, wood-cutters, and other groups of workers on the waterfront. These centres constitute his ports, and, calling regularly once a week or so, customers come down from near and far to do their shopping on board. Regularity is not always possible on some of the rivers, such as the Darling, in which sufficient depth of water cannot be depended on for any length of time except for the smaller craft.
Trade and Profit.
Floating stores range in size from small motor launches to three-decked steamers. The former are satisfied with a store profit of about £6 a week, whilst the latter require £20, half of which is swallowed up in expenses. On the Darling the trade is as irregular as the trips, though the average through the year is maintained. In dry summers work is slack, and a good many men, unable to travel out back, camp along the banks. A temporary stoppage of carrying on the roads creates a demand on the travelling store, not only for groceries and soft goods, but for potatoes and fodder, which the steamers carry stacked on the lower decks. The wool season and fruit harvesting bring other crowds of men within reach. Navigation is slow and difficult at such periods when the water is low, and here and there the big boats, heavily laden on the up trip, stick on a mud bank, or suffer damage on a snag. The small craft, travelling quickly up and down, do good business in these times. Several boats of various sizes ply on this long river, and nearly all of them do well, in spite of many towns dotted along the winding shores.
One familiar three-decker was the joint property of two brothers, both married men, whose wives and children lived on board. This was a paddle steamer, which had a spacious promenade around the wheelhouse on the upper deck. In a limited way it was a universal provider; everything from a packet of pins to household furniture could be purchased there. If there was something required that was not on board, it could be ordered, and was brought up on the next trip—when the next trip would be depended on the vagaries of the river. The store was well fitted up with shelves, glass cases, and lockers, and everything was displayed in proper departments, as in a town store. Comparatively, of course, the space was small, but the emporium was neat and compact—an object-lesson to the slovenly in the utilisation of every available inch. It did not permit of a rush to the bargain counters. On a very busy day some of the customers would have to wait their turn outside the store. The women assisted both in the grocery and drapery departments, and attended to the washing, cooking, and general household duties when the store was steaming from port to port, or during the slack time of the day. Their assistance was seldom required in the morning, as most of the business was done in the afternoon and evening.
A Pleasant Life.
Whilst smaller craft exploited the long bends to Bourke and Walgett, this boat plied regularly between Wentworth and Wilcannia. Her arrival at the usual depots was heralded by circulars sent through the post to leading customers, or to amateur bill stickers in the localities who would see that they were conspicuously displayed. A plug of tobacco or an occasional pipe would defray the cost. The boat travelled only in day-time, calling at every hamlet, town, and industrial centre, also at the isolated homesteads, where it was particularly a great convenience to residents. At night the boat was tied up to the bank, at a business port if possible, but anywhere at all if that were unreachable when night closed in. Wherever they touched at the children found recreation ashore. Frequently through the day there were opportunities for landing, and with the ever-changing scenery, passing up and down, constant intercourse with the settlers, and little adventures and excitements on land and river, for the women and youngsters it was a very pleasant life. For the men, too, it was most agreeable. They had to work hard, but it was profitable work.
On the Coastal Rivers.
The coastal rivers have a good farming population, and though there are little steamers plying regularly up and down every day, taking produce from the farms and delivering goods from town stores, there is still a good trade for the hawker's boat or the floating store. On the Richmond an old paddle-boat called the Keystone traded for years when the river banks were covered with thick scrub. Houses were scattered, and still, at a timber-getting depot, her takings not uncommonly amounted to £50 for a Saturday afternoon. She stopped only at well-known centres, such as villages, saw mills, timber camps, schools, and squattage homesteads. She made a trip every week, stopping over Saturday and Sunday at Tatham, which was the hub of a busy district. No regulated closing hours were recognised; the shop closed when there was nothing doing. As a matter of fact, Sunday was often the floating store's busy day. Farmers and selectors came from all directions—some riding, some driving, and a great many walking. Dozens came also from up and down stream in rowing boats and punts.
The Riversiders' Weekly Fair.
Much of the trade was done on the barter system, produce being taken in exchange for store goods, the storekeeper making a profit on both. Eggs arrived in tubs, boxes, and kerosene tins; poultry in coops and bags, or only hobbled with a piece of twine and slung across behind the saddle. One would see a farmer staggering down the bank with a bucket of eggs in one hand and a side of bacon under the other arm; his wife waddling behind with a fat Muscovy, and a few pounds of butter in a billycan; young Bill panting after her with a jar of honey in his arms; and then Sarah, lugging a couple of pairs of pullets by the legs. They would, probably be followed by three or four younger members of the family, come to share the inevitable bag of lollies, and a couple of dogs bringing up the rear. On the deck and along the bank you would see men discussing and comparing pipes and tobaccos, shirts and trousers, and trying on hats and boots; women displaying their purchases of print, children's clothes, boots, and what not.
Crowds rode down on Saturday and Sunday simply to look on, for this was the riversiders' weekly fair; and they sat on the bank smoking, or played quoits with horseshoes, played cards for tobacco under bushes, held jumping contests for men and horses, and sometimes had a race or two for drinks. Here, too, the young agriculturist met his best girl, which meant business for Skipper Softgoods—if only in the chocolate department. But jewellery and silk handkerchiefs were specialities conspicuously displayed for this class of customer. Aborigines also brought much money to the floating store. Nearly all the cattle runs of that part employed numbers of them as stockmen, and they mingled freely with the whites.
A Convenient System.
The system of exchange gave the floating store a pull over the town store. The farmers and selectors were not always supplied with ready cash, whilst they invariably had produce of some sort to sell. They could sell most of it in town, or by shipping it to Sydney; but the floating store was more convenient. They could dispose of it at their own wharf, and do their shopping there at the same time. It saved them the trouble of packing and the time that would be lost in going to town. The floating store rarely called anywhere when going down stream. It was generally laden with a miscellaneous cargo of produce, including poultry, that had to be unloaded and disposed of quickly. The skipper, of course, was always sure of his market before he bought.
Despite the good business done by the floating store, there was still something left for the hawker's boat, which, along many of our eastern rivers, takes the place of the hawker's cart. It is an ordinary pulling boat, fairly large, fitted with lockers, and sometimes with a light awning across the after part. It is well laden at the start with groceries, clothing material, tobacco, etc., which, in part, are exchanged for eggs, butter, and even poultry. Those who take poultry have low coops fitted across the stern, and collect the livestock on the return journey. Feeding costs nothing, as it is only necessary to step out of the boat by some farmer's crop and pull a few cobs of corn. If no corn is growing, he is provided with some from the barn when he takes delivery of the poultry. Sometimes he takes bacon, honey, preserves—anything not too bulky which he can sell again at a profit—in exchange for his own wares. In ordinary times he clears from £4 to £6 a week; at harvest time he occasionally doubles that amount.
When well away from town, the boatman ties up at every wharf on both banks, then walks up to the house to announce his arrival. Mrs. Farmer and family come down and perch on the bank while he displays his goods and hands them round for inspection. He takes orders for flour, sugar, and other bulky and weighty stuff, and delivers them on his next fortnightly trip. He cooks on the bank, and sleeps in his boat at night. With a trade worth about £5 a week, he enjoys a far better time than his contemporary with the cart. It costs him very little more to live than it does to feed his fowls. He carries gun and fishing tackle, and can get fish and game pretty well every day in the week. Wild fruits of many kinds grow along the banks of the rivers, some of them paying well the trouble of picking for market. I knew one hawker who used to fill half-a-dozen 50lb. flour bags with passion fruit in the scrubs every trip during the season, and sell them to the fruit shops in town. Tomatoes and Cape gooseberries were also saleable; so were wild ducks and pigeons. Hundreds of tame ducks disported in the river, and he sometimes found a difficulty in distinguishing them from the wild ones, unless they were near a house. Now and again he would be caught in the act of committing a regrettable mistake, but he was so profuse in his apologies, and laid such stress on his failing eyesight, and gave such good returns in groceries, that the farmer, who rushed down upon him in anger, departed with mollified feelings, if not altogether convinced.
With Wind and Tide.
Then the boatman has no horses to worry him; there are no squatters to harass him for trespass, no blacksoil plains to bog him, no breakdowns, and he can camp where he likes. He rows leisurely enough, too, occupying about a week each way. In wet weather it isn't very pleasant, but then he can sit under an awning and still do business. Floods alone block him; he can't pull against a swift current, nor trust his precious cargo on the whirl down. But tide and wind help him, for he has a good bellying sail to lift her when the wind is favourable.
Besides the floating stores, there are other trading boats on the rivers. Bakers and butchers' boats, for instance, go out from the township in the mornings, delivering bread and meat at the wharves, with an echoing coo-ee to summon the owners. Henry Searle, the phenomenal sculler, used to pull one of these bakers' boats on the Clarence before he started professional rowing. On the main streams nowadays motor boats do most of the work.
There are several species of the genus drover. On the main stock routes that lead from the big runs of the interior all are as familiar as the passing of mobs; and no class of inland workers are more widely known than the men who have charge of those mobs. Ever passing up and down over thousands of miles of country, looking for grass and searching for water, there are few by the long, lone roads who do not come into contact with them, as the summer merges into winter, and the winter passes again into summer, as the rains flood the plains, and the flood vanishes and the plains are parched again. If you meet a seasoned traveller on the road and mention that you have passed a mob of cattle, he will ask, "who's in charge?" If you supply the name, the traveller will probably give you the drover's history, his good and bad points, the standard of his victualling, where he learnt to ride, and what cattle he first went on the road with. If he happens to be a stranger, the query will be, "what kind of a drover is he?"
Droving is conducted in many ways and under various systems. A proper droving plant consists of a waggonette and team, cooking utensils, three or four tents, half a dozen saddles and bridles, a dozen or more saddle horses, hobbles, bells, axes, shovels, and harness, representing a total value of about £275. The waggonette is generally purchased second hand—any old rattle trap with sound wheels and good springs is pressed into the drover's service; the horses are bought outback where they are cheaper—and many a one is picked up on the track at half its value; the rest of the plant is obtained, second hand, at squattages, or first hand in a town as near to a railway as possible, where prices are not exceptional. A half-guinea bridle in Brisbane becomes a 25s bridle in Boulia, which is a difference worth considering when one has to buy a lot. Many drovers go on the roads without a vehicle of any kind, and are known as pack-horse drovers. These, again, are divided into weekly and contract drovers.
The contract drover gets either so much per head per hundred miles, generally about a shilling, or delivers the mob at their destination for a lump sum, the amount of which depends on the route and the season—also on the cattle, mobs off some runs being as quiet as sheep on the road, whilst others are as troublesome as wild bred scrubbers. The uninitiated would expect little or no difference in working conditions under the alternative terms of agreement, but there is such a wide margin that many experienced men will not accept work under the lump-sum contractor if employment is to be had under the other one, who is being paid according to mileage. The former has in the majority of cases a short trip and strong cattle, and obviously he choses the shortest cut possible, which may be the hungriest, as time with him is the main object. He hustles all the way, besides which he is very often short-handed and scantily accoutred and provisioned. He averages 15 to 17 miles a day, which is not much short of what a horseman will cover on the return journey; and thus it takes the men nearly as long to go back empty-handed as it took them to go down with cattle; and considering that the hours are from 16 to 18 a day, and their horses are not sufficiently fed and rested on the trip, the monetary result is unsatisfactory.
The Longest Way Home.
The other man's trip is always a long one, and he has to be content with an average of 12 or 13 miles a day to get his stock through in anything like creditable condition. The regulation distance is 12' miles (six miles with sheep), and the drover is liable to a fine if he doesn't put that distance between his night camps. He doesn't look for short cuts; he takes every advantage of current reports as to scarcity of feed and water on the usual routes to make a detour, and while he is at it he generally makes a very material sweep to escape even the suspicion of bad country. The longest way home is the shortest way to fortune, and he aims at travelling as many hundred miles as possible. Though some are bound to particular routes, they can, and do explain that they found water and feed scarce, and were compelled to deviate. Some latitude must be allowed the drover. Weather is such an important factor that he must use his own discretion to a great extent, for no one can say what a backblock track will be like three months from any given date. Water is the main consideration, but in good seasons, when, there is much traffic on the routes, the way is eaten bare, and though the mobs are seldom hemmed by fences, a stockman meets them on runs where the squatter objects to their spreading beyond bounds, and escorts them through. On some runs they are allowed to spread and loiter; on others they are kept rigidly within the regulation width of track, and compelled to travel their proper distance whatever inconvenience that might entail. If left alone, the drover might travel only ten miles, one day, and 15 miles another, and though he thus averages more than the required distance, the squatter can prosecute him for the short day.
On these long trips the men make big cheques, besides having the benefit of a mob that is settled down; and after travelling a thousand miles or so with the cattle, they can often ride back to the starting point in less than a third of the distance. Beside which, if the contractor has the proper plant, there is an abundance of provisions, adequate cuisine, camping requisites, and other necessary accoutrements for a long journey. He also kills his own meat on the road, and loads up with vegetables whenever a garden comes handy. The men are paid from £2 to £3 a week and keep; in the remote central regions, £4 to £5 a week and keep. The second-in-charge is paid about a pound more than the other men; the cook's pay is £2 10s to £3 10s, and the horseboy's 30s to £2. Each man, when the contractor doesn't find all horses and gear, is allowed 5s a week for his horse and 2s 6d a week for his saddle.
With a Waggonette.
With a waggonette a man can carry a bigger swag, containing many comforts that he must dispense with under the regime of the pack-horse drover, and there is not half the trouble of rolling up and packing, and comparatively no risk of losing things. Neither are the men compelled, as with most of the pack drovers, to carry quart pots on their saddles and lunch in their pockets or saddle-pouches, for the waggonette carries water for tea, and, the tucker-box being always get-at-able without unpacking, it can pull up at any spot that is convenient for the men for lunch. It certainly gets bogged or breaks down occasionally leaving hungry men waiting for supper; but the pack-horse also misconducts himself, as when in an unguarded moment he rolls in the water, or tears the swags and batters the billycans against limbs and trees, or takes a fit into his head and scatters the whole collection about the bush.
The cattle invariably camp a while at noon, and the men not infrequently enjoy a siesta—especially with the weekly drover—at the same time. The latter may get so much per week per man, as when a squattage sends its own cattle away, or so much per hundred head per week. In either case he can afford to see a lot of country, and see it in the leisurely manner of a tourist who wants to absorb the scenery. Many of these are also bound to time and restricted to particular routes; but the drover is a man who has plenty of time to think, and the unforeseen circumstances which kill time and cause deviations are as plausible as they are numerous. Some of the biggest contract drovers began as weekly drovers, being at first trusted head stockmen on squattages, or well-known selectors; and after a few trips have got a plant together, and gained credentials by which they had no trouble in getting mobs. Certainly, one meets a contractor at times who is not very familiar with the ropes, but through the wide spaces where droving is something of a science they are all experienced men.
Some Long Trips.
So much depends on the ability of a drover on long trips that his performances are closely noted by cattle breeders and buyers. A trip or two may give him a good name or a bad name, which will make all the difference in his subsequent activities. Among long-distance records was one accomplished by Drover Rose, who left Lissadell, on the Ord River, W.A., in June, 1905, with 3000 cattle, for Charleville, Q.—a journey of nearly 3000 miles. Drought conditions, encountered when half-way across the Northern Territory, turned him north into the ranges, where he zigzagged up and down watercourses for months, gradually working eastward until he reached good country by the Nicholson River route. At times it was necessary to send exploring parties as much as 150 miles ahead. Rose had 20 men, and he delivered 2600 of his mob at Charleville, in splendid condition, early in November. A longer trip was made by McDonald Bros., who took cattle from Goulburn, N.S.W., to stock Fossil Downs, 200 miles east of Derby, W.A., the trip covering 3300 miles; but out of 3700 head they started with they delivered only 2100. Drover J. Skuthorpe took 2000 bullocks from Wave Hill to Narrabri, losing only 10 head; he was 12 months on the road, and travelled 3000 miles. A good droving feat was performed by Stuart Field in 1906. With nine men he started with 10,900 sheep from Ann Downs, Q., on May 31, and delivered them, with only 400 short, at Wilmington, S.A., 1350 miles from the starting-point, on November 23. On the way a bridge had to be built over the Cooper, which was 140 yards across, with deep water and a strong current. It was made with tripods weighing up to three-quarters of a ton, then longitudinals topped with rushes and bushes, and over that hessian covered with earth. The bridge was completed in 14 days, at a cost of £43, and saved two months' delay.
Cattle are more restless on the road than sheep, and require more skill to manage. A good dog will do most of the work with sheep, and at night calico hurdles or a few fires will hold them. But there is more anxiety with sheep. On good roads old men on foot can do much of the work, but when water and feed are scarce sheep droving is a heart-breaking occupation. Almost any new chum can go with sheep, providing there are a couple of experts in the camp, and it is in this way that new hands gain their first experience in droving. But the first essential with cattle is good horsemanship. With quiet stock on inside routes champions are not necessary; for all that, the sheep man has much to learn when he begins with cattle. He generally gets his first rude shock at night, when the mob breaks camp, and he has to ride hard through thick and thin to stop them and bring them back single-handed. I have seen an old man with sheep who could only potter along at the tail with a walking-stick, getting £3 a week and his keep, because he had an intelligent little animal that was worth two men at the side. A dog is a disadvantage to a man who is looking for a job with cattle.
A Pleasant Life.
On the out-back routes a large number of men are constantly employed. The hours are long—from dawn till dark, with two or three hours on watch on the night camp—and all days are work days until the trip is ended. Through rain and shine, through cold and heat, through flood and drought, the drover pursues his way, and perhaps will sleep under no roof but his tent from year's beginning to year's end. Yet, on the whole, it is a pleasant life, a roving, open-air life that has a good deal of fascination about it.
The boss drover, spending many a convivial evening with squattage managers along the stock route, escapes the weariness of the road, and makes a pleasure trip of what is to others a continual round of hard work. Some, of them simply ride from squattage to squattage, or from squattage to town, leaving the stock to the care of the second-in-charge. Others never leave the mob, and take every possible care of individual beasts through day and night. These men have often more offers than they can undertake, though some of them keep two or three plants going, taking stock down on different route's, or from different runs on the same route. Sometimes the work is sublet, but mostly the extra mobs are placed in charge of weekly men who have gained a reputation for good droving on previous trips with the contractor; or, again, the drover may be one of a company, the members sharing all proceeds equally.
The most effective way to get rid of a pest is to turn it to commercial use. That is being done with the rabbit. It was done so well in Victoria that in 1903 the trade was worth half a million a year to that State, and 25,000 men were dependent on the industry. Exported carcases numbered 7,000,000, skins 12,000,000, and canned rabbit about 10,000,000. A little more than ten years later complaints were heard from the factories that they could not get enough rabbits to carry out their contracts to the British Admiralty. Truly a strange complaint in a rabbit-ridden country like Australia! But, then, we must take into account the enormous waste that is continually going on in this valuable food, and the limitations of the trapping areas, for commercial purposes, through want of transit facilities. The most thickly-infested regions are too far from the railways, and the pest is poisoned in millions, and trapped with wire netting and killed, without any use being made even of the skins and fur, for both of which there is a good demand.
In July, 1915, upwards of 45 tons of skins a week were sold in Sydney, prices at the end of the month being: Best bucks, 13½d to 14½d, exceptional lines 15d to 16½d, good medium 11d to 12½d, medium 8½d to 10½d, inferior 3d to 5½d; does, 4½d to 7d, smalls 4½d to 5½d. When as many as 3000 are caught in one night in a single wire-netted enclosure in the north-western districts there is good money in the skins alone. But in these interior places men work on wages, poisoning and trapping, at 30s to £2 a week and keep. Every run-holder is required by law to wage war against the pest, and so men are continuously employed in the destruction on all runs where trapping for market purposes is not carried on. Phosphorus baits, distributed about the warrens, is the common means employed, and it is a means that does more harm than good.
Trapping with Wire Netting.
Trapping with wire-netting for the purpose of keeping the pest within subjection is carried on only in the dry summer months, whereas winter is the principal time for those who trap for market. The netting is run around waterholes and excavated tanks, V-shaped indentations being made here and there, from each of which a netted tube is laid inwards. Rabbits enter by these tubes at night to reach the water, and are thus trapped in the enclosures, where they are killed with sticks in the morning. The operator has to camp near by to prevent sheep breaking down the fence during the night. The killing may occupy him a couple of hours, after which the netting is drawn aside, and he rests then till nearly sundown, when the fence is again placed in position. Providing that the watering-place isn't boggy (in which case he will have scores of sheep to pull out), his work is light; but poisoning with phosphorus is the worst billet a man can tackle in connection with rabbits.
Scalps and Skins.
While Victoria was developing her export trade, land-owners of the middle districts of New South Wales were still paying enormous sums for the destruction of rabbits. Payments for scalps was tried in many centres, and while it lasted scalpers made big cheques. The Corowa Pastures and Stock Protection Board, in 1902, paid for 116,950 scalps in four months at l½d each, equalling £730 18s 9d. About this time a strong demand for skins was setting in, and around Temora, Junee, and thereabouts men were easily making £5 and £6 a week with skins alone. The demand has steadily increased year by year, and will continue to increase, as every year sees a greater scarcity of furs in the world's markets. In 1913 the Commonwealth exported 86,998 cwt. of skins, and 9,336,290 pairs of frozen carcases. Concurrently the local trade in skins and carcases had grown to large dimensions, whilst prices to trappers had increased from 3¼d to 63d a pair for good sorts, and to 9d for prime in 1915. The retail price for dressed carcases in Sydney at the same time was 1/6 a pair—a price that might well make a visitor to this country gasp with astonishment.
Fees for Trapping Rights.
The men who trap for the market do good work, while they do no harm to other life. Occasionally a sheep gets caught in a trap, which is the reason that some squatters object to professional trappers working on their runs; but the careful trapper, operating on a small area at a time, can easily guard against that danger. Other land-owners consider themselves entitled to a royalty, and in a good many instances actually charge a fee for the right of trapping, despite the fact that they are being relieved of the obligation and expense of keeping the pest down. In places the trappers themselves are voluntary contributors to these conditions, individual parties paying up to £50 a year for the sole right of trapping in prolific areas.
A Big Industry.
The industry is worth over half a million per annum to New South Wales. It provides for thousands of families; at the end of 1911 there were 1500 members alone in the Rabbit Trappers' Union, then in its infancy. Between 50,000 and 60,000 pairs of rabbits are trapped in the State per day. Besides those trading in carcases there are hundreds of men who trap for skins only. About 20 miles is the farthest that carcases can be brought to a railway station. Beyond that radius the rabbits are generally more plentiful, and here the skin-trappers made their hauls. As it is not necessary to deliver the skins fresh, as is the case with carcases, these workers can go out to any distance that will pay to deliver by team. An experienced trapper calculates that with netting—run around the warrens or round waterholes where rabbits are thick—two men can obtain 2000 a night. An expert skins, bones, and paints 500 a day, having first to take his bones from the previous day's skins. At the average price for skins, this rate of working pays handsomely when the loads have to be transported by team from a hundred miles out from a railway station.
Buyers for skins and carcases are stationed at all rabbiting centres. A few trappers send their catches direct to Sydney, but the majority find it more satisfactory to deal with the local buyer. On the Blayney Harden line, at the time the local tinning factory was opened, there were five buyers, who each sent away about 50,000 pairs a mouth, for which over a thousand pounds was paid to trappers. Much of the catch was brought in from 20 miles out, one man delivering his daily lot with a five-horse team. At the Young chilling works 21 tons (31,000 carcases) were chilled and frozen per week. Special vehicles were driven out from these works to various parts of the districts to obtain the rabbits direct from trappers. There are factories in several country centres, which treat the rabbits caught in the localities. Agents' carts in places ply through the trapping areas, taking the catch from the trappers. The rabbit cart is a huge structure of frames, on which the carcases hang in rows, tier upon tier. The slaughtered animals must be taken early to the freezing works, canning factories, and to depots. At the latter places they are crated—about 17 pairs to a crate—for transit by rail. Special rabbit trains, from Southern and Western lines, run three days a week to Darling Harbour. Each truck holds 1300 pairs, and the freightage is about a penny a pair.
Along the Western and Northern lines three or four mates generally work together, one of them doing the cooking and camp work. Their plant consists of 50 or 60 steel traps each for three men, a couple of tents, blankets, a tomahawk and an axe, three setters (carpenters' adzes do for these), camp utensils, three horses, and a light two wheeled cart. The traps cost about 14s a dozen on the ground. Many trappers begin without the horses and vehicle. They have to hump the traps round themselves, and also hump three catches of rabbits to the camp daily, and that is all heavy work. A pack-horse does away with this drudgery. The other two horses are used in harness to deliver the goods at the depot, and for shifting camp. The camp is shifted pretty frequently, where water permits, for the trappers must keep near their work, and ordinary warrens, for the time being, are soon worked out. The trapper prefers, if he can, to spare the kittens; and as the grounds are seldom wholly worked out of adult animals, he can in a few months go over the same area again with profitable results. The rabbits, when ready for delivery, are strung in pairs on sticks, which are laid across the cart; in the specially-designed rabbit cart they are hung all round, above and under the driver. The sticks are a necessary part of the plant which the trapper has to cut at the beginning of his operations. When grass is scarce—which often happens where rabbits are plentiful—provision has to be made for the horses. Generally he allows that horse feed and cartage to the depot cost him a penny a pair.
How He Works.
The expert trapper is an artist at his work. Rabbits are suspicious of traps, and a trap covers only a few square inches of Bunny's vast domain. The novice who goes to work on his own hook, without studying methods, very often finds that Bunny knows as much about the game as he does. He puts in a prodigious amount of labour for small returns, and is apt to think that the big cheques he hears about others making are fairy tales. There are men who succeed straight away; there are others who never make a success of it. The professional is a keen observer, and he uses his head as much as he uses his hands. His traps are set in fresh ground, in cunningly-devised false burrows, the greatest care being exercised to allay suspicion. Three or four hours are occupied in setting his complement of traps. The first catch occurs about sundown. Going the round of the traps with a bag, he kills, bleeds, and paunches the victims, and re-sets the traps that have been sprung. The next round is about 9 o'clock at night, and the third at 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning, according to the distance he has to cart them to the depot. When three men are working together they can take turns in delivering the night's catch. Other animals besides rabbits get caught in the traps. Sometimes a fox or a dingo carries a trap away; but the greatest nuisance of all is the cat, which, attacks the trapped rabbit, and noses around and springs the trap.
In a prolific district two cratesful, or 34 pairs, is considered a fair nightly average for a trapper. In a poor district, however, he is lucky if he bags half that number. The 34 pairs may be graded as 10 prime large (2½lb and over), at 9d a pair; 12 prime young (2lb and over), at 7d; and 12 small, at 3d. That makes 17/6 for the night's catch, or £5 5s a week. Some men make considerably more; the majority make a good deal less. There are all sorts and conditions of people engaged in the industry, of all ages, from boys of school age to old men. The size of the bag is chiefly determined by the density of the rabbit population, the location and manner of setting the traps, the choice of ground, and the skill of the trappers. Whilst some men acquire the knack quickly enough, others seem incapable of ever becoming adepts, and make about £2 10s a week in localities, where the expert makes £5 with less trouble. Smart boys, and occasionally girls, have built up good banking accounts for themselves, while yet going to school, by trapping in the evenings and early mornings, but it is a practice that interferes with their schooling.
Some Good Bags.
A trapper may make a big haul on one night, or for several consecutive nights; then may follow some nights of poor to moderate bags, until he strikes another rich patch. On Tabletop Run, N.S.W., two men set 130 traps on 300 acres of ground. On the first round, at sundown, they got 58 pairs, on the lantern round 46½ pairs, and on the morning round 53 pairs—a total of 157½ pairs for the night's work. Of these 127 pairs were classed as firsts. The condition of the rabbit is another thing which the trapper has to consider when looking for trapping grounds. In favoured situations, where feed is plentiful, his bag will contain a large percentage of prime sorts, whilst in barren country the bulk of his catch will be of inferior quality. Five men, working at Pamamaroo Lake, 10 miles from Menindie, on the Darling River, caught 70,000 rabbits in wire yards in five months. The yards were shifted every second day. The rabbits were sent alive to Menindie boiling down and meat preserving works. Larger hauls are made, and with comparatively little labour, with wire-netting yards than with steel traps, but they are only used effectively where the rabbits are thick, as in the Darling River districts and farther west.
Fruit picking is a seasonable occupation which requires quickness and carefulness. In the picking, grading and packing, many thousands of hands are employed. In the small orchards the orchardist and his family do their own harvesting; in the large orchards, where tons of fruit are ripening at once, and must be got speedily to market, much outside labour is needed. Children are largely employed; they are nimble, sharp-eyed, and of light-weight where climbing is needed. Generally ladders and sticks—with a cutter and a small pocket on the end of them—are used for gathering the crops from the trees. Girls are employed at wrapping the best fruits in tissue paper before packing in cases. Many of the orchardists sell their fruit as it hangs on the trees. The buyer, or his agent, then arranges for the picking and packing. Sometimes this work is let at a fixed price for the whole crop; occasionally, the orchardist himself takes the contract. The pickers, when not on piece work, are paid 1s 1½d an hour. Where youngsters are employed, they are generally paid according to quantity. It is an occupation they particularly revel in. It is tiresome, and there is a lot of heavy carrying; but it is healthy work, and very satisfying to a sturdy boy with a fruit craving appetite.
Centres of Production.
The value of the fruit crop (exclusive of grapes) in the Commonwealth for the season 1913-1914 was £3,427,077. Vineyards for the same season covered 61,197 acres, of which 26,208 acres were in South Australia, and 22,435 acres in Victoria. These two States offer the most work for casual harvest hands. They are the largest producers of wine and dried fruits. Each State specialises more or less in particular crops. Tasmania produces the largest total of apples, Queensland of bananas and pine apples, New South Wales of citrus fruits and pears, Victoria of stone fruits, and South Australia of grapes. From the two latter States also come the bulk of dried fruits, the preparation of which absorbs a considerable amount of labour every year. In 1913-1914 Victoria produced 13,473,936 lbs. of raisins and 6,954,976 lbs. of currants; South Australia, 3,981,376 lbs. of raisins and 5,507,040 lbs. of currants. Men who follow the fruit harvests keep these things in mind, and converge on the various centres about the time that the different fruits are ripening. From the north and north-western shearing sheds, when the wool season is over, they move down to the big centres on the Murray River, as Mildura and Renmark, for the fruit picking and curing.
Harvesting Various Fruits.
More care is needed in the harvesting of table and preserving fruits than of those intended for jam factories, and men of experience are preferred for picking. Of course, all sorts may come from the one tree, being graded subsequently by the grower or expert assistants; but many trees of stone fruits contain only jam sorts, and some other fruits, as blackberries, go wholly to factories. The quickest way is resorted to in gathering these. Trees and branches are shaken, and if quantities of green fruit are broken off, or if the over-ripe are bruised and squashed, it doesn't matter; they are all good enough for jam. This industry is yet in its infancy, the Commonwealth exports of jams and jellies in 1913 being l,858,231lbs. valued at £29,402—less than a twelfth of the value of exported fresh fruits. The most tedious fruits to pick are mulberries, cherries and cape gooseberries. The latter are sold to shops in the husk; for the factories they are husked, either by the buyer or the groover, a process which is as irksome as husking corn. This fruit is not cultivated very extensively, but along creeks and rivers it grows luxuriantly in a wild state. Where scrub has been felled and burnt off, the plants spring up in thousands from seeds, carried by birds, that had lain dormant in the rich mould. Here farmers and others gather bags of the fruit, which with ordinary care, carry a long distance in the husk. The most objectionable fruits to harvest are the blackberry and the pineapple—the latter particularly when the stiff, spike-edged plants are close together. The easiest and freest are bananas and grapes. Bananas, which are worth about £130,000 a year to Queensland, are principally in the hands of Chinese. In New South Wales, which produces a quarter of the amount of the Northern State, the industry is developing with white labour, and it is a profitable one, requiring comparatively little attention after planting.
New South Wales, which is a very long way behind Victoria and South Australia in vine-acreage and vintage, produces about 4000 tons of table grapes a year, besides considerably over half a million gallons of wine. Two important wine-grape centres are the Hunter River, particularly along the slopes of Ben Ean, and at New Italy, on the Richmond, where a colony of Italians were settled in 1882, and have since given special attention to viticulture and silk culture. A considerable area here is under mulberry trees, grown not so much for the fruit as for the leaves on which the silk worms are fed.
Along the slopes of Ben Ean, and in the fertile valleys below, about Pokolbin and other places on the Hunter River, the broad fields of trellised vines are the rendezvous of hundreds of all ages at vintage time. Old men and young men mingle with women and girls and children of school age in harvesting the luscious crops. The youngsters are paid ½d a bucket for picking, and they pick over a hundred buckets a day. Under the 'Rural Workers' Award (which was to have come into force on October 1, 1914, but was suspended on account of the war), the rates of pay for fruit picking, packing, or forwarding operations, are £2 14s a week, without keep; employees under 18 years of age, £2 2s a week; dippermen, barrowmen, carriers-out, gangers and lumpers, £3 a week; pruners, 9s 6d a day, or £2 16s a week; horse drivers, £2 15s and find themselves; or £2 and found; all other adult, employees, male and female, £2 14s a week. Forty eight hours constitute a week's work; any time in excess of that is payable at 2s an hour.
A Busy Scene.
The pickers empty their buckets of grapes into barrels, which are carted away to the wine cellars by horse and bullock teams. All day long the buckets are coming and going, with an hour's break for dinner, and a few minutes' interval in the forenoon and afternoon; all day the teams are passing to and fro along the road, bearing away casks brimming with grapes, and bringing back empties to be filled again, some with white grapes and some with red. At the cellars the fruit is weighed before being tilted into machines, which clean it of stalks, and then it is passed into large cement vats to ferment. The scene from vineyard to cellar is a busy one, the work on the vineclad hills and valleys pleasant and healthy, and there is many a splash of colour that gives the picture a charm of its own.
Very different is the harvesting of the blackberry, which grows wild in immense patches over the rugged country all along the Illawarra Range. About Bulli and Clifton hundreds of tons of the berries are gathered for the jam factories every year. The pickers receive 1d per lb., and earn up to 15s a day. The principal picker's are boys and girls, and men who are temporarily out of work; though many of the miners leave their ordinary occupation to go picking. A number of the floating population also drift Bulliwards for the blackberry season, which lasts about six weeks.
Between Otford and Bulli.
From 500 to 1000 pickers, including families living in tents in the neighbourhood of their operations, engage in the harvest between Otford and Bulli. The more industrious are out with the first streak of daylight, swarming over the vast prickly entanglement. It is no sinecure of a job, requiring experience and some amount of skill, imposing much arduous climbing, and inflicting numerous painful wounds. There are big areas so fortified with a luxuriant network of bramble and thorn that they are never penetrated even by the boldest and most eager when blackberries are scarce and dear. Some are provided with leather gloves and leggings, as in raspberry picking; with orchard appliances for gathering bunches that are growing beyond arm reach; with planks, which are thrown across the dense growth to walk on, and moved farther and farther out as the pickers advance; with long, light ladders, and other safeguards and helps. Yet there are boys, barefooted and barehanded, as far in from the edge as any of the protected brigade, and, perhaps, getting more fruit.
The Boys of Illawarra.
The local boys are quick and sharp, and they are hardy. They know just where to go for the best bunches, the luckiest spots for quantity. These are usually the most inaccessible places, for the good ground is naturally searched over and over again. Cuteness is frequently rewarded with a good cluster that has been overlooked many times, and it is received with an exclamation of joy, particularly if it is near the end of the season. The juvenile worries little then about his bleeding hands, the long, red scratches on his arms, and the prickles in his feet.
Before the wild gardens became well known, there were some who looked upon certain portions as their special preserves, and resented any encroachment by others. Their only claim was that of being first on the field. To a certain extent the claim was recognised, and, naturally, others took up similar selections, the boys of Illawarra being much to the fore in the partitioning of the blackberry patch. The result was many squabbles and fights, the boy with the best punch trespassing in the end with impunity. That all passed. At the beginning of the 1909 season some of the landowners for the first time invited tenders for the right to pick on their respective properties.
Many whole families bear down on these fields of fruit, carrying buckets, cans, and baskets. They are dressed in any old things, for contact with the tenacious vines soon makes ruin of the best clothes. They form a depot near their picking ground, which is generally in charge of the mother, whose skirts do not enable her to penetrate into the clinging wilderness, and who has to prepare lunch and afternoon tea. The boys and girls, with 'father' superintending operations, spread out for the harvest, and as each can or basket is filled it is brought to the depot, and emptied, the picker returning whence he came to fill it again. All day they pick, they and hundreds more, wandering over rugged and tangled acres, encountering a snake here and there, and often tumbling with painful results into the matted growth; and towards evening the weary host, with purple-stained hands and faces, file homeward, some driving, but the majority walking, all bearing their loads of fruit.
Wool is the chief contributing factor to the great pastoral wealth of Australia, and furnishes about 40 per cent, of the country's exports, valued at nearly £29,000,000 per annum (1913-14 season), to which must be added between eleven and twelve million pounds' weight of wool used locally. High-water mark was reached in 1890, when there were nearly 98,000,000 sheep in the Commonwealth. Droughty conditions in the following season reduced the total by over 25,000,000. A gradual recovery was made till, in 1913, the number stood at about 85,000,000, which was far greater than the flocks of any other country in the world; and at the end of 1914 it had jumped to 106,000,000. The organised shearers and rouseabouts, who get their living mainly in the harvesting of the golden fleece, muster about 50,000 men. That, of course, does not represent the actual number dependent on the industry even on the pastoral runs. New South Wales is the principal producing State, with Queensland second, and Victoria third. Shearers, however, do not confine their operations to any one State. They are probably the most-travelled of all Australian workers. Some of them shear in Victoria, go through a run of sheds in New South Wales or South Australia, and on to Queensland; others shear in New Zealand, then cross to the mainland. The majority traverse the two chief States. West Australian sheds, which are of slightly less importance than those of the mid State, are the exclusive preserves of the western men.
A Skilled Worker.
The shearer is a skilled worker. Pastoralists in 1911 endeavoured to have him rated as unskilled, to bring him under the award of the 48s a week men, but their arguments failed to convince Mr. Justice Higgins, the President of the Arbitration Court, who held that a shearer is not like a pick-and-shovel man, dealing with inert matter, but holds a frightened animal which struggles against the robbery of its wool; a slight error in the movements of the hands may mean the cutting of the sheep, or may involve a severe wound on the shearer himself; he must have certain special muscles in good training, and the operation requires close attention, and involves considerable strain. The work looks easy enough when being done by an expert, but it is not every man who can become a shearer. Some, no matter how persistently they practise, never acquire the knack of shearing with the blades. The machine is easier and quicker, but that, too, requires skill, and there is a knack also in handling and holding the sheep, which lightens and accelerates the work of shearing it. The average Australian shearer has no equal anywhere; in pace, methods, and workmanship he is far superior to the men of the Argentine, the next important wool growing country to Australia, and to the Americans, who have been adopting Australian methods and installing the Australian machines. Still, the untutored need not be scared. It is in the interests of growers to keep up the supply of labour, and so learners are encouraged in most big sheds throughout the States. In some sheds a stand or two is set apart for beginners, but generally the shearer starts as a rouseabout—which is the subject of another article.
Shearing stands are mainly secured by post, sometimes months before the shed starts, though many shearers go from shed to shed on the chance of an engagement. It often happens that some of those who had been alloted stands do not turn up, and the casual hands step into the breach. Usually the employer likes to have his list full before the date fixed for starting. When several neighbouring sheds follow in close order, a good team not infrequently goes from one to another, perhaps with slight changes in the personnel as odd members are deflected here and there. The contractor invariably has a first-class team, for the fact that he can offer a run of sheds, which saves the shearer time and trouble in running about, attracts plenty of the best men to his service. Workers generally are against him, for he employs as few shed hands as possible, and men of average ability, shearing 80 or 90 sheep a day, have no chance of securing a pen from him while "big guns" are available. But a large proportion of the sheep of the Commonwealth are shorn under the contract system. It relieves the owner of most of the worries attendant upon shearing. It is favoured by many of those who have paid heavily in rouseabouts' wages through wet weather, and who have had bitter experiences of strikes; but others consider the work under the old system more satisfactory.
The Roll Call.
When the squatter conducts his own shearing, the roll is called at the hut the day before the shed starts. Men have been coming from various ways for two or three days before this, some on foot, some on bicycles, some on horseback, and some in vehicles. The first-comers take the first pick of the rooms and bunks, and until formally engaged all are cooks, individually batching for themselves, here are among them a couple or more professional cooks, who, in this interval, if strangers to the majority, avail themselves of opportunities of winning popular favour.
The roll is called perferably on a Thursday, which allows the men a day and a half at the week-end to get their hands in. The boss goes to the hut in the afternoon, accompanied by the bookkeeper, laden with books and papers, and the names of the shearers are called, and musterers and shed hands engaged. Then the agreement is read, pertaining to rates, working conditions, number of sheep, stores, utensils, cooking, accommodation, &c. This completed to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, the shearers elect a representative, who at once goes to the store for supplies. The cook is also chosen; if there is more than one candidate he is elected by secret ballot.
The shearer's working time is about 8 hours 40 minutes a day, excepting Saturday, or about 48 hours a week. The rates are 24s per hundred for flock sheep (1911 Award), when rations are not found; double rates for rams and ram stags; 30s per hundred for stud ewes and their lambs: and 13s 6d per day for special studs, and found in everything. When rations are found for ordinary shearing, the employer deducts from each man's pay: In Queensland, 17s 6d per week; in New South Wales, 15s; in South Australia, 13s 6d; and in Victoria, 12s 6d. When shearing is stopped through breakage of machinery, he is paid 8s a day, or part of a day, if found; and 10s a day if not found. The shearer finds his own shears and oil in a hand shed, and pays for combs and cutters in a machine shed. The cook is paid at the rate of 4s to 6s per man per week, or a minimum of £2 10s per week, with keep. The chief qualifications required of the cook are competence, cleanness, and economy. He is judged by the voters who have not had personal experience of him by his mess account at previous sheds more than by the references he presents. The amounts stated above are fair averages of the mess in the States in ordinary times, but in the 1915 season there was a considerable rise. At North Yanco, where the price of mutton was 8d a lb., the tucker bill was 33s a week; and at Gunning bar, where about 20,000 sheep were put through in three weeks by 16 machine shearers, the mess account was 24s 10d a week. The cook at this shed was paid 6s a man, and ration sheep were 12s 6d, with 6d a head for killing.
On the Board.
Before work begins the shearers draw lots for the pens. Each man is provided with a minimum space of five feet on the board. A gate opens off this stand into a long narrow pen, into which his sheep are passed as they are shorn; and on the opposite side of the board there is a catch-pen—from which the woollies are drawn—to every two men. Work begins early, with a short run before breakfast—though in some sheds the men have breakfast about 7, and begin work at 8, which does away with the tea and brownie generally served first thing in the morning, and makes two runs of the day's work, each broken by a 15-minutes' smoke-o. Tea and buns are served on the board in the afternoon interval. The men work at high pressure all through, the big tally men cutting for the lead, and other sections watching each other. The general activity and bustle about the board is suggestive of a keenly-contested competition—and as a matter of fact there is invariably a race between several of the operators in almost every big shed. Among shearers it is an honour to ring the board—that is, to shear the highest tally for the shed; whereas the drummer, who figures at the bottom of the tally list, is the object of much good-natured chaff. The important inducement to speed, of course, is the cheque. Every man is working for himself, and the harder he works the more money he earns. There is also loss of time in travelling and waiting to be made up, and when he is not going straight away into another shed, he wants to get all he can out of the one he is shearing in.
The sheep are counted out by the shed overseer after each run, and the tallies are posted up on the board every morning. Shearing tallies are the subject of much discussion in every shed—and outside the sheds, too. Big tallies were more common in the seasons before 1900, for the sheep were then not so heavily woolled. The average weight of wool cut per head of sheep and lambs in the Commonwealth is about 7½lbs., whereas in the earlier days of our merino flocks the weight was not much more than half that. At Barenya (Q.), on September 19, 1895, eight men averaged 236 each; on the 20th, 26 men averaged 175 each; and next day Jim Power, the champion machine shearer of his day, made his record of 315 mixed sheep in less than eight hours. The previous best tally was Jack Howe's 321 in 8 hours 40 minutes, made with hand shears. He afterwards surpassed this at Alice Downs, on the Barcoo, in 1892, shearing 327 full-fleeced sheep in 7 hours 20 minutes. This record will probably never be beaten, for not only is the average fleece increasing in density and weight, but hand shearing is being superseded by machines in all the important centres of the industry.
Harry Livingstone, the recognised Queensland champion of to-day, shore in successive days 233, 225, 237, 237, and 221—a very profitable five days at 24s per 100. At Cambridge Downs in 1910, 117,000 sheep were put through in four weeks and two days by a board of 38 shearers. In one day, working on ewes and lambs, the whole team cut an average of 198½ sheep per man. The top scorer was Harrison, with 265; then came W. Garvey, with 259; S. Hookway, 250; J. Boyland, 246; Jack Seary, 244; and many others over the 200 mark. At Wantalaynia, near Winton (1915 season) five shearers in one day averaged 269 sheep per man.
Occasionally a contest takes places for a wager between two fast shearers. In 1911 a purse of £500 was offered at Toowoomba (Q.), with a £100 side wager, to settle the question of the Australian shearing championship. But none of the noted shed champions, as Livingstone and Cooper, took part in it. The contest was between Fred Zimmerle, a Toowoomba native, and Charlie Maurer, of Glen Innes, both of whom had high local reputations, but did not show many claims for championship honours. Points were awarded for quality and for style, and the men consequently paid more attention to quality and style than they would have done in an ordinary shed. The conditions called for only 2½ hours' shearing, in which time Zimmerle "pinked" 32 sheep and Maurer 28. Against this, Cooper's time in a shed, shearing all day, is under two minutes for a sheep; his record for a single sheep is 1 minute 38½ seconds.
The average tally of a good shearer is from 90 to 100 a day, and his average earnings, clear of all expenses, from the time he leaves home until he returns home, is about £3 a week. A good many make three times that much in a shed; Jimmy Power shore 40,000 in one season in Queensland, which, at an average of 25s a hundred, gives £500 as his gross earnings; but these, are exceptions, and the "big guns," being known everywhere, get a better run of sheds than the ordinary lot. The latter have to reckon on much lost time in travelling from shed to shed, in waiting for sheds to start, and there is very frequently time lost at the shed through wet weather. They take good cheques out of the sheds they shear in, but reckoned on time spent from home to home, the ordinary shearer does well to average £3 a week clear. He certainly enjoys much leisure for his money, but that is a reason why he maintains a high speed when at work; he lives well, and he sees a lot of country, travelling, as he does, from district to district, from State to State. His work is hard, but he gets a lot of enjoyment out of life, and when the shearing season is over he can turn his hand to something else to fill in time. There are hundreds who do nothing else but follow the sheds, for they make enough in a long season to keep them the rest of the year, and leave a good sum over.
The potsticker is a worker whose harvest comes at the close of shearing. At the bush scours, he washes the clip simply by means of a rough crate and a stick. The suggestion of the potstick; which women use when boiling clothes, no doubt accounts for the name. Primitive though the process is, it nevertheless requires skilled hands. It has its regular followers like other trades and callings. Woolclassers, when they have not a succession of sheds following closely one after another, put in their spare time at this work. In other cases, too, they not infrequently secure the contract, and have the scour going at the same time as the shearing, thus getting two handsome "cuts" out of the clip at once. The contract price for washing is generally about 1¼d per lb. on scoured weights.
In Dry Parts.
Most large squattages that wash their own wool are equipped with proper scouring plants. These are situated where there is an abundance of permanent water. On the dry plains of the interior the conditions are very different. Much of the wool is sent away in the grease through want of water, only the worst of the clip on such places being treated locally. Scouring time and the extent of operations depend on the rains, just as the scene depends largely on the temporary location of the best waterhole. One year it will be in a certain neighbourhood, and next year several miles away. A permanent plant could not under the circumstances be erected; so a primitive make shift scour has to be rigged up afresh every season. The quantity of rain, too, has as much bearing on the prosperity of the potsticker as it has on that of the wheat grower. In a wet season he may operate on the whole clip of a shed, while in a dry season the bulk of it will be sent away in the grease. It is estimated that the quantity of Australian wool scoured and washed before export amounts to only about 20 per cent. of the total clip, which means a considerable annual waste in carriage and freight, besides the loss of much work to local scourers.
A Foul Thing.
Here and there bore water is utilised. At such places the plants may be good and permanent, and they may be temporary affairs carted there with the wool from distant sheds. As a rule, the water available is limited and stagnant; sometimes the washing is done at a dam or an excavated tank. At the start the water is clean; but every day it becomes thicker, blacker, and easier to find in the dark. The most desirable place to the potsticker is a big hole in a running creek. There may be one such quite handy, but he dare not use it if there are people below him dwelling by the creek and depending on it for water. The nearest house may be 20 miles away, but such a foul thing is a scour that he would not be long at work before he was waited upon by an angry deputation. When there are no small settlements along the banks, neighbouring squatters often object to the pollution of the water which their stock have to drink.
From Shed to Scour.
The permanent scour again is often far away from the shed. In other cases the shed, when built contiguous to the woolwash, is far away from the homestead. Naryilco shed, at The Corners (N.S.W., S.A., and Q.), is nine miles from the homestead. Connulpie Downs shed, on the north-west border of New South Wales, is about the same distance, and another mile, on account of a low flat, separates shed and scour. The temporary scour is rarely close to the scene of shearing operations. When it is only three or four miles away, the wool is carried to it loosely in carts; but when longer distances have to be covered the wool is roughly pressed into bales and conveyed to the wash by teams. At small sheds this delays the potstickers, as they have to wait until pressing is completed at the shed. The press is then taken to pieces, carted down to the scour, and re-erected there for dumping the washed wool. Under these circumstances potsticking rarely gets into swing before the latter end of shearing.
One scour, which may be taken as typical of the rougher sort in the backblocks, was situated on the bank of a natural reservoir in Whittabranah Creek. A rough platform was swung on thin poles over the water to carry the crates; three parts of the deck was under water. Most of the men worked barefooted, whilst those who wore boots were waterlogged all day. A hot-water tank stood on the bank, whence the wool, after soaking, was sent clown a chute to the stage, and thrown thence into the crates by the potstickers. The orthodox crate is about 5ft. long, 2ft. wide, and 2ft. deep, and is made with perforated, flat iron nailed on to a light pine frame. Made on the place, they cost about 15s each. They are swung between the ends of saplings projecting over the stage, and tied with wire. They have to be lifted out occassionally when they get clogged up, and a heavy, back-breaking lift it is, as the wool jammed in the perforations prevents the free egress of water. The cost of the whole plant, including stage, wire netting for draining and canvas binns, was about £10; sheets for the green represented another ten pounds. It is customary for the squattage to find the necessary material, and the contractor fixes it up.
A Deceptive Billet.
Potsticking looks easy, and so simple. You just work the wool to and fro in the crate with a long stick for a few minutes, then lift it out, also with the stick, and dump it on a hand barrow. Your mate helps you carry the latter up the bank to the drainers—wire-netting stretched across poles or logs on the edge of the "green." When you have been at it an hour you begin to think that pick and shovel work is a sinecure in comparison. I don't think any job deceives a newchum more than potsticking. He goes at it so bravely, so confidently, and with self-congratulations for having dropped into such a rosy collar. By-and-bye he begins to puff and sweat, and look round with a worried expression; a little later he begins to wonder why potstickers are so plentiful at the price. Yet I have seen little weeds of men work at it day after day for months with apparent ease; men who loved it, and would leave any other work for it. Use is everything, and, as the men say, "there is a knack in it."
Wages and Earnings.
The minimum rates fixed by the award are 38s per week with keep for adults; 30s a week for boys between 18 and 21; and 25s a week for boys under 18. Without keep the minimum pay for ordinary labourers is 48s per week of 48 hours; for overtime, 1s 6d an hour for the first two hours, and 2s an hour thereafter. At the Whittabranah scour five potstickers averaged about four bales of washed wool a day. Reckoning 2¾ cwt or 32s to the bale to the contractor, his daily earnings would be £6 8s. Out of this he had to pay, besides the potstickers, one man at the soak, two men on the green, and a cook; also for pressing and branding His net earnings would thus be about 30s a day. The pressing was done in the evening by two of the potstickers after they had finished their day's work at the crates. The award rates for this work are, by hand, 6¾d per cwt., or 1s 5¼d per bale; and, if dumped, 9d per cwt., or 1s 11d per bale; by power, 1½d per cwt., or 11¼d per bale; and if dumped, 6d per cwt., or 1s 6d per bale. A bale is treated as dumped when pressed down to 18 cubic feet, or to 3ft. 3in. in height. For weighing and branding an additional 2d per bale is allowed. When paid by time the presser receives £2 10s a week and keep.
The squatter is required to provide "good and sufficient hut accommodation, cooking utensils, table utensils, clothes-washing utensils, wood, water, and sanitary conveniences . . . also a suitable room for the housing of saddles, harness, and cycles." He has further to allow free run for horses, and must have them brought to the shed, or supply a suitable horse for the purpose, when the work is completed, or when the employee is discharged. At the scour I have referred to some of the men were camped in tents; others in the open, finding dry lodgings on damp nights in the hessian bins erected for the protection of the dried wool. They had their meals under a bough shed, the table being a sheet of flat iron tacked on to a frame of bush timber, and the seats rough saplings supported by forked uprights. The chef operated in the open air. In that part of the country the only shelter really needed during the greater part of the year is the shade of a tree. But for the mosquitoes the nights would be very pleasant. The tender-skins who could not sleep in a ring of smoke staked a square of mosquito netting over their naps, and crawled under that. In the daytime the flies were a pest, and a man had either to smear his face with olive oil, wear a veil, or string corks round his hat.
On the Green.
The work on the green is light. The green is a level piece of ground about an acre in extent, enclosed with a brush or a cane-grass wall. Sometimes the wall is simply a semi-circle of bushes roughly heaped up to break the wind. As the bushes wither, they increase the work of the men on the green, for strong gusts of wind scatter leaves and twigs over the wool, and these have to be picked out. The old break is generally burnt off each year, and a new one built. The cane-grass wall is neat and lasting. The green is first enclosed with a wire fence; then the cane-grass, which is cut on a swampy plain, is closely threaded between the wires, somewhat in the manner that a roof is thatched.
It is always called the green, though there is seldom any green about it. The ground is covered with square sheets, over which the washed wool is thinly spread to dry. Each man works so many sheets, going over them constantly, picking the wool up in his hands, and shaking it out. In the north western part of the State dust storms interfere with the process of drying during the summer months. On the approach of one of those storms there is a rush to roll up the sheets of wool and stack them in the shed. When the storm has passed, unless it is late in the day, they are carried back and re-spread. The sheets are rolled also at sundown, and put out again in the morning.
The tobacco grower, if free from the evil influences of combines and monopolists, stands on a good wicket. Few crops offer better prospects than tobacco, though more labour is required in the raising and curing of the leaf than is demanded by most other crops. It is also a product that can't be got rid of as soon as it is harvested, but has to be kept a considerable time curing in sheds after it is cut. Our farmers are used to crops that bring them substantial cheques immediately they are taken from the fields. This, and the hard-dying prejudice against the local product, have made Australians chary of embarking in this industry. They would seem to have had more faith in it in 1888-9, when the area under crop amounted to 6641 acres, of which two-thirds were in New South Wales, than in 1913, nearly a quarter of a century later, when the whole area under crop in the Commonwealth was only 3007 acres. Of this, 1992 acres were in New South Wales, 284 in Victoria, and 731 in Queensland—principally in the Texas district. This decline was mainly due to the importing class, and their created prejudice against the local article. We have seen the same baneful influence at work in other industries—some of which the enterprising valiantly attempted to set on foot many years before they actually got going on a sound commercial basis; and it is no exaggeration to say that the greatest enemies to Australian progress and prosperity are the importing people whose interests are chiefly confined to importations.
A Steady Improvement.
Since about 1908, however, there has been a steady improvement. Australians were then beginning to awake to the true merits of their own things, and the spirit of patriotism and faith in our own grew and spread until it was generally realised that the Australian article, in whatever department of commerce, was equal and often superior to the imported. Our tobaccos, among other things, were proved in open competition to be quite as good as the best from other parts of the world. Our black tobaccos especially could challenge competition anywhere. In the light sorts we had still something to learn, and particularly in the production of cigar leaf. This is the top rung of the tobacco grower's trade, and we can't expect to jump to the top rung all at once. Suffice it to begin with that we are unsurpassed in dark sorts. Climate and soil enter largely into the determination of qualities and shades of tobacco. Australian climates range from the snow cold to the sub-tropical, and her soils are even more varied. Experts have proved that the best tobaccos can be grown in a great many districts from Victoria to Queensland. Some success has also been attained in the Northern Territory, and in West Australia it is a paying proposition. But it is an industry that requires a good deal of study, and so much care is needed in growing and curing, that our people are only very slowly taking to it. What it means to the country may be gauged from the fact that the amount of Australian leaf used in local factories in 1913 was 1,310,000 lbs., against 10,368,000 lbs of imported leaf. Imports of manufactured tobacco for the same year were 1,902,435 lbs.; cigars, 433,279 lbs., and cigarettes 167,026 lbs. Our own manufactures look well against these figures, but, as seen above, the great bulk of the leaf was imported. The quantity produced in the 36 factories of the Commonwealth was 9,956,045 lbs. of tobacco, 405,901 lbs. of cigars, and 2,767,550 lbs. of cigarettes.
Tobacco manufacture was one of the first industries to be established in Australia. There were eleven factories in New South Wales in 1861. Yet in leaf-growing we had progressed very little half a century later. Besides the reasons already given for this tardy development, there was something owing to the Chinaman, who had almost obtained a monopoly in leaf-growing, just as he had in market gardening. The Chinaman takes to the latter as readily as a duck takes to water, and in the cultivation of tobacco, there is much that is suggestive of a cabbage field. Australians, on the other hand, have not been keen on vegetable growing on a large scale, and they showed the same disinclination to take up tobacco.
I visited some of the plantations at Texas, on the Severn River, in 1894. Only one factory was then operating there, that of Greenup Brothers, which stood on a hill overlooking a big lagoon, a couple of miles outside the town. Some years later, the firm of W. D. and H. O. Wills established works in the same locality. On the way to Texas I travelled the last couple of days with one of the planters. He had two Chinamen with him, whom he had brought from Brisbane to grow the leaf for him. They were not cheap, for they were engaged for a long term at a pound a week and keep. That was good pay then, for there had been a considerable drop in wages for all kinds of bush work, caused by the banks closing for "reconstruction." They were regarded as experts, and looked upon as indispensable. Many large farms thereabouts had for years been devoted entirely to the leaf, which was manufactured into a first class black twist in the local factory. In the cultivation and drying of the leaf Chinese were, almost wholly employed, under the erroneous impression that they were more skilled in that work than the whites. With more experience the planters discovered that the product of white labour was of much better quality, and consequently commanded a higher price. The Chinamen were therefore replaced with whites on many of the old fields, while new plantations were started where "no Chinaman need apply."
The Planters' "Plug."
In the Texas tobacco area two things at once impress the visitor. One is the large number of girls employed in the factory (mostly at leaf-stripping, which is piece work) and the number of women and children who take part in hanging up and turning the bunches of leaves to dry; the other is the sort of "weed" that is smoked by the growers and by many of the other local residents. When the traveller asks for a pipeful, he is handed a lump of raw leaf, dried and tightly twisted. The "plug," before it is cut, looks like a piece of rope, and is about a foot long. It is a mild, unsatisfying smoke to the stranger, the very opposite in strength to the manufactured article—the strong, black "Texas twist." This tobacco is very much favoured in the Queensland bush—a good augury for the future, when the industry is properly developed.
On the Plantation.
After the ground has been properly worked, which is necessary for all crops, the grower's work in the field is light, though tedious. A lot of it is done by women, boys, and girls, who also help in the drying and curing sheds. First the seed is sown in specially-prepared beds—in early spring—somewhat in the same manner as cabbage seed. The seed costs 5s an ounce, and one ounce is sufficient to plant 10 acres. The young plants are transplanted when the leaves are two or three inches long, which is about six or eight weeks from the time of sowing. It is here where a heavy call is made on the grower's time and patience. The white planter, used to quick methods of agriculture with plough and drill, finds it very irksome for the first year or two, whereas it is peculiarly suited to the Chinaman. To have a uniform field he has to employ assistance, unless he has youngters able to give a hand. The plantation absorbs a good deal of labour in this way. Afterwards, for a couple of months at least, he can easily attend to it himself. Once well established, the broad leaves soon spread, and there is no further bother with weeds.
Topping and Cutting.
The growing season lasts only four or five months. The flower bud appears in ten weeks, and this has to be pinched off. Plant by plant, row by row, the whole field has to be gone over, excepting only such plants as are wanted for seed. Suckers grow out at the intersection of the leaves after topping, and these, too, have to be broken off, which is done before they are three inches long. Though it is very simple and easy work, these two operations keep the planter busy. The crop is ready for harvesting about eight weeks after topping. Cutting is also simple, but has to be done with care. Grasping the top of the plant with one hand, the cutter splits the stalk right down to within a few inches of the ground with a knife, without severing any of the leaves. It is then laid on the ground, butt end to this sun, and when it has wilted sufficiently to be handled without breaking the leaves it is carted to the shed. The new hand soon acquires dexterity in cutting. What is particularly needed of him is carefulness in all his dealings with the Lady Nicotine. Most other crops will stand rough treatment; in some instances one may walk rough-shod or drive over the harvest without damaging it. But not so with tobacco; it is a delicate plant that must go to the factory unbroken, with a good colour, texture, and aroma. The treatment in the field is an important factor; the plant has to wilt to a certain degree—which takes longer on a cloudy day, and on a very hot day there is a danger of scorching, which spoils or ruins it. Thus speed and some expertness is needed in harvesting. This applies to light tobaccos; heavy varieties are scaffolded for a few days in the field.
In the Shed.
The shed is a long, lofty building. The Chinamen at Texas used rough sheds, mostly open at the sides; and the drying was mainly left to the weather. On some white plantations the leaves are air-cured; on others the flue process of drying and curing is used. The leaves are hung on sticks about four feet long, which are placed in long rows eight or ten inches apart, and tier above tier, the lowest about nine feet, above ground. Charcoal fires are then made underneath, or the heat is supplied by flues to a properly regulated temperature. The following instructional table shows the time and procedure in the shed:—
(1) The yellowing process requires, at 90deg. F., from 24 to 30 hours.
(2) Fixing the colour, beginning at 100 deg. F. to 120deg. F., over 16 to 20 hours.
(3) The curing process, 120deg. F. to 125deg. F., over 48 hours.
(4) Curing the stem, 125deg. F. to 175deg. F., over 9 to 10 hours, increased at the rate of 5deg. F. per hour.
At night time, between each of the heating processes, the shed is opened so that the leaves will cool and absorb moisture, and here again the planter has to exercise care lest dampness ensues, with resultant mildew. When cured and pliant enough to be handled without breaking, the leaves are stripped from the stalks, and graded into firsts, seconds, and thirds. They are tied into little bundles of a dozen leaves called "hands," which are rehung on the sticks in the shed, where they have to be kept sweet until ready for bulking down. The stalks are sold for fertilising purposes. The length of time occupied with it from harvesting until it finally reaches the factory is what most farmers don't like about this crop. But the trouble is worth while, for tobacco grown under the rural workers' conditions for hired labour returns a handsome profit.
Yields and Earnings.
Some sorts of tobacco plant are more easy to work than others, such as "Hester" and "Conqueror." The former yields up to 15001b. to the acre. The price paid to the grower for ordinary leaf is 9d to 10d a lb. The Tamworth crop for the 1914 15 season was sold at 10d to 11d a pound for average quality, and some flue-cured leaf of extra quality brought 1s 3d a pound. In Victoria, when leaf was bringing only 6d to 8d per lb., three men at Edi, Victoria, took £800 worth of pipe tobacco from 15 acres in one season—an average yield of £52 per acre. Cigar leaf in Gippsland at the same time, returned nearly £70 per acre.
The grower's final job is pressing the leaf into bales—or casks, or boxes—in which it is sent to the factory. Here the nimble fingered mid-rib girls get to work on it, taking the stem or middle rib out of the leaf. They are paid by weight for their work, and make anything from 30s to £3 a week. Much of the work in the factory is done by girls, but on the plantations the growing and preparation of the leaf give employment to a good many men and boys.
The shearer regards the rouseabout as an inferior person. In the majority of cases the former objects to being boxed with the latter in the same hut. His pet name for him is "Loppy," or "Wop-wop" (a name suggested by the sound of his moccasins along the board); and he speaks of both as "shearers and labourers." As a matter of fact, there is more hard labour in shearing than there is in rouseabouting, and it is the dirtiest work in the shed. But the shearer is more independent. The rouseabout is paid by the day, or by the week, and consequently is more directly under the orders of the squatter. The boss makes use of him about the shed in wet weather, when the shearers are idle. Still he has an advantage in that his wages are running on, while they are earning nothing. The more wet weather the better for the rouseabout, the worse for the shearer. In an ordinary shed the numbers of each are about equal; but whereas shearers are skilled workers, rouseabouts, though they need some experience, are classed as unskilled workers, and include boys as young as 14 years of age in their ranks. Excepting in small sheds, they have a separate hut, and a separate cook.
Rouseabouts are the generally useful hands employed at the shed during shearing time. They may do any work required to be done about the shed; but act chiefly as yardmen, pickers-up, wool rollers, piece pickers, and penners-up. There are other shed hands as well as these, as the musterers, pressers, wool classer, engineer (in machine sheds), and the shed overseer. The musterers are generally included with the rouseabouts, and tucker at the rouseabouts' hut, though sometimes they have their meals in the kitchen at the homestead. Their ranks consist of the permanent sheep men on the place, with a few extra hands. They muster the sheep on the run, and bring them to the yards, and take the shorn animals from the shed back to the paddocks. The permanent hands are employed in this work because a knowledge of the run is an advantage, if not a necessity. On a big run they have sometimes to camp out. They ride to the distant pastures in the afternoon, and start mustering early next morning. They reach the shed towards sun down, and yard enough of the sheep for a day's shearing, the rest being placed in a convenient paddock. It is the musterers' duty to see that the shearers never run short of sheep. Occasionally they are out till after dark, and they work on Sunday as well as on Monday; but they have their slack days in between.
The rouseabouts' minimum rates are 37s 6d per week with keep for adults; 30s per week with keep for boys between 18 and 21; and 25s per week with keep for boys under 18. Their working hours are about the same as the working hours of shearers. The penners-up have to start earlier in order to have sheep ready for the morning run; but they finish earlier, except when unshorn sheep have to be let out at the end of the day's shearing, and they have a good deal of leisure time through the day. When a pen has been filled, no more sheep are put into it until the last one has been caught from it. The penner-up watches the pens and keeps the race filled in readiness behind them. It is only when several pens cut out at the same time that he has to hurry for a few minutes. The penner-up usually acts as slaughter-hand for the cook, for which service he is paid 6d per sheep.
Wool-Rollers and Pickers-Up.
The wool-rollers and pickers-up do not start till the fleeces begin to fall; but they are occupied for a little while after the cessation of shearing. Next to the shed overseer and the classer, the wool-rollers have the cleanest and easiest job in the shed. They work at a long table, one or more on each side, skirting and rolling the fleeces. The pickers-up, who are generally boys, are kept busy, picking up the fleeces as they fall, and throwing them out on the table. They are bossed by nearly everybody in the shed. If the fleeces are not thrown out straight and clean on the table the wool-rollers grumble; and if the wool is not picked up quickly from the shearers' stand there is complaint in that quarter. The piece pickers, working at other tables, sorting out first, second, and stained pieces, occasionally find fault also—when pieces are not dumped just where they are wanted, or when unsorted gets mixed with the sorted heaps through the hurrying of the pickers-up. The latter have also to keep the board swept, to answer the calls for tar, and gather up the belly wool, and put it into a loose bale as it is shorn. They are the last to leave the shed at the end of the day, for they have to sweep the floor, and clean out the locks from under the wool table. On Saturdays, after the last bell, they have to wash down the board and the wool tables.
When the shed hands have their own hut, and are found, the cook is provided by the squatter, and is paid at the rate of 4s per man per week, or a minimum of £2 10s a week, and keep. In the joint mess, when shearers and rouseabouts tucker together, the squatter pays his proportionate share of the mess account and cook's wages. In some sheds an allowance for tucker is made, and the men elect their own cook in the same way that the shearers do. Cooking in the rouseabouts' hut is not considered as good a job by the average cook as cooking in the shearers' hut, for when the rouseabouts are found, he has to please them, and please the squatter too—and they are two bosses with opposite views of the tucker question. It is customary at both huts to feed and give rations to all travellers who call. This adds to the mess account. Pastoralists are not unanimously in favour of it, and the cook, however desirous he is of pleasing the conjoint boss, is never on firm ground. When he applies for the position of shearers' cook, he is judged by his table and his board rate; and in the other hut the rouseabouts, when found, consider only the table, whilst the pastoralist, as a rule looks seriously at his previous mess accounts. In slack times there are more travellers than usual, and the cook finds it impossible to keep down expenses. It is sought to distribute the callers fairly between the two huts; but it often happens that one hut gets more than its share, and then the cook in that hut says nasty things about his brother over the way. The shearers' cook does well and can drive from shed to shed with his buggy and pair, but his rough boarding-house requires good management, and causes him a good deal of worry.
Learning to Shear.
The rouseabouts, especially those working on or about the board, take every opportunity of practising their hands at shearing. They shear in the smoke-o intervals, and in the lunch hour, each under the instructions of a veteran on the board, who gets his sheep. Some hard old ewe is generally given to the learner, and the shearing of that animal is the hardest work he does in the shed. He discovers at the outset that holding the sheep in the proper position is not as easy as it looks. His victim kicks and struggles, so that he thinks he has chanced upon the most obstinate and rebellious beast on the run. Then the shears stick into the skin, and poke out through the wool. He takes skin off in places, and leaves half the wool on in other places. Instead of striking a full, clean blow, as he has seen the shearers doing so easily and quickly, his shears jib in the wool, and persist in nibbling only with the points. To the uninitiated, watching the graceful, sweeping blows of an expert, shearing is apparently as easy as cutting grass. Learning it is a diabolically painful process. The novice is expected to take off his first fleece without stopping or straightening his back. His wrist is the first part of him that begins to weaken. His back soon follows, despite the all-day exercise he has in stooping to pick up fleeces and pieces. However, he gets to the end of the task in the course of time. His fleece is broken, and the late owner of it is a pitiable-looking object. Still, the worst is past, and day by day he improves until he considers himself advanced enough to give up rouseabouting, and go shearing. Some get the knack quickly, others never get beyond a moderate daily tally. Dan Cooper, one of the fastest Queensland shearers, began in the sheds as a rouseabout, and on his second day at shearing, he shore one hundred sheep. That is a performance that is very rarely accomplished. In many sheds a couple of stands are set apart for learners. It is here where the novice, if he has had little practice before, suffers the pains of apprenticeship. After he has hacked through a few woollies, he is a puffing, perspiring; blood-stained streak of misery, praying for the day's end and glorious rest. Minutes seem like hours, and he struggles along, adding to his aches and pains, till finally, he leans against the pen, a limp and dejected wreck. The next day is one of agony. His wrist is stiff and sore, and he can scarcely stoop. After nearly a week of this sort of misery he may shear about 25 in a day. Then his numerous physical ailments begin to leave him, and he has a notion that if he lives long enough, he will one day shear a hundred in eight hours. Before long the muscles become accustomed to the work, the shears take long continuous bites, and the sheep—so awkward and annoying at first—drop easily into their proper positions, and he sets in confidently to sail after the century.
Of the shed hands the pressers have the heaviest work, the shed overseer the lightest. Two men work as mates at the press, and they turn out, if there is no waiting for wool, about 20 bales a day by hand. The rate for greasy wool by hand press is 4½d per cwt., or 1s 3d per bale; if dumping included, 6d per cwt., or 1s 7½d per bale; by power 3d per cwt., or 9¾d per bale, and if dumping is included, 4d per cwt., or 1s 1d per bale. For weighing and branding the bales an additional 2d a bale is paid. Under the ward, if the presser, through want of a continuous supply of wool, makes less than £3 5s per week at these rates, the employer has to make up the deficiency.
Shed Overseer and Wool-Classer.
The pressers share either in the shearers' or rouseabouts' mess; but the shed overseer, usually known as the man over the board, and the wool classer tucker at the homestead. The shed overseer, who receives £5 a week, superintends shearing operations, keeps time, and counts out the shorn sheep. The wool-classer is paid at the rate of one pound per thousand fleeces. Under him are the wool-rollers and piece-pickers. He likes a large board, and a fast team of shearers. A shed of 20 pens, averaging a hundred a day, gives him £11 a week. He hasn't many weeks in a shed, but if he has half a dozen sheds of that size he earns a very good cheque in the season.
Other workers among sheep are the crutchers, who operate on draggy sheep before they are shorn. This is work at which the amateur shearer can train his muscle—and on some runs there is a good deal of it to do. The pay, with rations, is 4s 6d per 100 for crutching between the legs only, 6s per 100 for all other crutching. When the crutchers find themselves, they are paid 3s 6d per 100 for crutching between the legs only, or 11s per day, and for all other crutching 5s per 100, or 11s per day. Though the woollies are quickly disposed of, the work is heavy on the operators, on account of the large number of sheep that have to be caught and handled in a day.
"Carrying is not what it used to be,'' say the old teamsters on the road. Others tell you that there is as much carrying to do and as much money to be made at it to day as in the "good time" that the old teamster looks back upon. Of course, he has memories of Gulgong and other golden havens that made carrying itself a golden job. There were tracks on which he could charge £30 a ton for short trips; and he could take out a load of his own and sell it at about 500 per cent, profit. Certainly that was a good time, but gold rushes always are good for carriers. They don't last, and such a phase may recur anywhere and at any time. On the old tracks in well-settled districts railways have made a difference to regular carrying, though only in the shortening of trips in those districts, and of extending the out-tracks some hundreds of miles farther into the interior. In place of the traffic that the railways have taken, there are wheat, wool and other important products that have to be carried by team to the sidings and stations; and out to the numerous hamlets, townships, wayside pubs and stores, squattages and scattered settlements, there is much loading to be taken back. Railways can't go everywhere, and, though many of the settlers have their own teams, there will always be work for the professional carrier.
One noticeable change that has taken place on the carrying roads is in the nature of the teams. At one time these were principally bullocks — on certain roads one met little else but long strings of struggling oxen; but nowadays horse-teams largely predominate, with a few camel teams on dry tracks. Horses require more care, and have to be fed on chaff and grain in good seasons as well as bad; but they are much quicker than bullocks. Motor power, which is quicker still, is in places ousting the horse in turn. Nevertheless, there will always be work on the roads for the horse, just as there is still work for teams in the city of Sydney. There is also less wear and tear on the part of the horse-driver in exhorting his team to pull. To the man who has driven horses for any length of time the bullock is impossible. As a means of transit he places that animal on the very lowest rung, a pioneer of the roads that is now more particularly associated with timber-getters. Neither has the average man any high opinion of him. He considers bullock-driving one of the worst jobs invented.
Some of the old veterans stick doggedly to the cloven hoof. Use has become second nature, and practice has made them skilled in the art of driving. Not always; for it is not everybody who can learn to drive bullocks. It is not as simple as driving horses. You will see teamsters go up and down on dry and poorly-grassed roads; and keep their cattle in good trim all the time. Other drivers lose part of their teams, while the remainder are poor and crisscrossed with whip marks, and make slower travelling, though they may be crossing better country and with lighter loads. Notice them also in a bog. One man may be stuck for hours, unable to get a budge on his waggon. Another takes the whip, straightens the team, and at a word or two they reef that waggon straight out. You never see an expert with a scraggy team. A judge of workers in the first place, he takes them as quietly as possible, and studies their comfort more than his own. They show the character of their drivers in their looks and actions. These are as docile and tractable as pet cows, contentedly chewing their cud when being yoked, or having a "blow" in the shade, while those of the incompetent are resentful and sulky. They fret under harsh treatment, and so lose condition, even on good pasture. At a pinch they are dead failures. The other man, looking at a bog or a steep hill, will say confidently, "they'll take her through, or they'll pull her to pieces," meaning the waggon. This man takes a pride in his whole turnout. He likes to have everything of the best, and keeps it spic and span. His ambition is to have the best table-top on the road, and to carry a bigger load than the champions of other highways, for there are champions in this humble walk of life as in the most exalted.
In the Old Days.
In the old days bullock camps were plentiful along the main "inside" roads, teams going out with loading, and others coming in empty or with squattage produce, all turning out regularly at certain places, perhaps a good waterhole or a spot contiguous to a good grass paddock. Many a yarn is told of dodging the squatter when the only water or feed was in his paddocks. Perhaps the bells would be put on a few of the most restless beasts, which would be left outside, while the others were turned in at a different point. This would be late at night, and they would be mustered up before daylight. Often they were watered right under the noses of those watching to catch them. One trick was worked by a teamster going a mile or two away in a paddock with a bell, which he would jingle here and there under cover of bushes, and, while the boundary rider rode about looking for the supposed bullock, the bellman's mate slipped in and watered the team.
Life in Camp.
With loading for mining fields and back block hotels, life in camp at times was convivial to a boisterous degree; and there is still enough latitude allowed for "old Bill" to keep up his birthday on far tracks. Diggers who are working good claims, besides paying liberal carriage rates, are not averse to a case or two being tapped, and publicans generally don't make a fuss about casks being sampled within a reasonable measure. Odd teamsters, in getting over a very bad road in the height of summer, reckon it is the publican's turn to shout a couple of pints at every camping-place. For all that, carrying on far inland roads is a hard life. After a long, wearying day, the carrier has probably to drive his animals miles back at night to water, or take them ahead for grass. Often he takes his blankets and tucker and camps with them, bringing them back to the waggon early in the morning; other times he has to carry feed (for horses) and cut scrub (for bullocks).
In wet weather the roads are boggy; and then there are heavy sandhills, through which he has often to shovel long trenches to get out. He cooks and washes for himself; and while his damper is baking you will find him chopping out a yoke or repairing harness. That, too, is usually his Sunday recreation.
Families on the Road.
In parts of Queensland it is not uncommon for his wife and family to travel with him. The wife is provided with a tilted cart, in which she can reach the night camp while he is getting over the first two or three miles. A mob of goats is driven with the spare bullocks, or horses, by one or two of the children, and swinging under the waggon is a coop of fowls. These are let out every evening, being driven back into the coop when all is ready to start again next day. In such cases there is a cheery fireside, though it be under a tree, waiting for him at the day's end; the little ones, who have been playing about for hours, run to meet him as children do in other places, and the life is much more pleasant. It is not, however, the ideal life for a woman, though sometimes the carrier's wife prefers it to living alone in a town and having her husband at home for a few days only in the course of months.
Many of the carriers are selectors. With a comfortable home and good paddocks well out on a profitable-carrying road, the work is eminently satisfactory to the teamster. He has always a few animals spelling on the selection, with which he can freshen his team when passing up and down. He will turn out for a week there; if the roads are not to his liking the halt will probably last for several weeks. If the selection is bringing in money he may spend a good deal of his time there. Now and again he temporarily retires from carrying, but always he has the team to fall back on when there is nothing doing at home. His sons go with him as soon as they are old enough to round up the team animals; and by-and-bye they go with the teams alone. Some selectors have half a dozen or more teams, worked by father and sons, and sons of neighbouring selectors. The home-coming of the teams are important events at these places; the old home that has been silent and lonely for months becomes suddenly a place of life and bustle. In average seasons driver and driven keep in good trim, and when that condition prevails there is not much care on the premises.
Rates and Earnings.
In shearing and harvesting times they make good money, some of these men, for there is plenty of carrying both ways, and always they have the selection behind them. "Mother and the girls,'' as a rule, manage the selection in the absence of the men. Carrying rates depend, of course, on the distance and the nature of the country to be travelled. On the latter, too, depends the weight of the load when plenty of loading is to be got. Twenty-five tons of wool have been carried on one waggon down the stiff roads that lie at the back o' Bourke. In the wheat districts there is often competition in this respect between horse teams and bullock teams. In the north-western part of New South Wales, where all transport is by horse, bullock and camel teams, £6 a ton was the ruling rate before the war on a 200-mile road. The trip occupied from three to six weeks, and occasionally it took three months—according to the condition of the team and the road. Merchandise for stores, hotels and squattages were carried on the outward trip, and mainly wool on the return journey. Between the shearing seasons there was often nothing but a few parcels and empty beer barrels on the return.
Reckoning the round trip, with waiting and necessary spells, to occupy three months, and the average load at 8½ tons each way, the carrier would earn £408 for his year's work. With one 25-ton load going in, and light loading going out, he would make half that amount in a couple of months; but such loads are record-breakers, only occasionally heard of.
With a good table-top waggon and horses, his turnout costs about £500. His expenses include feeding, wages, license, repairs and keep. Offsiders, and employees engaged to drive extra teams, are paid £2 to £2 12s a week and keep. At certain tanks and wells he has to pay for watering. Occasionally he loses a horse, or a bullock which has to be replaced. On a dry, barren road his losses in this respect might easily outbalance his receipts. Generally, when he ventures upon such a road, however, it is by the inducement of extra rates and unlimited time for the trip.
Bound to Time.
Unless the circumstances are exceptional, the carrier is not infrequently bound to time. The Darling River, for instance, is a precarious stream, and wool has to be got down while there is water enough to float the barges. It is here where the horse and camel men get the pull on the bullock driver. In dry times they have a far better chance of getting through. Their charges may be higher, but they can sign for a quicker delivery. The carrier is bound to time also with the outward loading for squattages, stores and hotels. The penalty for dilatoriness is up to £1 a day for every day he is behind contract time, or else it is so much per ton per day that is deducted from his account. When he has lost stock on a bad trip, a heavy fine on top of it hits him hard. In his efforts to keep up to time under difficulties he is apt to bring about a catastrophe that costs him dear. Though he has loading on board for several squattages, he receives little assistance from the squattages through which he passes. His thirsty animals have to go without water many a night when there is a full tank or dam close by. Water is valuable in Western parts, and every hole is rigorously guarded. When he is caught surreptitiously helping himself in the night, the chances are that his animals will be rounded up and yarded till morning. The average driver feels for his brute slaves, and driving them through a long, hot day after such an experience is to him a bitter task. The camel can go long stages without water, and his great reach enables him to feed on bushes whose sustaining green leaves are out of reach of any other animal on the route.
Though the splitter's maul rings out in many a forest yet, his field grows narrower every year. In all the well-settled districts the trees have been picked over and over, so that he has to search longer and farther for what he requires, and has tougher trees to work on than formerly. The little sawmills, working in all centres where there is a demand for hardwoods, assist in the denudation, and at the same time supply most of the building material that was once hewn by his rough tools. Every man who settles outside a town does a good deal of splitting for himself, mostly for fencing; and those who have good patches of timber turn it to profit by splitting posts and rails and palings for others. This work alone at one time provided constant employment to men all over the country. The use of fencing wire lessened the need of timber by at least one half. The splitter gets more for his posts to-day, but he has to go farther for them, and has to put in more strenuous toil getting them. Where men could once confine themselves exclusively to this work, they get only an occasional job. Some of it is done by contract, but much of it is weekly work, the pay being (under the award) 8s 4d per day of eight hours, or 10s 6d per day where the employee finds himself.
The houses of the early settlers were built wholly of split timber, and many of the dwellings and outsheds of the present day are composed of the same rough material. Immense forests of eucalypti met the old splitter in every direction, and with no more tools than one could carry on his shoulder the splendid trees were readily transformed into substantial homes, every foot required being often cut and split without going beyond stone-throw of the building site. Huge slabs, from 10 inches to 18 inches wide and 2 inches to 2½ inches thick, level and straight, were split for walls and floors, round timber being used for rafters, and squared saplings for plates and uprights. Even boards and battens for windows, doors, tables. &c., were split from light woods, and shingles for the roof. A block, a throw, and the fork of a small tree comprised the plant of the shingle splitter. He was a tradesman apart, there being plenty of roofs to do to keep him going. Many houses and sheds were roofed with bark, the bark of the blackbutt, woollybutt, stringybark, mesmate, box: coolabah, mahogany and peppermint being most favoured, though at times the bark of the grey and blue gums was used. The stripping of the bark was usually done by aborigines, who could take off the sheets, in lengths required, up to the branches of the tallest trunks, using only a vine, a tomahawk, and perhaps a short stick for prising the bark off. The straight boled trees picked for this purpose could afterwards, while still green, be felled and split up, some of them yielding enormous quantities of slabs, or posts and rails, as circumstances required.
Destruction of Timber.
Australia possesses many of the finest hardwoods and softwoods to be found in any part of the world. Unfortunately their worth was too often but meagrely appreciated, especially by those who had great quantities growing around them for which they had no immediate use. With the fatal short-sightedness that characterised the early settlers in new or remote districts, their only thought was to get rid of it in the quickest and easiest way possible. They looked upon the dense forest as an encumbrance on their land, and treated it as the river farmers treated the dense, scrubs—destroying everything at a face. In the clearing of those scrubs that once lined the banks of the north-eastern rivers, thousands of fine trees of cedar, rosewood, tulip, ironwood, teak, bean, maple, beech, turpentine, myrtle, coachwood, and numerous others were consigned to the flames. Very often the scrub cutters were unaware of the utility of many of the timbers.
Not always was the settler to blame. Vast forests of the best timber trees were ruthlessly destroyed under the free selection conditions that made ring-barking and scrub-felling compulsory. Ringbarking was one of the principal improvements demanded by the Land Act of Sir John Robertson. Sir John has been dead a long while, and it would have been a good thing for the country if his Act had died with him. Despite the protests of settlers themselves, and warnings from other parts of the world where timber had reached a prohibitive price, the folly was perpetuated by succeeding Governments, until millions of acres of our great heritage had gone up in smoke. Many of the earlier settlers in later years had to go far for the same kind of timber that they were forced to destroy on their own land, and which, had it been preserved, would have given them an easy independence. Some of them at the time were far-seeing enough to recognise that a day would come when their little forests would be their most valuable assets; but the asinine Act said "away with it," and they had either to destroy it or forfeit their selections. There are sawmills through those parts now howling for timber; there are paper mills elsewhere shrieking for forests to turn into pulp. The consumption by this latter means alone will ultimately leave precious little for building material. What should be as valuable to Australia as her gold is being reduced to ashheaps and stumps for the purpose of making three blades of grass grow where only two grew before. Then there is the question of rainfall and ground moisture, which are seriously affected by the denudation of forests. I remember when a heavy flood occurred at least once a year, and not infrequently two or three times a year, on the Richmond, Clarence and contiguous rivers. Nowadays a big flood in these streams is novel enough to excite the cable-man. Then the country was densely clothed with timber; now it is stripped. Instead of compelling destruction in this lunatic fashion, a wise legislature would enforce the planting of a new tree for every one cut down. We owe that to posterity.
How he Works.
The splitter is an expert judge of timber. He can tell by looking at the bark what the grain of the wood is like, whether it is straight or windy, free or tough, though, before putting his saw into it he usually takes out a thick chip and tries it with the axe. An occasional tree is deceptive. One sometimes, comes upon a straight-bodied giant in a patch that has been picked over a thousand times, and on examining finds a dozen old marks around the butt, showing that different axemen, deceived by its appearance, had tried it, and left it. Such a giant is a prize to the timber-hauler who is getting logs for the sawmill; but the close, twisty grain is no good to the splitter, unless he is badly in need of rough material, and is prepared to do some hard slogging to burst it up. He requires mature trees for his purpose, and therefore mostly works among big timber. The bigger the tree the better he likes it, providing he can work his saw from the ground, or from a low stage. There are hardwood trees that are too thick at a dozen feet from the butt to be spanned by an ordinary crosscut saw. If he chops them down he has to saw the butts off, which means additional labour.
After sawing the trunk into lengths, his hardest work is bursting the logs. When the halves have been divided into sections, his easiest and most pleasant work is running off the slabs, or whatever he may be splitting, the insertion of one or two light wedges to each being often sufficient for this purpose. The slabs are stacked in neat heaps, several heaps, each equal to a dray load, being got from one big tree. There is little waste in the trunk, beyond the core and some sapwood; but the rest of the tree, from the bottom branches upwards, is all wasted—unless the splitter is working near a town or a railway siding, when it can be cut up for fuel. When the whole of the tree can be used, the ironbark is his most profitable forest hardwood, for even the bark of this tree makes excellent fuel. Country blacksmiths use it specially for heating tyres. When cutting firewood the splitter does not look for giants; any small timber of the right sort—as box and coolabah—suits his purpose. He is paid by the cord, the price varying according to the supply and the distance it has to be carted. For the interior woolsheds. where the firing is mostly mulga and gidgee, he is paid six to eight shillings a cord on the ground, and finds himself, the employer finding the tools. The woodcutter who supplies country towns by the load seldom splits the wood; nor does he cut it into short lengths. He picks up dry logs and sticks in the bush, and delivers them as he finds them. It is only when this supply gives out, and he has to get on to green timber, that he cuts it up into lengths, and these are stacked and left to dry.
Shingles and Palings.
The average kit consists of a crosscut saw, a couple of axes and mauls, and a set of wedges. The mauls he makes himself, with the exception of the iron rings. He uses also a couple of levers; and when splitting shingles or light palings, a throw and a wooden fork (cut from a small tree) are required. There is not much done now in shingles, but rough palings are extensively used in all well-timbered areas. These are split from gum, black butt, stringybark, ironbark, and other hardwoods. As many as 9000 6ft. palings have been obtained from one tree. To produce this number a tree has to be both colossal and free-running from the butt. As a rule, palings are not split from the butt, that portion being generally cut for posts and rails. In big forests, 200 posts or rails and 7000 6ft. palings have often been got from one tree. Among splitters records are aimed at in respect to quantity of timber taken from a single tree, and the quantity split in a day. Some men can get more out of a log than others. To split a thousand palings in a day requires free timber and a good worker; but one man in Cape Otway forest split 1500 in 8½ hours, and did his own billeting.
When cutting railway sleepers, the trees are more carefully selected than for ordinary purposes, as the sleepers, which are 8ft. in length, 9in. in width, and 4½in. in depth, have to be straight, square, and out of winding, free from heart, sapwood, large knots, and shakes, and cut from large trees. The timbers mostly used are ironbark, tallowwood, grey gum, blackbutt, white mahogany, box, and white stringybark. The contract price ranges from 2/11 to 5/9 per sleeper, according to the locality, and the distance to the depot or wharf where they have to be delivered; and the cutters are paid from 2s 10d to 3s 5d each. The latter receive up to 10d more for squares than for roundbacks. On the North Coast line the price paid for sleepers is from 3s 9d to 3s 11d at the depots. The contractor makes a profit of from 1½d to 3d per sleeper. The following figures from the Public Works report may be taken as a fair sample of payments: Sleepers delivered in depot, 4s 1d. each; rates paid to cutters, 3s 5d; royalty and turning, 5d; yardage, management and profit, 3d; total, 4s 1d.
A security deposit, from £25 to £200, is usually required by the Government from the contractor. A certain time is stipulated for the delivery of the sleepers, and there is a fine of about £1 per week for time exceeding that agreed upon. The sleepers are passed and branded by the inspector at stated places; and a condition in some contracts is that the contractor must find all labour necessary for handling during the inspection. Large quantities of sleepers are obtained direct from cutters, the industry providing constant employment to thousands of men in the big-timbered regions of the Commonwealth. To the end of 1914 about 300 families were engaged for 12 years without a break at Mogriguy, Bulladora and Gilgandra. Sleepers are always being wanted for new railway and tram lines, for duplications and for maintenance.
In a big forest, where there is plenty of timber handy, the splitter works under agreeable conditions. Much of the work is heavy, but it is always clean, and the surroundings exceedingly healthy. These forests are also the home of the bulldog ant and the jumper, with which the splitter has lively arguments almost every day in the week. He has a tent or a rough hut near by, unless he is working on or near his own selection. Some have their families with them; others ride home once a week or once a fortnight. The life under canvas or in a bark hut is rough and primitive; but the veteran splitter is used to that, and enjoys it. Every man to his trade; and there is no place more pleasant to the splitter than a vast forest, where the tall, straight boles stand thickly, waiting for his saw and wedges.
An Australian botanical oddity is the grass-tree, known to science as Xanthorrhea hastilis. It came into prominence at the beginning of the war, from the fact that its chief product—the resin-like gum it exudes—was used in Germany in the manufacture of high explosives. German firms were the largest buyers of this product, large quantities being shipped from Sydney and Brisbane for several years before the embargo was placed on its export to the enemy country in 1914. The resin is converted into picric acid, the powerful and most efficient component in many of the explosives employed as agents of destruction. The manufacture of it is said to be cheap and simple, and it has been claimed as an advantage that on exploding it gives forth suffocating fumes. The German buyers were happily in unison in letting it be known that they were buying the resin for the purpose of making a cheap varnish. It did occur to some thoughtful Australians that the varnish must have jumped suddenly into great favour a little while before war was declared, for the resin was in eager demand, and the price had quadrupled in a few months.
Grass-tree resin, however, is applied to other and better uses than destruction, for it is an important material in many industries, including the making of varnish. In other countries it is used extensively for polishes, waterproof leather-dressings, floor paints, sealing-waxes, high-class metal laquers, size for paper manufacturers, and in perfumery and soap-making. The French were probably the first to discover its explosive properties, for they experimented with it as far back as 1870. The gum was washed with alcohol, in which it is soluble, and then transformed into picric acid by the addition of nitric acid, the product being used in a mixture intended as a gun powder substitute for small arms.
About 1908 a syndicate was granted rights by the Queensland Department of Lands to utilise the grass-trees on an area 400 miles long by 100 miles wide for the purpose of manufacturing alcohol. It was stipulated that the alcohol, which was extracted by a patent process, was not to be used for human consumption. The spirit was intended for industrial purposes, especially for motors.
The Tree and Where it Grows.
The tree is plentiful throughout New South Wales, except in far western parts, and in Queensland. It is generally found on the higher levels, on wooded rises, on hills and ridges, and on high, bare plains. Along the Hawkesbury, George's River, in French's Forest, and other places near Sydney, it is common, though tons of gum have been got from these localities, and men are almost continually getting it thereabouts. The tree is a quick grower, occupying only about five years to mature; but in the areas frequented by gum-getters a big tree is seldom seen, for often they cut out everything that is over a foot high. In such places one sees, dotting the slopes and hilltops, what looks like huge bunches of coarse green grass. Those are the tops of the young grass trees; and when they grow up they resemble, gigantic mops—rough, dark trunks, about a foot in diameter, with the huge grass-like tuft on top. In the unexploited parts of the bush they stand 20ft. high. Just under the green top there is always a mass of dry grass, which flares like tinder when a match is applied to it, the burning top at night time appearing like a great torch. Bush children use the resinous substance as a chewing-gum, knocking the exuded lumps off with a stick or stone. The lumps are hard and dry, breaking into a whitish-yellow powder when crunched; but in the boy's masticating mill the dry substance soon becomes soft and plastic. The tree in summer sends out a long, straight spear-head, which contains the seed. Blacks use this in fire-making, and the gum for healing cuts. A good ointment is also made from this substance. Like the bottle tree, the grass-tree gives a fine, picturesque note to the landscape.
The gum-getter, before setting to work on State lands, must obtain a license, which costs one pound per annum. His kit consists of a light, broad-bladed axe, or a heavy tomahawk; two sieves—one with a quarter-inch mesh, and one with a half to three-quarter inch mesh; and a broad sheet of canvas, or a few bags sewn together, for beating on. This outfit, together with a supply of small bags (wheat or corn bags, cut in halves are commonly used), he can easily carry about; but, of course, when camping out, he requires a tent, some light campware and provisions. Some men manage to hump everything, getting provisions weekly from the nearest store. These sometimes arrange for stores to be delivered, and the gum to be taken to the store on the return in the grocer's cart. The gum, however, is not a medium for barter like some other products, nor can it be sold readily to stores like farm produce. Most big warehouses stock it, retailing it as grass-tree resin at about 3d per pound.
Picking the Trees.
To obtain good patches of well-grown trees the gum-getter must get away from the beaten tracks, and for convenience he requires a strong packhorse, or, better still, a horse and cart. He can then move about comfortably, and save himself trouble and expense by carting his own gum to buyers' depots or railway stations. Some little experience is needed both in picking the trees and in winning and dealing with the gum: This can be acquired by a day or so's practice and observation. There are three sorts of gum—red, chestnut and yellow. The latter is the sort desired by buyers, and the tree bearing it can be distinguished by its light-golden green top, the tops of the others being dark green. Most men take a slice off the trunk, with a downward chop of the tomahawk, and if it is yellow resin bearing, both the side of the blade and the shaved trunk will be smeared with yellow powder. In places this tree and the chestnut grow together; but it is seldom found in company with the red.
The best time, for gathering the gum is in the cool months of the year. In hot weather dirt is liable to become fused into the gum, which cannot then be purified, and in consequence its value deteriorates. Bush fires also ruin the gum-getter's harvest. After a severe scorching the tree seems to run quickly to seed; and when bearing the seed-spear all the good of the plant goes to that. A plant that appears merely as a large tussock of drooping green grass produces a spear head as well as the tall trees.
How the Gum-Getter Works.
Having located a good patch, the gum getter pitches camp in a central spot where there is plenty of shade, and sets to work. Taking his tomahawk, he first cuts off the crowning bunch of grass, leaving a small tuft on top to serve as a handle when subsequently beating the gum from the trunk. Then the black outer coat is shaved off down to the ground all round. After this operation the trunk presents a brown surface, marked from top to bottom with irregular blazed cuts. It is cut off at the ground, and the operator passes to the next. The best gum, is in the ground at the butt, but it is very difficult to clean, and is generally left.
Beating Out the Gum.
The shaving and cutting down proceeds all the forenoon, and in the afternoon the trunks are gathered up and carried to the beater. The small plants, from a foot to a couple of feet high, are collected in a bag. Where there are many tall trees it is seldom necessary to carry them far from the stump, though a man who is provided with a horse and cart may convey them a couple of miles so as to do the rest of the work where his tent is pitched. The green trunks are stacked in the shade to dry—not closely together, but so that plenty of ventilation will be given to every piece in the stack. In fine weather the drying process takes about a week; in dull or damp weather, a longer period. When the cut trees show signs of splitting they are ready for beating. The operator then takes them one by one, and holding the crowning tuft in the left hand, beats off the leaves and gum with the back of his tomahawk. Some use a stout waddy, something like a rolling pin, for this purpose. Each piece is beaten from the severed end upwards, with downward blows regulated so as not to powder the resin, until the bases of the leaves, between which the gum lies, no longer show signs of resin. The head is then thrown aside.
When he has beaten the lot out in this way, he has a heap of leaf bases, fibre, and gum on the bagging, and the next task is to separate the gum. This is easy. The gum being much the heavier, drops to the bottom, and some men clean it in the wind in the same way as dry blowers separate gold from dirt. Others get rid of the rough waste stuff by tilting and gently shaking the bagging. The common plan, however, is to sift it, first through the larger-meshed sieve, and then twice through the smaller sieve. When thoroughly cleaned, the gum is bagged, well rammed, and the bags sewn and stacked in the shade until the gum-getter is ready to cart it away.
Yields and Earnings.
The bags hold from 75lbs to 80lbs each. The price just before the war broke out was £25 to £35 per ton. When the price was about £18 per ton (in 1909-10), men were making up to £1 a day within a few miles of Sydney, where operations were principally confined to small stuff. This would mean that the best workers were each winning over a cwt, of gum per day. Grass-trees of a foot high yield about a pound weight of resin, whilst a giant specimen towering up to 20ft. high produces half a hundredweight. The work is easy and simple enough, the beating being the most tiresome part of it. A high grade of matured yellow resin is worth £50 a ton. To properly grade the different qualities of resin requires an expert worker.
Piles of debris, dotting grass-tree country for miles, disclose to the passing eye the trail of the industrious gum-getter. Along the Hawkesbury River, in French's Forrest, down the South Coast line, along by the seaboard to the north, the piles meet the bush wanderer, some of them fresh, some old and mouldering away. Around Jervis Bay, at Wyong, and at Wyee—halfway between Sydney and Newcastle, were favourite haunts of the gum-getter. Scores of men worked regularly in these and neighbouring localities, enjoying a free, healthy and independent life, and building, many of them, handsome homes with their winnings from the wilds of nature.
A good many of the gum-getters work alone. If not procuring the gum in the vicinity of their homes, they camp in a tent or a cave—utilising, in fact, any temporary shelter where grass-trees grow, and leading for brief periods the life of a hatter. Numbers of these take to gum-getting, as men take to rabbiting and other primitive industries, to tide them over a time of slackness, and, finding it profitable and agreeable, most of them stick to it as long as they can get good patches to work on within a convenient distance to their market.
Other men work in parties of three and four and five. They work over a considerable extent of country, and are mostly provided with a vehicle of some sort, and a good camping outfit. When they have cut out a patch, and do not know of another in the vicinity, they explore the surrounding country, perhaps giving a couple of days to the search, and penetrating miles in every direction, before shifting their camp. When working a hilly riverside, as along the Hawkesbury, they follow the course of the stream, spending occasional hours in making excursions inland. A saddle horse is useful for exploring purposes, especially where patches are widely scattered.
The industry keeps a considerable number of men continuously employed—except in summer—north and south of Sydney. The excellent varnish into which the resin is easily converted, alone keeps it in demand. The grounds are never completely worked out, for young trees, providing some have seeded, are annually springing up, and are shortly profitable to the gum-getters. So parties return again and again to fields that have already given them a rich harvest.
The average worker on a sheep or cattle run is supposed to be a generally useful person; but the work is not of an extensively varied character. The ordinary labourer is often generally useless. This is not always his own fault, as there are managers who prefer quantity to quality, and will pass almost any kind of a botch, providing it has been done quickly and cheaply. The cost of repairs in the monthly account is thus low; in the bad old days this allowed a lot of private jobs to be worked in. Another little scheme was worked in the ration line. If the men had got the full allowances of everything granted by the Pastoralists' Union, they would have lived pretty well, and been contented. But half what the men should have had was consumed by visitors, the frequency of whose calls was remarkable just after the loading came up. When the jam, pickles, and other luxuries were done, the visiting crowd became too busy at home to call round, and tennis parties, balls, and so forth, ceased until the next supplies were due. To adjust the flour and sugar account at such times numerous charity rations were booked to imaginary travellers, while the real traveller was turned away with empty bags, or at best with a bit of scraggy meat.
The usual pay of the employees was a pound a week and keep. When batching for themselves, the weekly rations allowed were 10lb. of flour, 12lb. of meat, 2lb. of black sugar, and ¼lb. of "post and rail" tea. Married couples received double rations, and when the wife was employed as well as the husband, the wage was from £70 to £100 a year. The hours were from daylight till nearly dark. On some places there was a bell, affixed to the top of a high pole, which was rung about 4 o'clock in the morning to call the men to work. Accommodation was of the roughest description—huts of split slabs, with no furniture, excepting where the men had their meals, and that consisted of a long table and two or three stools. The men provided their own bunks, made of saplings and bags, and the number sleeping in a room was decided by the number of bunks that could be ranged round the walls. In some of the big huts, especially in shearers' huts, there were two tiers of bunks. These were constructed when the huts were built. The smellful slush-lamp was the common means of lighting; it figured as the centre-piece on the dining-table at night, and early on winter mornings.
Blacks and whites mingled together, for half the stockmen were aborigines. The whites lived under conditions almost as primitive as their dusky compatriots. The old-time squatter had a streak in his composition that was reminiscent of the slave boss. He had been spoiled in his beginnings by the convict system that gave him the labour of assigned servants for next to nothing. When these were no longer available, and blacks were unsuitable, he brought men from England on a 12 months' engagement at a small wage. He worked these as he liked; the semi-slaves were at times toiling half the night as well as all day on Sunday. Doing jobs on Sunday, for which there was no necessity was common, although the squatter begrudged his henchmen the restfulness of a Christian Sabbath.
Conditions have improved greatly since then. The squatter has been civilised, and the men who civilised him were the shearers. The employees on a sheep run have an easier, if more monotonous life, as a rule, than those on a cattle run. Under the Accommodation Act, the insanitary hovels of yore have disappeared, and fairly decent huts are provided on the roughest places. Wages vary according to the class of work and the locality. Stockmen, for instance, receives 30s to 40s a week, and in far out places, £3 a week, in addition to keep. Boundary-riders are paid 25s to 35s per week; bullock-drivers, 30s to 42s per week; gardeners, 30s to 40s; rough carpenters3 and blacksmiths, 40s to 60s; rabbit poisoners, 30s to 40s; storekeeper and overseer, 40s to 80s a week each; and the cook, 40s to 50s a week. Married couples, when both parties are employed, receive up to £150 a year. These rates are in addition to board and lodging. Other men are employed temporarily from time to time; but these come under the heading of bush workers, who get a job here and a job there, taking anything that offers, from fencing to mustering, from burr cutting to tank-sinking. The squattage is the best prospect for the out-of-work, and in all seasons there are a good many men travelling from place to place in pastoral districts. They get more work there than among farmers—excepting in harvest time; and the unskilled labourer and the new chum have always a chance of picking up something. For the smart horseman it is the best field; he is never long out of employment even in the slackest times.
The stockmen are the principal workers on a cattle run; but they do not amount to much on a sheep run. Cattlemen treat the merino stockmen as a joke. They are mainly boundary-riders, and anybody who can ride a quiet horse and repair a wire fence is competent to take that billet. The cattleman has to be a good buckjump rider, an expert bushman, and a smart hand generally among stock. He has rough horses to ride, a large run to work, embracing in its wide sweep of perhaps a thousand square miles or more, scrubby and rugged mountainous country, where the cattle roam freely, and are seldom better than half wild. Excepting in the branding yard, when hundreds of strong calves have to be hand-thrown, perhaps before breakfast, the work is not laborious; but the long hours at mustering time make it wearying. There is plenty of excitement in his life, and always the joy of the chase in the road and fragrant bush.
The stock-rider has to take to the saddle in his young days to be proficient. Mostly he learns to ride in his boyhood, not many make a success of it, where skilled horsemen are needed, who begin later in life. Between musterings he has fairly easy times—unless he has a batch of uncivilised colts to school. This provides him with brisk exercise; but the work day is short; so also are the days when he is riding about the run, keeping an eye on the stock, the watering-places, and the fences. He catches up a broken rail or a broken wire; beyond that repairing is generally left to the person who is employed for that purpose. The stockman seldom does any work outside his own particular calling.
There is a good deal of fencing to do on some runs; on others there is very little. New lines are usually erected by contract, short sections and repairs, together with the yards, keep at least one man constantly employed on the home run. Married couples are stationed at many of the out camps or sub-squattages. The man looks after the surrounding run and fences; the woman cooks for the stockmen when they are mustering there. Sometimes, if his run is a big one, he has an assistant.
The boundary-rider is more commonly as associated with the sheep run, where fences and watering-places require more watching than is necessary where cattle are pastured. He is generally alone, one being stationed here and there on distant, and often lonely, parts of the run. At mustering, lamb marking, and such times, the boundary riders are mobilised and constitute the musterers, or stockmen, augmented perhaps by a few temporary hands. When these brief periods are over they scatter again, each going back to his humble camp, to ride daily along lines of fences, to drive sheep from them, and out of corners, pull out bogged animals, and poison dingoes. Sometimes he has a hut to live in, sometimes only a tent, which, on the dry interior plains, is shifted from place to place in summer as water holes dry up. His only companion is his dog. It is a post well suited to the peculiar disposition of the bush hatter, for seldom comes anyone to his lonely abode to interrupt his day dreams, his night musings, and his solo conversations.
The Handy Man.
Fewer men are regularly employed on sheep-breeding than on cattle-breeding establishments, and unlike the employees on the latter, they have to do various kinds of rough work at the homestead, and on the run. The bullock-driver, for instance, whose chief avocation is drawing wood and other material, and carrying wool and stores, is at times engaged as stockman, fencer, scrub-cutter, and in other capacities. The book-keeper has charge of the store, and on small places he acts as overseer as well. The carpenter and blacksmith are usually merged into the handy man, that smart and useful person whom the exigencies of outback life have created to perform the duties of a dozen different tradesmen, where there is not sufficient work to keep one skilled artisan constantly employed. He can take on farming, dairying, shearing, gardening; any ordinary squattage work; tough carpentering, wheel wrighting, and blacksmithing, engine-driving, shoeing, painting, paperhanging, furniture and harness repairing; he is tinker, miner, cook and bricklayer, and a score of other things that in a city would be done by 20 different kinds of workmen. Though not professing to be proficient in most of these callings, there is little that occurs on a squattage that he cannot do in a fairly satisfactory way.
On many big places a ploughman is kept, who applies himself exclusively to agricultural work. During hay making and other harvesting operations he has the assistance of any available labour on the place. He is often a married man. On some squattages a couple is employed, the wife as cook at the house, the man as ploughman, or as gardener and milkman. The cook at the hut is generally a man, though a married woman occasionally officiates there also, her husband being gardener and milkman, or groom and rouseabout. In rabbit-infested country a poisoner has to be kept. His is the worst billet of all, the fumes from the phosphorus and arsenic being injurious to health. He is much of his time alone, driving and camping about among the warrens. His camp is not sought by travellers, and few care to partake of his hospitable board.
Working on a squattage is regarded by the men as better than working on a farm. The life all-round is still pretty rough; but the squattage hand nowadays gets more time to himself than the farm hand. While the latter, after a year or two on a mixed farm, is capable of undertaking any ordinary work, excepting stock riding, on a pastoral holding, the squattage hand does not got the experience in his sphere of labour, that fits him to be at once a successful agriculturist. The casuals, however, are mostly men of all work, who go from one to the other. They are not horsemen, as the stockman and drover understand the term. These and the agriculturist, from the viewpoint of employees and employer, usually regard each other with mutual disfavour.
The dry conditions that prevail in the great north-western corner of New South Wales, provide a numerous body of men with employment. These are the wellsinkers, dam-makers, scoopers, and tanksinkers, who have been pegging away in that arid region which stretches from the Darling River to beyond the Queensland border, almost since the formation of the first squattage.
The maps show a number of watercourses over this area, but like a good many of the lakes shown in other parts, they are merely depressions in the landscape. A heavy fall of rain will cause a roaring flood in any of them, and often the water spreads over the flat country in an unbroken sheet for 30 miles or more; but in a week or so it has all vanished, and a little later a man might follow them till he perished in search of a pothole to get a drink at. The winding, dark lines of stunted timber looming across the plains look promising, but they merely mark the usual dried-up course where the sand burns and glistens in the sun. One may travel 300 miles in a straight line and not cross one creek that could be said to contain a single permanent waterhole. The western corner possesses only one natural reservoir that has never been dry. It is not very big, and is situated almost in the centre of what is called the Stony Desert. That is Depot Glen, where, in the shadow of Mount Poole, Captain Sturt and his little band were drought-bound through the summer of 1844.
Desert, as applied to that quarter, is a misnomer. In fair seasons the plains and flats and low hills, where the dancing haze plays fantastic tricks and mirages mock the traveller, are covered with Mitchell grass; and the salt bush remains green all the year round, notwithstanding the severest droughts. Though the value of this latter fodder was not at first recognised by pastoralists, they were soon alive to the importance of the open country for sheep runs. There were many disasters at first, through the pioneers placing too much reliance on the small lakes and waterholes. Later settlers, profiting by this experience, put down wells immediately as a standby. It was a hazardous undertaking, for at times several would be put down before a permanent supply of water was struck, and occasionally, when a good flow of water was tapped, it was found too brackish for even stock use. Well-sinking became a trade, and hundreds of pounds were made at it by gangs of men who made it their special calling. They were paid by the foot for sinking and timbering. When water was obtained a pump or a bucket and windlass was rigged over the well, and troughs were run out from it for watering the sheep, which were then mostly shepherded.
The Salvation of the Western Squatter.
It was a slow process, and some improved upon it by erecting whims and jinny-wheels, the water being then drawn up by horse power, and stored in square tanks built of casing and sheet iron. These are still in use on many of the runs; on others, the old fashioned "boxes" have given place to riveted oblong, iron tanks; but well-sinking—except at the homesteads, on selections, and here and there on big properties in central parts of the country—has long been discontinued as a general means of obtaining water for stock. Most of the homesteads have wells or underground tanks; but the stock water chiefly at dams and excavated tanks. Damming was first tried for conserving water in big creeks, but was not an unqualified success. A bank was made with earth, stones and brush across a narrow channel below a deep hole, an overflow or a by wash being provided for the escape of flood waters. In Western Queensland the overflow answers well, but in the arid triangle of New South Wales the fine, powdery soil dissolves or crumbles away, and the action of the water undermines the embankment, and eventually the whole collapses. Excavations became the vogue, and proved the salvation of the western squatter.
Prices and Wages.
The tanksinker had a good time in the first years of his work. He got a shilling a yard, and, in some instances more than that; and with only three hired men he could complete a 10,000yd. tank in three or four months. Living, of course, was a little dearer and wages higher in those parts when so much remained to be done to make existence there tolerably comfortable; but still the profits were considerable. Afterwards the same work was done for as low as 4c a yard, and there was more haggling over an eighth of a penny in the price than there was formerly over three-penny differences. Wages were then a pound to thirty shillings a week and keep. The squatter found the plant—scoops, ploughs and horses; but the tanksinker had to make most of his swinglebars, repair all breaks, and do his own blacksmithing. His hours were as long as a dairyman's; he started before daylight to muster his horses, and thence he was rushing and bustling till dark, when he had, perhaps, to drive the horses three or four miles away to put them on good feed. Most men are in a restless hurry at piecework, but the tank contractor took the bakehouse for rushing.
His prices had improved again by the time the European war broke out, though the available work, with competition, did not keep him continuously in harness. In slack times he took other contracts, such as erecting sheep yards, sheds, and rabbit proof fences. Hired labour had advanced from 35/ to 50/ per week and found, whilst working time had been reduced to about 48 hours a week. Still, the man who watched the clock, and was particular about overtime, was not the sort the contractor chased with offers of work. He was always busy himself, and often needed a helping hand, which he did not consider it should be necessary to ask for when his men were "off duty."
An Industrious Contractor.
Wood and water are both absent quantities in the vicinity of the average tank site, and have often to be carted several miles. One contractor who was responsible for a few tanks and dams in Tongowoko county, usually devoted part of his Sunday to this task, the water being carried in two square iron tanks on a heavy dray. The latter was propped up near the camp, and every time a bucket of water was wanted there was a climb up to dip it from the tank. This water got lukewarm in the sun, and so canvas bags had to be filled overnight and hung in the shade for next day's use. The man worked in the excavation till sundown, then horses were hurriedly unharnessed and driven to the waterholes to drink, and afterwards on to grass. This occupied at least one man till 8 or 9 o'clock. The horses were mustered at daylight, and watered again before being brought to camp. Naturally, the animals soon got poor and leg-weary, and a big mob in reserve was needed to keep the work going. This contractor worked 12 horses a day in the excavation, and he wore out 60 horses a month.
He had often a little work to do at the forge after tea, when less-industrious people were wasting their time reading, talking, or sleeping. There was a link to put in a broken chain, swinglebars to be remounted, picks and ploughshares to point. This work was done by the firelight or in the moon light. If the damaged gear could be dispensed with, and the nights were dark and hot, the repairing was left till Sunday. There was an awful accumulation of work at times for Sunday.
Butchering was also done at night—by the light of a slush lamp. A week's supply of sheep was left him at a time by the nearest boundary-rider, and they were kept in a small pen and fed with cut grass until killed. This imposed a further nightly task of cutting a bag of grass. Besides all this he had a good deal of harness-mending to do, and here again the flickering slush-lamp proved invaluable. He was a handy man, take him all round; a busy man with a hungry, worried look from long hours and continual rushing. The site of a new tank is usually chosen on a narrow flat, commanding a large catchment area, as near the centre of the paddock as possible, and within easy reach of a clump of trees where sheep can shelter in the heat of the day. The tanksinker pitches camp close by, building a flat-topped bough shed for a living room, and using a canvas hut or tent for sleeping in. A rough, sapling yard, a forge and a fireplace, are also made. The latter are placed half a chain or more from the inflammable building, the fireplace being roofless, and surrounded by a low stone wall to protect it from the fierce winds.
An Ordinary Tank.
An ordinary tank is from 12ft to 20ft deep. The sides slope, of course, to permit sheep to go in and out, whilst another bank or parapet is built right round on top with the earth that is carried out of the excavation. Ploughing is the easiest part of the work, as that is always on a level bottom, though the horses have to turn on the end batters. Scooping necessitates a climb up and down the batters with every load, which is hard on men and horses. When the excavation is complete, a small catch-tank is made above it, and fluming is run from it through the made bank to the top of the batter, whence a chute—built of rails, posts and galvanised iron, riveted and tarred—carries the water to the bottom. This saves the sides from being damaged by corrosion, and prevents debris and silt from being washed in. Despite this, however, tanks silt up in heavy dust storms, and have to be periodically cleaned out. There is seldom any protection about them, the planting of hedges and trees being rarely thought of, and tons of sand are whirled over the banks every summer, providing scoopers with work when there is no excavating to do. The scoops are also employed now and again in clearing the banked up sand away from fences, troughs and yards.
It occasionally happens that an expensive tank when finished is found to be worthless. A heavy thunderstorm fills it, and a few days later it is empty again, the ground being too porous to hold the water; or, perhaps, it has bottomed on an old bed, which proves to be a veritable sieve. The rain that has filled it has probably left the paddock knee-deep in Mitchell grass, and though stock may be practically starving in other paddocks, this feed has to waste for want of convenient water. It is a common experience in this dry zone to have an abundance of feed and no water on one part of a run, and plenty of water but no feed on other parts.
To obviate mistakes of the kind mentioned, trial shafts are sunk on the site of a projected tank to ascertain the nature of the soil and to avoid rocks. Even with these precautions, a patch of rock or sandstone is often met with in excavations, and has to be blasted and picked out. This not only delays operations, but occasions much more black-smithing than usual. Some tanks, too, turn out to be crumbly, and break away under the horses' hoofs, spoiling the batters. This kind of ground bogs when sheep come to water there, unless specially prepared; and a boggy tank, requiring constant watching and entailing much labour, is the next worse thing to a tank which won't hold water.
Of the large floating population of Australia, there is a considerable section known as odd-job men among "bush workers." These are never working very long in one place, until they drop eventually into something of a permanent nature, and then the ranks they have left are filled by others. Shearers, drovers, prospectors, and so forth belong more or less to the floating population; but each of these groups follows a particular calling. The odd-jobbers do not specialise; but take anything they can get. Such is the course of the new arrival, or a townsman driven by the want of employment to shoulder his swag, and take the road that leads indefinitely "up north," or "out west," or it may be "down south."
Only an odd swagman has a more fixed destination than that, for he never knows where he is going to pull up. He may tramp for months without getting a day's work, and he may chance upon a good billet the first day. The hope eternal buoys him up, and no matter how long the road may be, or where the search may lead him, he finds plenty to help him on. To the willing unemployed, the man of energy, the constant movement on the track is better than waiting about. It also gives him a better opportunity of learning what is going on about the country. He hears that something is doing, or a hand or two are wanted, at a certain place, and he makes for there. He is more often disappointed than not in such cases, for other travellers have steered for the same place, and the prize has gone to the first-comers. He seems at times to be pursuing a Will-o-the-wisp, which he chases from place to place, for hundreds of miles, for weeks and months. In direct contrast to this, at other times he can't go wrong, as he puts it, and picks up a job almost anywhere.
At Home on the Track.
He makes for the sheds and yards in the sheep-breeders' busy seasons, for there he may obtain a few weeks' work as rouseabout, yardman, or even as musterer. Being in the habit of accepting anything, providing the wages are satisfactory, and practising his hands at so many things, he is generally a handy person. The handier he is the more work he gets. Sometimes he is a footman, sometimes a horseman. He has no fixed abode once he launches upon this wandering quest. He is domiciled here for awhile, there for a short period, and always on being paid off he goes back to the track. He becomes quite at home there, tramping along serenely through the day, and camping wherever the set of sun might find him. At times, after earning a cheque, he has a holiday in town, and not infrequently takes the track again, hard up, and feeling the worse for the change he has enjoyed. Being penniless does not worry the veteran who is used to knocking around.
An Economical System of Living.
There are men who never hold their money long, who are always knocking around in the same condition as they started, and whose only home in life's twilight is a camp by the Darling River, where the old age pension, eked out by fishing and game-trapping, supplies their frugal wants. Very old are some of these before they quit the track for good, so old that nobody will give them anything to do; and their patriarchal appearance forces them to retire. There are others who hoard up their earnings, banking every shilling they can possibly spare from bare necessaries. Many an old battler, apparently hard-up, has been discovered to have a banking account of four figures. Living under the most economical system that is possible in a civilised country, they are able to put by all but a trifling portion of their yearly gleanings. They are not always working for wages; they take piecework, do a bit of mining, and occasionally invest in shares which they know to be sound. Others, again, have relatives somewhere to whose keep they contribute; or they help to maintain a home which they very rarely see. Young and old, they all belong to the army of wandering workers who help in the progress of inland settlement.
Bush and forest clearing, grubbing and burning off, are contracts at which they make good cheques, combining at times charcoal burning, for which they receive a shilling a bag, the charcoal being used in smithies in place of coal. Two men on a Richmond River run were given a contract of cutting down bean trees (Moreton Bay chestnut) along the watercourses. The bean tree is a valuable wood, much in request for cabinet-making and fancy work; but that did not count with the pastoralist.
It was alleged that cattle ate the beans, and died from poisoning. The contractors were paid 4d for all trees of four inches and over in diameter at the stump. The smaller stuff had to be cut down with the rest, though nothing under the specified dimensions was paid for. Many of the trees ran to two feet in diameter. The big ones were cut high, and the small ones low, many of them close to the ground—to get the required measurement. The contract lasted three months, and the axemen cleared a little over £90 each—which was about £7 a week all through. Plums of this sort, of course, are not found on every track; but the knockabout always has the chance of making a rise.
His work is largely regulated by the seasons, and so he keeps an eye on the rainfall in the districts around him. Heavy rains bring floods, and floods cause washaways on roads, dams, fences, &c. As the damage needs repairing immediately, the earliest available men are put on. On runs where drought holds sway, there is shepherding to do, scrub-cutting to feed starving stock, skinning dead sheep and plucking dead wool. The latter is an unpleasant job, for which there is rarely a rush of applicants. Yet good cheques have been made at it where the mortality has been heavy. Sometimes the work is paid for by the week, from 30s to 40s and keep, or at the rate of a penny to threepence per pound of wool.
Scrub-cutting is paid for by the week. The men work in small gangs, camping where there is good scrub, convenient to water. One or two horsemen are required to muster the starving animals, and keep them distributed on the feed. Some of the smaller trees are cut down; but lopping is the general practice, so that the trees will top again for another season. The axemen have therefore much climbing to do.
In normal seasons, particularly in Mitchell-grass country, there is a good deal of bush haymaking done. On some of the clear plains mowing machines are used, the work and conditions then being similar to those on harvesting fields. On other places the grass is cut with scythes; and on others, again, where the growth is patchy, with reaping-hooks. Mitchell grass is the only hay stored at a great many of the central homesteads, and is used for stable feeding as well as a stand-by for starving stock in drought time. Seed is also collected from this grass—and from blue grass, Flinders grass, and other valuable drought-resisting native grasses, for which there is always a steady demand.
Another grass that is extensively cut, and which provides a lot of employment in the interior, is cane grass. It is the product of swampy plains, and is used for thatching sheds, various outhouses, wind-breaks, and walls around wool-drying grounds. The ground where it grows is generally lumpy, hard to walk over, and is a favourite haunt of snakes. The grass makes a clean, neat wall or roof, and far inland, wherever the material is obtainable, such structures are common.
Where the grass does not grow, some of the shearing sheds are roofed with boughs. These make a lot of litter about the board and pens when old and decaying, and the roof has to be partially renewed every year before shearing commences. There is always a wood contract about the same time, a good many cords being wanted for the huts. Occasionally there is a bit of rough carpentering needed also, for the huts fire used all the year round by travellers, some of whom are not particular what they burn if there is no firewood handy. For that reason a lot more wood than is necessary for the shearers and rouseabouts is usually cut at these sheds, the surplus being a thoughtful provision for the knockabouts who may choose to camp there for a night or two, or during wet weather.
Burr-cutting is another annual job on runs where this bane of the sheep breeder has established itself. The burrs get into the wool, and besides depreciating the value of that product, the sheep with burry fleeces are objectionable to the shearer. The careful pastoralist keeps his run clean, and thus spends a good sum annuall in burr country on the eradication of the pest. The odd jobber, who looks regularly for this work, knows where to go, and the exact time of the year when his services at different places will be required. Here again the season is a factor to be considered. A better rainfall will cause the crop to be more forward in some parts than in others. He also inquires of other travellers whether they have seen any burrs, and where the welcome weed is most plentiful, displaying the interest in this noxious vegetable of a keen botanist.
Yarns used to be told in the back country to the effect that certain old battlers were wont to gather the seed on burr infested runs, and sow them promiscuously on clean runs, and here and there along the track for hundreds of miles. The following season they would travel the same track again, looking for the job they had prepared for themselves.
Travellers of all descriptions carry the seed about unintentionally, for it clings to their blankets and their clothes. It also secures a grip in the dog's hair, in the horse's mane and tail, and on the wool of travelling sheep. The traveller generally takes the greatest care to avoid contact with the tenacious pest; but he picks up some here and there, all the same, and sheds them perhaps far away from their original habitat. It is on camping grounds that the pest usually gets its initial footing. On account of its easy and varied means of dissemination, run owners who strive to get rid of it start the burr-cutting work before the bulk of the plants have seeded, and much of the seeded portion is collected and burnt.
A perennial is the prickly pear, which, in parts of Queensland, offers succour to the out-of-work in all seasons. He can even have the ground it grows on from the Government on condition that he roots out every vestige of the prickly horror from the patch he cares to select. Attacking a compact mass of it is worse than cutting a way through bush wire entanglements. He is not often tempted by the offer to settle down there, and he looks upon prickly pear cutting as a last resource, when he is hard up, and no other job is available. He is paid up to 50/ a week and found, but the spinous armament of the vile cactus is difficult to avoid, and it leaves painful sores wherever it penetrates the skin. A good deal of the rest-time of the cutter is spent in extracting "prickles."
It is an old saying among miner's that there are big goldfields in Australia still waiting to be discovered, and the lucky finds made now and again at Bathurst, where the first gold was got in 1851, seem to point that way. A good-sized nugget was unearthed there in September, 1914, by Ronald McNivar, an old mining identity, whose name had been bobbing up from time to time in connection with nuggets for a generation or more. He struck nearly £500 worth close to the same spot some years earlier. He had worked about there ever since: and hundreds of thousands of other miners had tried their luck on the same historic fields since the roaring fifties; yet the later nugget lay quite near the surface.
An alluvial gold mine is a very useful thing to have about the premises. As often as not it is discovered by somebody accidentally stubbing his toe against an outcrop, perhaps while looking for horses, or for a waterhole whereat to quench a desperate thirst. A lonely Queenslander once discovered a payable field through having an altercation with his dog. He picked up a stone to throw at the animal, but immediately noticed the weight, and then the glitter of it here and there; and the next moment he had heaved his hat into the atmosphere, and was patting the dog. Broken Hill, the world's biggest silver mine, was discovered by a boundary-rider, who was thinking about sheep; and Mount Browne goldfield first revealed its secret to two horsemen who had knelt down to drink at a little running stream. Coarse specks of water-worn gold, which even the inexperienced eye could not mistake, gleamed on the sandy bed. That mystic locality, which saw a wild rush at first, and lured many a digger across the thirsty plains to his death, is still a profitable specking field after rain.
In the Dry Zones.
The scarcity of water is the greatest handicap to far inland prospecting. It does not deter men from rushing forth when a long guarded secret of mother earth has been revealed, and the tracks to dry-zone bonanzas in plenty have been paved with human bones. There have been numerous instances, too, of solitary prospectors perishing after locating patches that would have made them rich men. One of the famous fields of W.A., called Dunn's Find, from the digger who made it known, bore unmistakable evidence of previous discovery. Lumps had been chopped off the rich outcrop, whilst traces remained where some of the quartz had been dollied. Before Dunn struck this spot the remains of a prospector were found lying not far from the skeleton of a horse, still saddled, in the neighbourhood of Mount Burgess. A chamois bag found with the body contained 70oz. of rough gold. It is surmised that the dead man was the first discoverer of "Dunn's Find," and was making back to Coolgardie when he was overcome by thirst. Other men have made rich finds, as evidenced by the specimens they carried, and their secrets have perished with them. The prospector generally keeps his movements secret; if he has anything good in view he doesn't want the world to know where he is working until he has decided where to peg out his claim; and so he takes more risks than other workers in the bush.
The numerous fields that have come to light as the result of accident, discovered in many instances by men who knew nothing about mining, and the "lucky finds" still made intermittently on very old grounds, indicate that there has not yet been a very great deal of systematic prospecting. Some of the skilled miners who work on wages in big permanent mines, like Bendigo, Mount Morgan and Broken Hill, depart occasionally from their regular occupations, and employ themselves with varying fortune in this direction. There are hundreds of miners, men in whom the fever never dies, who would avail themselves of the chance of prospecting far and wide if only guaranteed their tucker and tobacco by the Government. They prospect when they get the chance, but rarely for long, unless they strike a patch that will support them, for want of provisions and clothes compels them to seek other work.
Assistance to Prospectors.
In the Northern Territory prospectors are given rations and some monetary assistance, and grants on a generous scale are made to discoverers of metalliferous ores. In other States prospecting is encouraged, principally in the way of deep sinking, not only for gold, but for other minerals. Men prospecting for opal at White Cliffs, for instance, were liberally assisted in specified localities. For sinking they were granted 2s 6d a foot in picking ground; 7s 6d a foot in coarse conglomerate; 12s 6d a foot in fine-grained conglomerate; with an additional allowance of 6d per foot on all sinking over 50ft. deep; and for driving, 2s 6d per foot in picking ground. All the shafts were to be sunk to a depth of 50ft., and continued to a greater depth if prospects warranted it; but reasons for sinking below the 50ft. level had to be set out fully, and the consent of the board obtained. Until 1913 White Cliffs was the most important opal mining centre in Australia; but in that year the production from the Lightning Ridge field, near Walgett, nearly doubled in value the output of the Cliffs. New South Wales and Queensland are the only two States in which opal mining is largely carried on, only small quantities of the precious stone being found elsewhere. The principal buyers—before the war—were German firms, agents for which were operating on every important field.
It is reckoned that about 100,000 persons were engaged in mining in the Commonwealth during 1913. Of this total the pursuit of gold employed, in round numbers, 34,000; coal and shale, 23,500; copper, 13,000; silver, lead and zinc, 11,000; tin, 7500; and the balance distributed among other minerals, the principal of which were antimony, bismuth, chrome, diamonds, opal, wolfram and iron. There are a great number of men who do not style themselves miners when stating their occupations, but who nevertheless do a good deal of mining and prospecting from time to time. In season men leave the silver mines of Broken Hill, the copper mines of Cobar, the Burra and Cloncurry, and the opal fields of White Cliffs, for the shearing sheds. Others work for short periods in the mines when their usual work is unobtainable. Men employed on big runs, as stockmen and boundary-riders, whose avocation takes them into lonely mountain gullies that are very rarely trodden by other humans, search for minerals whenever they come to a promising spot, and have time to look round.
Minerals of various sorts, from precious stones to gold, are so widely distributed over Australia, that there are few bushmen who do not give a thought to them while following their ordinary pursuits. Those who possess some knowledge of mining do a little quiet prospecting in odd corners; and when digging post holes, sinking wells, and so forth, the eye is always alert for minerals, especially for gold and precious stones. The best known and most commonly sought after of these are sapphires, emeralds, turquoises, topazes, zircons, garnets, agates, rubies, crocidolites, tourmalines, beryls, and chiastolites, or luck stones. Some of these, as emeralds, require hard and deep mining to obtain; others, as agates and sapphires, occur plentifully in the beds of creeks. Diamonds, one of the gems systematically mined for, are also obtained from the gravel beds of streams. Travellers looking for work in sparsely-settled country, and on tracks that are little used, search these beds for precious stones, as well as for gold.
Swagmen are frequently met on bush tracks who have a collection of stones in a small bag, specimens varying in value from a few pence to many pounds. They have been gathered here and there, over a wide scope of country, perhaps in different States. The collection is freely displayed at a camp fire, where a couple or more travellers have chanced to meet; but no information as to where they were obtained is volunteered, and rarely is the fossicker questioned on that point. He speaks of good things he knows, and which he intends to probe into as soon as he can get a bit of money for working purposes. It is probably months before he gets work, or disposes of his gems, by which time he is a few hundred miles from the locale of his good things, and, perhaps, never goes back.
Not a few of these fossickers subsist entirely on their gleanings. They never work for wages; but are ever wandering, ever searching about the bush. They find enough of one kind and other to keep them, and now and again they strike a good patch, and make a rise. Precious stones and gold are the principal items sought for, little consideration being given by the average fossicker to silver, copper and tin. The value of the tin production in the Commonwealth is nearly a million and a half per annum. Mining for this metal is one of the favourite pursuits of the Chinese in Queensland. The bulk of the output comes from Tasmania, Queensland, and New South Wales. The greater part of New South Wales' contribution is got by dredging.
One of the minerals that was brought into special request by the war was molybdenite, obtained in the New England, Pambula, and Chillagoe (Q.) districts, also in the northern part of Western Australia. Renewed interest was given to this mining by the Federal Government undertaking to purchase, on behalf of the Imperial Government, the whole of the Australian output of the metal from prospectors and buying agents.
The rates of wages paid to miners vary slightly in the different States, the highest being in Western Australia. In gold, copper, silver and lead, and other mines (excepting coal), in New South Wales, the different classes of workmen are paid as follows: Battery feeders, 51s to 55s 6d per week; brace men, 54s to 63s; engine drivers (stationary), 60s to 75s (winding and locomotive), 66s to 78s; firemen, 54s to 60s; labourers, 55s; miners (dry work), 57s to 63s (wet work), 63s to 69s; platmen, 54s to 63s; shaftsinkers (dry work), 59s to 78s (wet work), 65s to 78s; shift bosses and timbermen, 60s to 72s. In West Australia the latter receive 80s to 84s; shaft-sinkers, 90s to 100s; miners, 70s to 84s; and labourers, 64s 6d to 66s. Here and there in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the western State, prospectors are supported by syndicates, the ruling rate being about £3 a week.
These syndicates are often formed of working men. A party of three, prospecting on deep levels in southern Queensland, was supported by a syndicate of stockmen, working on three adjoining runs. Each member contributed a portion of his wages weekly to make up the pay of the prospectors. They held meetings periodically at a wayside pub, where the prospects were discussed, and future operations decided upon. Another party was supported by selectors and drovers. There are parties scattered about the bush also who are paid by miners and mine labourers, who are permanently employed on wages. The contributing miner holds that he can't get rich on wages, and he invests what he can spare from his earnings in the search for nature's hidden treasures.
Every road has an interesting history, much of it tragic, humorous, and romantic; and no one knows it better, than the man who works on the road through rain and shine, through winter and summer. The dusty brown streak, which seems endless, undulating and winding amid the hills and timber, that means only weariness to the hurrying traveller, who describes it as lonely and dreary, has a story in every bend, in every dip and rise. To the walking tourist it is a fascinating study, for its records embody the records of the districts it traverses, and every local incident and episode of note are told there, where all sorts and conditions of men meet and pass. And what memories cling to it for those who have known it intimately from their earliest years; happy memories and sad memories, engraving every twist of that insentient ribbon of dust indelibly on the mind, making it forever loved or forever hated. Note the rapture, not unmingled with regret, with which an old couple goes over it after years of absence, discussing familiar spots, recalling half-forgotten names and things, marking the changes, and observing with keen interest where an old house has been pulled down and a new one has been built; and here and there they ask the road man about people they used to know.
If the roadman is an old hand he can talk about his special thoroughfare for hours. He will probably know its history from when it was merely a blazed-tree line, marked for the guidance of a pioneer settler. Horsemen following that line made a bridle track, and that remained for years before the infrequent vehicular traffic had worn it into the greater prominence of a "dray road." A horse mailman linked the scattered settlers with the postal department, followed in the course of time by the mail coach. The difficulties of the coach driver and of contemporary teamsters in crossing unbridged creeks and gullies, and ploughing over boggy flats, accentuated by an occasional capsize, by damage and loss, and by delays through rain and flood, brought the first gangs of men to make a more passable way. When the surveyors had done their part; much of the old road was lost in the twists and deviations that had been cut out.
Sometimes the original track is formed by the first travellers following a surveyor's line; sometimes a bush road is proclaimed a public road after it has been in general use a long while. Till then it has been nobody's business to look after it. Such a road is at times slightly improved by the settlers who have to use it frequently. A few stones and a load or two of gravel are tipped here and there in the boggiest parts, and a rough bridge of logs and saplings is thrown across a bad creek or gully.
Road making, where the population is thin, is a wearisomely slow process to the settler. It is an event of great importance to him when the clearing gangs get to work, grubbing and hewing away, a chain wide, through the forest. That alone is an improvement, for he hasn't then, when driving along after a storm, to pull round a fallen tree, or drag a limb off the track at every few yards. The clearing is heavy work, and the cluster of white tents is conspicuous by the wayside for months. The trees are partly grubbed out, and partly hauled down by the stump extractor or "forest devil." The trees, as far as possible, are thrown at right angles to the line, so that in most cases the tops fall clear, and there is only the trunk to cut up and roll aside. A big gang, working in heavy forest, is composed of several sections; the navvies who do the pick and shovel work, and help with the extracting apparatus; crosscut sawyers and axemen; a bullock or horse driver; an overseer and a cook. A little excitement comes the way of the clearers when they strike a bees' nest, which is always robbed, and the store of honey taken to the camp. Wasps' nests are sometimes more frequently met with than those of bees, and are less pleasant to deal with. The mass of stuff removed from the line, added to the smash caused by falling giants, makes an impassable barrier along each side, which slowly disappears in the summer fires. The scrub is an agreeable field to work in—if it is not infested with mosquitos and leeches; but the brush is not so easily got rid of, on account of the dense and tangled growth on either side, and is sometimes, on a long contract, left till it is dry enough to be fired on the road. Among steep hills and ranges, where the road proceeds in curves and zig-zags, clearing is interesting, if sometimes more difficult.
A Long Job.
These roads provide a long job for successive gangs of men. The work of the first, who form the road after the clearing gang has finished, is almost wholly done with picks and shovels. On level country the sides are ploughed; but along the sides of steep ridges and ranges the plough can't be used. This winding track, cut down on its upper side and ballasted on the lower, and requiring frequent culverts and bridges to connect at watercourses and hollows, is the one that most interests the road engineer; and it is also an interesting one to the traveller, though he may travel five miles to reach a point which an airman could reach in three. Until it is properly finished it suffers severely in heavy downpours of rain; and when it is finished it requires constant watching by the maintenance men.
The stone nappers who follow have a lengthy contract, though they work only on sections of the road. Very few roads are completed straight out. A few chains are macadamised here, a few chains there, perhaps miles away, the intervening spaces being left as long as they can be negotiated in average weather by the regular traffic. Each section, if far apart, employs several groups of men—quarrymen, carters and stone nappers. The latter are paid by the yard, and are required to heap their metal in regulation form convenient for measurement. The wise inspector roots into a heap here and there, if he doesn't know his workmen, to make sure that the neat heap of blue metal is not built on a body of unbroken stone, or that it is all broken to the stipulated size. In one contract on a North Coast road a lot of money was paid away for knobs of earth. The ground was lumpy thereabouts, and instead of choosing a level spot, some of the nappers made a practice of building each of their heaps round a good-sized knob, which occupied the space of from half a yard to a yard of road metal. The heaps sometimes remain a long while as the nappers leave them before the metal is spread on the road, and finally rolled and blinded.
It would be hard to say how many men are directly employed in connection with the roads; but it is an old saying that, when other work is scarce, there is always a job to be had on the roads. That work never ceases; gangs are always mending and making somewhere. Most of the work, such as clearing, forming and metalling, is let by tender; and almost every town numbers among its citizens at least one who is described as a road contractor. Some inland towns keep a dozen plants continuously employed. A plant consisting of half a dozen navvies' drays, a dozen draught horses, harness, plough, picks and shovels, tents, campware, axes and hammers, and a light forge, costs about £400. Some contractors, taking light jobs and short sections, work with only one or two drays; others, in forming sections of roads, require only a couple of horses and a plough, in addition to hand tools. Many confine their operations to carting contracts, being paid by the load for stone, gravel and sand. The usual wages of pick and shovel men are 8s and 9s per day of eight hours, when the men find themselves; outside town, where all hands are camped by the work in hand, 6s to 7s a day and found.
Main Roads of the State.
The four great main roads of New South Wales are the Southern Road, 385 miles in length, which runs from Sydney to Albury; the South Coast Road, 250 miles in length, which runs along the coast range from Campbelltown and through the Illawarra district to Bega, whence it continues as a minor road to the border; the Western Road, 513 miles, which runs via Bathurst and Orange to Bourke, from which place a minor road, 130 miles long, runs to the border at Hungerford; the Northern Road, 406 miles, which runs from Morpeth to Maryland. The approximate length of roads in this State in 1914 was set down at 95,000 miles. Of this total only 16,500 miles were metalled, ballasted, or gravelled; 11,300 miles were formed only; 27,300 miles were cleared only; and the balance, about 40,000 miles, were described officially as "natural surface," but are generally termed bush roads. While the traveller passes maintenance men and working gangs at intervals on all the made roads and roads in course of making, he seldom meets one on the bush road, for that road has to look after itself until it has reached the "formed" stage. Every year adds to the number and length of roads, all adding grist to the mill of the road-maker.
Culverts and Ferries.
Bridge-building belongs to another class of workers, but culverts are often constructed by ordinary road contractors. In 1914 there were 36,565 culverts in the State, aggregating 422,950ft. The bridges and culverts were supplemented by 128 ferries. The ferryman is an important link to the traveller by road. In most instances the ferry is subsidised by Government, the amount of the subsidy being determined by tender; but on some of the main streams the ferryman pays an annual sum for the privilege of running the ferry, this sum being also decided by tender. He has a monotonous time in some places, but in others plenty of business and excitement come his way. On a stock route he has often to ferry over a big mob of cattle. Like the maintenance man, he has to work in all weathers, and he has to do some night work also—up to about 9 o'clock.
The Maintenance Man.
The maintenance man is a familiar object on all made roads. A steady job is his, for he goes on soon after the road is completed, and he is there or thereabouts for ever afterwards. As it is particularly necessary for him to be on the road with his pick and shovel in wet weather, repairing washaways and draining off pools of water, the regulations require him to include oilskins and watertight boots in his equipage. Outside the towns he lives in a tent, pitched by the roadside. Though he may have no neighbour within miles of him for weeks at a stretch, his lot is not the loneliest in the bush, for it is on the roads that carry a fair amount of traffic that he finds permanent employment. All manner of travellers driving along the many diverging ways give him greeting, but to him the king of the highway is the road inspector, who, driving along in many diverging ways, from the hub of his district, completes the ever-busy army of road workers.
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