Shearing in Australia [31 October 1874]

[Editor: An article published in The Australasian Sketcher, 31 October 1874.]

Shearing in Australia.

Shearing time is the great harvest of the pastoral interest and all the industries depending upon it. In our last issue we had an article, showing how much in Victoria, and indeed in Australia, we owe to the prosperity of the wool-producing industry. This is never better shown than at shearing time. Before it commences, the shearers, who busy themselves in other ways during the rest of the year, sharpen their shears, and packing these and their whetstone in the middle of their swag, take the road to their shearing district. This may, perhaps, be hundreds of miles inland. Probably, in that case, the district is an early one, and after finishing there they may be able to get another job at some later station on the way home. Many of them are selectors — let us hope not dummies in the interest of a neighbouring squatter, but bonâ-fide cultivators of their selections. They have sown their grain crops long ago, have dug their potatoes, and planted those for next year, and having sold and carted off their crop, and made good their fences, they consider home may safely be left in the control of the wife and family till their return. Most of them are regular hands in the work, and go back year after year to the same stations. This is one form of the industrial activity stimulated by the year’s wool-clip, but there are others that come later. By and bye, when the last sheep is shorn, and the last bale pressed and packed, the bullock drivers and waggoners, who convey the wool from the station to the river, or the railway, have their busy time. Then for some weeks the wharves at Echuca and the railway line to Melbourne are almost choked with the throng of wool-bales waiting transit to the metropolis. At this time, too, the wool-stores in Melbourne are full, and sales are actively proceeding. Wool is found everywhere on the railways and highways, and all the streams converge at the port of export, and find their way by one line or the other to Williamstown and Sandridge piers. These, at the busy season, are lined with splendid ships, waiting for their consignments of wool, which is packed in them with all speed, and three months later samples of it are being pulled and criticised by buyers, prior to the sales in the great London warehouses.

But what we have to do with at present is merely the shearing as depicted in our plate. This is pretty much the same as shearing anywhere else, and the operations in Australia are chiefly noticeable for their extent and importance. The sheep are mustered on the run during the day by boundary riders, and are brought to a paddock near the woolshed till they are wanted. About 500 or so are next placed in a division at one end of the shed, called the “sweating pen,” to be in readiness for work next morning. In the morning the sheep are driven into a “race” running along the middle of the shed, and from that find their way into the “shearer’s pens,” on each side of the race. From these they are taken one by one as wanted, and shorn on the floor along by each side of the shed. Work begins at 6 in the morning. The shearer catches his sheep, takes him from the pen, and throws him down, holding him between his knees, while the sharp and frequent click of the shears shows that the remorseless steel is divesting him of his woolly coat. The fleece is taken off entire, and the shorn sheep is turned by the shearer into the “count-out pen,” whence the sheep are counted out by the overseer three times a day. During the process the men adjourn work for a smoke, and the “tallies,” representing the count of each man, are distributed to them in the evening. The shorn sheep are yarded, branded, and driven away to their paddocks. In a very good day’s work, a quick shearer may shear from 100 to 104, but 75 is a very good average.

As the shearing proceeds, “pickers up,” who are generally natives, take the fleeces from the shearers, and throw them on the wool-table at the end of the shed. Some hands then “skirt” the wool — that is, remove the outside pieces — and the “classer” decides on the classification. The classes are — 1st combing (which includes wool for the finest worsteds), 2nd combing (an inferior kind), 1st clothing (for superfine cloth), 2nd clothing (for cloth of lower quality), pieces, bellies, locks, &c. When enough of a kind is got together for a bale, the “pressers” take it, fill a bale, and press it. The bale is then rolled away to the wool-store, and is ready for conveyance to market.

The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne, Vic.), 31 October 1874, p. 119 (7th page of that issue) (sketch on p. 120)

Editor’s notes:
bona fide = Latin for “in good faith”, often used regarding offers that are made in good faith and sincere (without fraud or deceit), or in relation to items that are genuine (not counterfeit or specious)

dummy = a squatter’s dummy was someone who bought land in his own name, but who in reality was buying it on behalf of a squatter, holding it for the legally-mandated time (e.g. one year) whereupon the squatter was then legally able to purchase the land from the “dummy” land owner; this was done following the passing of Land Acts in several Australian colonies (such as the Robertson Land Act of 1861 in NSW and the Nicholson Land Act of 1860 in Victoria), which attempted to limit the property-buying capabilities of the big land-owning squatters

selector = the purchaser of an area of land obtained by free-selection; land legislation in Australia in the1860s was passed by several colonies which enabled people to obtain land for farming, whereby they could nominate a limited area of land to rent or buy, being able to select land which had not yet been surveyed (hence the phrase “free selection before survey”) and even obtain land previously leased by squatters (although squatters were able to buy sections of their land, up to a designated limit; with many of them buying up further sections under the names of family members, friends, and employees)

squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)

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