photos and stories from the Powerhouse Museum
Along with drovers and stockmen, the shearer was celebrated in verse and song and has a special place in Australian folklore. In the early years of the 19th century when flocks were fairly small shearing was done by the squatter, his overseer, or a few stations hands. As flocks increased and properties spread out geographically, itinerant shearers appeared and many were former convicts. By the 1890s shearers came from three groups, professional shearers, rural workers, and part-timers from both small farms and towns who gave up their normal work to earn extra money.
The professional shearer followed a seasonal route throughout the year traveling south through the eastern States and sometimes on to New Zealand. The rural workers combined shearing with fencing, stock work and horse breaking while the last group were often from small selections.
Shearers, carrying their swags, at first traveled from shed to shed on horseback, on foot or in sulkies, spring carts or traps. By the beginning of the 20th century the bicycle was the most popular method. Bicycles did not need feeding and expensive stabling when not in use and were the ideal mode of transport for the fit shearers. They were slowly replaced from the 1920s by the motorcycle and car but continued until after the Second World War.
Shearers developed their own colourful bush vocabulary: the ‘ringer’ was the fastest shearer; ‘drummer’, the slowest or laziest; ‘gun’ the shearer with a consistently high tally; ‘cobbler’ or ‘snob’, the last sheep left in the pen; and ‘bell sheep’, the one taken just before the bell sounded for the end of the session. These are still used in Australian shearing sheds today.
Shearers slept in their own quarters often in very poor conditions. They elected a spokesman, to act as a go-between between them and the squatter, and a cook. Many sheds began shearing on a Thursday or Friday to help the shearer get into condition for the forthcoming full week’s shearing. By the mid-1880s the shearers worked 6 sessions a day from 6 am until 6 pm stopping for breakfast, ‘dinner’ (around noon), lunch (mid-afternoon), and “smokos”.
There was great interest and rivalry between shearers to shear quickly and cleanly. The fastest shearers averaged 200 sheep a day but the wool varied in weight and density so tallies were higher in Queensland where the wool was less dense. The most famous Australian shearer was John Robert ‘Jacky’ Howe (1861-1920) who gave his name to the navy or black sleeveless singlets popular with shearers and rural workers. He still holds the world record for hand shearing, 321 sheep in 8 hours and 40 minutes, at Alice Downs station, near Blackall, Queensland, in 1892.
Photography by Kerry and Co.
No known copyright restrictions
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator