Friday, November 2, 2012


The first sheep arrived in Australia aboard the First Fleet. They were brought to start a flock which could supplement the meat supply in the infant colony. In 1798 the colony’s minister, Samuel Marsden and an officer of the Rum Corp, John MacArthur imported Spanish merinos from South Africa. It wasn’t long before they sent wool samples from these sheep back to England. The flocks in Australia grew rapidly and when the Napoleonic Wars broke out Australian wool gained a foothold in England as traditional wool suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Modern day shearing is still back-breaking work.

By 1830 the Australian flock had increased to two million sheep and had gained a reputation as extremely fine wool. Over the next 10 years they challenged Germany and Spain as the main supplier of wool to England. In 1870 Australia became the number one wool producer in the world with over 40 million sheep producing quality wool. In 1970 Australia had 180 million sheep.

These sheep needed shearing. In the early colony this was done using hand clippers or ‘blades’. The record for the most sheep shorn in a day was set in 1835 when Tom Merely shore 30 sheep.  To keep up with the shearing one South Australian company used women immigrants from Germany. The first shearing machine was patented in 1868, and a rope drive machine in 1877. Blade shearers became worried as the popularity of shearing machines grew, especially when a 40 machine shed was built on Dunlop station near Louth.  A shearers union was formed at Ballarat. 

The Jondaryan wool shed today is a rural museum.
In 1891 shearers passed a motion banning union members from working alongside non-union members. This was tested when workers went on strike because non-union shearers were employed at the Jondaryan shed in Queensland. The strike lasted for 6 months and spread across the country. Queensland was on the verge of civil war as armed camps of shearers were set up on the outskirts of townships. Soldiers were called in to protect non-union shearers. The shearers raided shearing shed sabotaging machinery and harassing non-union workers. The Rockhampton wharvies supported the shearers and refused to load wool. However it was a poor shearing season and many of the shearers lacked money and ran out of food. Eventually the squatters won and the shearers returned to work.  The failure of this strike and the abuse of workers rights did however contribute towards the creation of the Australian Labor Party.

The wool industry became important, especially in wartime. During World War II it was considered such an important industry that shearers were not allowed to enlist in the armed forces. There were other shearer strikes. In 1956 the shearers won a 10 month strike when pastoralists tried to reduce the rates paid to shearers. In 1983 there was a 10 week strike over the use of wide-toothed combs being used on shearing handsets. This strike did not have wide-spread support and the shearers eventually lost.

Maybe the next step for shearers has already begun. In 1979 James Trevyan created a robot which took the first cut of wool from a sheep. In 1990 the Merino Wool Harvesting Company of South Australia developed a robot to part shear a sheep, only the company going out of business prevented this being taken further. However in 1997 the CSIRO commercialised ‘defleecing techniques’ as an alternative to shearing.

For many years the Australian economy was described as ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ so important was wool and the export of wool. Whatever the future of the Australian wool industry the shearer has been a romantic imagine of the Australian bush. He has been painted, stories and poems have been written about him and songs and movies have made him a part of Australian culture.

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