Hard Cases and Horrible Brutes: Australian Shearers of the 1890s

The Captain Pickhills, interviewed by Charles Bean in paragraph four of this extract, is actually my Great Grand Uncle, Captain George Rickinson Swan Pickhills. A Yorkshire man who came to Australia in the 1860s, he captained a steamer along the Darling River from Bourke in NSW to Goolwa in South Australia. He towed barges of wool bales down the river with his steamer. It is rumoured that Charles Bean’s Book “The Dreadnought of the Darling” is largely based on his interviews with, and recollections of, Captain Pickhills.

By 1890, a sheep population of nearly 100 million (it peaked at 106 million in 1892) was spread across a third of the Australian continent, from central Queensland to Tasmania, across into South Australia and down the western side of Western Australia. The shearers who shore them travelled by every conceivable means of transport: horse, train, bicycle, paddle-steamer and on foot.

Many stations and shearing sheds were great distances from railway lines or even roads. In the more settled areas of the more populous states, many shearers could work locally and only travelled for more work when the urge took them. However, in the vast outback regions of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, even local work involved large distances. Consequently, even good shearers faced long weeks without work as they wandered from shed to shed. When the largely seasonal work came to an end, there was no work at all. The situation was, in short, a shambles for all involved.

Nevertheless, as wool emerged as the premier industry in Australia, the shearer emerged as the embodiment not just of the industry but of a sense of freedom few occupations could equal. Shearers were often more worldly than other rural workers. They were more skilled and physically fitter.

However, opinion was still divided over whether they were heroes or villains. When Charles Bean (journalist and, later, official war historian) interviewed an old-time steamboat captain, Captain Pickhill, about the shearers he had seen in his years plying his trade on the Darling River, Pickhill recalled:

‘Lots of those shepherds and shearers near Bourke, were ‘old hands’ [meaning ex-convicts]. Some of them were decent good fellows; and the rest — well, they were horrible! Unmitigated rascals, fearing neither God nor the devil. The language I have heard in Bourke made a man wonder the heavens did not drop down and crush the fellow. They were great, coarse, horrible brutes of men.’

Others took a different view. A German political sociologist, Dr Robert Schachner, went and lived among shearers, miners and factory hands in an attempt to ascertain which of them had the best life. He concluded that shearers had a better standard of living, were better read and were more intelligent. He wrote: ‘If the spicy air of the bush gives the shearer new life and energy for thought and reading it is far different in the factory… Scarcely fit to leave school, the boy enters the horrid gloom of the machine rooms… What wonder if his brain dries up?’

In his memoirs Julian Stuart gave a nostalgic view of what it was like to be a shearer, describing a night in the quarters on Northampton Downs, where he and his colleagues were ‘disrobing 150 000 jumbucks’. Whistling Dick played on his tin whistle, Bungeye Blake sang, and Piebald Moore and Cabbagetree Capstick told some tales, but it was when Dusty Bob took the floor that Julian paid more attention. He considered Dusty to be ‘the most fluent liar that ever crossed the Darling’:

‘His anecdotes about “Crooked Mick” began and ended nowhere and made C.M. appear a superman… with feet so big he had to go outside to turn round. It took a large-sized bullock’s hide to make him a pair of moccasins [preferred footwear for shearers]. He worked at such a clip that his shears ran hot and sometimes he had half-a-dozen in the water-pot to cool. He had his fads and would not shear in sheds that faced North. When at his top it took three pressers to handle the wool from his blades and they had to work overtime to keep the bins clear. He ate two sheep each meal… that is, if they were small merinos… but only one and a half when the ration sheep were Leicester crossbred wethers. His main tally was generally cut out on the breakfast run. Anyone who tried to follow him usually spent the balance of the day in the hut. Between sheds he did fencing. When cutting brigalow posts he used an axe in each hand to save time, and when digging postholes a crowbar in one hand and a shovel in the other.’

Stuart also described the different kinds of mateship that existed among shearers. A pen mate, for example, was hardly a mate at all. The shearers drew lots to see which stand they’d get and it was pure luck who they were paired with. However, the two had to cooperate as they went about catching sheep from the same pen.

Then there were grinding mates. As he explained:

‘In the old blade-shearing days, when the “keeping” of shears was a large item for the shearer’s consideration, it was necessary for each man to have a mate to turn the grindstone for him… in fact, each pair turned for one another; they were grinding mates and very often it was Hobson’s choice on both sides, if you could believe them when they started arguing… they nearly always did.’

Last came real mateship, which according to Stuart was a thing that could last a lifetime but was sometimes difficult to understand:

‘Two hard old cases, Peter and Fred, mates of long standing, were knocking down their cheques in the good old-fashioned way, and quarrelled about some trifle. It looked as if it would end in a fight to a finish and the fracture of a lifelong friendship, so a bystander tried to act as peacemaker and started to lead Peter away, but was straightaway woodened out by old Fred. The two old battlers, reconciled, went back to the bar to resume the main business of life, cutting out their cheques.’

This story is an edited extract from The Shearers by journalist Evan McHugh, published by Penguin Books Australia.



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