Click go the shears…
The domestication of sheep to provide food and clothing had commenced well before biblical times, and at the time Australia was settled Spain dominated the European wool trade. Britain wanted to compete and Sir Joseph Banks helped set up of a Merino Society in 1811 in London to promote British entry into this field and encourage the breeding of merino sheep.
John Macarthur imported the first 26 merino sheep into Australia in 1796 and by 1808, only twenty years after the first boat people had arrived in Sydney Cove, the first bale of 245 lbs of wool grown by Macarthur was sold by auction in London.
The suitability of Australian conditions for merino sheep and a rush to take up grants of land between 1838 and 1847 was further stimulated by the discovery of gold in the next decade, and this all soon led to an enormous increase in the number of sheep runs.
This expansion is demonstrated by the following almost exponential expansion in numbers; in Victoria alone there were seven hundred and eighty thousand odd sheep in 1840 and this had expanded to over three million by 1847 and doubled again by 1851.
It led to an economy where for a hundred years Australia was said to be 'riding on the sheep's back' and this only came to an end with the Second World War. It's instructive to appreciate the trade figures; in the nineteenth century primary products made up two thirds of Australian world trade, but by 1966 they were down to one third and by the nineteen eighties accounted for only 17 per cent with minerals replacing wool as our main export.
A large itinerant work force developed that went from shed to shed to shear the sheep, bale the wool and transport it. Shearers led moves to get better working conditions and wages, and in 1888 the newly formed Australian Shearers Union staged a big strike at Brookong Station near Lockhart in the Riverina, and several years later in Queensland sheds were burnt down during labour power struggles. The 1891 strike ultimately led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party and Henry Lawson's powerful poem, Freedom on the Wallaby, with it's underlying threat ('We'll make the tyrants feel the sting, O' those that they would throttle,They needn't say the fault is ours,If blood shall stain the wattle') was written at the height of the strike. By 1907 the powerful Australian Workers Union (AWU) was established and this eventually led to standard hours and working conditions being established through the courts.
Manual shearing had disappeared by the 1880's to be replaced by (largely) steam driven systems and itinerant workers and individual employment gradually disappeared also, to be replaced by large companies like Grazcos who subcontracted out shearing teams to graziers. By the Thirties they were organizing the shearing of over seven million sheep annually in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.
With the economic importance of wool, the sheds where the sheep were shorn grew in importance until they were the largest and most important buildings on rural properties. At first they were simply larger versions of the early houses and the same hipped roof forms persisted as the sheds got larger; Tottington Woolshed near St Arnaud in central Victoria, with it's gal iron roofing and largely bush timber cladding and framing is a good example. Designed with a flow system that would be the envy of a supermarket or car assembly line, the interiors, even when empty of people, have the gravitas of functional buildings where serious work takes place and where money is being made. Even when the shed has cut out and is silent, one can't help but imagine the old bony shearer out on the boards!
The balloon frame with its regularly spaced studs and plates of
minimal sized machined timber came to Australia from the United
States during the Gold Rush and revolutionised construction here as
completely as it had in the USA.
Allied with machine cut and dressed timber, wire cut nails and gal iron sheeting, the balloon frame rapidly replaced the previous construction of oversize bush logs and timbers intricately joined together with timber pegs.
These construction changes were more economical and led to buildings having a less rugged appearance; balloon frame woolsheds have a sharper look and were able to take on more complex shapes. Load bearing brick and stone often replaced timber in areas where those materials were easily available.
By the 1880's a wave of more ambitious and more sophisticated woolsheds were being built. Not sheds any more, they had almost become the cathedrals of rural Australia. Some of them were even designed by architects, reflecting the ambitions and prosperity of a booming wool industry.
Further innovations like the installation of electricity allowed working hours to be extended and to power mechanical shears, and the building designs were fine tuned to improve environmental conditions.
But after the First World War the big outback sheds started to close down because of lower sheep carrying capacity, lack of suitable stock feed due to droughts, rabbit plagues and so on. New sheds tended to be smaller steel framed buildings that lacked the character of the older sheds.
In his excellent book 'THE WOOLSHED: a Riverina Anthology' (Oxford University Press 1980) architect Peter Freeman writes of the demise of the woolshed as follows;
'Between 1911 and 1929 the Australian Pastoralists' Review
published five volumes which recorded the pastoral properties and
farm buildings of the Riverina and other areas. Some of the
woolsheds illustrated there still remain, but most have
The nineteenth century Riverina woolsheds died and are dying because they were a product of a proud and fervently optimistic age when labour was cheap, nature was bountiful, and Europe desperately wanted Australia's wool.
The natural reaction to the bounty at home and abroad was to construct cathedrals dedicated to wool, as at Brookong, Urangeline, Tupra and Toganmain. But these days were short lived. Labour became expensive, nature turned sour, and the technology of the twentieth century produced synthetic fibres to compete with wool. There would be no more wool cathedrals.'
During the Depression of the 1930's rural work dropped to 28 per cent of total employment and is now around 4 per cent and falling. Things have changed in a social sense too. Most of my older generation who grew up in the cities during the Depression still had links to the country through relatives on the land, and can remember school holidays in the country at Uncle Jack's. But the Depression and the Second World War broke the nexus between city and country, and increasingly city people have no direct country connections.
Most older Melburnians were taken as children to see the Tom Roberts painting 'The Shearing of the Rams' at the National Gallery of Victoria, and we all soon learnt the first line of Click goes the Shears, second only to Waltzing Matilda in a dying national folk mythology.
Henry Lawson described the itinerant bush way of life in his short stories, and his philosopher-type Mitchell was the first distinctively Australian character portrayal in our literature, a path that had commenced with our first boat people, the currency lads and lasses and the Leader of the Push.
More importantly, what lessons should Australia learn from the decline of the once proud wool industry, an early fore-runner of our current inability to compete in manufacturing just about anything and with almost all of our clothing and footwear made in other countries. With our education standards declining while we are all out shopping, nothing much has changed since Donald Horne ironically called us The Lucky Country.
Meanwhile the few photographs that follow illustrate the rich
variety and character of these wonderful, quint-essentially
Australian buildings of the past.
All the photographs were taken by Harry Sowden.
As well as the Freeman book referred to in the text (which includes that rarity-plans of the buildings) another excellent reference book is 'AUSTRALIAN WOOLSHEDS' edited and photographed by Harry Sowden with a text by Wayne McFee (Cassell Australia 1972).