The summer season is once again upon us, and for many people that means that it’s time to take a well-earned break.
For most rural New Zealanders, however, summer is no time to rest, and at this time of year woolsheds all over the country hum with the bleating and whirring of the shearing season.
History curator Katie Cooper traces the history of shearing through the 19th and 20th centuries, and highlights some of Te Papa’s woolshed wonders.
Shearing in the 19th century
The number of sheep in New Zealand increased rapidly in the 1840s and 1850s, as pastoralists took advantage of native tussockland to turn a quick profit.
A ‘landed gentry’ emerged as men with capital took up and stocked huge sheep runs, and by 1861 the colony had almost 2.5 million sheep.(1)
Shearers initially came from Australia to meet the demand, but local men soon took up the trade.
They moved from farm to farm in search of work, and by 1891 some 5,000-6,000 itinerant labourers were employed as shearers and shed-hands every season.(2)
At first, shearers worked outside on mats, tarpaulins or boards, although large sheds with slatted floors were common on larger farms by the 1870s.
Shearers used hand shears with two flat cutting blades that closed together like scissors.
Many early shearers had little experience and poor technique. They struggled with the difficult merino fleeces, and the average tally was low at approximately 35 sheep a day.
A much faster colonial style developed in the 1850s and 1860s, and rather than tying the sheep’s legs together in the English fashion, New Zealand shearers held them upright between their knees.
By the 1870s, most shearers could get through 70-80 sheep a day, and the best could clear 100.
Steam-driven shearing machines arrived in New Zealand in the 1880s, and like the Burgon machine pictured below, were often powered by a traction engine.
The Star reported in 1891 that ‘the wool clips at some of the largest stations in the Amuri County are this season being taken off by the sheep-shearing machines … At Highfield the Burgon and Ball machine has been installed.
‘This is the first season of this machine in New Zealand, it having been introduced by Messrs Dalgety and Co., from Australia …
‘There are twenty-four of these machines at work, under the superintendence of two experts …
‘The men who are working the shears have already become expert, a tally of a hundred and eighty in a day having been made, while the general average is very good.’(3)
The introduction of electricity in the early 20th century made shearing machines more efficient, and by mid-century they were in use on small farms as well as large.
Just as colonial shearers had developed new hand-shearing techniques to suit New Zealand flocks, mechanised shearing machines also encouraged innovation.
Jim Power was said to have been the first to lie the sheep down for a ‘long blow’ up the back – shearing ‘from the breezer to the sneezer.’(4)
The Bowen brothers later refined the technique, and their unique pattern – 55 blows to shear a fully-grown, crossbred sheep – became the world standard.
A selection of images taken by Brian Brake in 1960, showing a New Zealand sheep shearing demonstration:
In 1953 Godfrey Bowen set a new world record by shearing 456 full-wool ewes in nine hours, and in 1990 he was one of the first to be inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
English newspaper The Guardian once described Bowen as a ‘folk hero in his own country with only three contemporary equals – Hillary, Upham, the double VC, and Clarke, the rugby fullback.’(5)
Off the sheep’s back
As this montage of sketches from 1883 demonstrates, shearing is only one aspect of the work of the wool season.
Once the quality of the wool has been assessed at the wool table, the fleeces are pressed into bales, read for transport into town.
The Te Papa collection includes a double-box wool press, imported from Australia in the 1860s, which used a cap to compress the wool into a bale.
This press was in use for over 100 years in the Makara region, although more efficient New Zealand-made models were available from the early 20th century.
Stencils were used to mark the bales with the class of wool and the farm of origin, and the wool was then transported to the closest market, ready for export.
Feeding the men
It wasn’t just the shearers and shed hands who worked hard during the wool season, for those charged with catering also had a great deal to do.
The Shearer is a hungry man,
Who swallows food when’er he can.
At early morn there’s tea and cake,
Whilst yet he is but half awake.
Then breakfast comes at seven o’clock,
Made up of tea and mutton chop.
‘Smoke Oh’ is on, fifteen to ten,
This famished man takes food again,
And carries on till noonday meal,
When to the cookhouse he will steal
And gorge himself with meat and duff,
Good for work, though stodgy stuff.
Now later on, at three-thirty,
You find him at some buns and tea.
At half past five the evening meal
Makes him somewhat fed up feel,
So out he goes and rides his horse,
To settle down the food of course.
Then in he comes to have his supper,
Composed of tea and bread and butter. (6)
On large farms, the shearing gang usually came with their own cook, although these men and women were notoriously unreliable and, it seems, often lacking culinary skill.
One rural commentator wrote in 1913 that ‘there are a lot who call themselves cooks and take on the work who couldn’t boil water without burning it.’ (7)
On smaller farms the work of feeding the shearers fell to women, who cooked mountains of scones, biscuits and cakes, made gallons of barley water and billy tea, and prepared mutton and vegetables for a hearty midday meal.
Shearing has been a ritual of the New Zealand countryside for more than 175 years, although modern techniques bear little resemblance to the early days of hand shearing.
Items in the Te Papa collection record these significant technological innovations, and are testament to the enduring economic and cultural importance of the wool industry in New Zealand.
Have you ever seen shearers in action, or been a shearer yourself? What are your recollections of the wool season? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so rattle your dags and comment below!
- Gordon McLauchlan, The Farming of New Zealand: The People and the Land (Auckland: Viking, 2006), 47.
- John E. Martin, The Forgotten Worker: The Rural Wage Earner in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand (Wellington: Allen and Unwin/Trade Union History Project, 1990), 14.
- ‘Sheep-Shearing by Machinery,’ Star, 29 December 1891. http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TS18911229.2.46
- Des Williams, ‘Shearing – From blades to shearing machines’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/shearing/page-2
- The Guardian, quoted at https://nzhistory.govt.nz/people/godfrey-bowen
- E.C. Studholme, excerpt from ‘The Hungry Shearer,’ (1938) reproduced in A.E. Woodhouse, ed. New Zealand Farm and Station Verse 1850-1950 (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1951), 68-72.
- Alan I. Carr, Country Work and Life in New Zealand (Dunedin: Thos. J. Orr & Co., Printers and Publishers, 1913), 17.
- On the Sheep’s Back, past Te Papa exhibition: http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Topic/850
- Bowen’s World Record: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/godfrey-bowen-establishes-world-sheep-shearing-record
- Shearing in New Zealand (1966): http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/shearing
A well put together article!Godfrey sure could peel them off. Are there any other articles?
Thanks Graham. Ivan Bowen actually bettered his brother’s record in 1953 by shearing 457 full wool sheep in 9 hours, and he was 37 when he did it! Pretty good going.
The New Zealand on Screen website has a collection of videos related to shearing and sheep, including a documentary on the high country shot by Brian Brake in 1955. There is also a great selection of Country Calendar spoofs and an old episode of A Dog’s Show. You can see those here: https://www.nzonscreen.com/collection/the-sheep-collection.
If you click on the ‘history’ link at the top of the blog you’ll be redirected to other recent history posts by Te Papa staff, including another summer-themed blog on jam making and preserving.
Best wishes, Katie