Pondering on Woolsheds

The remains of the outdoor shearing section of the Quanbun Station Woolshed

There is a Woolshed here on Quanbun Downs station. Since the sheep left in the early 1970s, it hasn’t been used for shearing for many years, but just looking at it reminds me of other sheds I have seen in Australia. It seems that every one had its own unique architectural blueprint, and the one at Quanbun is certainly an individual. It is the only one I have seen where the sheep were shorn outdoors. Mind you, in this heat, I can understand why!

However, seeing this shed got me wondering about days gone by and I did a little research. The figures can be mind blowing. The first sheep arrived in Australia with the first fleet in 1788. Since the first wool clip of 2000 kg sold from Australia in 1807, the national flock grew to 172 million head in the 1980s. The peak wool clip was in 1969, when the sheep produced over 923 million kg of wool.

Sheep in the yards at the woolshed

The most sheep shorn in a single day, in 1892, using blades, was 321, a record set by Jack Howe that stood for nearly half a century. Using machines, in 1949, Dan Cooper beat the record by a whole 4 sheep! In April 2019, 497 merino ewes were shorn in 8 hours by Lou Brown of WA, the present world record. That is less than a minute per sheep. New Zealand born Matt Smith shore 731 ewes in Cornwall in 9 hours in 2016 to hold a shearing marathon record.

However, what really interested me was the sheds themselves and the logistics of running them. Some of these sheds are huge. The largest shed in the southern hemisphere was said to be the Teviot Woolshed, which was built in 1865 and destroyed by fire in 1924. It is believed to have been 137m long and 47.3m wide. It is said to have been able to hold over 8000 sheep, and 40 stands.

Jondaryan, near Toowoomba in Queensland, has 52 stands, and is the oldest and largest shed still operating in the world. It was built between 1859 and 1861. In the 1880s this shed was the pivotal point for 250,000 sheep, spread over the 121,400Ha station.

               Toganmain was one of Australia’s biggest four woolsheds, but is the only one still standing-although needing major repairs. Only half the length of the shed in Teviot, at 73m long, and 24 m wide, it nevertheless had 110 stands and holds the record set in Sept 1876 of 202,292 sheep being sworn by 92 shearers. Seven million sheep have lost their coats in this shed. It was also one of the first sheds to convert to machines, with 6 machines in 1887, and 15 in 1888.

Other large sheds include the one at Tolarno Station in New South Wales (100 stand) and Tinnenburra, found near Cunnanulla in Queensland. The latter was built from tree trunks and catered for 101 shearers. (There are other sheds listed as the biggest in Australia or the Southern Hemisphere, but these ones seem to have the largest dimensions to me.)

One sheep finished!

               With numbers of sheep and shearers like these, the stations had a major work load on their hands during shearing. Shearing crews also included shed hands to collect and sort the fleeces, and station staff were needed to keep the sheep flowing smoothly through the shed. The station headquarters grew into small townships to cope with the demand for manpower and support staff. Tolarno Station, for example, had not only a woolshed, but the Homestead, quarters for shearers and other staff, other offices, storehouses, blacksmith, saddlers, horse feed barns, and a school. Large gardens and fruit supplies were needed to supply food, and at one time the Station was home to 3 hotels! The shearing on this station was not seasonal, but was year-round, 6 days a week. Cooking in those days was not as convenient as today either, so often stations had separate cookhouses and buildings for ovens and boilers.

               Remembering that some of these sheds catered for over 100 shearers, and their associated shed hands, and that, before motorbikes and helicopters, mustering must be done on horseback, over thousands of Ha to muster, the numbers of staff required stretches the imagination. In an era when top shearers were cope with 300 sheep in a day, I suggest an average man would put through between 150 -200. That is a minimum of 1500 sheep every day for 100 stands. All those sheep must be bought to the shed from up to 100 km away, each must have access to food and water, each sheep must be presented to the shearer in a timely manner and removed as soon as she is shorn, and quickly sent out to pasture to make way for the next day’s supply of sheep. When you have riders, you have horses, and horseshoes and horse feed, and saddlery. Each jackaroo needs a team of horses ready, fit and able to work. And most importantly, hard working men need feeding, and traditionally shearing gangs get a good five meals a day. A butcher would be needed to supply regular meat to the kitchen, and a constant supply of wood would be needed to keep the ovens burning. Also needed were gardeners to supply the vegetables to the kitchen as well, as there were no local greengrocers to rush off to.

Then as a footnote, some stations, if not all, washed the sheep prior to shearing until the 1890s when the practise if selling wool ‘in the grease’ became general. Until the 1870s most sheep were washed in creeks with a series of floating pens, but later larger stations installed hot water systems for cleaning the fleeces prior to shearing. Then, of course, the sheep had to be penned until her fleece was dry and ready to be shorn. All this was very heavy on manpower, adding to the staff problems above. An interesting article on the process of washing the sheep may be found at-https://www.walchanewsonline.com.au/story/4948584/sheep-get-a-wash-and-clip/.

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