Sheep shearing | State Library of New South Wales

Sheep shearing

Sheep shearing is probably the most iconic activity in rural Australia. At the start of the wool industry in the early 19th century, sheep were shorn with blade shears, similar to garden clippers. The first authenticated daily tally (amount of sheep shorn in a single day) was 30 sheep by Tome Merely in 1835. By 1892, Jack Howe managed a tally of 321 sheep at Alice Downs in Queensland.

Sheep shearing from Volume 01: Production and resources of the northern and western districts of New South Wales, 1854 [ca. 1850-1857] by William Gardner
Manuscript A 176 vol 1

In the intervening period, however, the rise of the wool industry meant that new inventions and processes were introduced to make shearing more time and cost efficient. Patents for shearing machines started to be granted from the 1860s and in 1882, a shearer called Jack Gray became the first man to completely shear a sheep using mechanical shears. The method that most woolgrowers adopt was the Wolseley stand. Frederick Wolseley was an Irish-born pastoralist who had a sheep station near Sydney. His invention was a handpiece connected to a power source - originally driven by horse power, but later connected to an external engine. The handpiece relieved strain on the shearer's hand and allowed the wool to be clipped up to three times closer to the skin than blade shearing. The new invention horrified thousands of shearers, who feared that the new efficient method would put many of them out of work. Powerful shearers' unions were formed and a resolution forbidding union members to work in sheds with non-union workers led to a six-month shearers' strike which crippled the wool industry in the eastern states of Australia. The woolgrowers held firm and eventually the shearers were forced to return to work, but the action laid the groundwork for the labour movement in Australia.

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Shearing - it's easy to learn. Department of Agriculture, New South Wales. [Sydney] : Government Printer, [1950?]
Printed book   636.3/59

By 1900, machine shearing was the norm, although it was as late at 1949 when Jack Howe's blade shearing tally was broken by a machine shearer when Dan Cooper achieved a total of 325 sheep by machine. In 1969, Australia recorded its biggest ever wool clip of over 923,000,000 kg. Experiments with robotic shearing took place in the 1970s and some producers now partially automate the shearing process with robots. Now in the early 21st century, new techniques are being developed which dispense with shearing, including an injection which breaks the wool and enables it to be peeled from the sheep. Despite these advances, shearing is still the most common way to harvest wool and the shearer remains an iconic part of the Australian cultural image.

 > View a selection of photographs of shearers and shearing sheds across NSW