Walcha History: Washing sheep before shearing

Washing sheep before shearing was commonplace when John Connal, one of Walcha’s early pastoralists, arrived in Australia in 1839.

He decided “to get an insight into sheep farming here” and made his way to Donald McIntyre’s Kayuga property, about seven miles from Muswellbrook, where shearing was underway. This is how he described the process:

Dunked and dried: This sketch from the Illustrated Sydney News of October 15, 1864, shows an unusually elaborate sheep washing facility.

Dunked and dried: This sketch from the Illustrated Sydney News of October 15, 1864, shows an unusually elaborate sheep washing facility.

“There were square pens in the river, bounded by floating logs.

Thirty sheep at a time were forced into the first pen, where they remained for about 15 minutes, all the time swimming and being constantly ducked by two men to soften the dust.

They then squeezed the wool before pushing the sheep under one of the floating logs to force them further upstream into the following pens where they were again ducked and squeezed before being let ashore into the drying pen, in which they remained standing until dark.

The men washing sheep get a glass of grog before going into the waist-deep water.”

After two days of washing sheep, Connal worked as a roustabout in the woolshed.

There were 10 shearers who normally had other jobs around the property; the blacksmith, butcher and groom all took up the shears, as did three raw recruits who managed to “make a great many gashes on the sheep”.

The best of these part-time shearers was the butcher, who had a daily tally of 48, while the groom had a tally of 23. Rolled-up fleeces were handed to a man standing in the wool press. After each 24 or so fleeces had been loaded, “the lid was put on and wool pressed for half an hour”.

When the bale was full it was sewn, closed and branded.

Connal also wrote: “Hand shearing is very warm work and Mr McIntyre generally gives each man a bottle of rum every day when they are shearing.

They commence work at half past five in the morning, have breakfast at seven, dinner at noon, tea at six or seven o’clock and are off to bed by half past eight. They are up and about by five on the following morning.”

The crew of 20 men washed and sheared enough sheep in one week to produce 16 bales of wool, which were then taken by two bullock wagons to Maitland as the first stage of being dispatched to England.

The crew of 20 men washed and sheared enough sheep in one week to produce 16 bales of wool.