Walcha History: The greasy fleece

Break time: Blade shearers taking a break from shearing in the grease at Tia River Station early in the 1900s.
Break time: Blade shearers taking a break from shearing in the grease at Tia River Station early in the 1900s.

Gus Hooke Jr, holding his hat, is the taller man in this photograph standing on the right hand side, and was the son of the owner of Tia River Station.

Tom Dunn, the station manager, is the bearded man in the black hat standing alongside Hooke. The young lad standing beside Tom is his son Charles Joseph Dunn.

In the early days, wool from Walcha travelled by bullock wagon to Maitland, Port Stephens or Port Macquarie on its way to London. This was slow and expensive and it made sense to wash sheep before shearing to reduce the weight of the clip by removing as much as possible of the unwanted material.

Testing at Gostwyck Station in the 1870s showed the average weight of a fleece from sheep spout washed with soap was 3 pounds. That of a fleece shorn in the grease was just over 6 pounds. Washing sheep in rivers is reported to have given a 10 per cent to 12 per cent reduction in the weight of the fleece.

From the late 1870s, woollen mills in England were asking for wool to be delivered shorn in the grease to preserve qualities diminished by washing wool on the sheep’s back. They also reported wool washed in this way produced more waste than it would have done if delivered shorn in the grease. Woolgrowers replied they would be happy to comply if the mills paid an adequate price for greasy wool.

Gostwyck Station ceased washing sheep in 1882 following the opening of the Main Northern Railway Line to Uralla, which saw a great reduction in freight rates as well as other benefits.

The Armidale Express of November 11, 1884 reported: “Shearing in the grease has been very general this season and the washing of sheep the exception. Most of the greasy wool from Armidale, Uralla and Walcha realises a high figure in the market because of the relative freedom from dirt and burrs due to grazing on ‘cleaner’ pastures.”

Reports in 1887 said a very large proportion of the Australian clip was shipped in the grease adding: “The dirt in the wool is being recovered and sold as manure and there is now enough grease produced in Bradford to lubricate all locomotives in the world.”