Walcha history: Machines take on the shearing

Times gone by: The Europambela Woolshed in the 1920s. It was 163 feet long and could hold 2500 sheep.
Times gone by: The Europambela Woolshed in the 1920s. It was 163 feet long and could hold 2500 sheep.

The new woolshed shed erected at Europambela in 1899 was one the earliest in the district to be fitted out for machine shearing.

It was equipped with 16 Wolseley machines, which were driven by a six horsepower steam engine located nearby. Six rainwater tanks, fed from the woolshed roof, held a total of 6600 gallons of water, sufficient to keep the steam engine going for two weeks.

The late John Fenwicke recalled his early years at Europambela saying: “The steam engine was still in use and my father, Rupert, held a boiler certificate and was responsible for its safe operation. We had to light the boiler at 4am to give it time to raise a sufficient head of steam for shearing to commence a few hours later. There was a large carpet snake that slept on the drive belt when all was quiet. It did a good job too; there was never a sign of a rat or mouse in the woolshed.”

The first year of machine shearing at Europambela was expected to yield an additional 50 bales of wool from the 27,000 sheep waiting to be shorn. Most of the extra wool was simply that which had been left on the sheep’s back at the previous year’s blade shearing.

John Fenwicke also spoke about a demonstration he watched in which a sheep was first shorn by a blade shearer and then immediately reshorn by machine, yielding an additional one and a half pounds of wool.

Aberbaldie, Bergen-op-Zoom, Branga Park, Cairnie, Emu Creek, Ohio, Orandumby and Surveyor’s Creek were among the local properties that installed shearing machines in the first few years of the 1900s, many building a new woolshed as part of the process. It was not until 1913 that the changeover from hand to machine shearing was substantially complete at Walcha.

The introduction of machine shearing caused industrial disputes over rates and led to the formation in 1902 of the Machine Shearers Union, which negotiated a deal with the Pastoralists Union that set the shearing rate at 20 shillings per 100 sheep, which matched the rate paid to hand shearers, and provided for a 48-hour working week with a half-day on Saturdays.

The Australian Workers Union, which claimed the Machine Shearers Union was too close to the Pastoralists Union, commenced legal action to have the breakaway union deregistered. The resulting long-lasting dispute between sections of the union movement did not seem to cause major disruption to orderly shearing.