Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

History Revisited - wool production a chilly business for homestead

Jim Belshaw continues the story of Terrible Vale, the Taylors and the early days of the New England pastoral industry
Soon after bringing Margaretta Lucy Lind  and the children to Terrible Vale in 1844, William Tydd Taylor had built a new woolshed on the property about 100 yards from the newly constructed homestead. That plus the homestead and the nearby barn and men’s quarters made for a small settlement.

The woolshed was needed.

The depression that gripped NSW in the early 1840s made money hard to obtain and yet money was constantly required to develop the early New England runs and to bridge the financial gap between the annual sales of the wool clip.

With scarce capital, the NSW Legislative Council agreed changes that allowed loans to be advanced on the security of unshorn wool and mortgages over livestock. In February 1845, this allowed Taylor to borrow £1,200 pounds from Stuart Alexander Donaldson secured by mortgage over 9,696 sheep.

Donaldson and Taylor would later be in Parliament at the same time, with Donaldson becoming the first Premier of NSW.

With growing sheep numbers, Taylor faced the challenge of collecting the flock, washing them and then bringing them to the new shearing shed where the wool was clipped and baled.

Washing the sheep was important. Grazing, sheep collected grit and burrs that added to the weight of the wool and made it harder to process.  Washed wool attracted a premium, something that was important to cash strapped pastoralists.

But washing sheep was also hard, back-breaking work. Today we forget just how much physical labour was involved in making a living in our very recent past.

This applied as much to women as men. Maintaining a household, especially a large household, required constant work.

On Terrible Vale, washing the sheep was done in October prior to sheering. Sheep had to be collected from across the property and then penned in a specially constructed yard near the creek. There they were driven into the creek.

In the creek, a line of men standing in waste deep cold water would take the sheep and try to clean it before passing it on to the next man. At the end of the chain, the sheep were hauled out onto the bank and placed in a yard to dry.

Have you ever tried to lift a fully grown ewe? In Armidale parlance I’m a townie, but I have and they are bloody heavy. So imagine a scene in which protesting wet wool sheep (wet sheep are heavier because of the weight of the water) are swimming or being pushed along a line while men scrub them.

October can be cold, so following hours of this work the sheep are cold but the men are frozen. To help them continue, men were often given a ration of grog in the middle of the process.

Once the sheep were washed, they had to be shorn. The shearing gangs that would become a feature of New England life did not yet exist, so everybody helped.

Shearing completed, the wool was dispatched to London, first by Port Macquarie, later Morpeth. Now began the anxious wait. Would the wool get there? What price would it get?
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 22 June 2016. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016.

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