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- Shearing In The Riverina, New South Wales - 1/5 -


"Shearing commences to-morrow!" These apparently simple words were spoken by Hugh Gordon, the manager of Anabanco station, in the district of Riverina, in the colony of New South Wales, one Monday morning in the month of August. The utterance had its importance to every member of a rather extensive "CORPS DRAMATIQUE" awaiting the industrial drama about to be performed.

A low sand-hill a few years since had looked out over a sea of grey plains, covered partly with grass, partly with salsiferous bushes and herbs. Two or three huts built of the trunks of the pine and roofed with the bark of the box-tree, and a skeleton-looking cattle-yard with its high "gallows" (a rude timber stage whereon to hang slaughtered cattle) alone broke the monotony of the plain-ocean. A comparatively small herd of cattle, 2000 or 3000, found more than sufficient pasturage during the short winter and spring, but were always compelled to migrate to mountain pastures when the swamps, which alone in those days formed the water-stores of the run, were dried up. But two or three, or at most half-a-dozen, stockmen were ever needed for the purpose of managing the herd, so inadequate in number and profitable occupation to this vast tract of grazing country.

But, a little later, one of the great chiefs of the wool-producing interest--a shepherd-king, so to speak, of shrewdness, energy, and capital--had seen, approved and purchased the lease of this waste kingdom. Almost at once, as if by magic, the scene changed. Great gangs of navvies appeared, wending their way across the silent plain. Dams were made, wells were dug. Tons of fencing wire were dropped on the sand by the long line of teams which seemed never tired of arriving. Sheep by thousands, and tens of thousands, began to come, grazing and cropping up to the lonely sandhill--now swarming with blacksmiths, carpenters, engineers, fencers, shepherds, bullock-drivers--till the place looked like a fair on the borders of Tartary.

Meanwhile everything was moving with calculated force and cost, under the "reign of law". The seeming expense was merely the economic truth of doing all the necessary work at once, rather than by instalments. One hundred men for one day rather than one man for one hundred days. Results soon began to demonstrate themselves. In twelve months the dams were full, the wells sending up their far-fetched priceless water, the wire fences erected, the shepherds gone, and 17,000 sheep cropping the herbage of Anabanco. Tuesday was the day fixed for the actual commencement of the momentous, almost solemn transaction--the pastoral Hegira, so to speak, as the time of most station events is calculated with reference to it, as happening before or after shearing. But before the first shot is fired which tells of the battle begun, what raids and skirmishes, what reconnoitring and vedette duty must take place!

First arrives the cook-in-chief to the shearers, with two assistants to lay in a few provisions for the week's consumption of 70 able-bodied men. I must here explain that the cook of a large shearing-shed is a highly paid and tolerably irresponsible official. He is paid and provided by the shearers. Payment is generally arranged on the scale of half-a-crown a head weekly from each shearer. For this sum he must provide punctual and effective cooking, paying out of his own pocket as many "marmitons" as may be needful for that end, and to satisfy his tolerably exacting and fastidious employers.

In the present case he confers with the storekeeper, Mr de Vere, a young gentleman of aristocratic connexions who is thus gaining an excellent practical knowledge of the working of a large station and to this end has the store-keeping department entrusted to him during shearing.

He does not perhaps look quite fit for a croquet party as he stands now, with a flour-scoop in one hand and a pound of tobacco in the other. But he looks like a man at work, and also like a gentleman, as he is. "Jack the Cook" thus addresses him:

"Now, Mr de Vere, I hope there's not going to be any humbugging about my rations and things! The men are all up in their quarters, and as hungry as free selectors. They've been a-payin' for their rations for ever so long, and of course now shearing's on, they're good for a little extra!"

"All right, Jack," returns de Vere, good-temperedly, "all your lot was weighed out and sent away before breakfast. You must have missed the cart. Here's the list. I'll read it out to you: three bags flour, half a bullock, two bags sugar, a chest of tea, four dozen of pickles, four dozen of jam, two gallons of vinegar, five pounds pepper, a bag of salt, plates, knives, forks, ovens, frying-pans, saucepans, iron pots, and about a hundred other things. Now, mind you, return all the cooking things safe, or PAY FOR THEM--that's the order! You don't want anything more, do you? You've got enough for a regiment of cavalry, I should think."

"Well, I don't know. There won't be much left in a week if the weather holds good," makes answer the chef, as one who thought nothing too stupendous to be accomplished by shearers, "but I knew I'd forgot something. As I'm here I'll take a few dozen boxes of sardines, and a case of pickled salmon. The boys likes 'em, and, murder alive! haven't we forgot the plums and currants? A hundredweight of each, Mr de Vere! They'll be crying out for plum-duff and currant buns for the afternoon; and bullying the life out of me, if I haven't a few trifles like. It's a hard life, surely, a shearers' cook. Well, good-bye, sir, you have 'em all down in the book."

Lest the reader should imagine that the role of Mr Gordon at Anabanco was a reign of luxury and that waste which tendeth to penury, let him be aware that all shearers in Riverina are paid at a certain rate, usually that of ONE pound per hundred sheep shorn. They agree, on the other hand, to pay for all supplies consumed by them at certain prices fixed before the shearing agreement is signed. Hence, it is entirely their own affair whether their mess bills are extravagant or economical. They can have anything within the rather wide range of the station store. PATES DE FOIE GRAS, ortolans, roast ostrich, novels, top-boots, double-barrelled guns, IF THEY LIKE TO PAY FOR THEM--with one exception. No wine, no spirits! Neither are they permitted to bring these stimulants "on to the grounds" for their private use. Grog at shearing? Matches in a powder-mill! It's very sad and bad; but our Anglo-Saxon industrial or defensive champion cannot be trusted with the fire-water. Navvies, men-of-war's men, soldiers, AND shearers--fine fellows all. But though the younger men might only drink in moderation, the majority and the older men are utterly without self-control once in the front of temptation. And wars, 'wounds without cause,' hot heads, shaking hands, delay and bad shearing, would be the inevitable results of spirits A LA DISCRETION. So much is this a matter of certainty from experience that a clause is inserted, and cheerfully signed, in most shearing agreements, "that any man getting drunk or bringing spirits on to the station during shearing, LOSES THE WHOLE OF the money earned by him." The men know that the restriction is for their benefit, as well as for the interest of the master, and join in the prohibition heartily.

Let us give a glance at the small army of working-men assembled at Anabanco--one out of hundreds of stations in the colony of New South Wales, ranging from 100,000 sheep downwards. There are seventy shearers; about fifty washers, including the men connected with the steam-engine, boilers, bricklayers and the like; ten or twelve boundary-riders, whose duty it is to ride round the large paddocks, seeing that the fences are all intact, and keeping a general look-out over the condition of the sheep; three or four overseers; half-a-dozen young gentlemen acquiring a practical knowledge of sheep-farming, or, as it is generally phrased, "colonial experience"--a comprehensive expression enough; a score or two of teamsters, with a couple of hundred horses or bullocks, waiting for the high-piled wool bales, which are loaded up and sent away almost as soon as shorn; wool-sorters, pickers-up, pressers, yardsmen, extra shepherds. It may easily be gathered from this outline what an 'army with banners' is arrayed at Anabanco. While statistically inclined, it may be added that the cash due for the shearing alone (less the mess bill) amounts to 1700 pounds; for the washing (roughly), 400 pounds, exclusive of provisions consumed, hutting, wood, water, cooking. Carriage of wool 1500 pounds. Other hands from 30 pounds to 40 pounds per week. All of which disbursements take place within from eight to twelve weeks after the shears are in the first sheep.

Tuesday comes "big with fate." As the sun tinges the far skyline, the shearers are taking a slight refection of coffee and currant buns to enable them to withstand the exhausting interval between six and eight o'clock, when the serious breakfast occurs. Shearers always diet themselves on the principle that the more they eat the stronger they must be. Digestion, as preliminary to muscular development, is left to take its chance. They certainly do get through a tremendous amount of work. The whole frame is at its utmost tension, early and late. But the preservation of health is due to their natural strength of constitution rather than to their profuse and unscientific diet. Half-an-hour after sunrise Mr Gordon walks quietly into the vast building which contains the sheep and their shearers--called "the shed," par excellence. Everything is in perfect cleanliness and order--the floor swept and smooth, with its carefully planed boards of pale yellow aromatic pine. Small tramways, with baskets for the fleeces, run the wool up to the wool tables, superseding the more general plan of hand picking. At each side of the shed floor are certain small areas, four or five feet square, such space being found by experience to be sufficient for the postures and gymnastics practised during the shearing of a sheep. Opposite to each square is an aperture, communicating with a long narrow paled yard, outside of the shed. Through this each man pops his sheep when shorn, where he remains in company with the others shorn by the same hand, until counted out. This being done by the overseer or manager supplies a check upon hasty or unskilful work. The body of the woolshed, floored with battens placed half an inch apart, is filled with the woolly victims. This enclosure is subdivided into minor pens, of which each fronts the place of two shearers, who catch from it until the pen is empty. When this takes place, a man for the purpose refills its. As there are local advantages, an equitable distribution of places for shearing has to be made by lot.

On every subdivision stands a shearer, as Mr Gordon walks, with an air of calm authority, down the long aisle. Seventy men, chiefly in their prime, the flower of the working-men of the colony, they are variously gathered. England, Ireland, and Scotland are represented in the proportion of one half of the number; the other half is composed of native-born Australians.

Among these last--of pure Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic descent--are to be seen some of the finest men, physically considered, the race is capable of producing. Taller than their British-born brethren, with softer voices and more regular features, they inherit the powerful frames and unequalled muscular development of the breed. Leading lives chiefly devoted to agricultural labour, they enjoy larger intervals of leisure than is permissible to the labouring classes of Europe. The climate is mild, and favourable to health. They have been accustomed from childhood to abundance of the best food; opportunities of intercolonial travel are frequent and common. Hence the

Shearing In The Riverina, New South Wales - 1/5

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