WHERE HAVE ALL THE BAA-BAAS GONE?
© Ellis Campbell
Winner, 2011 ABPA Victorian State Championships, Benalla, Victoria.
Turn back the clock one hundred years and travel regions vast,
where shearers rode the weary miles, a packhorse led beside.
These toilers of the shearing sheds on hist’ry’s page now cast –
a multitude of slaving men whose industry has died.
To Cunnamulla, Charleville, Longreach and Quilpie, too –
a stretching wilderness ahead in everlasting glare.
Just open plain and mulga scrubs and spinifex to view,
with woolly sheep in millions grazing paddocks everywhere.
Through Tambo, Blackall, Hughenden, Cloncurry, Julia Creek,
the landscape ever dotted with the fleeces dusty grey.
There bleating sheep forever spread in numbers quite unique;
a scene that’s strangely missing from those areas today.
St George and Dirranbandi, Charters Towers, Aramac –
to Muttaburra, Eulo, wool-sheds gleamed in shimmered sun.
A scene of great activity indexed the great outback,
as shear blades slashed with constant click throughout the busy run.*
Through Thargomindah, Winton, Boulia, Clermont, Adavale –
demand for wool forever spread as London prices soared.
A mammoth task to garner wool from paddock to the sale –
sometimes one hundred shearers toiled along the shearing board.*
To Augathella, Roma, Alpha, Richmond, Jericho –
merino sheep’s gigantic mobs on everlasting spreads.
The clash of shearing tongs that cleaved a trail like gleaming snow
were heard beyond remote outposts in countless shearing sheds.
And well beyond three hundred thousand woolly sheep were shorn
at Bowen Downs near Aramac one hundred years ago.
And Alice Downs at Blackall was another station drawn
on maps of big gun shearers’ runs—such places all would know.
And Cambridge Downs at Richmond shore two hundred thousand sheep –
while Marathon near Hughenden then ran the same amount.
And Rockwood at Tangorin shore a tally just as steep –
enormous grazing runs of note, to shearers paramount.
Barcaldine Downs at Saltern—Isis Downs near Ilfracombe –
Corona out from Longreach and the Vintex station—too –
at thriving Winton’s Ayrshire Downs merinos were at home.
One hundred thousand plus these shore—and sometimes nearly two.
The toiling shearers sweated with their backs bent in a row,
the bustling shedhands busy with the tasks they had to do.
Some penning up—some picking up—wool rollers never slow –
piece pickers, classers, pressers and wool carters always due.
The men who shoved the station brand on shorn sheep snowy ribbed –
designed to indicate the ownership of straying stock –
kept busy in the branding race as wethers jumped and jibbed,
they had to clear the holding yard before the next run’s flock.
The musterers with horse and dog behind a creeping mob
of dusty, bleating animals, declining any speed.
Annoyed by flies and streaked with sweat and cursing at their job –
important cog within the wheel were musterers, indeed!
The cooks worked at tremendous speed—their expertise at stake –
from four am till midnight they applied their crucial craft.
There’s nothing more important than the meals they had to bake –
all over-worked, without a doubt, and often under-staffed.
At Logan Downs near Clermont town—in eighteen ninety-one –
two hundred men assembled for the shearing due to start.
A huge dispute arose because the Union* had begun –
the station manager refused to grant it any part.
That sparked the cruellest strike Australian workers ever fought.
A thousand men or more were camped, determined not to work,
unless the Shearers Union was acknowledged with support.
The station owners’ attitude was veiled beneath a smirk.
They soon recruited men from other states by boat and rail,
though most were not proficient in the art of shearing well.
That led to fights and bloodshed, while some shearers went to gaol –
with threat of civil war police were trying hard to quell.
One chilly Sunday, June the fourteenth, eighteen ninety-one
a meeting validly declared the strike was due to end.
Disheartened shearers, starved and cold, all knew their race was run –
starvation’s bitter lesson one few spirits can transcend.
The subject of gun shearers’ tallies some would surely broach
around the bushmen’s pubs amidst the common cut-out sprees.
Big guns were idolised by all—their feats beyond reproach –
a never ending topic were the heroes such as these.
Their efforts were amazing—feats no witness could deny.
Three hundred plus were shorn by some in normal working days.
With blades propelled by hand alone each day they’d gamely vie
to guard their reputation and to earn their critics’ praise.
“Australia rides the jumbuck’s* back,” a maxim often spoke.
“The golden fleece,” another popular description used.
Alas! Those balmy days are gone with Fate’s great masterstroke –
the wool shed long abandoned and the shearing gear defused.
Today we rarely see the sheep with dusty, burr-lined fleece.
Instead the Brahman cattle roam, brown, brindle, red and grey.
Blowflies and dingoes, crows and worms, all helped the sheep decrease –
extensive labour costs played part and profits went astray.
I can see those phantom figures riding ever to the west,
a patient packhorse plodding by the saddle horse’s side.
True symbols of an era on an unrelenting quest,
the shear blades packed inside their swags a trademark nationwide.
They’ve vanished in their millions, stoic creatures lapped in fleece –
an industry enormous from our nation somehow fled.
Like Cobb & Co’s six thousand horses—transport masterpiece –
the glory of this country’s pioneering days is dead.
Descendents of these shearers now drive trucks and aeroplanes –
they work in banks and offices or maybe build a fence.
School teachers, radiologists or digging table drains –
they’re farmers, miners, doctors, clerks who calculate expense.
An era in our history we’ll never see again,
accomplishments amazing and a merchandise unique.
A day of pioneering courage nothing could restrain –
ignoring constant hardship and the prospects often bleak.
*Run. The time worked between meals, in the early days two and a half hours, later reduced to two hours
*Board. The shearers worked on a wooden floor, to keep the wool clean, always referred to as “the board.”
*Union. First formed as the Queensland Shearer’s Union, later to become the Australian Worker’s Union.
*Jumbuck. Slang name for a sheep—as in Waltzing Matilda.