THE CULTURE of the TRUCK DAYS.
As life continues to progress at breakneck speed, local museums attract a lot of attention. All industries, whether communication, transport, mining, printing, farming, fishing and shearing to name a few, have gone or are going through an unrecognisable transformation—and within our lifetime. It is therefore vital to record changes while they are happening and within living memory. Preservation of objects and photos from an industry is an ideal way to maintain this knowledge. To record stories of workers from those years in printed form is one way of preserving their memories. However, for the benefit of younger and future generations, the video camera has a distinct advantage as far as recording stories. This medium captures vocal and facial expressions which add interest to the person and the story.
The way the shearing industry was conducted in the pastoral regions of Western Australia from the 1920s to the 1960s is unique in the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, contractors and shearers came independently from the Eastern States and formed their teams when they arrived. Shearers made their way to the sheep stations as best they could when the sheep were ready to be shorn. Prior to that, when sheep numbers were small and infrastructure was limited or non-existent, pastoralists made their own arrangements with station staff, aboriginals and/or neighbours. Gradually, as sheep numbers increased, there was a need for a more organised arrangement.
In the Northwest and the Goldfields there was no regular road transport and the small population on station properties lived in extremely isolated circumstances. Eventually contractors devised a better mode of operation. By the 1920s, motor transport was becoming more reliable. Although roads were not much more than windmill tracks, contractors began to use trucks to transport their teams from property to property. One big advantage of this mode of transport was the contractor had absolute control of where his men were at any given time! That era is known as the ‘Truck Days’. By now, more West Australian men were employed in the industry and many of those who came from the Eastern States became a permanent part of the WA industry. These men worked, travelled and relaxed together for many months of the year with minimal contact with outsiders. By the mid-1960s, most shearers had their own transport and the truck transport for the men became obsolete.
Thus ended a mode of operation unique in the shearing world.
The men were often away from home from March to December. The shearing team could be likened to an isolated mobile processing unit moving from shed to shed. Often they travelled for several days—without pay—between sheds. When they came across rivers in flood, boggy roads or sand hills, a lot of physical effort was exerted to push the truck clear—it didn’t matter if you were the gun shearer or a lowly rouseabout. It was a great leveller. At weekends, after they had done their washing, if possible they went fishing, shooting or played games like cricket or two-up! In the process they became tolerant and competitive and also developed a work discipline and ethic as well as respect for each other’s privacy. It was very much a male dominated industry. Now more than sixty years later, the camaraderie and mateship between these men is just as strong. This formed the unique West Australian shearing culture.
Val Hobson’s book Across the Board was published in August 2002.
As a result, many of these men were reunited and were interested in starting a museum. In 2003 we initially formed a group to establish a shearing museum, and our own Hall of Fame in Carnarvon was established in 2004. We called ourselves the Gascoyne Pastoral and Shearing Museum. Displayed here is a series of photos that show the story of mustering and truck travelling and shearing, right up until the men were back at a city hotel in Perth in collar and tie, enjoying a beer. Until 2011, we physically supported the museum by adding and helping with displays.
We now call ourselves the Shearers and Pastoral Workers Social Club Inc. We have two reunions each year—one at the Bayswater Hotel in May and the main one in November at the Ravenswood Hotel Pinjarra. Both are well attended and each year there are newcomers. They swap stories again and generally keep the culture alive. Lately younger shearers, some barely 70 and others still working, attend the reunions. More importantly, a lot of women also attend.
The shearer is the linchpin of the entire sheep and wool industry. Wool in its wearable state has a long and complex journey from the sheep’s back to the wearer’s back. As part of this chain, the shearer and the support team is the most important link and the most maligned! Without the shearer, the wool would still be on the sheep. All the money and experiments to replace the shearer have not proved to be mechanically or financially successful. Apart from the thousands of people directly connected to shearing, as many again were employed in supporting industries such as suppliers of shearing tools, equipment and clothing, transport, stock agents, fuel, stores, sheep breeders and sheep classers, as well as station staff. Prior to the closure of Australian woollen mills and scours, many, many hundreds more were employed. In those days there were few people in Australia who did not have a connection to the industry, however vague that connection might have been.
Although Western Australia’s percentage of the Australian wool industry was minimal, at its height, it was 50% of our WA exports. It was an enormous industry in this state for over a hundred years; surviving the roller coaster ride of seasonal, economic and political difficulties. The advent of the iron ore mining industry offered better wages and living conditions and a completely different culture. As a result, there is cattle now where sheep once grazed. Mining towns, with churned up earth and iron ore railway lines have replaced the tracks where shearers’ trucks once struggled through dust or mud.
There are still many men with their memories from the ‘Truck Days’. As part of such an enormous and important industry, they deserve to be recognised before their history fades into oblivion.
“The Truck Days”
This is a brief insight into the shearing industry and those who participated in the remote northern pastoral regions of Western Australia in the early to mid 20th century.
From the early to mid 20th century, the wool industry was the backbone of the Australian economy when wool was king. The way the shearing industry was conducted in the pastoral regions of Western Australia was unique in the world.
At the time, there was little or no infrastructure; no bridges and most roads were just dirt roads or windmill tracks. To shear the sheep initially, teams were transported by ship to northern ports with their trucks for transport and they travelled out to various stations, with a truck as the only mode of transport. The shearing teams were away from their families for periods from 8-10 months, the conditions were primitive and they worked under difficult and trying circumstances. Travelling between properties was at times extreme: travelling 50km on muddy boggy tracks with rivers to cross could take up to 2 days.
It was an enormous industry in this state for over a hundred years, surviving the roller coaster ride of seasonal, economic and political difficulties, until the advent of the iron ore industry of the 1960s. That industry offered better wages and living conditions and a different culture, so the decline of the wool industry began and the introduction of cattle where sheep once grazed saw the total decline of the industry to the point where the industry no longer exists in those areas.
There are many men with memories of “The Truck Days”. As part of such an enormous industry, they deserve to be recognised before their history fades into oblivion.
A Yarn or Two
The Price of Shearing
The squatters, they are growling, quite a lot today,
They’ve gone to Mr Donovan, about the price they pay.
It seems to us quite funny, to think the price don’t suit,
They’re trying to kill the apple tree, just when it’s bearing fruit.
They seem to think that shearers, don’t earn their blinking pay,
But if I was Mr Donovan, this is what I’d say.
Now if you think that this is easy, and my boys don’t earn their dough,
Get a pen with Mr Synott, to the Kimberley’s you’ll go.
You won’t be sleeping in the homestead, no, this would never do,
You’ll have a cyclone stretcher, and a horsehair mattress too.
They’ll start you on the weaners, just to see you trot your stuff,
They’re stunted, poor and wrinkly, and believe me, pretty rough.
Of course you’ll get a fiver, for every hundred sheep,
But I think before the day is out, you’ll think that’s far too cheap.
So don’t do anything rash boys, go home and have a sleep,
Think it over for a while, just look before you leap.
The Con Contractor
Come into my office, said the spider to the fly,
Sign here upon the dotted line, don’t ask the reason why.
We start our annual picnic, where the River Fitzroy flows,
Where, just for your enjoyment, they put on picture shows.
The weather there is wonderful, and the tucker simply grand,
Don’t miss this great vacation, accept this shearing stand.
There’ll be hunting, swimming, fishing, and mud fights in the creek,
And you will get to Derby, at least once every week.
We get you there, at our expense, up in an aeroplane.
And when the run is finished, we’ll fly you home again.
We only have the best of sheds, four thousand sheep a man,
Good easy going ‘stuff’, they’re mostly ewes and lambs.
There’s nothing you’ll find better, and we’d like you on our run,
We know you’ll make good money, before the seasons done.
Here sign this form don’t hesitate, come with us on this trip,
We’re flying up on Monday, go home and pack your grip.
Of course, they will not tell you, of the heat and dust and rain,
The jolting in open trucks, coming down across the plains.
Being bogged up to the axles, not a sight to make you smile,
An eleven hours of travelling, to cover thirty miles.
But I know because I’ve done it, and can laugh about it see,
And I wonder who is in that office, being conned like me.
No doubt the same old honey’d words, are drooling from his tongue,
The sort of things you fall for, when adventurous and young,
Have cigarette, take a pew, how many can you shear,
Watch out mate, he’s conning you, if this is what you hear.
“The objects of the Association are to maintain an active Social Club and to record the History of the Shearing Industry and those that participated.”