Page 1: Biography
Bowen, Walter Godfrey
Shearer, shearing instructor and entrepreneur
This biography, written by Ron Palenski, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Walter Godfrey Bowen was born in Hastings on 13 February 1922, the son of Catherine Wall and her husband, Walter Eugene Bowen. His father had been a station manager in Hawke’s Bay before moving to Hastings to become a builder. The family later owned a farmlet at Havelock North, where they milked cows and delivered milk around the district. They then moved to Te Puke, Bay of Plenty, where their father established a sawmill. Godfrey, as he was known, was educated at Havelock North and Te Puke, and later studied accountancy.
His elder brothers, Eion and Ivan, formed a partnership as shearing contractors and Godfrey joined them shortly before the Second World War. During the war he and Ivan were exempted from military service to continue the essential work of shearing. ‘Those years … were tough,’ Ivan recalled. ‘We shore for seven days a week – until we saw stars and, literally, until we bled from the nose. We shore big tallies day in and day out’. The brothers agreed to shear sheep-for-sheep, rather than try to outdo each other.
After the war Ivan concentrated more on the family sawmilling business while Godfrey carried on shearing. On 14 May 1946 in Palmerston North he married Mavis Edna Telford; they were to have a family of two sons and two daughters. A thickset man of medium height, Bowen was an active member of the Open Brethren church.
The Bowen brothers developed a shearing style which eliminated ineffective blows and refined techniques that had been handed down from blade- to machine-shearers. ‘What it amounted to was a lot of blows where you were cutting air and blows where you weren’t using the full width of the comb,’ Ivan recalled. ‘It didn’t take long to start wondering if there could be a better way.’ The improved method came to be known as the ‘Bowen style’.
In 1953 Godfrey Bowen set a world record by shearing 456 ewes in nine hours at the Akers station at Opiki, Manawatu (a record later bettered by Ivan), and he was soon in demand at agricultural and pastoral society shows around the North Island. At one of these, a New Zealand Wool Board member saw Bowen in action and realised the potential of such an outstanding shearer for the wool industry. Later that year he was hired as chief instructor of the Wool Board’s new shearing section, and demonstrated his technique at shows and shearing sheds around the country. He trained a team of 32 instructors and began senior instruction courses at Massey and Canterbury (Lincoln) Agricultural Colleges. One of the instructors, Bob Reed, recalled that when he was first asked to go to Lincoln for a demonstration he declined, because he thought he knew how to shear: ‘I soon learned from Godfrey that I didn’t know anything at all’.
Bowen displayed a flair for showmanship and public speaking, and his shearing demonstrations were entertaining as well as instructional. In 1955 he published a book, Wool away! , outlining his technique, and in 1960 he was appointed an MBE. He made demonstration tours of Australia, Britain, France, the United States, South America and the Soviet Union, where in 1963 he was made a Hero of Socialist Labour by the premier, Nikita Khrushchev.
In 1970 Bowen produced and directed New Zealand’s main outdoor display at Expo ’70 in Japan, and he was presented with the Newman Award for his contribution to publicity and tourism. He continued demonstrating shearing in New Zealand and overseas throughout the decade, and in 1977, at the age of 55, he shore for the New Zealand team at the world championships in England, finishing fourth and shearing 15 sheep in 17 minutes. He was also a shearing consultant in several countries, including South Africa, where he was responsible for a national survey of the sheep and wool industry.
Bowen’s shearing techniques had a lasting impact on the industry in New Zealand, but his entrepreneurial skills also endured, particularly through the Agrodome tourist venture in Rotorua, which he had devised and helped set up. He also helped organise, and competed in, the first Golden Shears national shearing tournament in Masterton in 1961, finishing second behind his brother Ivan. He was one of the inaugural inductees into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Godfrey Bowen died of a heart attack in Rotorua on 2 January 1994, survived by his wife and children. His successor as director of the Wool Board’s shearing section, Robin Kidd, described him as ‘an extraordinary shearer’ and ‘a great sportsman’, who ‘loved anything that was competitive’. A devoted family man, he was a gifted public speaker and motivator, a successful businessman, and above all an exceptionally hard worker.