Shearers were paid on the number of sheep shorn, so they had an incentive to increase their daily output, and gradually the daily rate increased. In 1888 Alec Hutchinson, from Whanganui, was the first to shear 100 sheep in a day with machines, at Dunlop Station, in New South Wales, Australia.
Shearer Raihania Rimitiriu, the Ngāti Porou ‘gun’, ruled supreme in East Coast and Hawke’s Bay sheds for about a decade from the late 1890s. By this time, machine shearing was well established. A man of boundless energy, The Great Raihania – as he was known – managed several times to shear more than 330 sheep a day, using machines, combs and cutters that were primitive by today’s standards.
Perhaps feats like this helped change the public perception of shearers from scoundrels to men of integrity. New Zealand poet George Meek wrote in the 1890s:
They were honest, hard and human, – tho’ faults we may record –
Their real worth will be written on the heavenly tally board.’ 1
Other Māori champions
Young Māori were quick to make their mark as shearers. Robert Tūtaki, from Hawke’s Bay, was a gun shearer and Shearers’ Union organiser in the 1920s. He was one of the first to receive the rare Wolseley Medal, presented to shearers who exceeded 330 sheep in a day using Wolseley shearing equipment. Sonny White and Johnny Hape were other Māori who acquired legendary status for their tallies and skills.
Competing in the shed for tallies developed into formal competitions. These began at agricultural and pastoral (A & P) shows. There was a shearing competition at the 1873 Canterbury show, and the Hawke’s Bay A & P Association staged one in 1902, where Raihania Rimitiriu beat 35 other contestants.
The Poverty Bay A & P Association held a New Zealand championship for several years after the Second World War, and then the Royal Show (wherever it was being held in any given year) hosted the national championship until the 1970s.
Following the establishment of the New Zealand Wool Board shearer-training scheme in the mid-1950s, interest in competition shearing grew. About 20 competitions were held each year around New Zealand. The first Golden Shears competition, in Masterton in 1961, was so successful that it rapidly assumed the mantle of New Zealand’s major competition, a status that it still enjoys today. Ivan Bowen won the first competition, and his brother Godfrey was second.
The benefit of Golden Shears and other major competitions was that shearers were able to compete alongside each other, swap ideas, travel to different parts of the country (and overseas), and become expert on different sheep breeds and wool types. For example, shearing a Merino wether requires a different technique and comb from those used on a Romney ewe.
The 1963 Golden Shears saw the first international competition, between New Zealand and Australia. Golden Shears societies were established in the UK (1964) and Australia (1974), and the first official world championships was in 1977. World contests are held every two to three years, alternating between the northern and southern hemispheres, with as many as 22 countries taking part. New Zealand shearers also have annual competitions with teams from Australia and the UK.