As early as 1815 a small amount of wool was exported from the Bay of Islands to Sydney. New Zealand’s first commercial sheep farmer was John Bell, who in 1835 sold wool in Sydney from his Merino flock on Mana Island. The identity of the shearers is unrecorded.
In the mid-1840s, with sheep numbers rapidly increasing, there was a demand for shearers. New Zealand’s first shearers came from Australia – also the source of the country’s Merino stock and first pastoralists, who owned or leased large sheep runs.
Australian shearers had already acquired an unsavoury reputation in their own country. In Marlborough in 1849, New Zealand farming pioneer Frederick Weld described shearers on his farm as a ‘set of scoundrels’. 1 Shearers were considered characters of ill repute, known for their drinking and colourful language.
First New Zealand shearers
The first New Zealand shearers who can be positively identified are Thomas Hastie and John Bell (not the Mana Island farmer), who were shearing for William Jaffray at Saddle Hill, Otago, in 1849. They were paid four shillings a day and were locals who had learned to shear at the property.
Most early shearers adopted the itinerant lifestyle of their Australian counterparts, moving from shed to shed in search of work. Young Māori men also took to the shearing shed, and quickly demonstrated their abilities as fast, skilled shearers.
An outside job
In the early days shearing was done outside, and woolsheds were used for storing wool. In the 1860s a parcel of land in Marlborough’s Awatere valley was set aside as a shearing reserve, where runholders brought their sheep to be shorn. Shearing was done on mats or tarpaulins – or, less commonly, on boards about 6-feet (1.8-metres) square – to keep the fleece clean.
Sheds and workers
The first modern-style shearing shed, with a slatted floor in the sheep holding pens, was built about 1857 at St Leonards in the Amuri district. By the 1870s large sheds had become common. They had pens to hold unshorn sheep, and each shearer had a porthole to push shorn sheep through to the pens outside.
Other workers in the shearing process included:
- ‘sheep-os’ or ‘penner-ups’, who kept the pens of unshorn sheep full
- ‘fleece-os’ or ‘picker-ups’, who gathered the shorn wool
- table hands, who sorted the fleeces on big wooden tables and were supervised by a wool classer
- pressers, who packed the wool into bales using a wool press (at first a screw press, and then a lever press).
The community of the shearing sheds was very hierarchical. Shearers were always at the top, but amongst them was a ranking. The fastest shearer was the ‘ringer’ or the ‘don’, who always occupied the position closest to the wool table. Fast shearers were ‘guns’, the slowest shearer was the ‘drummer’. There were also ‘barrowmen’, who were apprentices and only allowed to practise during the shearers’ break or ‘smoko’.