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.
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.
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.
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:
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’.
Shears had two blades, about 22-centimetres long, joined by a spring bow to force the shears apart. They were operated with a scissor action. In early colonial slang, shearers were known as jingling johnnies – presumably because of the noise made when their handpieces came together.
In the early years, shearing tallies were not high. In 1856 at Te Awaiti, near Martinborough, a gang of eight men tackled 8,256 sheep. One shearer, named Bartlett, recorded the best day’s tally of 79, but the average around this date was 35 sheep a day. Tallies were low because the sheep were Merinos, a hard breed to shear, and the shearers had little knowledge of good technique or even how to sharpen the shears.
The traditional English way of shearing a sheep involved tying its legs together, placing it on a stool and clipping the wool in criss-cross fashion. In the colonial technique, which was adopted in the 1850s, the sheep sat on its rump, held upright between the knees of the shearer, who clipped the wool off with strokes or blows.
Les Thomsen describes the blade shearing style: ‘First blow, from right side of lower brisket to flank, then break open and out to toe. Clear brisket upward, then across belly to udder, clear bellywool with left hand. Crutch, then first hind leg. Over tail by tilting sheep backwards and lifting with left hand. Top knot, then up neck by turning sheep’s head away and shearing up a natural parting in the wool at the back of the neck to between ears. Shear head, neck, first front leg to below shoulder.’ 1
As the technique improved, so did the tallies. By the 1870s the daily tally rose to 70–80, with the ‘guns’ reaching 100.
It was tough work – hard on the wrists, hands and back. Shearing was a summer activity (usually from November to February), and it was hot in the sheds. Shearers looked forward to smoko at the end of the two-hour run when, with faces covered in sweat, they could stop for a cuppa (cup of tea) and a smoke. It was not surprising that in the late 19th century the Shearers’ Union was active in trying to improve pay and conditions.
The first public demonstrations of shearing machines were in Australia in 1885. Although sheep owners were slow to accept the change, they became converts when they saw the extra pound (0.45 kilogram) of wool harvested from each sheep shorn with a machine rather than blades.
The first shearing machines appeared in New Zealand in the late 1880s, on stations such as Galloway in Otago, and Flaxbourne in Marlborough. They were originally driven by steam, often using a traction engine. Later, electricity made them more efficient and their use more widespread.
The development of machine-shearing technique was slow. The first machine shearers held the sheep firmly between their knees, just like the blade shearers. Jim Power, an Australian, is generally credited with inventing (in about 1905) the technique of lying the sheep down after completing the crutch and first hind leg area, for the ‘long blow’ up the back ‘from the breezer to the sneezer’.
George Stuart of Hawke’s Bay was one of the first to modify manufactured gear – a skill possessed by every modern shearer worth their salt. Bill Higgins, Bill Richards and other guns of the 1930s and 1940s also refined the art of shearing, which was then taken to a whole new plane by the Bowen brothers from Hawke’s Bay.
During and after the Second World War, brothers Ivan and Godfrey Bowen took the best of everything they had seen from shearers around New Zealand and developed the Bowen technique. This was a specific pattern of 55 blows with which to shear a fully grown, crossbred sheep. They used the non-shearing hand to flatten the sheep’s skin and produce an even fleece; and, whereas blade shearers would stretch the sheep out, Ivan’s idea was to crimp the sheep up to make it as small as possible, making less area to cover with the shearing handpiece. The pattern was further refined, with leading shearers such as John and David Fagan making notable contributions in recent years.
Another advance was the introduction of ‘wide gear’ and concave combs, which were 90–100-millimetres wide, compared with the old convex combs of the 1950s and early 1960s, which were no more than 60-millimetres wide. Today’s best shearers will get the fleece off a sheep in less than 50 blows.
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
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.
Since the Second World War, several agricultural developments have affected shearing:
In the dry, high country of the South Island, Merinos were shorn before lambing so they did not gather matagouri and seeds in their fleece. Also as the ewes were more sensitive to cold after being shorn, they looked after their lambs better.
Blade shearing often continued in high country areas because it left sheep with a layer of wool for protection against the cold. If the sheep were shorn by machine, a snow comb was normally used – this New Zealand invention ensured the wool was not cut so close to the skin. It is also used on about half of South Island hill country farms.
In the 1960s, contracting took over as the main way of organising shearing labour. A contractor may have 10 or more shearing gangs operating in different sheds on any given day. The gang is managed by the ‘ganger’, who is responsible for the workers and provides the day-to-day link between the farmer and contractor.
A typical shearing gang has four or more shearers, depending on the number of shearing stands in the shed. Shearers are assisted by at least the same number of shed hands or wool handlers. The shed hands may have their own specialist tasks, such as pressing the wool, skirting the fleece (removing lower-quality wool) or keeping the shearing board clean after each sheep is shorn.
Shed hands also sort the wool so the higher-priced fleece wool is not contaminated by stains, weeds, seeds or dirt, or by the lesser value wool from hocks, bellies and crutchings.
Shearers traditionally wore a black singlet, thick trousers, and moccasins cut from a wool bale. Today's shearers and shed hands wear custom-made, stylish shearing pants and coloured singlets.
‘Shouting your mates’ is a ritual faithfully observed in all gangs. A shearer finishing the day’s tally on 199, 299, and so on, is deemed to have ‘died on the hole’, for which he or she must buy the others drinks. A wool handler who drops the broom on the board will also have to pay at the end of the day, as will a presser who forgot to take the pins out of the top bale before starting the press.
Champion shearers are now recognised as world-class athletes. Tallies in excess of 850 lambs or 720 adult sheep have been shorn in a standard nine-hour day by New Zealand shearers such as David Fagan, Dion Morrell, Darin Forde, Rodney Sutton, Justin Bell and Dion King. At least 1 million sheep in the South Island high country are still shorn with blades each year, with Peter Casserly’s world record of 327 sheep unbeaten since 1976.
Martin, John E. The forgotten worker: the rural wage earner in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, Trade Union History Project, 1990.
McLauchlan, Gordon. The farming of New Zealand: the people and the land. Auckland: Penguin, 2006.
Mills, A. R. Sheep-o!: the story of the world’s fastest shearers. Wellington: Reed, 1960.
Ogonowska-Coates, Halina. Boards, blades and barebellies. Auckland: Benton Ross, 1987.
Williams, Des. Top class wool cutters: the world of shearers and shearing. Hamilton: Shearing Heritage Publications, 1996.