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Mal Gill
22-Apr-2017 8:00pm

WITH the passing of time the sheep have got bigger and wrinklier, the journey north rougher and tougher, but the colourfulness of the characters and a basis in fact of tales they tell have changed little.

Former shearers, shed hands, wool pressers, classers and cooks who worked the big sheds of the Gascoyne, Pilbara and Kimberley when the north of the State was sheep country, still meet regularly to remember those good times.

They are members of the Shearers & Pastoral Workers Social Club and they hold their annual meetings every November at the Ravenswood Hotel between Mandurah and Pinjarra.

Though more often than not these days – with the youngest of their number approaching 70 years of age – they meet at a funeral or wake afterwards, with club financial membership down to 132.

But a small band come from across Perth every couple of months to get together in the Bassendean garage of club secretary Val Hobson, for what they call a “lickin’ and stickin’ day”.

In between trying to match each other with tales of exploits or about characters who haunted front bars of outback pubs, bouts of uproarious laughter and quieter “whatever happened to?” moments of reflection, they help Val prepare a club newsletter for mail out.

Last Friday was one of those days.

Six former shearers and former shed hand and presser Jim Clune, 72, who worked the sheds from 1965 to 2007, attended.

There was Jim ‘Woodsie’ Woods, 88 – fit as a fiddle, he still plays lawn bowls every week – who started as a shed hand in 1949, earned a learner’s pen and graduated to shearer, and Gil Barr who sheared for 20 years from 1948-68, until his back gave out and he became an organiser for the Australian Workers’ Union, finishing up as national secretary.

John Moore, 81, went to the Kimberley in ‘54 and sheared for 40 years, Kevin Plunkett, 86, who went north in ‘52 and was shearing “off and on” for 30 years, Ray ‘Chicken Guts’ Gibletts, 79, whose first shed was at Quobba in 1955 and Mick Ropeson, 78 - he could easily pass for 20 years younger – who started shearing in 1952.

As in the old days, they work as a team.

Sitting around a large table in the centre of the crowded garage each has a job to do.

One folds newsletters, passing them to another who puts them in envelopes, a third puts name and address stickers on, a fourth seals envelopes, a fifth sticks on the stamps and a sixth stacks envelopes in a cardboard box ready to take to the post office.

Val, 81, watches them like a hawk.

Occasionally she interrupts a story, or laughter, to point out an envelope has been passed on without an address sticker or put in the box without a stamp.

A stickler for getting the job done right, she writes the newsletter “whenever I get around to it”.

In the 1960s Val was a shearing contractor with husband Peter.

In later life a university course helped her realise the significance of the era she had been involved with and was about to pass into history unrecorded.

She looked up old mates and talked them into letting her record their story.

The result was her book titled Across the Board: Stories of West Australian Shearing.

A few drinks and a lot of reminiscence at her book launch saw the foundation of the Shearers & Pastoral Workers Social Club laid down.

The first meeting was in the Ravenswood Hotel, 2003, with Val appointed secretary and Gil Bar treasurer.

In those days the committee’s aim was to establish a shearing museum.

It was Val’s idea and she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2014 for her services to preserving WA shearing history.

They convinced 93 retirees from the WA wool industry to each donate $200 or more, Carnarvon shire tipped in $500 and LotteryWest came up with a grant.

“As treasurer, I had a good holiday in Bali that year,” Gil joked.

With a shearing museum eventually opened in a shed near the One Mile Jetty, Carnarvon, and run as part of a local historic precinct, the originating committee morphed into a social club - not a difficult transformation for old shearers - in 2013.

As envelopes mounted in the box last Friday so did the story tally.

Gil had brought an old photo of himself dunked by fellow shearers in the horse trough outside The Junction Hotel, Gascoyne Junction.

The trough and original hotel are gone, he reminisced, washed away in floods.

“It’s all new there now, all rebuilt,” he said.

That led to another story about a shearing team short of a shed hand pulling into The Junction on the way north.

Hearing they were short-handed, the publican pointed to a figure unconscious in a drunken stupor in the corner of the bar and assured the contractor he was a good shed hand when sober.

The publican told the contractor the man owed him money and he would go upstairs and pack his bag if the contractor wanted to take him with the team.

The unconscious drunk and his bag were loaded on the shearers’ truck and, so the story goes, was not best pleased when finally roused, 200 kilometres north at Middalya.

Then there were the characters: such as a down-and-out toff known as ‘The Count’ because he worn a monocle tied to his shirt with string who claimed a fake peerage from the Isle of Skye, off the Scottish coast.

He frequented hotel bars in Carnarvon.

“He’d sidle up to shearers and introduce himself with his title,” Gil recalled.

“He’d say: ‘I say my good man, if you advance me a shilling, I’ll tell you a funny story’.”

There was the gun shearer whose claim to fame was he sheared “200 a day for the Queen”.

It turned out he had served time in one of Her Majesty’s regional prisons in WA for bigamy and had shorn the prison flock while inside.

The old shearers all have fond memories of the long-gone days when shearing teams travelled north and worked together for much of the year.

“Every year towards the end of the run I’d say to myself ‘this is the last one I’m doing’,” Kevin Plunkett recalled.

“But every January I’d start sniffing around again for another run.

“They were great days – I wouldn’t want to go back and do it all again because it was bloody hard work, but we always had a good time,”

The next Shearers & Pastoral Workers Social Club function will be the launch, at Whiteman Park’s Revolutions Transport Museum on Friday, May 5, of Truck Days, the historic video filmed earlier this year.

Another of Val’s ideas seen through to completion, Truck Days records the stories of some of the old shearers of their time travelling north to shear in the Gascoyne, Pilbara and Kimberley.

Like the social club, the video is essentially living history reliving history.

  • North Queensland Register
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