Blackall, QLD. Monday 22nd May 2017
I said at the end of my last blog that it was time to be a tourist once more. So a run through the where and what seems appropriate.
All Aussie towns tend to be interested in, and proud of, their history. Some of the towns in this area have good reason to be too. They’ve known growth, decline, tough times and prosperity. Cattle, sheep and mining. Sometimes all three. And there’s also old bones and a song or two.
Blackall was the first of these I came to, a fairly typical outback town. Except for the fact that it contains a Woolscour. A what? Let me explain. Australia’s early prosperity was built, quite literally, off the back of Merino sheep, over one hundred million of them. Their wool was sent all over the world, although the bulk of it fed the hungry mills of northern England. There was a symbiotic but ironic relationship between the rejected poor of Britain and Ireland, now working on the other side of the world, and the downtrodden poor who worked in the mills. In those days wool was more valuable if all the dirt and, in particular, the lanolin were removed before export. That was the role of the Wool Scour.
Blackall’s opened in 1907 and operated until 1978, when changes in practice led to its demise. It was steam driven for the whole of that time, using a 15HP engine which powered everything. This scour includes a 20 bay shearing shed, so the wool could be shorn, cleaned and baled all in one place. The cleaning process halved the weight of each bale which reduced shipping costs hugely. More profit, of course. These days its sent to its destination uncleaned, with the lanolin being extracted at the destination for use as a valuable lubricant. Our eighty six year old guide, Graham, explained all this to us. He used to work there and during his time had done every job there was except shearing. The work was hard, hot and very demanding. It’s easy to feel admiration for anyone who lived that life. In 1892 a local shearer named Jackie Howe set an as yet unbroken record for the number of sheep sheared in a day, 321 in under eight hours. And that was with hand shears. That’s amazing, especially when I think back to when I was watching shearers in Tibooburra, where 200 odd is the norm. Jackie also went on to set a record for mechanised shearing of 237, which stood for 58 years. So straight away it begs the question, how can hand shearing be so much quicker than mechanised shearing? The answer is that they didn’t use to shear so close to the skin with the hand shears and the wool was less dense, so it took less time.
There used to be about fifty Woolscours around the country and this is now the only one still in existence that combines shearing and scouring. It took a lot of hard work and heartache to obtain and restore it and the town is justifiably proud of this unique piece of Aussie history. All the machinery still works, including the engine, although unfortunately they hadn’t fired it up that day.
The other sight I was interested to see was the Black Stump itself. Here’s a direct quote from the tourist booklet: “This site represents the observation site surveyors used to establish a principal meridional circuit traverse around the town in 1888. This surveying was done to gain a more accurate basis for maps of Queensland. The surveyors used the stump for the placement of their transit to gain latitude and longitude observations. The use of a stump rather than a set of legs gave more stability for the transit. As time passed any country to the west of Blackall was considered to be “beyond the black stump”.” So now you know.
Civilisation. Out in the wilds.
We’ll leave it there, which is what I did as I rode north. Next destination, Barcaldine, but on the way I spent a night at Lara Wetlands. This is an oasis out in the bush. It’s on a 70,000 acre station and the husband and wife owners decided to create it to attract wildlife loving visitors. There is a hot spring, originating deep within the artesian basin. It runs into a shallow depression, forming a small lake. They created a bathing area around the spring and campers can set up anywhere round the edge of the lake. Facilities are minimal and the main attraction is the bird life, which visits the lake and surrounding wetlands, along with the huge sky and its millions of stars. The setting is quite magical in many ways. Tragically, Michael was killed in a helicopter crash soon after they began their project but Josie decided to carry on and finish it off. She did a great job.
Plenty of birds. And a peaceful location.
Barcaldine held my attention for two whole days. I hadn’t planned it that way at all but it just seemed to creep up on me. I’ll explain in a moment.
It’s home to the Australian Workers Heritage Centre. Why locate it here? Because the town was the centre of the sheep shearers’ strike of 1891.
As now, shearers were itinerant workers and moved from station to station at their own expense, often making very difficult journeys during which they suffered hunger and deprivation. They had to pay for their food and board out of poor wages. So when wool prices fell station owners forced pay cuts onto the shearers and shed hands. That could be regarded as simple economics but the shearers expenses didn’t fall along with the price of wool so they simply became poorer. A number of trade unions had sprung up during the 1880s, among them the Queensland Shearers Union, formed in Blackall in 1887. The pastoralists, alarmed at these developments, formed the Pastoral Employers Association in Barcaldine. The stage was set for conflict.
The unions wanted a uniform employment contract with none but union members being employed. The pastoralists set out their ‘freedom of contract’, declaring their right to set wage rates free of union rules. Within two months, at the start of 1891, the strike had begun. Long story short, the shearers lost their battle. After five months of negotiation and then of trying to prevent blackleg labour being brought in, the strike committee was arrested and charged with Conspiracy Against The Crown. Eight of the ten members were convicted and sentenced to three years hard labour. Leaderless and short of funds, the strike collapsed.
That battle was lost but the strike led directly to the formation of the Australian Labor (sic) Party. The union leaders realised that the best way to bring about social change was through the ballot box. They encouraged their members to register to vote and Queensland elected the world’s first Labour government in 1899.
In the middle of the high street stands the Tree of Knowledge. It was a large Eucalypt under which the strike committee used to meet, and was subsequently the place where the first Labor Party manifesto was written. It’s a place of great significance to working Australians but sadly it was poisoned by an unknown person in 2006. The tree died but was removed and sent away to be chemically treated so as to preserve it. It’s been surrounded by a hanging wooden sculpture which is very attractively illuminated at night.
I had a look around the museum, which focuses on the shearers strike, the efforts made by workers in the building of Australia as a nation, and their continuing role, especially in public services. It was all very interesting but I came away feeling there could have been much more. There were some large buildings with not very much in them.
Earlier, at the visitor centre, I’d been chatting to Mark, who was behind the counter. He suggested I try the Commercial Hotel for some food so I wandered down there later only to find there wasn’t any. So I went to another hotel, ate a nice meal, then came back to ‘The Commie’ for a beer and a chat to Mark. And that was what ‘crept up on me’. The beers. One of the other guys in there asked me if I like Guinness. I said I did and he told me they sell cans of it. So we had a few. I finally left there at 1am and staggered back to my hotel. Which was all locked up despite the landlady having told me it wouldn’t be. I managed to find a way in eventually and collapsed into bed. So the next day was necessarily quiet, having decided that putting myself in charge of a motor vehicle would not be a good idea.
When I was in the pub I saw that they sold the Aussie lottery cards called Keno. This is a system which originated in casinos, and seems rather complex. You can buy up to ten numbers out of eighty and you mark them on a card. You can ‘invest’ between one and one hundred dollars per game and play between one and five hundred consecutive games. Then watch the draw for the game(s) you’ve joined being made on TV a few minutes later. If any of your numbers are among those drawn you’ll win. The amount depends on how many of your numbers come up and how much you gambled per number. It struck me as being very complex and with an almost instant draw I can see how it could get seriously addictive. I spent a dollar on a game and, of course, won nothing. The pub has a special till for taking money and paying it out, and I noticed that the payout buttons were nothing like as worn down as the others. No surprise there.
Next stop was Longreach. There’s a police training school here and I had been warned to take care. I don’t break speed limits anyway but I was extra careful, just in case there were any spotty faced rookies looking to earn their spurs at my expense. But I had no problems. As I came into the town I saw the entrance to objective number one, the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and pulled in. As well as the main display building, this complex includes an entertainment area for equestrian shows and concerts, a replica station homestead and some gardens. I was really only interested in the displays so I coughed up the $27 entry fee and spent a few hours looking and reading.
The galleries tell the stories of the pioneer settlers, their properties and life, the specialist trades and other workers, and the role of indigenous peoples. I’d seen some of these stories elsewhere but here there is every aspect of station life all brought together. There were plenty of displays showing the trades associated with the industry, such as saddlers, smiths, shearers etc. Also about stock workers, focussing on mustering, branding, droving, the routes they used and so on. But I think the most fascinating part of the stories was the role Indigenous People played in the success of the industry. Success? It’s fair to say that in the early days the settlers wouldn’t have survived without their help. They knew where the water was and how to live in this often very hostile land. Over time the effective takeover of their lands drove the Aboriginals onto the stations to work, as a means of survival. Poor reward for their early help. It’s true to say that there was some armed resistance from them, but spears are no much for rifles so it tended to be both sporadic and ineffective. They became cheap labour, both indoors and out, and although they were appreciated on a personal level, they got little more than board and keep in return. When it came to mustering and droving the Aboriginal men, and often women too, became skilled horse riders and whole families would go on the droving journeys. During the wet summers they would usually return to their lands to undertake their ceremonies, thereby keeping in touch with their roots. That was in the early days. As the 20th century rolled on many things changed for the worse. But that story is to be saved for another time.
It comes as no surprise that the most important thing for the drovers was water. The railheads were a long way away and, at no more than twenty miles a day, many months were spent on the trail. Stock routes were developed all over Australia, some more successful than others, and often referred to as Long Paddocks. As time went by railheads were extended, so droves became shorter. Post WW2 there was a huge road building programme throughout Australia and eventually road trains took over the movement of cattle and sheep. These days the old stock routes are mostly used by adventurous Aussies in their 4WDs, although today there are still travelling stock reserves, provided by the state governments and used as mustering corridors and grazing during drought.
Quite naturally there is an aura of romanticism surrounding the role of stockmen, no different to that of the American west, but without the gunmen. It’s a key part of Aussie history and culture, and helped me to understand better the itinerant lifestyle many Aussie adopt, along with their sense of independence and ‘mateship’.
More soon, in Part 2.