Voice of Real Australia: Shear pioneers lost to history

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TOP EFFORT: The solo women's nine hour shearing world record holder Megan Whitehead of Gore, New Zealand. Photo: Natwick via Farmers Weekly, NZ

TOP EFFORT: The solo women's nine hour shearing world record holder Megan Whitehead of Gore, New Zealand. Photo: Natwick via Farmers Weekly, NZ

Have you ever come across a random fact that just sticks with you?

On a recent 'holiday at home', I decided to check out Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, including the Farm Shed museum at Kadina.

While perusing the 'her-story' section, which looks at the critical role women have played in agriculture - something somewhat overlooked in the history books - there was a sign that spoke about the origins of the wool industry in this state.

The first shearers in SA were German immigrant women.

We've gotten fairly used to the idea that shearing is a somewhat 'blokey' industry, complete with the idea of 'ducks on a pond'.

It's only in the past few decades that we've started to see more and more women take up the handpiece, with a fair bit of success.

In January this year, New Zealand shearer Megan Whitehead set a new world record, shearing 661 strong-wool lambs in nine hours. I think most shearers - and cockies - would be pretty happy with that daily tally.

But it's interesting to think that the movement of women into the shed is not a recent thing, but has a long history.

I went looking for more information about this but it is very tricky to find.

So far, I've only found one other reference. If anyone knows more, I'd love to hear about it.

This isn't the only example of women's contributions to ag being somewhat forgotten.

I remember, as a young school student, writing a report about the 'father of the wool industry', John MacArthur.

He gets this title because he bought some of the early Merino rams imported from Spain and then showed the resulting wool off in London.

But considering all the time he spent antagonising the governor, fostering rebellion and then on trial halfway across the world, I suspect we should give a little more credit for the establishment of that early sheep flock and its wool to his wife Elizabeth Macarthur.

And it's only on a visit to the National Wool Museum a few years ago that I became aware of Eliza Forlonge.

She is famed for walking across Saxony, Germany - where the SA female shearers came from - and personally selecting the sheep that would become her flock when she moved with husband John to Tasmania.

Eliza even has a statue of herself, with her sheep, outside of Campbell Town, Tas, where she first lived.

When we're celebrating our pioneers, it's worth thinking about whether we're remembering the full picture.

  • Stock Journal journalist Elizabeth Anderson

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