Reflections On The Central West

 

Reflections On The Central West, 1955/2017

Alan Blunt

 

Before my first journey there in 1955 I’d picked up a lot about the Central West from Mum and Dad. They had spent impressionable youthful years there and fallen in love with the area and each other. Mum was a station governess in the Longreach, Aramac and Blackall districts and she lived in Blackall and on Minnie Downs after marrying. Blackall was Dad’s home base from 1922 till 1941. He owned a droving plant, and was a horse breaker and shearer, working over much of the Central West and South West, and North West, New South Wales.

 

I knew that Blackall had been the home town of Jack Howe, the greatest gun shearer of all; that the Tree of Knowledge was in Barcaldine, and the Australian Labor Party had been born there; that QANTAS was born in Longreach (or was it Winton? The answer depended on who was telling the story); that the ’Reach had featured in the fabulous career of Captain Starlight, the greatest cattle duffer who ever saddled up; and that Winton was the birthplace of Waltzing Matilda, and could be the real birthplace of QANTAS. It took me a few years to understand the importance of the Central West in history and legend. It took more time and experience to realize the importance of these small towns in state and local government administration and as financial and business hubs for huge grazing areas and centres for managing the shearing of tens of millions of merino sheep when Australia’s economy rode on the sheep’s back. Nor did I know that the railway reached Barcaldine in 1886, and Longreach five years later, its progress dependent on Queensland government contracts whose pace in turn was measured by the availability of overseas borrowing, or that as the rail line slowly snaked westward from Rockhampton it changed forever the material and social lives of the pioneers, while the indigenous tribes watched and wondered and retreated. By then the telegraph already had reduced communication time from days and weeks to seconds and the underrated push bike, motor car, phone and radio would arrive over the next forty years putting more control of communication and personal transport in the hands of the people.

 

The Central West, like western Queensland in general, has had its financial base in wool and beef ever since the pioneer graziers progressively “took up” (or “took over”) the land in the second half of the nineteenth century. Widely scattered small towns and villages sprang up to service business and transport. Such towns became prosperous, for given favourable seasons and markets, the “cockies” (land owners and lessees) waxed fat on wool cheques and paid good wages to shearers, wages their union had had to fight hard and long for. The coming of the railways multiplied populations and commerce, small business folk and wage earners spent and invested locally, pubs did a roaring trade, and those markers of civilisation, tiers of government and administration and schools and churches and sporting clubs advertised permanency.

 

The coming of the railway and the motor car wiped out a lot of hamlets, especially the numerous Cobb and Co coaching stops, while in the larger towns they introduced a multiplicity of skilled servicing and construction jobs, as did the arrivals of electricity and the telephone early in the century. For all that the thriving larger centres, nearly all built on rivers for permanent water supply, became known as cockies’ and shearers’ towns: when the graziers had surplus cash it flowed through to the shops and towns, especially through the free-spending shearers and their families.

 

It was late in the June of 1955 when Dad and I left Brisbane bound for a shearing run out of Longreach. Dad was good shearer and I was a picker-up, my job to pick up the fleece as the shearer finished shearing, and carry it on the trot to throw flat on the wool-roller’s table. We were travelling in Dad’s Vanguard ute, rolling along at a steady fifty miles an hour whenever the roads allowed. Tom, a lean rouseabout of around thirty-five shared the front bench seat while our swags and ports and my dog, Nellie, rode in the back. Eighteen months old and reddish brown in colour, Nellie was the product of a union between a champion black and white collie bitch and a red kelpie. Dad had given her to me when I was a stationhand on Yarrawonga Station near St George. Then a roly-poly pup she had grown into a fine workmate and I had come to love her as only a lonely lad can love a dog.

 

West of Roma the highway was single lane bitumen or gravel. We drove slowly through several mobs of drover’s stock. Vehicular traffic was light as long distance transport of stock and goods by road was in its infancy, and most people still travelled by train. The discomfort on rail journeys caused by dirty coal dust and hot or cold weather would soon become unpleasant memories as electric/diesel locomotives and carriages were air-conditioned. Taking the Clara Creek short cut, we bypassed Charleville, then drove through Augathella and Tambo. I’d been driving tractors and trucks on farms and station roads since I was fourteen; now Dad put me on the wheel to gain experience on the open road as I was only two months short of seventeen, when I would be eligible to apply for a driver’s license. How easy it was in those days: a young copper in Longreach accompanied me on a short drive. The Vanguard had no turning blinkers, so I extended my arm out the window and turned right, raised my open hand to indicate when I was about to stop, and parked. The constable wrote out my license on the spot.

 

I was excited at heading into the Central West for the first time. Dad, too, was excited. He was always like that, an inspiration, full of hope and enthusiasm for a new venture, while putting behind him the financial blows and disappointments fate had dealt him again and again; and this time he was proud to have his oldest son with him. Big mobs of grazing sheep, and not a few cattle gazed at us over the fences as we passed. Like many men of his time and place, Dad was an exceptionally capable all round bushman. He never blew his own trumpet, yet was a graduate in the school of hands-on experience in horsemanship, fencing, bush carpentry, blacksmithing and more, and a fountain of information about the flora and fauna and crops of the varied landscapes we passed through: the rich red soil on the Darling Downs, the harsh red country with its stunted mulga trees, and the heavy dark soil of the Mitchell grassed rolling downs with its gidyea scrubs and lonely boree trees. Twice we boiled the billy beside the road and enjoyed the sandwiches and cake Mum had packed. Nellie took a run and a drink of water while Tom and Dad rolled a smoke. I could tell Dad was looking forward to introducing me to his old mates and the sights of the “Queen City of the West”, as locals proudly dubbed Longreach, a town he hadn’t visited in twenty-odd years.

 

After fourteen hours on the road we stayed overnight at the Tattersalls Hotel in Blackall. Blackall was Dad”s hometown from 1922 till he joined the Army in 1941. He had left the family sheep and wheat farm in the Moree district when he completed school at age sixteen and hastened to Blackall to join his brother Mervyn, who was seventeen years Dad’s senior. A stockman and drover, Mervyn had left home for Queensland in 1910; he had owned a sheep property in the Blackall district from 1919 till 1939. Dad had been a flush enough young bachelor to maintain a permanent room in Tattersalls Hotel during the 1930s when he was a shearer-cum-racehorse owner-trainer. Wages were low and there wasn’t much money in circulation those grim years of the Great Depression, but he said he was never out of work. In 1931 the Arbitration Court drastically cut the shearing rate, and a bitter strike ensued. Dad went back to station work and droving with his brother Mervyn, over the duration of the strike. Later on in Blackall a former mate named Bill, accused Dad of scabbing during the strike. Most men knew Bill lied or was mistaken, but he refused to withdraw his accusation. Dad was a peaceful man by nature, but honour was at stake. Being called a scab couldn’t be ignored by a man who valued his reputation for courage. There could be only one outcome.

 

Early in 1957, following the conclusion of the 1956 shearer’s strike, I pulled out of my job as a bread carter with George Bott and Sons of Wilston, a Brisbane suburb. George and his sons, Warren and Graham, were good people to work with, and I was loathe to leave the love and affection of Mum and my six brothers and sisters. However, asthma, a lifelong affliction east of the Great Divide, was wearing me down. Besides, after a year of driving around suburbia I was weary of the roar and tumult of Brisbane traffic (such as it was in a city of half a million population). I was missing the natural music of the bush, fishing in the deep, brown water holes, and the excitement of hunting pigs with dog and gun along the creeks and winding bore-drains.

 

The United Grazier’s Shearing Cooperative (UNGRA) sent me as a shed hand (rouseabout or “rousie”) to a shearing shed in the Surat District. I was pleasantly impressed by Jack Cameron the overseer/classer. The son of a Blackall District grazing family and an ex-World War Two naval officer, Jack was a big jovial bloke of middle years. Widely read, philosophic and a colourful discourser, he was given to entertain with quotes from Shakespeare to Robbie Burns and Oscar Wilde, some of which were literal and some humorous parodies. Coming from a grazing family, he’d been a young jackaroo in 1931.

 

‘Everyone knew the blue between your dad and Bill was on,’ he told me. ‘Half the town’s population gathered on the banks of the Barcoo, including some women, who wouldn’t miss the action for quids. And a lot of country people turned up. A roped square had been erected, as in regular prize ring rules; and the police sergeant was referee – to make sure there was fair play, because there was a lot of betting on the result. Have you heard of ‘Spanner’ Hayes? He was a noted pugilist. He had trained your dad, and was in his corner. This was best scrap I ever saw and I’ve seen some rippers. I’d won my share of amateur bouts at school, but I’m glad I wasn’t in this one. After four rounds the ref stopped the fight and declared your father the winner. Bill’s face was a bloody mask because he kept getting smacked with the left jab Spanner Hayes had taught your father, and his left ear had to be sewn back into place. The third row was the closest I could get to the ring. I was wearing a new white Fuji silk shirt. It was so soaked in blood I threw it away. Later Bill climbed off his high horse and apologised to your father. He’d have been wiser to have apologised in the first place. Take note lad: false pride leads to fights between men and wars between nations.’ Settling arguments with fisticuffs remained common through to the seventies in western towns, and not only amongst the shearing fraternity: jackaroos and graziers and “townies” also settled issues with: ‘I’ll see you outside.’ Many pubs boasted a bullring out the back, and towns had a favourite spot by a river or creek, well trampled by Sunday morning pugilists settling differences magnified by a Saturday night booze up.

 

I could argue that the goddess Fortuna arranged my destiny to live most of my life in the Central West, long before I was born. My mother arrived in Longreach in 1931 to take up a position as a governess with the Peters family on Notus Downs. She had lost her job as a relieving station mistress in the Brisbane area because of the Depression, and had ‘worn out my shoes’ searching for acceptable employment. Dad had arrived in Blackall by train, travelling alone from Moree, aged ten, to visit Mervyn in 1916. On finishing secondary education in Glen Innes he had come to live with his revered brother permanently. The town was to remain his headquarters while he worked the area as a horse-breaker, stockman, drover and shearer. Dancing was a favourite recreation, along with horse racing, tennis, and playing rugby league for the Blackall team, and here he met his wife to be in 1933. Patricia was by then a governess on Ryan’s property, Carlo. Dad spoke often affectionately of Blackall, even when he had retired to the gentle climate of Wynnum. A clear case of “you can take the boy out of the bush, but you can’t take the boy (or girl) out of the bush”.

 

We stayed in the Tattersalls (Tatts) Hotel overnight and, following a breakfast of steak and eggs and a cup of tea in the pub dining room, Dad drove around town, pointing out places that stirred memories.

‘The streets are named for flowers in Blackall,’ he informed me. ‘In Barky the streets are named after trees, and in the ’Reach, the trees are named after birds.’ He pointed out the Union Hotel, the pub famous world champion shearer, Jack Howe, had owned. The “gun” had shorn 321 sheep at Alice Downs, twelve miles from Blackall, in 1891. Folk knew the world record attempt was on. Bets were laid and the crowd in the shearing shed built up to cheer him on – so enthusiastically that they truncated his work at seven hours and forty minutes. Doubtless the top gun would have surpassed 350 if allowed to shear for the regulation eight hours. He did it with the “glorified scissors”, the blades, yet his record remained until 1950 when Teddy Rieck broke it by shearing 326 sheep with machines near Julia Creek. Jack Howe’s name yet remains legendary; a striking statue in Blackall commemorates him, and his old pub is converted to a tourist attraction and gift shop.

 

We drove on sixty three miles to Barcaldine, known as the Garden City, where the highways from Brissy (Brisbane) and Rocky (Rockhampton) converge, financially benefiting the historic little town’s cafes, hotels and garages. Contrary to Blackall, which is located on heavy black soil, Barcaldine is situated on sandy loam; it is noted for producing citrus trees, flowers and vegetables, and harbours a wide range of indigenous trees and plants, birds and animals. We pulled over by a famous ghost gum tree known far and wide as the Tree of Knowledge, located by the railway line to Rockhampton. Dad explained proudly that the healthy old tree had been a symbol of solidarity for the Labor movement since the great shearer’s strike of 1891, when pioneering bush unionists, workers and supporters rallied in its shade to support the shearers in their struggle against the big land owners, the squattocracy, who were hugely influential in Queensland’s colonial government. Many supporters were small business people who understood that good wages signalled prosperity. History records that unions lost the strike, which in Queensland had been centred in Barcaldine. Broke and defeated, with union leaders tried in Rockhampton and jailed by British law for long terms of hard labour on St Helena (Queensland’s own version of Devil’s Island), the shearers returned to work on the most of the squatter’s terms in the three eastern colonies the strike had enveloped. Yet, had the Shearer’s War really been lost? A decade later Australia became a nation, and in time the Shearer’s War came to be seen by fighters for a better and fairer Australia as a keystone in the formation of the Australian Labor Party. Dad had inherited right wing political allegiance through his English middle class farming heritage, but had been a strong Labor supporter since the early 1930s, when he had turned on the Country Party because of its policies in the grim years of the Great Depression.

 

Longreach, on the Tropic of Capricorn, is sixty-seven miles from Barcaldine. A few miles along gravel and dirt road we left the sand hills behind and saw again the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended. Two drover’s mobs of sheep were on the road, and a sheep train and a mixed goods train passed us going east on the line parallel to the road. In Ilfracombe we pulled into the Wellshot Hotel, a pub that created its own legend when it arrived with the railway line. Dad and Tom sat at the bar with a beer and rolled smokes, while I had a sarsaparilla.

‘Only fifteen miles to go,’ Dad said, ‘to the Queen City of the West.’ Civilisation indeed! That last fifteen miles was surfaced with a narrow bitumen strip. Glass from windscreens broken by stones flung by tyres littered the table drains. The grand water tower hove into view. Longreach was no city, but it was a lot bigger than any town we had passed through since Roma, with a population of over three thousand souls. To me this was a drab town, the only shade provided by the bottle trees, their greenery truncated to the height of feeding goats standing on their hind legs. These goats roamed the common and town in thousands, providing milk and meat for the battlers, and nourishing tasty milkshakes at the cafes. Similar to Blackall, Winton and Barcaldine, Longreach had prospered in the post war years through high to booming wool prices; it was a cockies’ and shearer’s town, predominantly Anglo/Irish, whose culture was partly revealed by a plenitude of pubs and churches and stock and station agents.

 

Our shearing “run” would begin at Belford, north of Winton, which was 110 miles to the northwest of Longreach. Dad booked us overnight at Winton’s grand new North Gregory Hotel, which was a two-storey, air-conditioned edifice honouring the name of the pub that hosted the first presentation of Waltzing Matilda. We enjoyed a profitable shearing run through to December. The shearer’s strike of 1956 lasted from January to October. I didn’t return to the Central West until early 1959. By then the social turbulence caused by the strike had settled, but little had changed socially or structurally. Inevitably change was on its way for better or worse, ignoring the best laid plans of mice and men.

 

Initially, declining wool prices saw beef replace wool throughout most of Western Queensland and free-spending shearing families sought greener pastures, a devastating blow to shops and businesses. The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre in Longreach, a keystone in promoting outback tourism, was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1988. Vital players involved in getting this Museum of the Outback underway were Longreach mayor, Sir James Walker, R.M. Williams and folk singer Ted Egan. Australian taxpayers financed the project through their respective state and federal governments, as they did many other tourist attractions including: the Blackall Wool Scour, the Worker’s Heritage Centre at Barcaldine, Qantas Museum in Longreach, the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton and, close by, the Australian Dinosaur Museum. Substantial private investment followed, as local investors developed skills as entrepreneurs, entertainers and folk historians.

 

The road traveller today would find much changed, yet much the same as I savoured in 1955. The dirt and gravel and single lane bitumen has become a two lane highway, frequented in the cooler months by a multitude of caravans towed by four-wheel drives. The drovers with their dogs and horses have been replaced by awesome prime movers hauling trailers that seem to be a mile long, while closer to the coast immensely powerful locomotives haul coal trains that are a mile long. The glorious age of the steam engine is long past, and lines have closed, but the romantic vision of the train, the Spirit of the Outback, conveying tourists from Brisbane to Longreach can be viewed from the highway twice a week, while regular passenger trains are as rare as feathered frogs. Giant modern tourist and passenger coaches speed north and south, while the Australian built Fords and Holdens that dominated traffic for so long have been replaced by a plethora of foreign imports; they bear different badges but look as alike as duck eggs. One thing that hasn’t changed though are the housands of kangaroo corpses that yet dot the roadsides.

 

In the towns the goats have been banished, and avenues of trees and gardens and greenery delight; half the historic old pubs have burnt or been demolished and modern motels have sprung up to accommodate the tourists. The final stretch into Longreach presents a marked contrast to the skinny strip of bitumen we drove eagerly in 1955. It’s known locally as “Jimmy’s Golden Mile” in honour of Sir James Walker, a long-time mayor who dedicated much energy, leadership and influence to modernising the town. On the left are the Pastoral College, the School of Distant Education, impressive government buildings and the Stockman’s Hall of Fame; on the right a modern airport and the QANTAS Founder’s Museum – dominated by a huge Boeing 747. Regrettably, the Central West in general offers little to honour the first Australians, the indigenous tribes who occupied the area for at least 20,000 years.

 

Now fighting back after the financial demolition of the wool industry and the devastation of repetitious droughts (Henry Lawson’s, “Red Marauder”), local business’ and workers throughout the Central West rely chiefly on tourism, the cattle industry, and the input of local, state and federal government departments and employees to survive and thrive.

 

About the Essayist

Born in Cleveland in 1938, Alan Blunt went  to Western Queensland in 1938 because of chronic asthma.

Finding robust health, he worked as a ‘rousie’, station hand, drover, wool-presser and shearer for thirty years. He was a keen observer of character, by night writing of events and workmates by the light of a pressure lamp. In 1993 he built Banjo’s Outback Theatre & Woolshed, and formed a theatre troupe, which presented outback history, drama and humour through poems, skits, yarns, and songs for the next twenty-one years. Known as Banjo, he still performs one-man folklore shows and is a regular sports historian on ABC radio.

Alan has published short stories, articles, and poems. In 2016 Penguin Random House published

his memoir, WOOL AWAY, BOY! A ripping memoir of life in the shearing sheds. Noted author, Evan McHugh, wrote: ‘Searingly honest, wonderfully evocative and frequently hilarious. Alan is a born storyteller who perfectly recreates an era of mateship and relentless toil when Australia truly rode on the sheep’s back.’

Alan can be contacted at: Phone 07 4658 2360, Longreach, Qld   email: bjtheatr@bigpond.net.au

 

Image Credit:

Photograph supplied by Diane Watson / Roger Johnson / Paul Rowell

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