Woolsheds

WoolshedsS

They used to say that "Australia rode on the sheep's back". And it was true. For well over a century our economy was balanced on wool prices, and farmers at least in some part of every state raised sheep for wool.

An integral part of running sheep on their properties was the annual arrival of the shearing team to shear, class the wool and see it packed into huge wool bales to be transported to market.

Shearers themselves were a unique group of men who worked hard and competitively (those who could shear the most in a day were respected - and challenged), travelling many hours to the 'sheds' and leaving their families behind in the cities often for weeks or even months at a time.

While the image of the Aussie shearer became a sort of macho cult image for the country itself, until now the other major player in the shearing process - the woolshed itself - has not starred. In these sweaty smelly sheds many believe that the shearing industry conceived Australian unionism, from which grew the Australian Labor Party itself.

Now, gifted Victorian photographer, Andrew Chapman, (along with contributing photographer, Michael Silver) has set the balance right. Travelling around the country for 35 years, he selected some of the most iconic sheds in every state and photographed them to preserve their memory before they ultimately disappear.

Once there were around 180 million sheep on the land. Australia's history is full of shearing stories and images, but since the downturn in wool prices and an estimated halving of the flocks, the sheds are sometimes abandoned, becoming a silent symbol of the past. It may be an era that is dissolving but Chapman believed it should never be forgotten. 

Now, with this book, the memory has been revived with pictures so evocative you can almost smell the sheep and the sweat, feel the lanolin and hear the screech and buzz of the handpieces.

While this book is mainly a selection of state-by-state photos, some profiles of local identities have been included too. They tell their stories, reliving the past of some of the properties on which a shed is located. And because it's the country - this country - there is a touch of humour, too, and more than a little nod to the tough resourceful people who came before, those who hung in there working the land for decades.

Of course what book about sheep would be complete without the farmer's best friend and ally in handling these sometimes confused animals: the sheepdog? Chapman devotes his final chapter to a selection of photos of dogs - mainly kelpies - that he encountered on farms during his research.

It's true, Australians may not still be able to say the country rides on the sheep's back, but it was surely the wool industry - graziers, shearers (and the woolsheds) - that got us on our feet. This book is a fitting tribute to them all. 

-       Sally Hammond

Woolsheds, by Andrew Chapman, published by The Five Mile Press, November 2011, rrp $39.95. Hardcover, ISBN: 978 1742 86659

 

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