Australia’s Bicycle Riding Shearers of the Early Twentieth Century

Thumbs up – birds fly

After photographing the well presented shearer’s bicycle at Pushies Galore, I had to find out more about these men who rode bicycles thousands of kilometres across Australia’s harsh and unforgiving unpaved interior, only to find more back breaking work when they arrived at the sheds of Australia’s vast sheep stations. Then there were the  games these pedaling shearers played — Thumbs Up and Birds Fly.

Life was more simple back when shearers rode bicycles to work | Birds Fly PART 1

A LOT of amusement may be had from this game. One player is chosen as ‘He.’ He then calls out ‘Robins fly’ and makes his hands go as if they were flying. All the other players make their hands move likewise, but if ‘He’ had said ‘Dogs fly’ (or something else that doesn’t fly), though his hands would be moving in the same way, the other players must keep their hands quiet. Anyone who made his hands fly at the wrong time is either out of the game or pays a forfeit, whichever you all decide on before playing. At the end of the game the player with the least number of forfeits wins.

Australian shearer’s bicycles which came into use in the late 1890′s were more than a form of efficient transportation. When it caned hard with rain and the sheep were too wet to shear, work-horse bicycles became racing bikes, on other days races for shearers were organised events at local race tracks. The rim of one dispirited shearer’s bicycle became a place for him to scratch his epitaph. Traversing vast distances on dusty outback tracks over thousands of kilometres, sometimes across more than one state was the norm for many shearers. For others the bicycle was the means to get to the shearing shed nearest home and back each day.australian-shearer-and-bicycle

Bicycle riding shearers drew the attention of the small town of Wanaaring’s correspondent in north western New South Wales in 1899. Shearers choosing bikes as their chief mode of transport were becoming the majority over horse riding shearers, even in a town which is today considered “remote” – “I notice this season very few shearers with horses. The bicycle has superseded them. On a rough calculation I should say that over £2000 in bikes have been spent in the district this shearing, and consignments arrive by every coach from Bourke.” 1

Some shearers had previously traveled by foot, here the bicycle was superseding the horse as the preferred mode of transport. The bike was cheaper, did not require feeding and could be leaned against a wall and left there without care while sheep were being shorn. When time came to move on the bicycle could be loaded up in much the same way as the randonneur bike of today. Instead of handmade bags, hessian or jute sacks were draped over the bars, frame and rear rack to hold the shearers possessions.

By 1902 the transition from horse to bike was complete at one shed on the Balonne River, Boombah station. The St George Standard reported that “It is very noticeable this year that the shearer’s steed is the bicycle.” The same year galloping shearer squadrons disappeared from view replaced by legions of devoted shearer bicyclists.

As a means of locomotion for shearers traveling from one shed to another, the bicycle has almost entirely displaced the horse. The old-fashioned sight of a squadron of shearers galloping with all their trappings, pack-horses, etc into country villages is rarely met with now, but a shearers cycle detachment is no uncommon sight. It is safe to say that fully three fourths of the shearers have adopted the bicycle and discarded the horse. 3

In the beginning it wasn’t all plain sailing for shearers who took to cycling from shed to shed. One shearer had cause to let fly at a bloke named Flinders, who’d accused the new wave of bike riding shearers of taking more food from the sheds than other shearers. What’s new, bike riders eat lots, especially the distances these riders were covering. His disgruntled ramblings show that even though the shearers numbers on bicycles were in the majority, not everyone thought highly of them.

Bicycle Shearers

‘ Diamantina’ (Winton):

As one of the bicycle brigade of shearers I would ask leave to reply to ‘Flinders’ remarks in your paper. In the first place I would like to call to his mind the saying of the Latin poet, that a man does not change his nature when he changes his climate, and a shearer does not change his nature when he changes from a horse to a bike, and in principle and generosity the average bike man is no better and no worse than the average man traveling per horse or per boot. As for their (sic) being the class that most impose on their mates in regard to getting rations at sheds, this remark shows ‘Flinders’ entire ignorance of what he is talking about, as anyone who has had any experience of bike riding knows that the bike rider’s aim is to travel as lightly loaded as possible, and all he generally takes at a shed is some bread and brownie and some cooked meat sufficient to last him a day or two at the outside, as the distance he can travel enables him in that time to get to where he can obtain another supply. As to having his sheds in his pocket before he starts, I infer that ‘Flinders’ means he has got them through that very new idea the post office, which was never heard of or used for that purpose before shearers road (sic) bikes. As to his not spending his money exactly where he earns it, I claim that a man has a perfect right to spend his money where he thinks fit, and if one followed out ‘Flinders’ ‘ idea to a logical finality he would never pass the nearest bush pub, I prefer to go to the centres of civilisation to improve my mind and bring myself up to date by seeing the latest inventions of science, and hearing the best speakers, the greatest thinkers, actors, singers, &e. ‘Flinders’ reminds me of the old fable of the rat who, having had his tail cut off in a trap, tried to persuade all the other rats that every one who wore a tail was a scab or a bastard. I am a bike man and a member of the A.W.U., and I would advise ‘Flinders’ to get a bike, too, before his mind becomes as narrow as the billabong he lives in, and his brain as muddy as the water he drinks.’4

Highlighting the long distances that shearers traveled by bicycle, Jim Fitzpatrick5  in The Bicycle and The Bush described the travels of a group of shearers from Tasmania who between about 1900 and 1915 would cover several thousand miles by bicycle on mainland Australia. Each year once the shearing season was over on the mainland they’d return to Tasmania and shear sheep in their local sheds.

In Sydney bicycles were being sold as shearers bikes with an option of shipping to any station in the country and described in 1899 as:

A SHEARER’S BICYCLE

This machine is simply and strongly built, all the joints of the frame being reinforced and strongly pinned, the tubing used being the Shelby patent seamless. The cranks are of spring steel of heavy diamond section, the sprockets are interchangeable, and all the caps and covers are hardened and polished, ensuring a smooth running wheel. American Dunlop roadster tyres and Westwood rims are fitted. It is stated that the machine will carry a man up to 14 stone over any roads in the colony. For traveling, attachments can be fitted for carrying swags either in frame bag or on handle bar. All the tools are complete, with bag and brakes, are supplied, and the firm have made arrangements by which machines can be delivered carriage paid to any station or run in the colony…” 6

Once on the road shearers by default of the terrain had to become resourceful with their rubber shod metal machines. One shearer rode a hundred miles with ropes for tyres, “one of the local shearers rode from Clare station to Hay, a distance of a hundred miles, over very rough country, on a Royal Speedwell bicycle, using ropes for tyres. The shearer had no tyres on his bicycle, and could not obtain them where he was, so he decided to splice ropes into the rims.” 7

Snakes were a problem too a shearer and his dog had a close shave one night:

A shearer traveling per bicycle …. when the man was preparing to retire, a sheep dog which has killed many snakes in his day, pounced into some bushes and drove out a large brown snake. After giving chase, the reptile dodged the dog and nothing happened until a few hours later, when the shearer was awakened by a cold creepy thing passing over his face. Realising that it was a snake, the man stirred out from the blankets and seized a stick … he saw the snake and in two hits broke it’s back. It was a brown snake, measuring 5ft. 6ins.8

On the Werribee riverbank in nineteen hundred and ten a shearer committed suicide, before he jumped into the river to drown himself he scratched an empty epitaph using a lead pencil into the rim of his bicycle. “Departed this life, 27th, 1910. Born in 1871″ T. Vaughan, who’s shearer’s ticket bore the number 494 and was issued by the Victorian Riverina branch also wrote in his memorandum-book : “Departed from this life, 1910. My body will be found sleeping underneath the river.” It was Senior-Constable Bowden who “kept a strict watch on the river”, and recovered the bicycle riding shearer Vaughan from his river of sleep. 9

bicycle riding australian shearerWhile some battled snakes and tyres, or life itself, according to one writer when the rain came and wet the sheep’s backs for some shearers it was a sombre experience . A classic account of life at the big river stations in “A River Wool-Shed” gives a peculiar perspective into the life of shearers when the rain forced them to stop work. They were forced to “knock down the time”, play football, race bicycles, drink beer and play games like thumbs up and birds fly. Seems more like they were having a good time rather than a dull time.

Wet sheep spells are not a particularly cheerful experience at a big river shed with 60 or 70 men thrown idle and on their own resources in the far bush, and things are not improved in any way if a public house happens to be within two or three miles. The scanty reading brought by a few is soon disposed of, and all sorts of devices are resorted to “knock down the time.” Football matches between the shearers and rouse-abouts, bicycle races, tests of skill and strength, mock trials, tin can bands— anything and everything you can think of “thumbs up” and “birds fly.10

Life was more simple back when shearers rode bicycles to work — PART TWO – - Thumbs Up! …… Old Game Improved.

This is a good game to play when you are tired of racing and chasing about. It is really a variation of ‘Simon says ‘thumbs up’ but it is an improvement on the old game. One player is “It.” He puts his thumbs down on the table, his fingers doubled under. The other players do the same thing. Now ‘It’ begins to call. If he says ‘Cow’s horns up!’ ‘Goat’s horns up!’ or ‘Giraffe’s horns up!’ the other players all put their thumbs up, too. But if he says ‘Lion’s horns up!’ or ‘Duck’s horns up!’ they must not move, but keep their thumbs down. Any player who does put, his or her thumbs up, loses a point, because, of course, lions and ducks have no horns. The player who loses the least number of points wins the game. You could play up to 20, and then someone else could be “It” for a change.

The motor car meant that shearers and bicycles were only ever going to have a brief union. While the bicycle had become the established mode of shearer transport, as early as 1907 some shearers were seen striking out in motor cars, “A few of the shearers who like to show out in front provide themselves with a motor machine.” 11 By the late nineteen twenties the bicycle was no longer the shearers mode of travel. The “motor lorry” had replaced the bike, a 1933 description of shearers arriving at a shed shows how the bicycle had become a relic of a past era, “A TEAM of shearers arrives the night before their work begins. In earlier days they landed at the station in buggies, carts, on horseback, bicycle, or even on foot. When times were booming, four or five came along in a motor car. Money was plentiful, and shearers could afford to buy a car. Nowadays the communal motor lorry is a more common sight. ” 12

In 1947 a retired shearer, reflecting on his career in the days of the bicycle, laid out the bare truth –  “That seems to be the trouble with the outback — you’re either dying of thirst or swimming for your life.”13 Dick Hinton 1947.

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References

  1. Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Monday 31 July 1899, page 2
  2. The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Wednesday 20 August 1902, page 3
  3. Albury Banner and Wodonga Express (NSW : 1896 – 1939), Friday 10 October 1902, page 29
  4. Worker (Brisbane, Qld. : 1890 – 1955), Saturday 28 May 1904, page 12 (WRITER -POET -FLINDERS)
  5. Fitzpatrick. J The Bicycle and the Bush Oxford University Press Melbourne 1980 p209
  6. The Sydney Wool and Stock Journal (NSW : 1899 – 1917), Tuesday 19 September 1899, page 2 (NEW BIKE DESCRIPTION)
  7. The Farmer and Settler (NSW : 1906 – 1957), Friday 27 December 1912, page 4 (ROPES FOR TYRES)
  8. Forbes Times (NSW : 1912 – 1920), Tuesday 30 October 1917, page 1 (BROWN SNAKE)
  9. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), Friday 4 February 1910, page 7 (Suicide)
  10. Daily Herald (Adelaide, SA : 1910 – 1924) 22 Apr 1910: 2. Web. 26 Jul 2013 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article103875835
  11. Western Herald (NSW : 1896 – 1970), Saturday 21 September 1907, page 5 (28 Bicycles, easier and cheaper than horseback.)
  12. “WHEN SHEARING TIME COMES ROUND.” Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954) 29 Jun 1933: 67. Web. 26 Jul 2013 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article90887242
  13. “Old Hand Speaks Highly Of Present Day Shearers.” The Farmer and Settler (NSW : 1906 – 1957) 31 Jan 1947: 2. Web. 26 Jul 2013 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117333214

“BIRDS FLY.” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954) 24 Mar 1939: 6 Section: Second Section.. Web. 31 Jul 2013 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article39012962>.

“THUMBS UP!” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954) 28 Oct 1937: 25. Web. 31 Jul 2013 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37901700>.

Image Credits

“A Shearer Moving Camp” John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Copyright expired http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/38499

“A Modern Australian Shearer and His Dog” Glass negative, full plate, ‘A Modern Australian Shearer’, Kerry and Co, Sydney, Australia, c. 1884-1917 . Powerhouse Museum. http://bit.ly/14hj1DB Rights: No known restrictions on publication. http://bit.ly/14hiGAO

“A Bicycle Shearer On the Track” Shearer travelling on a bicycle on his shearing rounds, Queensland John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Out of copyright. http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/137454

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Shearer bike photoset above by Robert Cobcroft 2013

Comments

  1. 11tth says

    hardmen, no one’s going to hit you in a car when there aren’t any, like I just got hit by a car last week,

  2. Bert Cerrillo says

    Absolutely amazing from a distance I would say it was one of my bikes from a few years ago but closer look reveals the heavy duty materials used for these bicycles. The way they packed them for travel is almost better than I had on my last trip and I imagine that the roads were more suited to mountain bikes than those skinny tired bikes. I like them, thanks.
    Bert

    • Robert Cobcroft says

      Back in 1989 our photography lecturer at Queensland College of Art used to joke about developing film in “snake piss developer”. Funny I’d never forgotten, so couldn’t resist adding a bit of extra Aussie colour to the shearer bike images.

    • Robert Cobcroft says

      Thanks Dave, there’s a book in there for sure. In case you haven’t come across this one yet, you’ll probably enjoy it if you can track down a copy – Fitzpatrick. J The Bicycle and the Bush Oxford University Press Melbourne 1980. There’s more info on the shearer’s in there and Fitzpatrick did some extensive research into their lives, he even took out newspaper advertisments in the 1970′s looking for people who’d ridden these bikes. A great book about the early history of the bicycle in Australia.

  3. Lyle Paull says

    Hello , I am the owner of the “shearers bicycle” that was at Pushies Galore. About 12 of us will be riding 100 year old bicycles from Broken Hill to Bourke along the Darling River dirt tracks (600klms) in may 2014. I hope to make an annual event.
    Lyle

    • Robert says

      Hi Lyle, Great to find out who the owner is. You’ve done a great job in presenting that bike as we see it today. Completing a 600klm course on dirt tracks, is a wonderful expression of the freedom of two wheels. In spirit of the original shearers. Please keep us posted or if possible we’d love to see some pictures of your journey in May. It would be great to see your trip become a fixture on the calendar.

      Thanks for contacting us.

      Rob

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