Fences tell tales of bygone era

Ann RawlingsCountryman
“Fences of Australia” author Jack Bradshaw, of Manjimup.
Camera Icon“Fences of Australia” author Jack Bradshaw, of Manjimup. Credit: Ann Rawlings

From brush, palings and palisades to post and rail, stone and wire, the fences that dot Australia’s rural landscapes mark more than just boundaries. They tell the stories of the men and women behind them and of the industries that sparked their construction, and reflect the nature of their surrounds.

But fences — the good, the bad and the ugly — can also inspire works of art.

From his home in Manjimup, the reputed gateway to the Southern Forests, former forester Jack Bradshaw set about tracing the history of fences in Australia.

The result, “Fences of Australia”, also incorporates photographs taken while Mr Bradshaw traversed the nation alongside his wife, Sue.

“In the early days, people made fences with what they had at hand,” he said.

“When you start to look around, you realise how much variety there is in style and skills.

“Beyond that, fences also tell you a lot about the social conditions of the time. You appreciate the skills the people developed and the hard work involved — some fences were mind-boggling.”

While Mr Bradshaw sought out well-known fences based on their place in Australian history, others that feature in the book were found simply by chance.

“My wife’s become the best fence spotter in the west. She can spot a fence at 100km/h,” he said.

One find included old sheep yards near the small Central Wheatbelt siding of Ardath.

Mr Bradshaw said the yards had been constructed from the metal boxes used to carry the 3.7-inch shells for the Vickers QF 3.7 anti-aircraft gun.

The boxes had become available with the closure of the No. 9 Advanced Ammunition Depot at Ardath at the end of World War II.

“I initially did not have a clue what they were,” Mr Bradshaw said.

“It looked a bit military. I had previously been to the Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum, so I rang the guy there and described it.

“He said it sounded a bit like the ammunition boxes of the 3.7. I looked it up and, sure enough, there it was.” Mr Bradshaw said he had also gained an appreciation for fences constructed to harvest water run-off from the large granite outcrops found across the Wheatbelt and Goldfields.

North-east of Mukinbudin, the fence on Beringbooding Rock was built by sustenance workers during the Depression in 1937. It channels water into a 10 megalitre tank and comprises slabs of exfoliated rocks, roughly shaped and cemented into place to form a wall.

Mr Bradshaw said the slabs were either collected from the surface of the rock or harvested, of sorts, by a labour-intensive process whereby wood was dragged from the surrounding areas onto the rock and set on fire.

When the rock was hot, the fire was then doused with water carted onto the rock from nearby wells and soaks. The sudden change in temperature caused the rock to exfoliate, generally in slabs about 80 to 120mm thick.

“How they were shaped is also amazing — it blows your mind,” Mr Bradshaw said.

“The pioneering Pergandes family also did this for their sheep yards (near Bencubbin), using rock from a nearby outcrop.”

Other fences of note within WA include the 7000-year-old fish traps in Oyster Harbour built by the Menang Noongar people and the notorious Rabbit Proof Fence.

The latter, now known as the State Barrier Fence, plays an important role in preventing the movement of pests. Spanning 1170km, it extends from the Zuytdorp cliffs north of Kalbarri to Jerdacuttup, east of Ravensthorpe.

The original fences were built between 1902 and 1907, with upgrades and maintenance to the system continuing today.

Mr Bradshaw said the construction of the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence was an “epic” undertaking.

“They had to clear a six-metre strip, grub out the stumps, cart all the materials in — some for hundreds of kilometres — and get rid of the poison bush when further north to stop their camels dying. They then had to build the fence,” he said.

“The boundary riders had an even bigger task. They were supposed to rake away the leaves from the fence and burn them, so they didn’t damage it, scrub out all the suckers that grew back and repair holes in the fence — and some had a 250km stretch to maintain.”

Further afield in SA, Mr Bradshaw’s book shows the magnificence of the stone fences of South Australia. He said the longest continuous stone fence in Australia, spanning 65km, could be found over the Camels Hump Range.

It was estimated to have required 150,000 tonnes of stone to build.

Back in Manjimup, Mr Bradshaw brought his love of fences close to home, albeit on a smaller scale.

His house is bordered with a split post and rail fence, built with the help of a friend and using the skills gained through research undertaken for the book.

“I did it partly because I liked the look of them, and also because they are fast disappearing. Some are 100 years old,” he said.

“I wanted to preserve it, if you like, and also see if I had the skill to do it. My friend did most of the splitting of wood for the rails. Finding a tree that is a good ‘splitter’ makes the difference between an easy job and an impossible one.

“I cut the mortises in the posts with a drill and chisel. Some of the old timers could do it with a two-inch wide mortising axe, but that is only for the expert axeman and well beyond me. ”

For Mr Bradshaw, fences will always be more than just boundary lines. They deserve respect as the monuments of rural workmanship, a belief that the content of Fences of Australia more than adheres to.

Fences of Australia is published by Fremantle Press.

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