NW wool industry stalwarts truck on
They are the former shearers, wool classers and rouseabouts that braved the heat, isolation and warm beer of the North West.
And more than 50 years on they have still got a story to tell about an era known colloquially as “the truck days”.
Peter Letch was just a teenager from a sheep farm in Clackline when he packed up his life and went north to Fitzroy River in the Kimberley.
It was the start of a 54-year career in the wool industry, of which almost a decade was spent shearing across the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison.
“We spent nine months travelling south, stopping in at various stations along the day,” he said.
“Riding the trucks was rough, dusty, hot, sometimes wet and cold. If it wasn’t any of those things it meant you were bogged.
“We pushed the trucks through water; in the early days we had to tie empty 44-gallon drums to the trucks and float them across the rivers.”
Before cattle dominated WA pastoral stations, mobs of up to 100,000 sheep were commonplace on big properties throughout the Kimberley, Pilbara and Gascoyne.
Each year, hundreds of men would board coastal steamers from Fremantle to start what would have been one of the toughest shearing runs in Australia.
Docking at Port Hedland, Broome and Derby between the 1920s and 1960s, the shearing teams would pile on to the back of trucks and travel from shed to shed.
Challenges involved pushing, pulling and wading across the rivers of the North West as well as battling soaring temperatures and isolation.
For some the runs would last up to eight months, while others would be away from home for years at a time.
The main contractors were Synott & Dunbar and Pastoral Labour Bureau.
Terry Wilkinson, 93, was one of 60 young men pulled out of the army and placed into a shearing team heading north in the early 1940s.
He boarded a coal steamer from Fremantle and spent two years working in WA’s north.
“It was more or less like being in camp ... it was real sticky heat, the bugs in the water nearly killed me,” he said.
“I wouldn’t drink my water bag until after dinner. I drank sweet black tea and it would be a half an hour before I could pick up the comb again.”
Colonists first brought sheep to Australia in 1829 and in 1863 they were taken to the North West.
By the 1880s they had spread to the Kimberley and central regions.
In 1950, an estimated 50 million sheep inhabited WA and the State’s economy was said to “ride on the sheep’s back”.
Now, more than 30 years after the last sheep was dragged over the northern boards, a new film has been released to chronicle the history of shearing in the North West.
The 32-minute piece — Shearers: The Truck Days — was commissioned by the Shearers and Pastoral Workers Social Club.
It was created by local television production house Dingo Is Talent and producer Adrian Faure.
It features interviews with former shearers and old photos and footage from the time.
Some of those behind the film were reunited recently while visiting a 1948 Bedford shearers’ truck on display at Revolutions Transport Museum, Whiteman Park.
The truck is on permanent loan to the museum by the family of contractor Marc Synnot.
Museum curator Valerie Humphrey said the truck was purpose-built to be put on to ships.
“The truck was put on the ship at Fremantle, and would get off at Derby, and the team would get off and shear their way down the State,” she said.
“If it was a good season, they would be lucky to get back to Perth in time for Christmas.
“The shearers earned very much more than tradesmen, so the money was excellent and they put up with the deprivation for the money.”
For Mr Letch, his time as a shearer during the truck days are some of his fondest memories.
“I think it was the adventure of being out in the wild world,” he said.
“I was only a kid really and working with all these men.
“They were older and wiser they used to take the mickey out of you pretty well. There was a lot of camaraderie.”
Copies of the film are available at North West local government libraries and the Battye Library in Perth. It is also available to purchase on DVD through the SPWSC.
Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.
Sign up for our emails