The big shearers strike of 1894.

Managers letter from George Fairbairn to Jesse Gregson regarding the 1894 shearers strike. It's even widely accepted that the song "Waltzing Matilda" is based on the 1894 shearers strike.

Warrah shearing shed in the 1800's.




Your letter of the 24th is to hand. The object of singling Warrah out for making a stand against the 1894 Agreement is easily seen. The Unionists believe that if they could get us to accept the Conference Agreement their strength to assert themselves would be sufficiently established and all the smaller sheds would follow suit.  Walhallow is shearing all right under the 1894 Agreement but “Belltrees” is going to shear under the 91 agreement and I suppose Goonoo Goonoo also? 


 One old fellow turned up this morning looking for shearing and I have told him to remain in the hut for a few days. He tells me that there are hundreds of Shearers about Gunnedah anxious to go to work and advises an advertisement in the Gunnedah local paper. The Unionists at Willow Tree have given out that they intend to pack up Camp on Monday and the Sergeant seems to believe the statement, but I rather doubt it - One of them to whom I had a talk yesterday, stated that after seeing how Colly Creek got in, he was given to understand that they would disperse in search of other sheds. If they do this we shall be all right.

The police authorities are behaving splendidly and offer any amount of support. The Camp is remarkably well behaved. They are very jolly and do not attempt to trespass anywhere even for a stick of fire wood which they have brought to them by train from Doughboy Hollow.  Sisson informs me that he heard one inebriated gentleman laying down that Warrah was all right but that long legged Bastard of a supt. in Newcastle was the cause of all the trouble - he would never give in.  This is the only instance of rowdyism amongst them that I have heard of.

With regard to the plan of the shed I hope you will never consider the question for one moment of renewing it on the old design.  I remember in 1880 you had some arrangement with a man at the Washpool to prepare a plan and instructed me to deal with him, but I declined to accede to his terms and have not since heard any thing more on the subject. There is no plan in my office but I will get one prepared forthwith. The weather is fine.


Referring to a question you put to me some short time ago as to the Stations in the Liverpool Plains District which have had recourse to dipping their Sheep during the past twelve months, I placed myself in communication with the Inspector of Stock for the Tamworth District on the matter and I now embody  Mr. Dowes' reply, which is as follows.


"In reply to yours of the 12th inst. asking for a list of Sheep Owners in this District that dipped their sheep during the last 12 months, I have much pleasure in giving you the following names. Peel River Co. Goonoo Goonoo, White and Cobb Bando, I. K. Clarke Ghoolendaadi. Namoi Pastoral Co. Burburgate, I. Winter Tulcumbah, Mrs. M. Clonan Mullaly, John Taylor Mullaly, Brook Bros. Milchengowrie, W. Simpson and Son Trunky and I believe L. P. Willsallen of Gunnible.  I may state that all the above Sheep Owners with exception of the Peel River Company dipped their sheep for lice, which were very prevalent in the District during the end of last year. And I believe that all with the exception of Mr. Winter of Tulcumbah used Coopers Dip. The above owners dipped about 400,000 Sheep."


I am very much inclined to the belief that the Inspector has forgotten to include Walhallow.





Your letter of the 25th covering private enclosure reached me this morning and the latter is quite clear.

For the reasons you give the North boundary entrance may be more suitable for landing the men than the place I previously suggested. The arrangement therefore that I have made with the police is that the men will be unloaded at the Company's North boundary fence and will hump their swags up to the gate on the buggy road at the fence (on the ridge) dividing Iron Bush from Willow Tree, where a vehicle will be waiting to receive them.  The mail train is undoubtedly the last for them to come by no matter how many there may be. The Companys, north boundary fence is about 2 miles from the Willow Tree railway station and is opposite the first railway Crossing, but a lamp will be exhibited at the spot and I will be there to show the way. Do not however choose any other spot nearer to the Station.  The walking distance is one and a half miles.  As soon as we get a start the list will fill up quickly. I got a shearer this morning from Merriwa who states that the men on that side are only waiting for us to begin.

I am again advertising for shearers who are willing to sign the 1894 Agreement.



So the non union shearers were unloaded from the train at Warrah's northern boundary. Today at Kendal Park Stud.


There is a young man here named Jim Purcel who had his name down to shear at Warrah, and he asked me to write to you saying he is willing to go on shearing whenever you are ready to start, why he did not go on he says was the union shearers took him prisoner, and have kept him in the camp ever since till yesterday, would not let him have his horses, or let him go, he says they let him come home yesterday, without his swag, told him he would have to be back today, but if you write me when you want to start, I will get a policeman to go out with him and demand his swag, and deliver him at Warrah. I hope you do not intend to give in as if once do that the shearers at Willow Tree would  like to go to work but are afraid of the others, I believe they threaten to do all sorts of things to anyone who goes on, and the first man who signs will be shot, this is what I hear, it is not a nice state of things, when men who want to work are not allowed by a lot of Ruffians, who threaten to kill them, and shoot their horses if they dare to go to work, a nice thing in a free country. I only hope you will be able to get enough shearers to fill your shed, it would be the best lesson these men could get, and you would never have any trouble afterwards.




Your letter of 30th has duly reached me.  We must not feel too sanguine over filling the board, the men are already very jubilant over their successes and keep so vigilant a watch that not even an Old Swagman has been permitted to come on to the run.  If we are to get the wool off at all it must be by availing ourselves of every possible assistance.  An old fellow turned up this morning who says he can shear but will not start today because it is Friday and tomorrow we can have no shearing on account of wet. A Wool Roller who can shear a little, but is detained at the Camp, states that he will come over provided he can manage to kidnap his luggage which he intends to do if he gets a chance.



The strikers Camp has assumed no fresh developments, the Union Secretary visited them on Saturday and delivered a speech informing them that the funds were sufficiently satisfactory to find them in tucker and baccy for another three months and Councilling them to remain firm and they would be sure to win etc. Young Purcell has turned up and is now shearing thus raising our number to 8 men all told. If you can manage to get us 12 men - with the three we shall have from Windy shortly, we shall defeat these fellows beyond a doubt, because 23 men on the board - with a promise of more later on - would act as the best advertisement we could have. Lots of the men at Willow Tree are anxious to shear for us but are frightened of being placed under the ban of their fellows. Very little success on our part would however, I feel convinced, cause the waverers to come over.  I hope and trust now that matters have gone to the extent they have that you will not think of giving in to these characters. At the worst the only expense we can suffer will be in delay in getting the wool off.





In accordance with the time fixed by advertisement we called the shearing roll on the 20th of August, when an enormous number of men put in an appearance with the Shearers Union Secretary at their head.  Upon the announcement being made that it was the intention of the Company to carry on the work under the Pastoralists Union Agreement of 1894, the whole of them marched off in a body, and have since formed themselves into camps along the Northern road at the principal points of access to the Station, where every traveller seeking work is promptly run in.

Any man refusing to remain or attempting to get away from them is subjected to the most scurrilous abuse by the crowd, and horses are kept in at night for the purpose of pursuing any mounted traveller attempting to avoid them. This they designate "moral suasion". They do not however appear to interfere with anything belonging to the Company and judging them from the standpoint taken up by bands of strikers in other districts, their conduct may be described as most orderly.

They in fact assured me that they entertained the greatest goodwill towards the Station and their whole object in picking us out for attack was because Warrah was regarded as the most representative shed in the District, and if they carried Warrah victory - so far as this district was co-earned, was as good as won.

I have however taken the precaution of keeping a strong watch on the Woolshed both night and day, and have a night watchman at the hay sheds in the vicinity of the Camp at Willow Tree.

We made a start last week with 6 men consisting of 4 station hands and two outsiders, and the number has since increased to 8, by the succession of two strikers. We have several more men on the place who can shear but unfortunately they are laid up with the flu, a complaint which I regret is very prevalent in the district at present.






I am glad to see that you are standing out and I think from what I hear there will be a collapse in the camp soon. What I want to say now is that if you had men direct you to give in which I hope you won't you ought if you don't want trouble another year to leave out all those who put their names down and did not go on. Such a lesson would teach them for the rest of their lives that it does not pay to break contracts. I am getting on all right but have to guard the shed where I sleep myself every night. I have made all arrangements if they camped here as they threatened to do to swear in special constables and if they broke any law to issue warrants and arrest them myself with the specials. There would not I think have been any trouble here but for Belltrees.





An old shearer, named James Duckworth, has sent me word that he intends to come over to shear on Monday and will bring two or three shearers with him. we are still working with nine men and will have the ram lambs shorn by tomorrow night after which the grown rams will be negotiated.




I wired you this morning that the strike had collapsed and shearers were signing freely. Up to the present some 12 men have signed and I hear that the balance are likely to be here by Monday.  I am now instructing Mr Humble to not put on four of the ring leaders and have sent the following advertisement to the Mercury.



"Shearers are now reminded that the strike at Warrah has Collapsed,

and the Board is rapidly filling up.  Stands will however be

reserved for old hands making prompt application".



I think now our troubles are near an end and that we shall be able to shear all the sheep.

Warrah shearing shed in 1870.
Shearers at Warrah in the late 1800's.

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Kevin Griffey | Reply 12.12.2018 10:53

It is wonderful to read these copies of the original letters about the 1890s. Love the photographs.

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25.09 | 09:36

Absolutely delighted to come across a part of my direct ancestors history about which I knew very little and shall endeavour to find out more
Thank you Prof. A.

23.09 | 22:23

Very interesting Kelaher family history. Impressive number of trained nursing sisters. Jack lent the Copelands a cream horse, Playboy, in 1950's, ridden by Kate

09.09 | 17:58

Wonderfully informative. Thank goodness for Jane and John Atchison's work

06.09 | 14:33

I am Jack Kelaher and I am proud of my pop, dad and ancestors.

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