‘Truck days’ remembered
They’re 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’ve 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 way,” 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 the WA pastoral stations, mobs of up to 100,000 sheep were commonplace on large 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 onto 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 Wilkonson, 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.
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 Western Australia 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 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 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 purposebuilt to be put onto 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.”
For Mr Letch, his life spent 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.
Copies of the film are available at North West local government libraries and the Battye Library in Perth.
It is also available to buy on DVD through the SPWSC.
A shearing team travels by truck.
Crossing a northern river during the 1950s.