‘Truck days’ re­mem­bered

Broome Advertiser - - News - Cally Dupe

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.

Pic­tures: Revo­lu­tions Trans­port Mu­seum

A shear­ing team trav­els by truck.

Cross­ing a north­ern river dur­ing the 1950s.

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