Peter Casserly – the Caveman /
The varied and interesting world of shearers
Peter Casserly is not backwards in coming forwards, and, while supping a beer in his man-cave in Ōmarama with shearing memorabilia close at hand, he happily expounds his views on anything from who the best shearers are today to how he believes blade shearers are treated as second-class citizens by the shearing fraternity.
Shearing was an unlikely occupation for a young lad growing up in the mining community of Dobson, just out of Greymouth on the West Coast. The cards were stacked for Peter to end up working in the mine once he turned eighteen, the age that boys could start work underground. But instead, after his schooling had finished at fifteen, aside from a short stint as an off-sider for a local delivery truck owner and then as a ‘whistle-boy’ in the logging industry, shearing was Peter’s next job. The apple, perhaps, had fallen not too far from the tree – Peter recalls his father had done a bit of shearing for Tui Hart from Blenheim way back in his younger days.
Peter’s childhood was filled with possum hunting, eeling, whitebaiting, catching crawlies or ‘yabbies’, swimming in the Grey River, raiding the neighbourhood fruit trees, and running around playing cowboys and Indians and Davy Crockett with possum-skin hats and bows and arrows.
School featured, but did not rate; the highlight, Peter jokes, was leaving. Attending the Marist School in Greymouth, he enjoyed woodwork classes and sport but felt they ‘definitely overdid it with religious studies’.
With preliminary background covered, Peter launches into early shearing memories at a great rate of knots and with much laughter.
He recalls being at Ensor’s Glenariffe station when he reached his first 100. It was Jimmy Coutts’ words of warning that stuck in his mind: ‘When I did my 101 Jimmy Coutts says, “Well you’ve done 101, tomorrow you’ll shear 102,” and I wasn’t allowed to drop back and it bloody near killed me, it really did . . .’
Once Peter’s ‘apprenticeship’ was over, he stuck with blade
shearing as it suited his preferred work pattern, variety being of the essence: ‘you get sick of looking at sheep’s bums’. For over twenty seasons he was at the freezing works from early November through to the first week in March, when he would go opening oysters in Christchurch: ‘Three hundred sacks a day come up from Bluff.’ He won the world speed record for opening 100 oysters in 1974. After the oysters he would take up the blades again from around June or July. For a good number of those seasons he was a blade-shearing contractor.
Without a doubt, though, it was the competitive side of shearing that energised Peter; breaking the blade-shearing lamb record, which has stood for over forty years, is up there on his highlight reel. In 1975 he recalls getting a whiff of the potential for a record working with Les Smith: ‘I did a big tally down at Mount Somers at Colin Grieg’s place, Flat Rock, and Les Smith and I shore there together. I did 274 – this is in an eight-hour day – and Les did 272, I think it was. He had me wrung out that day, but I knew I could step up . . .’
So the following year, fit and strong, he set himself up for the record attempt. ‘It was at Colin Gallagher’s place, it belongs to Blair now, a place called Rangiatea at the back of Mount Somers; that was in 1976 and I was only twentyeight, but I did it in nine hours, and with all the judges and timekeepers it was official . . . I had a learner with me, Alan Archibald: he did 213 for the day and I did 353. I had two hundred out at lunchtime and I was doing forty an hour. These days a lot of shearers would have liked to beat my record and have a go, but unless they can step up to forty an hour they’re wasting their time.
‘Those sheep that I shore that day at Colin Gallagher’s place, they were five-month-old Perendale-Romney cross lambs. It was a really hot day the day before, and the day I did it was drizzly, which suited me. But they never had a machine on them, and they weren’t prepared; I went through the crutch and everything. They were full wool – people can’t believe they were full wool – but I was just super-fit and had a mind-set. Alan Norman was there that day, and Bert Loffhagen; they were the two judges. A JP was the timekeeper, and Mally Aldridge was the . . . manager . . . he got the local Guardian newspaper from Ashburton and they took a few photos, and then we all went down to the Mount Somers pub and had a few drinks that night.
‘Yeah, I broke the world record. It’s all in the top two inches, and you mustn’t panic. I remember I gapped me shears, but I had a spare pair, and you were only allowed to have two, so that was quite good. Well, I had a small gap like I hit a stick or something or a little stone and then I went down
‘What I loved about shearing was you only got paid for what you did, so if you were good at it you got well paid.’
behind me cockspur – I could have just spun out, but I kept me cool and carried on, and I remember I did forty-three the first hour before breakfast. I started at half past five, then we knocked off at half past six and I had forty-three out, so I was well on me way to 360.
‘After smoko I did another eighty, and then . . . seventyseven or something, so I did have the two hundred out by lunchtime. In the afternoon I knocked off every hour just to wipe me face and have a drink. I did have a shower at lunchtime and changed me clothes so I was fresh straight after lunch. It was the only time I’ve ever done that in me life . . . you’d think I’d been thrown in a creek – the sweat, it was unbelievable. The wife and the kids were all at home, and they were giving reports on the radio; they were listening to 3ZB in Christchurch and it was quite a buzz, really. I suppose records are made to be broken, but mine’s been held now for quite a few years or over forty, and I’m very proud of that . . .’
On reflection, Peter thinks his Golden Shears win in 1975 eclipses the world record: ‘I think winning the Golden Shears might have just clipped it. Your first big show, you know what I mean; there was something special about that . . . I won Waimate previous to that, but I think it was because George Karaitiana had won the Golden Shears, and he died in 1974 and he never even seen me win it, and he taught me – him and Paul. Never mind: it was a proud moment. I was very proud when I broke the world record, and then I won the world championships in Masterton in 1980, so I was right at the top of the game. Then they made me a Master Shearer, so I was very, very, very happy . . .’
Terrace Station, Craigieburn, Benmore, Mount White, Castle Hill, Erewhon and many more stations besides are mentioned as Peter gallops along, and the names of shearers he worked with swirl in and out of stories and accounts. He is generous with his praise of others and lists those he has been proud to compete against: Peter Burnett, Alan Norman, Sam Dobson, Sno Roffey, John Kennedy, Allan Gemal, Noel Handley, Bill Michell, Brian Thompson, Peter Race and
Dinny Dobbs. And those he has done the hard yards with in the sheds he rates highly.
Peter has worn many hats over the years, and at one stage he owned the Ōmarama Hotel. It’s easy to imagine him leaning on the bar, sharing a pint with the locals and regaling them all with his shearing stories.
The only time Peter slows his pace is when asked why he stayed shearing. He took time to ponder the answer and explain: ‘Well, I think it’s like a muttonbird or an oystercatcher: you just keep coming back season after season. It’s something that draws you back, like the muttonbirders and the oyster openers and the freezing workers . . . it’s the camaraderie of the friends you’ve met, and the good money, and probably that’s all, you know. I suppose I could have become a truck driver or something like that; but what I loved about shearing was you only got paid for what you did, so if you were good at it you got well paid.
‘When I started, on eight pound ten a hundred in 1965, my schoolmates were three pound a week as an apprentice mechanic; so I done a season shearing and I went home in a Mark 1 Zephyr, and me mates on the West Coast were still riding push-bikes. So, next thing, I had a girl in the car, the elbow out the window and a crew-cut haircut – and I’m still married to that girl: Gloria and I have been married for fiftytwo years and have three daughters and eight grandchildren.’
TOP / All sheep were blade shorn until the Wolseley Shearing Machine was invented in Australia in the late 1880s. ABOVE / Suzy the feral sheep being shorn by Peter Casserly in Masterton. Peter had shorn Shrek the sheep whose fleece was far heavier than Suzy’s. Suzy’s fleece, however, was the longest length of wool, at 550 mm, that Peter had ever shorn. Photo Wairarapa Times-Age, 15 October 2018.
This was an edited extract from The Shearers: New Zealand Legends, by Ruth Entwistle Low. Photography by Mark Low. Published by Penguin Random House New Zealand.