Pe­ter Casserly – the Cave­man /

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS Ruth En­twistle Low

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.

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