In the 1950’s, Australia was said to ‘be riding on the sheep’s back’. Wool was then one of our principal exports and the landed gentry who owned and ran vast sheep stations were wealthy and life for them was good. That’s all changed now, but those glory days are recreated at the National Wool Museum in the city of Geelong – about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. I had very interesting visit there with other members of my Probus Club.
The wool industry has been a focal point of some serious industrial disputes over Australia’s history. In 1891, shearers went on strike in a dispute over union vs non-union labour. Out of this, the Labor Party was established as a force in Australian politics to represent the workers. This strike almost bought the country to its knees. In the 1980’s another dispute over the width of the shearing comb (clippers) also caused a significant impact on Australia’s wool production. This victory by the farmers in this dispute, on the other hand, is widely cited as being the cause of the decline in union membership and union militancy amongst Australian shearers.
The photo above shows a traditional shearing stand that could have appeared in any of the thousands of shearing sheds across the country.
One of the photos in the museum showed an enormous mob of over 75,000 sheep being yarded for shearing near Puckapunyal in central Victoria. This is near the army base where I did my recruit training as a national serviceman and it seems that there was quite a similarity in that we were also herded together and ‘shorn’ when we first arrived.
The National Wool Museum is located in an old wool store and auction house. It has an inexpensive entry fee and is accessible by ramps to each of its three levels. It was from this building that wool was baled and sold for sometimes astronomical prices. Most our wool is now sent straight to China (without being processed). The museum does have a small part of a bale of super-fine wool that was recently sold to a Japanese buyer for $1 million. It was used to make just three men’s suits!
The museum has many interesting old machines that were used decades ago to process wool. A Chinese visitor was said to have recently remarked that the machinery was all very old and in China they no longer use anything like it. The museum guides response was “Well, this is a museum!”
The centre piece of the museum is an old carpet loom. It sill operates enough to demonstrate how carpet was made. It must have been slow work, especially to attend to the hundreds of bobbins from which wool was drawn into the weaving operation.
The final part of our museum tour was to visit a recreated kitchen from a house of the 1950’s. It looked just the way that I could remember my grandmother’s house being.
Our visit was very interesting and well worth the time. If you ever in Geelong and have an hour to spend, I can highly recommend the National Wool Museum as a place to visit.