Inside the Collection

Industrial Revolution in Australia – impact on the wool industry

A taxidermied stud ram, with a full coat of wool and two curled horns mounted on a wooden platform.
Taxidermied stud ram bred by J. Simpson of Boorooma Station, Brewarrina, New South Wales, 1892, MAAS Collection, F2181

When you think about the Industrial Revolution steam engines, factory manufacturing and railways all spring to mind. What about the wool industry in Australia? How could sheep grazing on vast tracts of land here and the production of wool be influenced by the Industrial Revolution in Britain? A surprising amount it would appear.

Early days
The famous pastoralists, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, established a colonial wool industry in Australia in the early decades of the 1800s with rare Spanish sheep. Compared to growing crops, sheep could be grazed with little labour. It was the ideal agricultural product that fledgling Australian colonies could export back to England by ship without it perishing. The big challenge was actually selling it in England.

The production of wool in Australia was disadvantaged from the start. Transport costs were high as it was half way around the world from markets and there was no infrastructure in place to bring it from the outback stations to waiting ships. The Australian climate and landscape, so much dirtier and dustier than Europe, made our wool grubby and more difficult to sell. Our droughts made water supply erratic and diseases were prevalent. Yet during the first half of the 1800s an amazing thing happened. In 1815 Britain was getting most of its wool for its textile mills from Spain (over 3,000 tons) and Germany (1,400 tons) annually with Australia only supplying 33 tons of wool. By 1849, this had completely turned around. The Australian colonies became the dominant suppliers, selling England a staggering 16,300 tons of wool that year. This was more than all of Europe’s production combined. Throughout most of the 1800s, wool was our most important export increasing many times over.

A black and white photograph of six rams standing beside a fence made from tree logs. In the background is a field and scattered trees.
Rams on Bolong Station enclosed by a Mulga wood fence, photograph by Amelia Eve Wong or Henry H. Wong, Bolong, New South Wales, 1890-1920, MAAS Collection, 97/92/12-3/10

Breeding and fencing
Australia’s early graziers drew on the global stock of genetic and mechanical know-how. They came from Britain, the world’s most advanced economy, and used the vast accumulated knowledge driving the Industrial Revolution there. Australia was a late participant in the Industrial Revolution but benefitted from decades of earlier technological development.

At first Australian shepherds tended the colonial flocks but the gold rushes lured them away and fences were erected to keep the sheep from straying. Fences encouraged selective breeding, disease control and improved the quality and quantity of wool and kept dingos at bay. Initially, crude piles of Mulga wood were used to enclose paddocks but these were later replaced by wire fences. Initially imported from Britain, fencing wire and netting was locally made from 1880. Wire fences needed to be kept tight to be effective and wire strainers were developed and manufactured in Australia and New Zealand.

Black and white photograph of three men with pitch forks standing on a deck with mounds of wool beside them. The men are washing the wool in large vats of water in the deck floor, which are fed from a series of pipes. Two men watch on from behind.
Washing wool at Enngonia Bore, near Bourke, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1884-1917, MAAS Collection 85/1284-141

Washing wool
Washing sheep before shearing was central to the marketability of wool in England. It reduced transport costs by removing some of the grease, dirt, grass seeds, twigs and burrs so that the fleece. This meant that Australian wool could compete with the European producers. In the early days sheep were run into streams, washed in tubs of soapy water, and rinsed off. Later, special water runs were built and dams erected for wool washing. The introduction of steam engines to heat the water washed the wool even better. Larger establishments like wool scouring works, also powered by steam, were erected to remove the grease and clean the wool.

Managing water
Ensuring a good reliable water supply was essential to extending sheep grazing lands. Tanks or dams were built to store water. These were dug out with large scoops hauled by teams of horses or bullocks. As sheep can only walk about 6 km from pasture to water each day, windmills pumped up underground water to drinking troughs or tanks for them. These were initially made in the USA but later manufactured extensively in Australia becoming ubiquitous to the landscape. From the 1880s artesian water, vast underground mineralised water supplies, further opened up enormous tracts of new land for sheep.

Sheep shears made from two sharp blades of metal joined by looped handles. There is also a leather strap attached to the left blade with twine.
Sheep shears made in Sheffield, England, 1950-1955, MAAS Collection, H10371

Shearing the sheep
Australia provided a large market for hand shears made at the English edge steel works around Sheffield. English manufacturers even travelled to Australia to research the needs of Australian shearers. By the late 1800s numerous Australian patents eventuated in the development of sheep shearing machines which shore sheep faster, removed more fleece and required less skill than hand shearing.

Black and white photograph of 16 men in a large shearing shed. They are shearing sheep using mechanical shears attached to a metal shaft that runs along the roof on each side of the room. Three small boys are collecting the wool from the floor.
Mechanical shearing in a large Australian wool shed, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1890-1917, MAAS Collection, 85/1284-493
Black and white photograph of two men loading wool into a machine to compress it into bales. A man on the left is stencilling these bales with the company logo which looks like a backwards and forwards letter R joined at the spine.
Loading wool into a Ferrier wool press and stencilling the bales, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1884-1917, MAAS Collection, 85/1284-2818

Pressing the wool
To make wool cheaper and easier to transport it was compressed into bales by wool presses in the shearing shed. Again Australian and overseas inventors and manufacturers worked to develop and refine wool presses during the 1800s. One of the most popular was the Koerstz, made in Sydney.

Black and white photograph of two wagons on a dirt road, each drawn by seven horses and loaded with wool bales. They are supervised by a man mounted on a horse to the right who carries a whip. In the background several homesteads can be seen.
Horsedrawn wagons carrying wool bales from the station, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1884-1917, MAAS Collection, 85/1284-1628

Most people assume that the first railways in New South Wales were to transport people but the driving force for their construction was pressure from Goulburn graziers. They wanted a cheaper method of transporting their wool rather than the slow bullock drays and wagons travelling overland. Railways not only transported wool to the coast for transport to England by fast clipper ships but brought back the latest shearing machines and steam and oil engines to run them. As well as goods they transported knowledge through publications such as books, newspapers and journals containing the latest information for graziers about breeding, combating disease and water conservation.

The Australian wool industry developed because of the Industrial Revolution. It spawned local factories to make equipment for Australian conditions from sheep shearing equipment to fencing supplies and from sheep dips for disease control to wagons for transporting the wool to the rail head. Steam engines powered the shearing machines and heated the water for wool washing and scouring. Rail transport made wool production competitive while the visual success of this industry was reflected in the enormous wool stores erected all over cities like Sydney for its storage.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

Raby, Geoff, ‘Making Rural Australia: an economic history of technical and institutional creativity 1788-1860’, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp. 94-111

11 responses to “Industrial Revolution in Australia – impact on the wool industry

  • Margaret, thank you for this terrific blog post. It combines two of my fascinations – the Australian wool industry and the Industrial Revolution, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – twice. Great photos, too.

  • It was so intersesting to read , thank you very much.
    I am a Hungarian wool trader, and I think we also need to make a similar revolution nowadays in Hungary as well.

  • Thank you for posting this it is really helping with my history assignment that I have to do for school. It is on the industrial revolution and how it impacted Australia ??

    • Your right this really did help, I’ve been looking for information on the wool industry in Australia for an important history assignment. I was having a lot of trouble trying to find websites to get information from, I hope you two get good marks, good luck.

  • Great article. I was disappointed that no mention was made of Eliza Forlong and her contribution to the wool industry, especially as the Taylor family bought the Forlongs property of Kenilworth in Tasmania and the sheep flock of cross bred marinos and Saxon sheep.
    Is it true the Macarthur flock kept with the full bred spanish marinos?

    There are several monuments recognising Eliza’s contribution to the wool industry.

    I am doing some personal research hope you can enlighten me
    Patricia Kirkman
    Townsville 4810

    • Hi Patricia,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I spoke with Curator Margaret Simpson, who said that, unfortunately, to cover so much content in so few words we were unable to include all the developments of the wool industry, such as Eliza’s contribution, and that we don’t have any further information we can share with you on this topic. Best of luck with your research!

      Kind regards,
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

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