David Mullen examines the life of the Irish inventor of mechanical sheep-shearing who gave his name to a car
It didn’t matter that he came from noble stock, being a leaf on a branch of the family that gave its name to the Mount Wolseley estate in County Carlow. Nor did it matter that his brother, Garnet, was on his way to becoming Field Marshal Wolseley, the highest-ranking officer in the British army and the inspiration for Gilbert & Sullivan’s Modern Major General.
Like hundreds of thousands of Irish people at the time, Frederick Wolseley left Dublin in 1854, at the age of seventeen, bound for Australia, seeking his fortune and hoping to find a life better than that which could be eked out in an Ireland which had been devastated following the Great Famine.
Despite his aristocratic background, the work that Wolseley ended-up doing could hardly be described as cushy or white-collar. He started working on his brother-in-law’s sheep station in New South Wales as a ‘jackaroo’, a hands-on apprentice, learning how to manage a large farm. His brother-in-law was another Irishman, Gavin Caldwell, who had married Wolseley’s sister, Fanny, in Dublin.
One of the most profitable exports from these huge sheep stations was fine soft Merino wool. With up to 50,000 sheep, it meant that shearing — by hand as it was then — was an expensive and extremely time-consuming business with twenty or so men having to be hired to shear over 100 sheep a day. Another problem was that hand-shearing didn’t do the job cleanly and was rough on sheep themselves, often cutting the skin.
Wolseley, after learning the trade and working for others for many years, acquired property of his own and soon had to face the reality and personal expense of a season of shearing. He thought that there had to be a better way.
He teamed-up with an Australian inventor, Robert Savage, and in 1877 they were granted a patent on a mechanical sheep-shearing device. It wasn’t successful, but Wolseley kept going, collaborating with other inventors and modifying existing pieces of equipment with a view to incorporating them into his shearing system.
Eventually, Wolseley’s (and his collaborators’) trial and error paid-off and in 1887, he started giving demonstrations of a new sheep-shearing system around Australia and New Zealand. By 1888, the first entirely mechanical sheep-shearing took place in New South Wales with eighteen other woolsheds also equipped with Wolseley’s equipment that year.
So how did the system work? A three horsepower engine drove a shaft which ran the whole length of the shearing floor around seven feet off the ground. At sixteen or so locations along the shaft, a wheel, via a series of rotating strips of sheep-gut and universal joints running down to a handheld device, ran a knife (like a modern clippers) which the operator used to shear the sheep.
The result was that the shearing could be done far quicker, with less injury to the sheep, and, crucially, a much cleaner cut meaning that fleeces would now fetch double or triple the money.