Once the old woolshed used to ring
to the sound of the shearing in full swing
rouse-about runs to the shearers’ shout
“tar here boy and be quick about it.”
Down At The Woolshed, by Slim Dusty
In Australia shearing wasn’t just a job, growing wool wasn’t just a business.
Wool would become the cornerstone of the Australian economy.
The country rode on the sheep’s back — and bush legends such as Slim Dusty immortalised the connection.
Back in the good old days a bale of wool would buy the farmer a new Holden.
A fair way back.
But shearing wasn’t just about mustering your mobs and getting the fleece off their backs.
It became the focus for art, for music and, as is the Australian wont, it naturally became a sport.
And when it came to gun shearers, Moama’s Alan A. Williams was in the heavy artillery.
Through the 1960s and ‘70s, Mr Williams was the king of the board; few were quicker than him on the show shearing circuit.
Born in 1936, Mr Williams got his start in the industry in 1956 when his uncle — a shearing contractor also named Alan Williams — gave him a gig.
“I had been through a couple of apprenticeships, ending up as an apprentice carpenter,” Mr Williams said.
“I was getting five pounds a week after three years, and it simply wasn’t going to work. My uncle lived towards Melbourne, so I worked for him as a roustabout, then moved onto wool pressing before I learnt to shear.
“It was incredibly difficult. You get a lot of backache when you are starting out ... and there is a great deal of skill involved in shearing, which takes quite a while to learn.
“But I was immediately better off. A basic wage for a shearer at the time was about 14 pounds a week, and I was making about 40 pounds through the work I was doing. That was the drawcard for me.”
In his career, Mr Williams worked across Victoria and NSW in Hay, Walgett, Rankin Springs, Griffith, Womboota, Bunnaloo, Seymour, Casterton, Wallan, Rosedale, Pyalong, Tallarook, Geelong and, of course, across Echuca-Moama.
After a few years going from shed to shed, Mr Williams had honed his skills and was building a reputation for his speed and talent until, in 1965, he finally stepped into the show business.
“It’s a pretty intimidating thing to begin,” he said.
“In the sheds you would have the best shearers in the country, guys who had been involved in, and winning, competitions for a long time. They were incredibly experienced and skilled, and coming up against them was always going to be an experience.
“I had my first competition in Albury, and I didn’t go too badly, but considering who I was competing against it was always going to be tough to win, so I had to keep working to get better.”
That would not take too long — later the same year Mr Williams took out titles in Barham and Whittlesea and then headed for Sydney, his sights set on the NSW championships.
“We were competing in the Hordern Pavilion at the Sydney Showgrounds, it was the biggest event in my life up until that point,” he said.
“In 1965 even getting to Sydney was a challenge — and a long and expensive trip — and then you are confronted by some of the best shearers in the country.”
Which meant some of the best in the world.
Clearly it did not faze the ‘Moama Machine'. By the end of the heats, it was obvious the other shearers would have a task on their hands to keep up with Mr Williams.
“I ended up setting the all-time record in the heat,” he said.
“And then I claimed the final. It was an amazing experience.”
It would be far from his final success.
Across the next six years, Mr Williams claimed 15 more competitive victories at events from the North Eastern Championship at Wangaratta in 1965 to the Australian Strong Wool Championship in Melbourne in 1970 — and reclaimed his title as NSW state champion at Dubbo, also in 1970.
Smaller competition wins included Forbes, Ballarat, Kerang, Wellington, and a pair of victories close to home in Echuca.
Not only had the sport allowed Mr Williams to travel across the nation, but it had given him the opportunity to make more money than he could have imagined shearing bringing him.
“I won £250 for the win in ‘64,” he said.
“Mobil oil was a major sponsor across the board, so there was a bit of money in the events.
“Before the heats they would give you a fresh white singlet with the Mobil logo in red and blue across it, but you really wanted to get the second one because that meant you had made it to the final. It’s little things like that which stick with you through the years.”
Mobil’s sponsorship also resulted in an image of Mr Williams being used long-term, with a photograph of him in the process of shearing being used for Mobil promotional material.
Mr Williams was more than happy to see his image used — even if he was not rewarded for it, as he points out.
“I never even got a cutter out of that,” he said with a laugh.
“They took the photo in Sydney, and I still have it. They imposed it on all their entries from then on. I look back on it now and think ‘gee whiz’. Nowadays they’d give you something, even a meal or something like that.”
Mr Williams’ final competitive win came in 1971 in Geelong, by which time he was ready to move on from the sport.
After retirement he opened a shop in Moama, but two years later in 1973, Ian Fern, himself a former wool classer, came knocking.
Mr Fern was working at Echuca Technical School and he wanted Mr Williams to come and help him as an instructor for a shearing class.
“Ian is a terrific bloke,” Mr Williams said.
“He asked me if I could come out and teach the shearers, and it was great. I went through the basics of how to sharpen the comb and cutter, how to hold the sheep and how to shear. It was a case of trying to translate what I had learned to them.
“It’s incredibly important to get things right. If things aren’t done properly, you can hurt the sheep and you absolutely do not want to cause it any harm or distress. You need to take a great deal of care.
“The handpiece is doing 3000 revs a minute, so they’re buzzing along. You don’t want to get it wrong and hurt the sheep, nor hurt yourself. I’ve seen things like combs and cutters fly off and the handpiece go everywhere and it's horrible. You have to do it right to look after everyone involved, and I took teaching them the right way to do it very seriously.”
Mr Williams is still living in Moama, and is not one to crave attention for his achievements.
But those around him desperately want to see him given the recognition he deserves.
Since 2001, Mr Fern has submitted seven submissions to the Shearers Hall of Fame, desperate to see his friend recognised for his excellent record.
“Alan Williams was a champion shearer, a mentor who set high benchmarks,” he said in a recent email.
“When competing in national or regional events, he generally figured among the highest placegetters, of which I believe three have already gained Hall of Fame status.”
In an earlier nomination form, Mr Fern said Mr Williams had been an inspiration to those who picked up the shears after meeting him, with the quality of his character far outweighing his clearly outstanding skill set.
“Alan was a great shearer who was popular and attracted people to competitions,” he wrote.
Like all good shearers, he was an inspiration to many young people with shearing potential.
“During his career he was always approachable and a valuable industry role model, who often gave young shearers tips and encouragement.
“I’m sure his induction here at Hay (the home of the Shearers’ Hall of Fame) would strengthen that legacy.”
Alan Williams would easily be its poster boy, just as he was all those years ago with Mobil.