Inventor Frederick Wolseley’s vast legacy lives on in wool sheds around the world


In 1888, the sight of 184,000 bright white, freshly shorn sheep on the dry plains of the Darling River near Louth in New South Wales represented a technological leap forward and a glimpse of the future.

Dunlop Station had become the first property in the world to shear an entire herd using machines.

“This was a major change in the way the woolen industry works,” said Angelique Hutchison, curator at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, which traces the history of Australia’s woolen industry.

Until then, for thousands of years, wool was cut by hand, using sharp knives or shears.

At the end of the 19th century, Australia’s burgeoning sheep flock was in dire need of a more efficient method of shearing.

Invent the electric shear

This quest had challenged some of the country’s most inventive minds for three decades.

Among them was an Irish-born nobleman, clergyman, inventor and industrialist, Frederick York Wolseley.

“The mechanical handpiece via Wolseley took 25 years to come to fruition, from the time it started until it became a market success. So that says the commitment,” said Ian Itter , a retired engineer who has spent decades discovering and documenting Wolseley’s vast legacy. found in wool shacks around the world.

“We owe this man a lot,” the 82-year-old said.

Retired engineer Ian Itter has spent decades researching Wolseley’s life and achievements. (ABC News: Tim Lee)

Wolseley invented and built both the shear, known as the handpiece, and the engineering to power it.

A testament to the genius of this technology, it is still the most widely used method of shearing sheep 130 years after its invention.

For an inventor, the path from conception to reality is never easy, as Fred Wolseley constantly reminded us.

His eventual success stemmed from his inventiveness, perseverance and substantial financial support, thanks mainly to his brother, Garnet Wolseley, head of the British army.

A man in glasses holds a small black dog, standing in front of a landscape artwork
Fred’s great-great-grandnephew John Wolseley is proud of the legacy his family has left behind. (ABC News: Tim Lee)

“The relationship was one of Fred continually asking for money and his brother Lord Wolseley writing to him and saying ‘you are my death’ and all that sort of thing,” said John Wolseley, great-great-grandnephew of the Australian inventor and eminent. artist.

Fred’s Legacy

In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the breadth of Fred’s inventions, ranging from water wheels to sheep shearing equipment and wool barns across Australia and New Zealand.

“With Fred year after year he goes to another wool shack, he builds another wool shack, then he tinkers with all kinds of the most amazing crazy inventions, and I find that very fascinating,” said John Wolseley.

Rusty and dusty sheers lie on a table
Wolseley’s mechanical shears were so efficient that blade shears feared mechanization would put them out of work. (ABC News: Tim Lee)

Fred Wolseley also recruited the best engineering minds into his company, including a young Englishman Herbert (later Lord) Austin.

Austin is hailed as a mechanical genius. He designed crucial improvements in how to safely transmit power from a powerful motor to a drive shaft and the complex gearing needed to transfer it into the shearing handpiece.

After helping to transform the woolen industry, Herbert Austin returned to England in 1896 to manufacture cars.

LL Wolseley Demo
Wolseley promoted his invention throughout Australia and New Zealand.(Peppin Heritage Center)

His vehicles, including the ‘Baby Austin’, would become world famous, as would the ‘Wolseley’, the vehicle he named after his mentor Frederick Wolesley.

Austin became one of the most important industrialists in the world, producing armaments for the Allied cause during both World Wars.

Today, few people realize that the automotive and armaments industry owes much to the wool industry, where Austin got its start.

Changing the wool industry forever

The machines he helped build increased Australia’s wealth by making shearing faster and more efficient than traditional blades.

“Then the wool industry really became the mainstay of the Australian economy for the next 60 or 70 years,” said Angelique Hutchison.

Fred Wolseley married late in life, had no children, and died in 1899.

Today’s shears, although highly refined, are essentially the same as Wolseley’s.

The wool industry, faced with a severe shortage of shearers and rising labor costs, is once again scrambling to find a better way to harvest wool.

“We need to move the technology into the shearing shed, I think that’s the main thing,” said Dr Michelle Humphries of Australian Wool Innovation, the wool grower-funded body whose aim is to boost and improve the woolen industry.

A blonde woman with short hair smiles at the camera
Michelle Humphries thinks it’s time to integrate technology into mowing sheds. (ABC News: Tim Lee)

Mechanization controlled by artificial intelligence in the form of robots is the most promising, but it is also the most difficult.

Recent studies have shown that on average a shearer makes 2,000 movements when shearing a sheep.

“Anything in the robotic space will have a very long delivery time,” Dr Humphries added.

So, for the foreseeable future, the shearer working in the country’s wool sheds will remain an iconic image of Australia; and Fred Wolseley’s wonderful shears are an indelible part of it.

Watch this story on ABC TV’s landline at 12:30 p.m. Sunday or on ABC iview.


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