Jack Howe once hand-shore a record 321 sheep in seven hours 40 minutes, cementing this athletic Queenslander’s place in the history of the wool industry at a time when Australia’s prosperity depended on it.
Story By John Dunn
There’s Jack Howe, in the main street of Blackall, carrying a bulky merino ram out to be shorn just as he did on the boards of the great pastoral stations of Queensland’s central west a century or more ago. It’s not Jack, of course – he died back in 1920 aged 59 – it’s an imposing bronze sculpture of him conveying so vividly both the strength of the man and the size of the sheep he had to master as he shore them at such speed and in such numbers to become known as Australia’s greatest blade shearer.
One day in 1892 at nearby Alice Downs Station Howe shore an astonishing 321 sheep in seven hours 40 minutes. It set a record for shearing by blades and it’s a total that will never be beaten because, of course, machines have taken over and blades are rarely if ever used today. However, Jack Howe was just as adept with the machines when they were brought in, and his tally of 237 in one day at Barcaldine Downs, also in 1892, stood as a record for a while.
Now sheep have largely disappeared from the plains of central and western Queensland but memories of the glory days of the wool industry there remain and they are centred on Blackall and the town’s favourite son and his remarkable ability to remove fleeces at a pace no-one else could match.
His sculpture, crafted by Queensland artist Bodo Muche, shows Howe carrying, not dragging his sheep – the latter practice is allowed today but it wasn’t then – which made shearing even more arduous. It is situated where he once ran the Universal Hotel when he retired from shearing. The original building is not there any more but the facade has been re-created by one of his granddaughters, Jenny Muir, and her husband, Barry.
They own a garden and gift shop on the site and have developed it into a memorial to perpetuate the accomplishments of a man who was not only a famous figure in the wool industry in his time but a prominent player in unionism and politics of the day as well as being a very fine sportsman.
Jenny says she’s very proud of her grandfather. “I’m delighted to be able to ensure that he is not forgotten, particularly in this area where he lived and worked,” she says. “Also, the sculpture and the shop attract a lot of tourists from all over Australia and they’re able to learn something about him and appreciate what he achieved”.
Barry has written a book entitled Jack Howe – The Man and the Legend. “I’ve always been interested in history and I found it fascinating to collect the information and the old photographs and memorabilia and assemble it here and also write about such a wonderful personality,” he says.
This story excerpt is from Issue #53
Outback Magazine: June/July 2007