From the 1860s Fred Wolseley spent 20 years inventing the shearing handpiece and machine, essentially the same devices used by shearers today.

Story By Genevieve Barlow

Out on the Riverina plains of southern New South Wales, between Deniliquin and Bunnaloo, the eyes of a curious driver might be drawn to a carefully placed boulder. Set in concrete and bearing a plaque, the roadside cairn honours a bloke who helped perfect the tool that gave Australia its early wealth: the shearing handpiece and machine.
Fred Wolseley’s story and contribution to Australia’s history only began to emerge in 2008. That’s when toolmaker-turned-computer consultant Ian Itter published his first book about the black sheep of the famous Irish Protestant Wolseley family that, in one generation, produced a trio of high-ranking British Army men including a Commander in Chief (Lord Garnet), a Surgeon-General (Richard) and a Lieutenant-General (Sir George). But Fred, who was one of four sons and two daughters, was not to follow his rather pukka brothers. Instead he came out to jackaroo in the Australian colonies.
He became a station manager, owner and, in his push to perfect a machine that would get wool off sheep more quickly than hand blades, was probably one of the nation’s earliest capital-venture investors. He invested small fortunes and, starting in the 1860s, spent more than 20 years pursuing the concept. Almost 125 years after he refined it, shearers today use essentially the same machines he developed. The first successful large-scale use of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine was in 1888 on Dunlop Station at Louth, NSW, when blade shearers relinquished resistance to their use. By that year’s end, the machine was in 22 sheds and heading for more. Ian’s research into Wolseley’s endeavours has convinced him that Wolseley deserves equal placing with Merino sheep breeder George Peppin and woolclasser Thomas Shaw on Australia’s list of agricultural greats. “Peppin and Shaw bred the wool. Wolseley refined a way to get it off the sheep that was practical and economical,” he says.
Wolseley was born in Kingstown, Ireland, to a family whose ancestors were granted land by King William Rufus around the 11th century in Staffordshire, England, for killing the last wolf there. Fred’s branch went to Ireland around 1650. They were aristocrats. The acclaimed contemporary Australian artist John Wolseley, whose grandfather was Fred’s first cousin, explains the lineage this way: “The Wolseley family were silly old land-owning, fox-hunting types until suddenly these three bright people [Garnet, George and Fred] emerged. Their father married a woman called Smith. There hadn’t been many brains in the family until then. ”

This Story is from Issue #87

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2013