"A Rough Shed" by Henry Lawson
A hot, breathless, blinding sunrise — the sun having appeared
suddenly above the ragged edge of the barren scrub like a great disc
of molten steel. No hint of a morning breeze before it, no sign on
earth or sky to show that it is morning — save the position of the
A clearing in the scrub — bare as though the surface of the earth
were ploughed and harrowed, and dusty as the road. Two oblong huts
— one for the shearers and one for the rouseabouts — in about the
centre of the clearing (as if even the mongrel scrub had shrunk away
from them) built end-to-end, of weatherboards, and roofed with
galvanised iron. Little ventilation; no verandah; no attempt to
create, artificially, a breath of air through the buildings.
Unpainted, sordid — hideous. Outside, heaps of ashes still hot and
smoking. Close at hand, "butcher's shop" — a bush and bag breakwind
in the dust, under a couple of sheets of iron, with offal, grease and
clotted blood blackening the surface of the ground about it. Greasy,
stinking sheepskins hanging everywhere with blood-blotched sides out.
Grease inches deep in great black patches about the fireplace ends of
the huts, where wash-up and "boiling" water is thrown.
Inside, a rough table on supports driven into the black, greasy
ground floor, and formed of flooring boards, running on uneven lines
the length of the hut from within about 6ft. of the fire-place.
Lengths of single six-inch boards or slabs on each side, supported by
the projecting ends of short pieces of timber nailed across the legs
of the table to serve as seats.
On each side of the hut runs a rough framework, like the partitions
in a stable; each compartment battened off to about the size of a
manger, and containing four bunks, one above the other, on each side
— their ends, of course, to the table. Scarcely breathing space
anywhere between. Fireplace, the full width of the hut in one end,
where all the cooking and baking for forty or fifty men is done, and
where flour, sugar, etc., are kept in open bags. Fire, like a very
furnace. Buckets of tea and coffee on roasting beds of coals and
ashes on the hearth. Pile of "brownie" on the bare black boards at
the end of the table. Unspeakable aroma of forty or fifty men who
have little inclination and less opportunity to wash their skins, and
who soak some of the grease out of their clothes — in buckets of hot
water — on Saturday afternoons or Sundays. And clinging to all, and
over all, the smell of the dried, stale yolk of wool — the stink of
"I am a rouseabout of the rouseabouts. I have fallen so far that
it is beneath me to try to climb to the proud position of `ringer' of
the shed. I had that ambition once, when I was the softest of green
hands; but then I thought I could work out my salvation and go home.
I've got used to hell since then. I only get twenty-five shillings a
week (less station store charges) and tucker here. I have been seven
years west of the Darling and never shore a sheep. Why don't I learn
to shear, and so make money? What should I do with more money? Get
out of this and go home? I would never go home unless I had enough
money to keep me for the rest of my life, and I'll never make that Out
Back. Otherwise, what should I do at home? And how should I account
for the seven years, if I were to go home? Could I describe shed life
to them and explain how I lived. They think shearing only takes a few
days of the year — at the beginning of summer. They'd want to know
how I lived the rest of the year. Could I explain that I `jabbed
trotters' and was a `tea-and-sugar burglar' between sheds. They'd
think I'd been a tramp and a beggar all the time. Could I explain
ANYTHING so that they'd understand? I'd have to be lying all the time
and would soon be tripped up and found out. For, whatever else I have
been I was never much of a liar. No, I'll never go home.
"I become momentarily conscious about daylight. The flies on the
track got me into that habit, I think; they start at day-break —
when the mosquitoes give over.
"The cook rings a bullock bell.
"The cook is fire-proof. He is as a fiend from the nethermost
sheol and needs to be. No man sees him sleep, for he makes bread —
or worse, brownie — at night, and he rings a bullock bell loudly at
half-past five in the morning to rouse us from our animal torpors.
Others, the sheep-ho's or the engine-drivers at the shed or wool-wash,
call him, if he does sleep. They manage it in shifts, somehow, and
sleep somewhere, sometime. We haven't time to know. The cook rings
the bullock bell and yells the time. It was the same time five
minutes ago — or a year ago. No time to decide which. I dash water
over my head and face and slap handfuls on my eyelids — gummed over
aching eyes — still blighted by the yolk o' wool — grey,
greasy-feeling water from a cut-down kerosene tin which I sneaked from
the cook and hid under my bunk and had the foresight to refill from
the cask last night, under cover of warm, still, suffocating darkness.
Or was it the night before last? Anyhow, it will be sneaked from me
to-day, and from the crawler who will collar it to-morrow, and
`touched' and `lifted' and `collared' and recovered by the cook, and
sneaked back again, and cause foul language, and fights, maybe, till
"No; we didn't have sweet dreams of home and mother, gentle poet —
nor yet of babbling brooks and sweethearts, and love's young dream.
We are too dirty and dog-tired when we tumble down, and have too
little time to sleep it off. We don't want to dream those dreams out
here — they'd only be nightmares for us, and we'd wake to remember.
We MUSTN'T remember here.
"At the edge of the timber a great galvanised-iron shed, nearly all
roof, coming down to within 6ft. 6in. of the `board' over the
`shoots'. Cloud of red dust in the dead timber behind, going up —
noon-day dust. Fence covered with skins; carcases being burned; blue
smoke going straight up as in noonday. Great glossy (greasy-glossy)
black crows `flopping' around.
"The first syren has gone. We hurry in single files from opposite
ends of rouseabouts' and shearers' huts (as the paths happen to run to
the shed) gulping hot tea or coffee from a pint-pot in one hand and
biting at a junk of brownie in the other.
"Shed of forty hands. Shearers rush the pens and yank out sheep
and throw them like demons; grip them with their knees, take up
machines, jerk the strings; and with a rattling whirring roar the
great machine-shed starts for the day.
"`Go it, you —— tigers!' yells a tar-boy. `Wool away!' `Tar!'
`Sheep Ho!' We rush through with a whirring roar till breakfast time.
"We seize our tin plate from the pile, knife and fork from the
candle-box, and crowd round the camp-oven to jab out lean chops, dry
as chips, boiled in fat. Chops or curry-and-rice. There is some
growling and cursing. We slip into our places without removing our
hats. There's no time to hunt for mislaid hats when the whistle goes.
Row of hat brims, level, drawn over eyes, or thrust back — according
to characters or temperaments. Thrust back denotes a lucky absence of
brains, I fancy. Row of forks going up, or jabbing, or poised,
loaded, waiting for last mouthful to be bolted.
"We pick up, sweep, tar, sew wounds, catch sheep that break from
the pens, jump down and pick up those that can't rise at the bottom of
the shoots, `bring-my-combs-from-the-grinder-will-yer,' laugh at dirty
jokes, and swear — and, in short, are the `will-yer' slaves, body and
soul, of seven, six, five, or four shearers, according to the distance
from the rolling tables.
"The shearer on the board at the shed is a demon. He gets so much
a hundred; we, 25s. a week. He is not supposed, by the rules of the
shed, the Union, and humanity, to take a sheep out of the pen AFTER
the bell goes (smoke-ho, meals, or knock-off), but his watch is
hanging on the post, and he times himself to get so many sheep out of
the pen BEFORE the bell goes, and ONE MORE — the `bell-sheep' — as
it is ringing. We have to take the last fleece to the table and leave
our board clean. We go through the day of eight hours in runs of about
an hour and 20 minutes between smoke-ho's — from 6 to 6. If the
shearers shore 200 instead of 100, they'd get 2 Pounds a day instead
of 1 Pound, and we'd have twice as much work to do for our 25s. per
week. But the shearers are racing each other for tallies. And it's
no use kicking. There is no God here and no Unionism (though we all
have tickets). But what am I growling about? I've worked from 6 to 6
with no smoke-ho's for half the wages, and food we wouldn't give the
sheep-ho dog. It's the bush growl, born of heat, flies, and dust.
I'd growl now if I had a thousand a year. We MUST growl, swear, and
some of us drink to d.t.'s, or go mad sober.
"Pants and shirts stiff with grease as though a couple of pounds
of soft black putty were spread on with a painter's knife.
"No, gentle bard! — we don't sing at our work. Over the whirr and
roar and hum all day long, and with iteration that is childish and
irritating to the intelligent greenhand, float unthinkable adjectives
and adverbs, addressed to jumbucks, jackaroos, and mates
indiscriminately. And worse words for the boss over the board —
behind his back.
"I came of a Good Christian Family — perhaps that's why I went to
the Devil. When I came out here I'd shrink from the man who used foul
language. In a short time I used it with the worst. I couldn't help
"That's the way of it. If I went back to a woman's country again
I wouldn't swear. I'd forget this as I would a nightmare. That's the
way of it. There's something of the larrikin about us. We don't exist
individually. Off the board, away from the shed (and each other) we
are quiet — even gentle.
"A great-horned ram, in poor condition, but shorn of a heavy
fleece, picks himself up at the foot of the `shoot', and hesitates,
as if ashamed to go down to the other end where the ewes are. The
most ridiculous object under Heaven.
"A tar-boy of fifteen, of the bush, with a mouth so vile that a
street-boy, same age (up with a shearing uncle), kicks him behind —
having proved his superiority with his fists before the shed started.
Of which unspeakable little fiend the roughest shearer of a rough shed
was heard to say, in effect, that if he thought there was the
slightest possibility of his becoming the father of such a boy he'd
—— take drastic measures to prevent the possibility of his becoming
a proud parent at all.
"Twice a day the cooks and their familiars carry buckets of
oatmeal-water and tea to the shed, two each on a yoke. We cry, `Where
are you coming to, my pretty maids?'
"In ten minutes the surfaces of the buckets are black with flies.
We have given over trying to keep them clear. We stir the living
cream aside with the bottoms of the pints, and guzzle gallons, and
sweat it out again. Occasionally a shearer pauses and throws the
perspiration from his forehead in a rain.
"Shearers live in such a greedy rush of excitement that often a
strong man will, at a prick of the shears, fall in a death-like faint
on the board.
"We hate the Boss-of-the-Board as the shearers' `slushy' hates the
shearers' cook. I don't know why. He's a very fair boss.
"He refused to put on a traveller yesterday, and the traveller
knocked him down. He walked into the shed this morning with his hat
back and thumbs in waistcoat — a tribute to man's weakness. He
threatened to dismiss the traveller's mate, a bigger man, for rough
shearing — a tribute to man's strength. The shearer said nothing. We
hate the boss because he IS boss, but we respect him because he is a
strong man. He is as hard up as any of us, I hear, and has a sick
wife and a large, small family in Melbourne. God judge us all!
"There is a gambling-school here, headed by the shearers' cook.
After tea they head-'em, and advance cheques are passed from hand to
hand, and thrown in the dust until they are black. When it's too dark
to see with nose to the ground, they go inside and gamble with cards.
Sometimes they start on Saturday afternoon, heading 'em till dark,
play cards all night, start again heading 'em Sunday afternoon, play
cards all Sunday night, and sleep themselves sane on Monday, or go to
work ghastly — like dead men.
"Cry of `Fight'; we all rush out. But there isn't much fighting.
Afraid of murdering each other. I'm beginning to think that most bush
crime is due to irritation born of dust, heat, and flies.
"The smothering atmosphere shudders when the sun goes down. We
call it the sunset breeze.
"Saturday night or Sunday we're invited into the shearers' hut.
There are songs that are not hymns and recitations and speeches that
are not prayers.
"Last Sunday night: Slush lamps at long intervals on table. Men
playing cards, sewing on patches — (nearly all smoking) — some
writing, and the rest reading Deadwood Dick. At one end of the table
a Christian Endeavourer endeavouring; at the other a cockney Jew,
from the hawker's boat, trying to sell rotten clothes. In response to
complaints, direct and not chosen generally for Sunday, the shearers'
rep. requests both apostles to shut up or leave.
"He couldn't be expected to take the Christian and leave the Jew,
any more than he could take the Jew and leave the Christian. We are
just amongst ourselves in our hell.
"Fiddle at the end of rouseabouts' hut. Voice of Jackeroo, from
upper bunk with apologetic oaths: `For God's sake chuck that up; it
makes a man think of blanky old things!'
"A lost soul laughs (mine) and dreadful night smothers us."