Life of a Station Hand Sixty Five Years Ago


Walter Frederick Riddiford was born at the Mount Browne goldfields, Western New South Wales, in 1895.  After several years of employment on sheep stations, he entered the Broken Hill mining industry.  He was elected as President of the Workers’  Industrial Union of Australia in 1933,  –  Broken Hill Branch  –  and became an alderman of the Broken Hill Municipal Council in 1934.  He was elected Mayor of Broken Hill in 1948 and occupied the position until his retirement in 1963 – having served 28 years as an alderman, during which time he was Mayor for 14 years.  Mr. Riddiford was awarded the O.B.E. in 1957 for his services to the community.

To the best of my ability I will describe the life of a station hand sixty five years ago.  I was that station hand and I arrived in the bush about the latter end of 1910, and was successful in obtaining a position on Nundora Station which was part of Wonnaminta at that time.

I was born at Mount Browne on 28 March 1895, which puts me at a little over 80 years of age.  The only children that my sisters and I were able to play with were aboriginals  the real aboriginals.  The genuine aboriginal was a very noble type of person until he  became involved with Europeans; he then deteriorated, and lost his native arts, and his Identity.  However, my task is to describe the life of a station hand. 

I was sent  to school in Adelaide for a few years, but my older brothers attended school three three days a week at Mount Browne, and two days at Milparinka, which meant they used to ride six and eight miles a day.  They would ride from Millring Station (or selection) to Mount Browne for three days, and the teacher would then move to Milparinka and teach for two days.  My brothers would ride to school, hobble their horses on the common and, after school find their horses and ride back to the station; this was the way they received what little education they could.

After a few years schooling in Adelaide, my education was abruptly terminated for economic reasons.  When I returned to the West Darling District, I began working on a sheep station.    A large station consisted of a number of buildings  –  the principle one is the “government house”, the main station building.  There was a form of caste system on the station at that time  –  firstly, there was the upper class, then there was one a little lower, finally descending to the level of the station hands.  The people who lived at the government house were the overseers, the bookkeepers and the jackaroos.  

They had their sleeping quarters, their dining rooms and their lounges (they did not called them lounges in those days, they were known as parlours ).  In the general homestead of the station (the station house) were accommodated the married man and his wife, the governess, and the young ladies who perhaps worked at the general manager’s house.  The general manager did not live at the government house as he had a special place of his own.  His home was rather superior  –  and in fact there are some of those fine old buildings still standing in the district today.

Finally, we come to the men’s quarters.  These consisted of several buildings.  Some huts would contain about ten beds, or bunks but no mattresses or pillows were supplied.  We used a couple of sheepskins for mattresses, covered with calico to help remove the smell.  We would roll up our clothes to form a pillow.  The men’s quarters accommodated employees whose duties were separate from the government house staff.  There was the station cook (generally a male), the head stockman, the blacksmith, the saddler      (Saddlers were employed part – time, and they generally  migrated from one station to another on contract), bullock drivers (all stations had one bullock driver for wood – carting  and other transport work ), and a horse breaker. The number of stockmen and station hands varied according to the size of the station.  Places like Yancannia in its heyday would have about 12 or 14 men in the mustering camp all the time.

In addition to the various buildings there were sundry sheds, a saddler’s shop, blacksmith’s shop, harness room where all the saddles were placed in rows, and a stockyard  – located perhaps half a mile from government house.

At the very large stations in this district there were usually a number of aborigines camped on the property.  There was a permanent group at Yancannia station, as it was one of the very few places in the western district of New South Wales where the aborigines of bygone days could survive, because there was a constant water supply.  There were only about four places with permanent water in the whole area west of the River  Darling, except along the Paroo River.  One waterhole was at Depot Glen, Mount Poole,  which the aborigines called  Currawilpa.  They could survive for quite a number of months in very dry times, where the carvings are at Mootwingee.  The reason for the carvings and hand stencils is quite obvious. The aborigines  did not have to go hunting, as they would wait for the animals to come in for water, then would spear them.  While waiting all day for kangaroos to come to the rockholes the aborigines would occupy their time with paintings and rock carvings.

The following figures give some idea of the size of southern Queensland sheep stations at the turn of the century: Manuka station 110,000 sheep, 30 shearers, 27 rouseabouts;  Kayrunnera 120,000 to 150,000 sheep, 30 shearers but 40 rouseabouts.  There is a reason for this variation. Some stations scoured only their stained fleeces of wool, while others scoured the whole clip.  Yancannia used to do this, and when they had scoured, dried and baled the wool, it was ready for the mills.  Ondurua  had 130,000 sheep, 40 shearers, 40 rousabouts (they called them “shed hands’ now ); Bowen Downs, 170,000 sheep, 70 shearers, 50 rouseabouts;  Wellshot and Cooma – martin, 175,000 sheep, 100 shearers 100 rouseabout – there were 200 excluding station hands on that station; Marathon, 200, 000sheep, 50 shearers, 60 rouseabouts;  Isa Down 150,000 sheep, 64 shearers,50  rouseabouts.  

There are no sheep stations of that size those day – that was before the country was divided up. In the first instance, particularly the Western Lands blocks in Western New South Wales, the lease was granted for 40 years or thereabout and, after that time , one third of the property was resumed for closer settlement.
And that is what we find today  –  many so – called  “sheep stations” are really “ selections”.

A station stockman had to have proper equipment – a horse and saddle were supplied by the station, a quart – pot was hung on the side of the saddle, there was a waterbag in front, and finally there was the stockwhip – that was the setup for a station hand.  Clothing consisted of moleskin trousers, a blue shirt and elastic – sided boots.  The reason for the elastic – sided boots was that, if a horseman was thrown, he could slip out of the stirrup irons.  With lace – up boots, his foot was likely to be caught.

The cook rose at 6.30 a.m. and rang the bell, then the station hands got out of bed.  By 7 o’clock it was breakfast – time – it took him half an hour to prepare  it, and took us half an hour to get ready – and we would have our meal in the kitchen.  By 7.30 we were at the stockyard.  One of the jackaroos, or the junior overseer, would arrive and allocate the work for that particular day.  I have dealt only with the main station, but there were also “out – stations”, for example, Fowler’s Gap was an outstation for Corona, which was a very large property.  In addition, there were boundary riders’ huts twenty miles or so from the head station, which had to be visited.  

Their job was to look after a number of paddocks (usually 100 square mile blocks, or 64,000 acres each).  Then there was the general mustering camp which moved from place to place, shifting stock. We would work six days a week when at the station and, on Sunday, would do our washing and mending.  I was not old enough to receive a man’s wage, so I was paid ten shillings a week, which meant I had to work for a little over a week to be able to buy a pair of elastic – sided boots, which cost ten shillings and sixpence.  The higher paid people, such as bullock drivers, received twenty – five shillings a week.  The blacksmith would probably be paid thirty shillings a week, because he was a semi – tradesmen.  The saddler would work under contract, and most of the fencing was carried out by contractors, as was nearly all the dam sinking ( or tank sinking as we called it ).

One often wonders why people chose that kind of life.  Many of them avoided going to town, because they knew if they did so, they would stay a few days, get drunk, lose all their money, and return to the station completely penniless.  A number of quaint characters developed in the outback, such as Jack – Without  – a – shirt, Barefooted Harry, and Mad Ross, the bullock driver.  There was another bullock driver in the Bourke district who spoke differently from the other bullockies.  He had an Oxford accent.  Now, the ordinary Australian would break in a bullock with a lot a lot of cursing and extravagant language.  When a wagon was being unloaded, or stopped in front of a bush “pub”, the bullocks would lie down and rest.  To get them moving again required much swearing, kicking and prodding.  But the bullock driver from Bourke had a different method.  This driver  –  they called him the Honourable Archie – would simply address his team in a rich Oxford accent: “GENTLEMEN ON YOUR FEET”, and the bullocks would get up straight away.  That was the way he had broken them in!  

There were always a few books and publications in the station hand’s quarters.  We had a Miller’s Guide, which gave us all the sporting records; the Australian Worker which supplied us  with A.W.U. union matters and politics (everbody had to subscribe to the Worker); the Sydney Bulletin supplied us with cartoons and general news; and the Adelaide Chronicle gave us agricultural information and a weekly summary of Australian and overseas events.

The fastest transport in those days was Morrison Bros. Coaches.  They would leave Broken Hill at about 10 a.m. and arrive at Tibooburra two days later, a distance of 200 miles.  The first stop would be Thomson’s Dam, then Euriowie, Sandy Creek bore, Packsaddle, Iduna, Cobham, Milparinka, Tibooburra.  The Bullock Wagons would take about a fortnight to travel the same distance; horse teams were a little faster.  Camels would travel  at about the same speed as horses, if yoked to a wagon.  They did not pull as much weight as a horse as they are built to carry, rather than haul.

There is a difference in the behaviour of animals, and bushmen have to to learn this.  With a mob of bullocks, the first duty as a teamster when pulled up at night is to take the bullocks to water, find some feed ( if available), and turn them loose.  When mustered in the morning, the bullocks would usually be gathered in a couple of mobs; with twenty bullocks there might be eight in one place, and twelve in another.  Horses are the same – they also have a tendency  to split up into groups.  

As for camels  –  with  twenty camels there would be twenty mobs, as they are not a sociable animal.  They are the worse to muster, and it takes much longer.  Donkeys were also used in the teams, four abreast.  The last donkey – team man I knew was Andy Marks at Callabonna Station (where they dig up the bones of dinosaurs).  Donkeys have a survival instinct, and are always in sight of other donkeys.  Andy Marks would find the centre, bang on a kerosene tin, and they would all come together.  Tracking lost stock was an art that does not exist today, except perhaps in areas where horses are used.  But when I was a station hand every bushman was able to track.

The greatest Roman of them all is the sheep dog.  He has done more work than all the men put together.  He is a tireless worker and never lets his master down.  A station worker may decide to walk  off a property and leave you to it, but the sheep dog will never do that.  The best sheep dog in my day was the kelpie – and the kelpie was the champion of the sheep dog trials from 1900 to 1920.  He was bred as a purely Australian  – developed  breed of dog by the King brothers at Hanging Rock Station, between Albury and Wagga.  They were bred in the first  place from a Scotch collie ( not the border collie, but the smooth haired collie ).  

The King  brothers were joined by a man named  McCleod, and the dogs became known as King and McCleod kelpies.  They also were at Wilga Downs station near Cobar.  Somewhere along the line a strain of the Dingo got into the kelpie, and that gave them the ability to crawl along on their stomachs.  I recall at one time a mob of sheep being driven from Wilga Downs to Corona, through Langawirra – and there were only four men with the 10,000 sheep.  But the men had twenty kelpies dogs. The sheep were spread out in small mobs over a distance of about fifteen or twenty miles, with dogs allotted to each group, and would not allow sheep to stray from one mob to another.  The kelpie is a great worker, gets no pay, and sometimes has a very hard life.  Today, he may be seen sitting up in a buckboard, or on a motor bike, so he is still in use.

The cattle stations were a different matter.  There, the cattle dog was used, mostly the Queensland blue heeler, and they were very effective.  An ordinary dog would get his head kicked off, but the blue heeler dives down low, and the cattle kick high and miss him.  Station owners did not want the cattle to run, because it affected the weight, so they changed the type of cattle.  In the first place they had shorthorns, which were heavy and would lose weight as they travelled, even in good feed, so they introduced the Hereford, which was not so heavy, and could walk faster without losing weight.  

The droving rate for cattle was twelve or fourteen miles a day.  The rate for sheep was eight to ten miles a day, except in cases when they had to be kept moving in order to reach water; but to keep their condition, sheep should be allowed to wander along at their own pace.