A violent chapter in our rural history

New Book: Author Mark Filmer's new book, Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars, is published by Ginninderra Press.

New Book: Author Mark Filmer's new book, Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars, is published by Ginninderra Press.

Did you realise that shearers actually fired shots at each other in Victoria at the height of a dispute over the use of wide combs in 1984?

The open gun battle between two groups of rival shearers occurred near the sleepy country town of Coleraine, in Victoria, when two carloads of wide comb shearers turned up to a house of narrow comb shearers and started firing into it.

The shearers inside were having a barbecue. They had guns and they started firing back. Two of the Kiwi shearers in the cars were shot, one in the head and one in the arm. Both had to be hospitalized.

Author of a new book that chronicles the violent history of Australia's wide comb shearing dispute of the early 1980s, Orange-based writer and former journalist Mark Filmer said it just got "crazy."

"It got to the point of being so crazy that you wonder how it happened," Mr Filmer said.

Mr Filmer has documented the four years of industrial chaos that beset the wool industry when a small group of 'rebel' shearers sought to have a longstanding ban on wide-toothed shearing combs overturned.

"The 13-toothed combs, which were about 2 cm wider than the standard-gauge 10-toothed shearing combs, had been outlawed from use in Australia since an Arbitration Commission ruling in 1926," he said.

"The rebels, led by the late Blayney district shearing contractor Robert White (pictured on the book cover, above), believed the newer versions of the wide combs were more productive and efficient than the standard 10-toothed combs.

"However, the Australian Workers' Union, which tightly regulated the shearing industry in Australia's eastern states, was strongly opposed to wide combs and fought to prevent them from being approved.

"Mr White and many members of his shearing teams were attacked and bashed several times by union thugs."

VIOLENT TIMES: Author Mark Filmer said the wide comb dispute was one of the most violent chapters in Australia's rural history. Photo supplied.

VIOLENT TIMES: Author Mark Filmer said the wide comb dispute was one of the most violent chapters in Australia's rural history. Photo supplied.

The former Livestock and Grain Producers' Association and the National Farmers' Federation became involved in the dispute, which was settled in the Arbitration Commission, where Commissioner Ian McKenzie approved the use of wide combs in December, 1982.

The AWU called a national shearers' strike from March to May, 1983, after it lost its appeal against the commission's decision.

Mr Filmer said the strike was punctuated by numerous incidents of violence, as disgruntled union shearers raided sheds where 'rebel' shearing teams were working and attacked them.

"There were many fights in country pubs sparked by bitter rivalry between wide comb and narrow comb shearers," he said.

"One assault at a property near Bowning in 1984, resulted in arrests and a jail term for one of the offenders.

"This occurred when a shearing shed at the property was raided by a busload of shearers on their way back from a protest rally in Canberra.

"They attacked the shearers and assaulted the owner, Richard Glover. They hit him over the head with a fence paling.

"They thought they were going to get away with it because no one knew who they were, media footage of the Canberra protest was used to identify the shearers and five arrests were made. One of them was jailed for 12 months."

Mr Filmer's book, Three Steel Teeth: Wide Comb Shears and Woolshed Wars, is published by Ginninderra Press and can be ordered through any bookshop or from the publisher's website.

This story The war in the woolsheds first appeared on Goulburn Post.