Jackie Howe, the legendary sheep-shearer from Queensland gave his name to the cotton singlet now worn by most Australian males. In the late 1800’s, when Jack was shearing and breaking records that have yet to be beaten, he wore a flannel undershirt while shearing. The flannel had short sleeves covering the biceps and absorbed the shearer’s sweat. In addition, it was reputed to protect the shearer’s back from ‘. . .getting a chill’, something no shearer could afford. Shearing was, and still is, a backbreaking job. The blades in those early days were hand tools similar to a pair of garden shears. The shearers were - and still are - paid for the number of sheep they shear in four, two-hourly runs thus creating strong competition to get the largest tally for the day. The fastest and cleanest shearer for the day’s tally earns for himself the name of the ‘Ringer of the Shed’ until his tally is broken by another. ‘The Ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow. . .’. The words of one of Australia’s most famous songs ‘Click Go The Shears’ say it all.
To fully appreciate the scene you must first visualise the shearing shed. Picture a large shed with a galvanised iron roof; the temperature anywhere between 80 to 100 degrees F in the shade; when you spit the moisture dries before it hits the ground; thousands of stinking, oily, sheep bleating and stomping their feet; shearers toiling, sweating and swearing at the sheep; or bellowing for the tar-boy to come with the tar to mend a torn sheep; diesel engines thumping away driving the blades; stockman yelling at stubborn sheep reluctant to go into the pens; the wool classer yelling at the boy to hurry up with the fleece; the wool presser yelling at all and sundry and the boss of the boards yelling at anybody he fancies.
Hauling a struggling sheep from the pen, wrestling it into position, manoeuvring it through the contortions necessary to shear the wool and then pushing it down the chute to the yards is no mean feat. To do that two and three hundred times a day, for eight hours, five days a week, for weeks on end, calls for extraordinary strength and stamina.
Jackie Howe found the sleeves of his flannel restrictive so one day he tore out the sleeves and wore his flannel with no sleeves. Finding it much more useful with the sleeves out, Jack then got his mother to convert all his flannels into ‘singlets’ and later she started making them especially for Jack. The ‘fad’ caught on and, before long, all the shearers were wearing sleeveless flannels. One of the manufacturers ‘cottoned on’ and started making lighter cotton singlets especially for the wool industry. It was not too long before the lighter singlet became popular with all men in all industries and so the ‘Athletic Singlet’ was born. That garment is still sold in its thousands daily in department stores around the world and they are worn by most Australian males.
Jack’s shearing record stands unbeaten. On 10 October 1892, at Alice Downs Station in Queensland, he shore 321 sheep in 7 hours, 40 minutes, using blades. ‘a pair of glorified scissors’, as machine shearers called them. It was not until 1950 that a shearer named Reick topped his score by shearing 326 merinos - but using machine shears! In the week before his record-breaking day Jack Howe also broke the weekly record by shearing 1437 sheep in 44 1/2 hours, a blade tally that remains unbeaten. He was ‘The Ringer of all Ringers’, a legend in the woolsheds.
Jack Howe was a magnificent looking man - 14 stone (196 lbs.) of muscle, ‘with a hand the size of a small tennis racquet,’ according to one of his sons. Jack’s father, an acrobat famed for spring-vaulting over the back of 14 horses, became a stockman and married a girl who had accompanied the Leslies in pioneering the Darling Downs in South East Queensland, a rich wheat belt. Jack Howe Senior was also famous for overlanding nine llamas from Sydney to the Darling Downs and shearing them at journey’s end - no mean feat, ‘. . . for the Peruvians spat like machine guns’. Young Jack Howe began shearing in the 1880s, beating the ringer at Langlo Station by shearing 211 merinos in one day for a bet - a feat that made him a legend along the Barcoo River. A dedicated trade unionist, Howe bought a pub at Blackall in 1901 and bought Sumnervale Station in 1919 but died the next year, aged 59. In a telegram to his widow, the then of Premier of Queensland, Tom Ryan, is reputed to have said: ‘I have lost a true and trusted friend and the Labor (Party) has lost a champion’.
A copper monument still stands in the main street of the country town of Blackall in Central Queensland not far from the sheep station where Jack made his record breaking shear.