Sunday, 13 August 2017

Ron Edwards – Abattoir Ernie

Tiger O'Shane visited me daily for one complete year, and when the weather turned showery he would often comment:

If the sheep were wet he'd vote them dry,
He'd shear them under a leaden sky.

Sometimes these short verses were quoted almost unconsciously. The conversation, both before and after this, would have nothing to do with sheep, it was just something he said in the circumstances. The lines come from a poem of which he remembered only a fragment and of which he had this to say: (from National/Northern Folk 33/4 1969; Australian Folk Songs 9 1972):

"When I was travelling around shearer's camps there would always be a few blokes who would get up and sing or recite round the fire at night, and you would be hearing a lot of Paterson and Ogilvie, and that sort of stuff, so when it was my turn I would always try and do something that would be new to most of the boys, some real old ballad or something that one of my mates had made up sometime or other.

"Sometimes we would change them a bit to fit someone in the camp, like that one `Abattoir Ernie, the worst bloody shearer that God ever made'. That was originally about somebody else, but we made it fit this Ernie who was with us."

If some bloody mug would hold up a light,
He'd go on shearing far into the night.
If the sheep were wet he'd vote them dry,
He'd shear them under a leaden sky.

Abattoir Ernie,
The worst bloody shearer that God ever made

From the Town Crier Oct 1977, page 12.

The poem "Abattoir Ernie" was composed by a young shedhand named Joe Cole. It was about the month August at Ninghan station on the lower Murchison, in the year of nineteen hundred and thirty- one.

I happened to be shearing there at the time. and other well known shearers there were Norman McDonald, Bill Prince, Jack Clotty from Victoria. Viddy Fleagh from Kojonup, and Abattoir Ernie. On the trip up by truck to the shed, this young fellow who had shorn around the farms of the Eastern Wheat belt, and had little idea of the high tallies that were shorn by North-West shearers, those who regularly earned their living at the game, constantly talked of his prowess.

I happened to be the learner in a team of ten shearers, and in those days during the trip, people seldom talked of their prowess, because you didn't know who the other fellows were in the team, and you were likely to be embarrassed by perhaps the speed of some famous shearer. Undeterred, the young bloke kept it up, and when we arrived at the shed and started shearing the next day, from the first bell it was obvious to everyone that he had not done much shearing, or had not attained very much skill at the game, with the result that the sheep were scratched and cut about and the shearing was rough, and some of the shed-hands began to tell him that his sheep looked as though they'd been dragged through a barbed wire fence.

In those days shearers were very proud of their workmanship, in fact one had to be a good tradesman to get onto the big runs, where the big money was made. Not much was expected of me. I had done a few North-West sheds but I was still regarded as a learner. I could shear about a hundred a day whereas the top shearers were doing anything from 180 to over 200.

But this bloke was doing about 70, and right from the first day he was ‘dragging the chain'; the slowest shearer in the team, and the quality of his work was pretty woeful. The boys in the team began to make up bits of ditties about this fellow and Joe Cole Came to light with this poem.

The first that anyone saw of it was when he printed it neatly on quite a decent sheet of paper and pinned it up in the shed. He wrote it out at night, but the other shed-hands said that he had worked on it for several days. When I went to work in the morning there was a crowd reading it and laughing.
I immediately went back to the quarters, got a pencil and copied it off. When the victim walked into the shed and saw it he tore it down, but it still didn't alter the fact that quite a few people had copies of it. The name 'Abattoir' came about by the fact that the shed-hands reckoned he must have been a butcher by trade, hence the reference to 'go back to your knives.'

He didn't stay in the shearing game very. long; he saw that shed out, but when the other shearers moved on he went back to the farming areas, where he belonged. He did go up North again some years later, as a shearer, but never attained much speed, only getting up to about 100-120. He became interested in prospecting and had a half share in a gold mine East of Carnarvon.

Ron Edwards Australian Folksong Index pp. 54-55.

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