A Nation is Built: The wool industry

A Nation is Built: The wool industry
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A close-up of a ‘modern stud’ sheep is shown to be the product of a ‘century’s breeding’. Sheep are hand-shorn by manual clippers; a flock of sheep at shearing season is shown; sheering sheds are filled with men shearing sheep with electric clippers; the discarded wool is carried off; and the shorn sheep are released back into the paddock. The grading and classifying of the fleeces takes place in the sorting room where the wool is laid out on tables before being bailed, branded and sent off for export. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

Hurley used excerpts from his other films for Cinesound throughout A Nation is Built. A sheep-drive sequence that precedes this clip was taken from the 1933 feature The Squatter’s Daughter. The integration of previously used footage with the sequence seen here demonstrates Hurley’s familiarity with the subject matter.


A Nation is Built synopsis

This sprawling and patriotic documentary uses actuality footage, historical re-enactments, fictionalised scenes and propaganda to chronicle Australia’s development and progress as a nation. It was sponsored by the Government of New South Wales and made by Cinesound Productions to celebrate Australia’s sesquicentenary – marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of European settlers.


A Nation is Built curator's notes

A Nation is Built begins with an extended prologue which, through explanatory title cards, contextualises white settlement history from the moment Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Port Jackson. This is done with the patriotic British 'Pomp and Circumstance’ playing in the background which creates the mood of the film (it is also reprised for the closing sequence). The film then moves into a short series of historical re-enactments which serve to provide the colonial context in pictures before detailing a ‘panorama of nationhood’ which focuses on the developments across primary industry in New South Wales, showcasing wool, mining, timber, dairy and wheat as well as the state’s natural resources, landscape and fauna.

This film conveys a patriotic view of Australia’s history by conflating the ideas of nation, land and people. One of the original daybills advertising the film declared it ‘Australia’s own romantic story of a century and a half of national progress and achievement’. This romanticism is helped by the cinematography of Frank Hurley. Hurley was the chief cameraman for Cinesound Productions and by the time this film was made had been working for them for six years. By this time, he had virtual creative rein over Cinesound’s newly created industrial division and his creative mark on this film is pronounced – he shot, scripted, directed and produced it. Hurley spent over six months in production and travelled over 19,000 kilometres throughout New South Wales and shot approximately 20,000 feet of film.

A Nation is Built had its theatrical release in February 1938 at the Prince Edward Theatre in Sydney and was a ‘big hit with local audiences’. To a contemporary viewer, the ideas of nationhood portrayed in this film have been altered by recognition of Indigenous communities, subsequent waves of immigration, increased engagement with the Asia-Pacific, and changes in the geopolitical landscape. It is very much a film of its time.

Notes by Poppy de Souza


Education Notes

This black-and-white clip shows aspects of the New South Wales wool industry, including a shearer using hand clippers to shear a merino stud sheep. A number of sheep are then herded from a holding pen into a large woolshed where shearers use mechanical shears to remove their fleece. The footage includes men sorting and grading fleeces before the compacted bales of wool are branded according to grade and loaded onto trucks for transportation to wool stores located close to the port of Sydney.

Educational value points

  • The clip focuses on wool-growing, which had been the staple industry of Australia since the 1800s and the main source of the country’s economic prosperity until relatively recently. It was fostered by the availability of large areas of grazing land and a huge demand for wool from overseas markets. While Australia remains the world’s largest producer, generating a quarter of the world’s wool, changing fashions and lifestyles plus competition from cotton and synthetics have drastically cut the demand for wool.
  • About 80 per cent of the approximately 100 million sheep in Australia are pure merino. Merinos are suited to Australia’s hot, dry climate and produce a heavy fleece of fine wool. Twenty-six Spanish merinos were introduced from South Africa in 1797, and later more merinos were imported from France, Britain, Germany and the USA. Careful crossbreeding has produced distinct breeds of Australian merinos, including four basic strains, the Peppin, Saxon, Spanish and South Australian merino.
  • The Australian wool industry was pioneered by the Reverend Samuel Marsden and John Macarthur, an officer with the NSW Corps and his wife Elizabeth. Macarthur and Marsden both obtained sheep from the merinos brought to Australia in 1797. Marsden exported the first bale of Australian wool for commercial sale in 1807, and the rivalry between the two men helped establish the industry. However the breeding experimentation and persistent promotion of the sale of Australian wool in England by the Macarthurs meant that their contribution is better remembered than that of Marsden’s.
  • Within 50 years of the introduction of merinos to NSW, wool was Australia’s main export. Historian KG Ponting wrote in 1961: ‘Because of the merino, Australia in less than 100 years, passed from being a disposal ground for English convicts, to one of the most important members of the British Commonwealth’ (The Wool Trade, Past and Present, Columbine Press, 1961). In 2007 a photographic competition, ‘Australian Wool to the World’ and other celebrations were launched to mark the 200th anniversary of the export of the first bale of wool.
  • This clip shows shearers using hand and mechanical shears to remove the fleece from a stated average of 130 sheep per day, a physically demanding job requiring a high degree of skill. Today most shearers use mechanical shears, which were introduced in the 1880s. Shearers are paid per sheep shorn and typically shear about 100 per day, although a top shearer or ‘ringer’ (the fastest shearer in the shed) can shear between about 200 and 300 a day.
  • Practices in woolsheds have changed very little since the 1930s when this clip was made. The shearing team still consists of shearers, rouseabouts (shed hands), wool handlers, wool classers, wool pressers and a cook. A major shift is the employment of women in this traditionally male industry (shearers would sometimes cease work if a woman entered the woolshed), although the physical demands and nomadic lifestyle of shearing means that there is only a small number of female shearers.
  • Wool-handlers are shown in the clip removing imperfect wool from the fleece, a practice known as skirting. This is done at a skirting table where the fleece is thrown up with the outside out. The skirting table has wooden slates or tubular steel rollers spaced apart to allow second-cut wool to fall through. Second-cut wool is produced if a shearer does not cut close enough to the sheep’s skin and makes a second-cut to remove the remaining wool.
  • Once the wool has been skirted, a wool classer classifies it according to its strength, fineness, length and whiteness. The wool is then placed in bins, such as the baskets shown in this clip, until there is enough wool to press into a bale, a job performed by a wool presser. The bales are stencilled with codes to describe the wool, such as AAAM, with triple A indicating that it is of the highest quality and ‘M’ standing for merino, or BLS, which indicates that the wool came from the belly of the sheep.
  • The clip shows the work of cinematographer and photographer Frank Hurley (1885–1962), who throughout his career documented social and industrial changes occurring in Australia. Hurley was the official photographer on a number of Antarctic expeditions in the early 1900s, as well as during both World Wars. His documentaries about the Antarctic expeditions and two feature films were well received. In the 1930s Hurley was employed by Cinesound to make documentaries for government and private sponsors.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Cinesound Productions
Frank Hurley
Cinesound-Movietone Productions owns all copyright which may subsist in this footage

This clip starts approximately 22 minutes into the documentary.

We see a close-up of a ‘modern stud’ sheep. Coronation Charles is being shorn with manual shears. 
Narrator The modern stud animal is in striking contrast to the earlier types and the secret of Australia’s production of recent years is largely in the extra weight and quality of fleece which a century’s breeding has developed. At the outset, Macarthur paid four pounds per head for his stud rams. Today, ram champions, similar to Coronation Charles of the famous Bundemar Stud who is being shorn with such exquisite care, have changed hands for 5,000 guineas. Just think of it – 5,000 guineas.

We see a paddock and pen full of sheep.
Narrator During the shearing season, the scene around a sheep station is an inspiring one. A quiet routine of grazing life changes to bustle. The shearers, a highly organised body of experts, arrive and the quiet sheds whir with activity. The average number of sheep shorn per day by a shearer is 130.

Men are shearing in a shearing shed with electric shears.
Narrator When the pens are full, a tally is made, and the respective counts are credited to the individual shearers. Relieved of their heavy winter fleeces, the animals seem imbued with that spring feeling as they leap buoyantly away, to jump back into the business of growing more wool. The sorting room is generally adjacent to the shearing section, and here the grading and classifying of the fleeces is carried out by technical experts.

These scenes, depicting activity at Windy Station, Quirindi, are characteristic of modern wool-growing practice in Australia. The original merino cut a fleece of two and a half to three pounds per head. Today, we have an average of 8 pounds with individual flocks cutting up to 12 pounds and more. Great credit must be given to our stud breeders for improving standards of quality.

The wool is baled, branded according to content, and railed to the nearest selling centre for marketing to the wool-using countries of the world. The clip for the Commonwealth approximates 3,200,000 bales, of which the State of NSW contributes a half.