A fair shear

Eighty years ago a young Margaret Hebbard picked up the blades and began to shear. She became something of a celebrity.

In Livestock9 Minutes
Shearing sisters Margaret (left) and Jean Hebbard, blade shearing at Sydney Airport in 1962.

By Joanna Grigg

A s a child in the 1940s, Margaret Gould (nee Hebbard) used to sneak to the woolshed to blade shear the sheep skins.

“We were not allowed to do it – but that’s how I started into shearing.”

Margaret, now 93, is quite possibly one of the first female blade shearers in New Zealand.

Margaret was one of nine siblings who lived on the family farm at Onahau Bay in Marlborough’s Queen Charlotte Sound. When her father Joseph Hebbard died in 1942, Margaret was 13 and she and her brothers and sisters had no choice but to shear the flock themselves.

“It was the war and there were no shearers around.”

Three of the sisters, Jean, Margaret (born 1930) and Gwen, picked up the blades, and started to hone their skills. Jean and Margaret went on to compete at the Golden Shears (blade class) at the inaugural competition in 1961 and became, perhaps, the first female ‘celebrity shearers’ – being asked to shear at events in Australia.

“Jean and I taught ourselves – we had watched Dad do it.”

Margaret Hebbard, now 93, at her home in Renwick. Margaret blade shore more than 100 ewes a day, mostly in bare feet.

The day Margaret turned 15, she had a paid job shearing on a farm near Ward.

“I had my fifteenth birthday at the Ngaionui woolshed.”

She and Jean had been sent to Ward to shear Jim Rudd’s sheep, as the usual shearer, their brother Don, had cut his hand.

“Mum made us go down to shear and finish the sheep. We shore there for the next 13 years.”

Margaret’s younger brother Joe was the shedhand and sister Gwen was sent as the cook. It was always toast and chops for breakfast.

Margaret never used an electric handpiece, except for crutching sometimes. She sharpened and set all her gear and always had two handpieces at the ready. Shearing was done bare-foot or in canvas sneakers. Shoes were kept for town trips (and rotated amongst the sisters as to who got to wear them). Shearing pants were army surplus.

Margaret said she never heard of any other young girls shearing at this time.

“The first female shearers that came along after us were machine shearers.”

As a shearer, Margaret says they stayed in shearers’ accommodation on the farm and seldom saw the farmer’s wife.

“She would never come down to the woolshed.”

To get to Ward, they rowed to Picton, then caught the train south – stopping at Ward or Wharanui. Margaret recalls shearing at Blue Mountain and Mirza Downs.

Margaret and Jean became well known in Marlborough. They were asked to shear sheep on floats at gala days and at garden parties. In 1959, they shore at Thomas’s Department store (in their pearls) as part of a national wool promotion.

When they competed in the inaugural Golden Shears in 1961, Margaret says they never got a hard time from the male shearers at the competition.

The sisters were invited to shear at the Moree Centenary Show in Australia. Margaret still has the medal.

“We got changed at the hotel, and did our thing and went back to the hotel.”

Margaret could shear 102 a day. Sheep were shorn as presented off the paddock, not crutched.

In 1962, they were sent by the Wool Board to Australia to demonstrate blade shearing at the Moree Centennial Show. It was a grand affair. At the ball, Margaret was asked to pick the Belle of the Ball and Jean the Matron of the Ball.

“The David Jones department store heard about us and asked us to do a shearing demonstration at their Sydney store.

“Hundreds of people saw us shear at the top of the building. The sheep went up the lift. Some were Corriedales and some were scruffy like goats,” Margaret says.

“They paid us under the table.”

Jean and Margaret Hebbard ran their Onahau Bay farm in the Marlborough Sounds, while their brothers worked off farm at the freezing works, shearing or fishing.

Margaret remembers the first top-dressing plane brought in to spread fertiliser.

“We put fertiliser on and watched it all grow, and then the cows got bloat,” she says.

“We let it grow too long and learnt from our mistakes.”

Grubbing Tauhinu and Scotch heather took three months to do the whole farm. Now there is no Scotch heather.

A cheap source of dog food was whale meat from Picton. (Whaling ceased in 1964.) Margaret used to get two tonnes at a time. It was a big job, so sometimes it was left on the home wharf overnight. Come morning, the blood dripping off the wharf had attracted several 18-foot sharks.

A Marlborough Federated Farmers parade float featuring blade shearer sisters Margaret (left) and Jean Hebbard. The float is entirely covered in wool.

“So we went down with the .303 and threw in some fatty stuff and when they came up the top… boom!”

Margaret says whale meat tasted like beef – but it was only a certain part of the whale.

“We never saw orca in the 50s, although I hear they are back now.”

The Hebbards lived off the land. They would only fish for one meal, never more than needed. They made their own butter and rowed to Picton to sell it. Milk was fed to the pigs.

Pig hunting was a favourite pursuit and necessary to stop lambs being eaten by wild pigs.

“We used our sheep dogs to hunt, and one had a tiny bit of bully in it.

“Our dogs never bolted off after pigs when mustering – they knew the difference.”

During a break in shearing, Margaret went out with a local farmer to shoot goats for dog tucker around the Ward area. There were no deer in this country then – just a few further south. The sisters mustered all over the Sounds, often rowing and walking several hours to get there.

Margaret married in 1971 and in the 1980s moved off the farm to 21 acres (8.5 hectares) in Renwick. She was widowed, but built up her house from a “tin-shed”, ran 120 sheep and had a big vegetable garden. Now at 93, she still lives in her “country” home, although it’s now surrounded by new houses.