What does money smell like? Lanolin, sheep and sweat
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What does money smell like? Lanolin, sheep and sweat

It's the smell that people remember - the smell of hard work and the smell of a pay cheque.

Des de Belle who was a shearer in the dying days of the Yarralumla Woolshed in the 1960s remembered the pungent smell of the grease of the wool and of the kerosene that fuelled the machinery.

"There was a smell in the shearing shed of the wool," he said. "There was no smell until the action started but when it did start you thought it was special."

Mr de Belle, 90, was among a bunch of old hands who knew the woolshed when it was a vibrant part of the working Canberra economy and who met on Tuesday when the building was sign-posted on the Woden Heritage Trail.

Des de Belle, 90, one of the last shearers at the Yarralumla Woolshed.

Des de Belle, 90, one of the last shearers at the Yarralumla Woolshed.Credit:Karleen Minney

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The event prompted a flood of memories - old factory memories of the sheep and the men and machinery and the shearing time which meant wool cheques.

It was the mix of evocative odours which lingered - some said that you could smell the shed at shearing time for years after the place had fallen silent.

And the smell still lingers in the minds of old workers even until today.

The smell of cigarettes when shearers took a break. The smell of the sweat of hard-working men - always men in those days, though women now take up careers as shearers.

And lanolin, the oil that sheep excrete through the wool, and which is so useful to them and us that we, vain humans, use it to grease our faces and hands to keep them soft even today.

For Latin speakers, the name tells the story: it comes from lana (wool) and oleum (oil) - wool oil. The Romans smelt it. So did the shearers and roustabouts at Yarralumla Woolshed.

Adrienne Bradley used to accompany her father when he drove sheep to the shed on horseback. "I loved the smell," she said.

"We used to bring the sheep along the Cotter Road," she said, and when they arrived her father would go in first to warn the workers to mind their language.

Apart from the odour, she remembers that shearers had very smooth hands because of the lanolin - a lesson well learnt by cosmetics companies.

It was also the smell of success - the sweet smell that meant money.

Adrain McInnes, whose father Les was the contractor that organised the shearing at Yarralumla.

Adrain McInnes, whose father Les was the contractor that organised the shearing at Yarralumla.Credit:Karleen Minney

The smell meant shearing and so the end of the cycle when the cheques would arrive. Robert Campbell who had a lease on land at Yarra Glen (the Campbells are the oldest white family in the region) said, "There was an excitement with the smell because it was your year's income coming after a year's work. It's very exciting."

As a lad on a pony, he would help drive the sheep.

Another person in the gathering said that some shops in Goulburn would sell on credit through the year and then expect payment after shearing. "If I wanted to buy something, my father would say 'wait 'til the wool cheque comes in'," said Judy Corp.

The people who knew the shed in its heyday were gathering as the ACT government unveiled new signs for visitors explaining its history. There's a move to promote the wooden structure as a tourist attraction and as a venue for functions.

It was part of the history of Canberra when Canberra was barely an imagined city in a planner's mind. It is mostly part of the agricultural past but it was also used as a hostel for men who came to build the sewerage system nearly 100 years ago.

Today, it certainly exudes atmosphere.

The woolshed, on the southern side of Government House, near Curtin, was built in 1904. It closed for shearing in 1967, and its history seems to be ingrained in the wooden walls. It's easy to close your eyes and use a little imagination. "Shearers might have had a cigarette hanging out of their mouths," Linda Roberts, the organsier from ACT Heritage said. "There was the noise of the machinery. Men would have sent big fleeces flying out on the table. Men pressing them down."

The Yarralumla Woolshed, in the distance at left, as viewed from Government House in 1927.

The Yarralumla Woolshed, in the distance at left, as viewed from Government House in 1927. Credit:ACT Heritage

She doesn't over-romanticise: "I can't imagine them singing Click go the Shears, but there might have been some whistling."

She says the empty building isn't the most important aspect. "It's the people and the stories. That's what gives me joy."

Steve Evans is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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