LEGENDARY shearer David ‘Daffy’ Ryan wasn’t about chasing the ribbons and sashes a persistent shearer could win in competitions.
“I was about getting out in the shed with your peers – that’s where the men are – that’s where everything is done day-in week-out.”
He was a regular competitor at Golden Shears events, represented Australia six times and has set and broken records in his 38 years on the handpiece. He was Australian champion in 1979 and Victorian state champion several times, including three consecutive years in 1979, 1980 and 1981.
But what the retired shearer and 2019 Australian Shearers’ Hall of Fame inductee valued most of his time on the handpiece was competing with his peers in the shearing sheds and being able to execute his plans on the board and in life.
“That was to achieve what I wanted to achieve in being a shearer that could shear for years and years and not be put on the scrap heap.
“To have enough to look after the family …. and I couldn’t do that if I shore 100 a day,” the 73 year-old said.
“I saw too many shearers around me in those days that were shearing 100 a day and they were 60 years-old still.
“They were still battling and they probably hadn’t shorn more than that in their career and I know they had nothing.”
Good shearing was about planning
David Ryan was raised at Balmoral, Victoria, and began shearing aged 16. He planned to retire at about 45 years-old, but worked on until he was 51 years-old, after shearing and competing with narrow and wide combs at the highest level across Australia and in New Zealand.
He was driven to do more than his fellow shearers on the board and achieved this to become a gun shearer in the days when there were no training programs, by planning his approach to each job.
“You have to plan all this stuff.
“A lot of shearers just go home, go to the pub, whatever, but they don’t plan how am I going to approach these sheep, what am I going to do with them – how am I going to beat Harry or Bill, how am I going to get better,” he said.
“So I just looked at other people, watched the better ones, and then took little bits and pieces, changed a few things myself and they started to work.
“You’ve got to use your brain, otherwise you will never be a good shearer,” he said.
“No-one ever showed me one thing about how to shear.
“I taught hundreds of people just before I retired, but no-one ever taught me.”
David Ryan established himself as one of the fastest shearers in Australia and proved it when he shore 466 six month old Merino lambs with narrow combs in August 1978. The following year he pushed that tally up to 500 using narrow gear. In September 1994 he reclaimed the record when he shore 625 Merino lambs with wide combs alongside Trevor Bacon, who shore 620.
National service interrupted the shearing
David is philosophical about the value of robotic shearing to the industry, questioning whether it would need to be subsidised for farmers or it could handle the range of sheep shapes in Australia.
“Yes, you can do it, but you have to be able to clone the sheep that they look like slugs – but they don’t look like that.”
David said he could shear up to 250 a day with narrow combs by the time he was 20 years-old and then he got called up for national service, “so that knocked it back.”
He did three years in the army, including a year in Vietnam, got out as a 23 year-old in Melbourne and then thought he would join the police force.
“So away I went up Russell Street to police headquarters – I thought I’ll join that will be the best thing to do.
“As I’m going up there was this big building and here it is – right at the top of the door, Grazcos – you wouldn’t believe it and I walked in.”
The Graziers Co-op Shearing Company Limited formed in 1919 changed its name in September 1948 to Grazcos Co-operative Ltd. In 1981 the co-operative merged with Farmers & Graziers Co-op Ltd to form Farmers Grazcos Co-op Ltd.
“If that Grazcos building (in William St Melbourne) had not been there I would have been in the police force – that’s how I stayed in the industry.”
He got his first shearing job after leaving the army with Grazcos and was later part of the contracting company National Grazing Services that bought out the Grazcos business.
David said shearers were a lot more professional now than in his day, because they have been trained to look after their gear and themselves. He supported getting drugs out of the shearing industry and said talk of a shortage of shearers has been constant in the industry.
“They were talking about a shortage of shearers when I was 20 year-old and that was 53 years ago.
“It will happen and it is very hard work, but if you can’t see a little bit of daylight coming with your tallies going up, well you would be thinking ‘should I be here?,” he said.
“The young shearers I know are more professional and they’ve got a good lifestyle now, because they didn’t have to push a little narrow one (comb) up a rough neck and now most of them are shearing all these bloody crossbreds with wide gear.
“People my age did all our heavy work with narrow combs, we were shearing 200 a day then.”
David Ryan and his wife Regina raised two children, Justin and Megan, and retired to Wongaling Beach, Far North Queensland. He is among five shearing legends to be honoured at Shear Outback’s Ninth Festival of the Blades at Hay in New South Wales on April 20-21 next year.
Shear Outback chair Sam Barnes said the 2019 Inductees — Denis Ryan, Sydney; Brian Morrison, Longwood, Victoria; David ‘Daffy’ Ryan, Hamilton, Victoria; John William Harris, Shepparton, Victoria, and; David Lawrence, Northam, Western Australia — were selected from 30 nominations by an independent selection panel. These men were famous in the world of shearing, and should be acknowledged for their outstanding contributions to the industry, he said.
John (Bill) Harris is the father of 2009 inductee John Harris from Euroa, making them the first father and son to be inducted into the Shearing Hall of Fame.
Brian Morrison grew up in Longwood where he learnt to shear and play football well enough to play for Richmond in the VFL, a career he gave up to go shearing at Longreach. He won the Australian Open shearing title twice. Brian and his wife Judy began a shearing contract business before opening ‘The Wool Bin’, a shearing supplies business in Euroa in 1973 which developed into ‘Morrisons of Euroa’, a high quality country style clothing business. In 1972, Brian claimed a world record for shearing 410 merino weaners in the RSL Hall in Euroa.
John William Harris
Bill Harris was known far and wide as ‘Taggerty Bill’ to distinguish him from a cousin of the same name. He lived at Taggerty on the Acheron River for some years after he married Edna Parker. He was born in Mansfield in 1913 and tragically lost his father at an early age. He grew up at Merton before pursuing a 65 year career in the shearing industry. Bill loved his horses and while at Merton trained, rode and won the Merton Cup in 1940 and 1941. A non-drinker and non-smoker Bill Harris was a credit to the industry. His commitment to making any young shearer a better shearer was to make it easier for them. This great old shearer passed away in February 1997 in Euroa.
Denis Ryan (not related to fellow Inductee David Ryan) was born in Sydney in 1930. Drawing on his experiences, Denis was aware of the needs of the expedition shearers roaming Australia and New Zealand. He and his wife Fay pioneered the ‘Shearmaster’ brand and Milro Mail Order Co to address these needs. This business also enabled Denis to stay in touch with the shearing community. Once the Mecca of shearers, Milro closed its doors in 2014 after 58 years. It is a little known fact their iconic ‘Shearmaster’ clothing was part of the wardrobe of the film ‘Crocodile Dundee’.
David Lawrence was raised on the family farm at Southern Brook east of Northam, Western Australia. He is one of six brothers who all became shearers, and it was a proud moment, when all six shore together at the 1989 Perth Royal Show. David began shearing in 1975 under the watchful eyes of his brothers. Since then he has shorn in all areas of the state, and travelled to shear in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania many times as well as a few short seasons in New Zealand. David has enjoyed a good deal of success in competitions and has represented Australia six times in trans-Tasman teams.
Does anyone else recall a gun shearer by the name of Reubon Thurbon who once featured on a calendar produced by Esso Australia around 1960 or so ? I used to work along side him in that era and I always looked up to him as an exemplary gentleman and someone I aspired to learn from. I probably failed but does anyone recall the man?
Does anyone have information about the Tally Hi shearing program run by Tony Ryan and Andrew Brown with AWB in the 1960s at Rosebank, Mount Pleasant SA?
I didn’t see John Conlan’s name mentioned anywhere?
He and Daffy Ryan were best mates and fierce competitors in both competition and shed shearing. Editor’s note: John Conlan was inducted into the Shearers Hall of Fame in 2017 and Daffy Ryan was inducted in 2019.
I have a wonderful reference from 1940 typed up by R.F Kingston, branch manager of The United Graziers Co-0p from Hughenden, for my father, Lance Farish, as to his shearing in the area from 1938-1940 at Dagworth, Condooroo, Sesbania and Clonagh Stations, including his daily tallies. I was told that company contracted him out. Do you want a copy of it?
You were the greatest shearer I have ever shorn with and you had a good sense of humour. It has been a pleasure knowing you. Remember the yellow belly at Isis Downs and all that happened at the pub? Keep well, Cockey Stewart.
I am surprised and disappointed that Ronald Kenneth Bennier, (1917-1963), considered to one of Australia’s best shearers of his time, is not an inductee. He won the SA championships five times, was Australian championship runner-up in 1961. Then sponsored by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation and the Australian Wool Board, he gave exhibition tours in Uruguay and the US, instructing and demonstrating Australian shearing techniques. He was the stand-in shearer for film star Robert Mitchum in ‘The Sundowners’. He passed away at the 1963 Royal Adelaide Show having just won his heat shearing four sheep in 13 minutes and 40 seconds. NZ shearer and Hall of Fame inductee Sarre was the only shearer who could get near him in competition.
Fully agree David.
It was great to read your article. I came to Sydney in 1969 after getting settled out at Boorowa, NSW.
I also started shearing for Grazcos. I shore in New South Wales, then Queensland and headed to Victoria. When Grazcos asked me and an Aussie mate if we would go and shear in Tasmania, off we went and got based in Campbell Town, not far from Ross. We even went down and shore over on Bruny Island. It suited me as I loved the shearing camaraderie. The last shearing I did was in Muttaburra up by Longreach in Queensland in 1983. I have never shorn using a harness, but never had back problems either.
Even at 73 years, I still love the time I spent shearing and would love to have a crack at it again. I reside in Warwick Queensland now. It’s sad to see the loss of all the big stations. We were in Toodjay 18 months ago and I have a nephew Chris Grant who was shearing in Northam. He was an excellent shearer.
Michael and Chris Ritter.
I have a Milro tea towel. It has never been used. I think it was made in 1972 or 1973. What would it be worth and does any other old shearer have any?
Jackie Howe, the Warwick gun. Chinchilla killa, Steve Handley.
Tremendous effort by these inductees.
Their contribution to shearing and the whole sheep and wool industries in general is truly remarkable. Well done.
Congratulations David on a great honor so richly deserved. Love from Maureen and Terry.
Congratulations Daffy on well-earned recognition of your achievements. A fitting reward for someone who has done so much for so many.
Well done Daff, a top man you are. I enjoyed your company and expertise, as well as the girls in the shed who worked while you were teaching.
All the best.
Congratulations Daff , a well-deserved honour after a great career which included making a world record as an old fella.
David ‘Daffy’ Ryan was the first Hamilton Wool Monarch, crowned at Sheepvention in 1981. May I, as a subsequent wool monarch, and on behalf of all the monarchs who followed David, congratulate him on being inducted into the Shearers’ Hall of Fame. An honour richly deserved. David was an inspiration to a whole generation of shearers who followed him. He demonstrated true professionalism, which included care of himself, an example he set for his fellow workers. Well done Daffy!