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Golden Shears Week: Back where it began 60 years ago

Ivan Bowen receives his prizes from the Australian High Commissioner Sir John Collins. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

With the 60th Golden Shears starting tomorrow, GARETH WINTER from the Wairarapa Archive looks back at the first competition in March 1961.

Although the first large-scale competitive shearing festival was held in the War Memorial Stadium in 1961, the idea was not new. There had been competitions in the 1930s, some of which included the two men whose name was to become synonymous with New Zealand shearing – the Bowen brothers, Ivan and Godfrey.

They worked on developing the most efficient method of shearing, their “Bowen technique” eventually becoming ubiquitous world-wide.

Young Farmers Clubs also held competitions at Agricultural and Pastoral Shows. In February 1958 large crowds who gathered for the competition at the Masterton show encouraged YFC members to think there might be a place for a large-scale shearing competition.

Laurie Keats, Masterton YFC president, and Roy O’Hara, from Federated Farmers, pitched the idea to the Masterton Public Relations Officer Les Laing.

Together, with many others, they worked on setting up the Golden Shears International Shearing Championships Society, their first competition to be held in the War Memorial Stadium in the autumn of 1961. Some in the community thought the idea was a bit grandiose, fearing they could not attract the sort of crowd the stadium could hold – 1800 spectators at least.

As it turned out they need not have worried. A demonstration of shearing in a disused garage in July 1960 drew a crowd of over 600. The originators were sure they were on to something big and the community got in behind the competition.

As March approached street decorations featuring blade shears and woolly sheep were hung from the balconies of businesses, and many shops made elaborate window displays of goods associated with shearing.

The Wairarapa Times-Age thought the competition was a great idea. In an editorial on March 8 it said that both Australians and New Zealanders could look forward with keen interest in the competition, and predicted a great future for the whole concept of the Golden Shears.

There were lots of logistical problems to overcome. An army of volunteers was required to keep the competition running, with a team arranging the selection and delivery of sheep for the shearers to work on, plus their return to their farms. In the end some 5000 sheep were required for the competition.

All the wool had to be processed to the usual standards of the shearing shed, with teams of woolhandlers and pressers. By the time the first Golden Shears had finished over 90 bales of wool had been processed.

Other people had to make sacrifices too. One of the features of the competition was to be a five-man transtasman contest, but there were only four members in the Australian team. Wairarapa shearer Jack Morris made the supreme sacrifice, and pretended to be an Australian for the purposes of the contest.

Competition was fierce in all grades at the first Golden Shears.

The competition got under way on Thursday, March 9, with marshal Roy O’Hara saying the shearers were making history and probably paving the way for a future world championships.

Masterton mayor WL Marchbank opened the competition, saying his town was the most appropriate for it as the district housed over 3,000,000 sheep. He went on to say he was sure the organisers were on to a winner and that their efforts would result in “good sport, good fun and the better production of wool”.

The events started with the junior heats, but it was the Australasian open final, to be held on Saturday, March 11, that attracted the most attention. The two Bowen brothers were sure to be in the mix, with popular sentiment suggesting Godfrey would prevail. On the other hand, many thought ‘Bing’ Macdonald, the Waikato gun would carry the day.

Finals night was chaotic. On Saturday afternoon and evening, well before the doors opened, long queues formed in Dixon St, but some were bound for disappointment – hundreds had to be turned away.

When the Open final got under way it was Macdonald who made the pace. He had become the crowd favourite when it became known that he was competing with a broken collarbone.  Despite the obvious handicap, halfway through the shear the well-strapped MacDonald had opened up a big gap on the rest of the field.

Judges and stewards inspect a pen of freshly-shorn sheep.

The newspaper reported that he was trying to spread-eagle the field, but it did not pay off – his rate slowed over the second half of the shear and he was pipped at the post by Ivan Bowen, who won the speed component of the contest by 16 seconds.

To understand the advances made in speed shearing, and to better appreciate the athleticism of the later champion David Fagan, Ivan Bowen’s average time per sheep was a shade over 1 minute 20 seconds. When David Fagan won the 2003 final he averaged just over 46 seconds.

It all came down to the shearing quality points. Ivan Bowen just beat Macdonald on quality too, and thus became the first Golden Shears Open champion. His brother Godfrey, although slower off the board, had much better quality points, and he too overtook the unlucky Macdonald, who had to settle for third.

The initial Golden Shears had been a sporting and marketing success.

The public had been able to see first-hand the excitement generated when top shearers competed with each other.

The shearers had come to test themselves against the best in the trade.

The organisers had proven that their concept of an international shearing competition could stand scrutiny.

After the shearing had finished Jack Morris could go back to being a New Zealander, and ‘Bing’ Macdonald could plan his attack on the 1962 Golden Shears, where without a broken collarbone, he became the Open champion.

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