WA History

Wool-classing for Women

On 14 January 1930, the Minister for Agriculture, Harry Millington, announced that, in addition to the Rural Women’s Course, there were also plans to hold a short wool-classing course specifically for women. It was to be held at the Technical College in Perth, and would start on Monday, 10 March, and would end on Friday, 14 March.

The idea arose from a direct request from a woman to the Minister at the Lake Grace Show in 1929. The course was believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, and was to be run by Alfred Stewart, who was the wool-classing instructor at the Technical College.

It was to consist of practical work, lectures on the principles of wool-classing, information about sheep, and other subjects as decided upon by Hugh McCallum, the sheep and wool expert of the Agricultural Department. Along with practical instruction, the women would also have the opportunity to go on excursions, such as to the show floors of various wool brokers.

While it was available for all women to attend, it was specifically organised for farmers’ wives and daughters, “who might desire to interest themselves and assist in classing the farm clip.” The minimum age requirement was 18, and there was no charge to attend the course. The only expenses to be paid by the women were the cost of board and lodging and any fares associated with railway travel. To help those travelling long distances via train, the Government organised concession fares.

Despite the announcement, there was one requirement for the course to go ahead – there had to be a minimum of 12 women applying. Much to the organisers’ surprise, the response exceeded their expectations. There were close to 50 applicants from country districts around the state. Applications were accepted until the end of February. Any others arriving after that date were refused as they were running out of space.

Opening the course on 10 March, the Minister for Agriculture welcomed the women and was pleased to see their interest in the course. In addressing them he stated, “It was a fine thing that people should seek knowledge…” He went on to say that women might make naturally good wool-classers. Classing involved the use of sight and touch, and required strong attention to detail. It was thought that women would be adept at that kind of work. Though they would receive the practical knowledge to help on the farms, they would not leave the course as official wool-classers. The aim was to train them so they were “in a position of being able to handle their own small wool clips.

Some of the women who learnt wool-classing.

When the course got underway, the women were split into two separate groups. One group was labelled the white roses while the other was labelled the red roses. Those names were considered a lot nicer than earlier suggested wool themed names of ‘greasy’ and ‘scoured.’ The groups were to be led by two women, Mrs Withnell and Mrs Drake-Brockman.

Several photographs were printed in the newspapers, showing the women at work, but, unfortunately, we don’t have a list of all the women who attended the course. We do, however, have a few names. These were usually printed in the society sections of the newspapers. One of the students we do know of was Miss Jean Grant of Newmarracarra.

Alfred Stewart teaching the women about wool-classing.

Along with class instruction, each day throughout the week, the women paid a visit to the wool stores. On Tuesday, they went to the show floor of Westralian Farmers. On Wednesday, Goldsbrough, Mort & Co. On Thursday, Dalgety & Co. and on Friday, Elder, Smith & Co. At Elder, Smith & Co, the employees of the company did “everything possible to assist students to gain information.

Elder, Smith & Co circa 1930s. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (022906PD).

The women were not expected to learn absolutely everything about wool classing within a week. However, at the end of the course, it was clear that they had gained the requisite knowledge regarding the “right manner of putting fleeces on the market.” They had enough instruction to be able to help out on the farms.

On Friday afternoon, while at Elder, Smith & Co, the course came to an end. As a thank you, the women gave their respective instructors (Mr Stewart and Mr McCallum) fountain pens as presents. It was stated in a speech that they were given by “the enthusiastic students of the first women’s wool-classing course.

Alfred Stewart teaching the women about wool-classing.

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 8 August 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO



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