In 1842, the Northern Districts of the Colony of New South Wales (what is now South-east Queensland) was opened up to free settlement.  Before the advent of barbed wire[1] fencing, shepherds were in great demand to manage the burgeoning flocks of sheep run by the squatters.

Shepherd and his flock, hut and fold in the background (State Library of Queensland)

At the time there was no direct immigration into Moreton Bay from Europe. Labour had to be recruited from Sydney and incentives were provided in the form of free fare and a sign-on bonus.

Having landed in Brisbane, some of the recruits had second thoughts when they realised that it was an employee’s market and began to demand a better deal. This situation was reported in the Moreton Bay Courier.

Labour.-The steamer has brought thirty-six more labourers, most of whom have entered into engagements to proceed up the country. A few, however, have declined the remunerating offers made to them, and are now loitering about the town.

We are informed by a gentlemen, who wished to engage one of these men, that on questioning him respecting the kind of employment he sought, he stated that he wished to engage as hutkeeper, that his terms were £25 per annum, but he would not undertake to watch the sheep! Our informant thought this was rather cool, and, of course, declined to employ him under such conditions.

Many similar instances of men having the like crotchets in their heads, and refusing to bind themselves under agreement to become answerable for loss of property through neglect, have occurred. The stockholders should take a determined course, and refuse employment to such men, whose only object appears to be to obtain the largest remuneration for the least possible labour.

The wages paid to shepherds and hut- keepers in this district are higher than in any other part of the colony, and it might naturally be expected that their duties would be better performed here than elsewhere. Such, however, is not the case; there is a general complaint, as the records of the police-office will testify, of the slovenly manner in which the flocks are tended and watched by these well-paid individuals.

It is to be hoped that stringent measures will, in future, be adopted in order to correct the growing evil.[2]

A large mob of sheep at Barcaldine

Some imported workers were poached by local tradespeople in Brisbane Town much to the outrage of the squatters.

LABOUR:-Twenty-six labourers arrived by the steamer on Thursday week last. They have since entered into engagements, at an advance, in many cases, of £ 1 per. annum, to proceed up the country. The present rate of wages for good shepherds may be quoted at £25, and for hutkeepers £22 per annum, with good rations.

Several of the squatters have lately complained that many of the men sent down by Mr. Graham have remained in the town, and entered into the service of some of the tradesmen, contrary to the stipulations made in Sydney with Mr. Graham. The men who were engaged in Sydney were required to produce written discharges from their late employers, which documents were forwarded to Mr. Connolly, at South Brisbane, who, at the present time, holds a great number, the persons to whom they belong   not having applied for them.

The tradesmen who have engaged these men are as much to be blamed as the parties who have hired with them; and they have, moreover, rendered themselves liable to heavy penalties; the former for having engaged the men without written discharges, and the latter for fraudulent conduct in procuring free passages from Sydney under false pretences. They stipulated to proceed into the bush, and as honest men, they should have fulfilled their contracts.

Mr. Graham, we believe, has done all in his power, consistently with the limited means at his command, to facilitate the introduction of labour into the district, and it is rather too bad that his efforts, and those of the squatters, should be thwarted by men who have never contributed one farthing to the labour fund, and who are in a position to import their own labour at their own expense, without resorting to such shabby and dishonourable means of obtaining it.[3]

Idealised bucolic scene with shepherd and his dog (Conrad Martens)

Given the isolation and dangers of the shepherding life, it is not surprising that many were reluctant to take up life in the bush. There were many cases of shepherds and hut-keepers being attacked and killed by aborigines protecting their territory. 

Some of the hired labour preferred to linger in town and enjoy its attractions such as they were. Unfortunately they soon found themselves before the court.


On Tuesday, at the Police-office, Mr. Lawson, of the Boyne River, appeared before the Bench to prefer a complaint against John Tomkinson, for refusing to proceed to his station, after having hired as a shepherd, and received an advance of wages.

It appeared from Mr. Lawson's statement that the fellow had started on three different occasions with the intention of proceeding to Limestone, where Mr. Lawson's drays were loading, in order that he might accompany them to the station. Each time he returned to Brisbane with various excuses, and got drunk in the public houses, until Mr. Lawson's patience became exhausted, and he determined on making an example of him.

The Police Magistrate told the defendant that his behaviour had been excessively bad, and to convince him and others that they could not commit such offences with impunity, the Bench sentenced him to three months imprisonment with hard labour in the Sydney House of Correction.[4]

The shortage of labour would continue in the following years and prompt vigorous debate regarding possible alternatives such as the resumption of convict transportation and  the importation of cheap labour from China and India.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2013.

[1] Barbed wire would not come into use until the 1870s. (Wiki)

[2] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 15 August 1846

[3] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 19 September 1846

[4] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 2 January 1847


Leave a Reply.