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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shaw, Thomas (1800–1865)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Shaw (1800?-1865?), wool expert, was born in Yorkshire, England. He started work as a woolsorter in boyhood, and later became a woolbuyer and preparer of wools for various manufacturers. His attention was early drawn to wools from Australia, and he noticed 'inexplicable' changes and deterioration in their quality. When, therefore, his employers, J. T. Simes & Co., London, who already recognized a time of crisis and of opportunity, responded to a request from Robert Campbell & Co., Sydney, for 'a competent person as buyer and sorter and instructor of sorters', Shaw arrived with his second son, Thomas, aged 15, in September 1843, determined 'to get as speedily as possible amongst sheep and try to … clear up this mystery which so much puzzled us'.

He travelled extensively through the eastern Australian colonies and New Zealand, observing climatic, soil and working conditions, noting the casual, unselective methods of sheep-breeding current on many properties. In 1849 at Melbourne, helped by Gideon Scott Lang, he published a pamphlet, The Australian Merino, which began a sharp controversy. Shaw urged Australian growers to consider precisely what English buyers wanted, to breed sheep fit for the purpose, and to prepare their wool better, particularly by washing it more carefully before shearing. The 'Pure Australian Merino' should be the target, but as yet there was little promise and much backsliding. Australian growers, Shaw declared, 'know nothing whatever about wool'; by haphazard breeding they had produced 'a mongrel breed, in which may be found every shade between the real Australian Merino and the dried-up Leicester, mixed with myriads not fit to class as respectable goats'; their disregard of environment exposed their flocks to disease or 'the transmutation of … fleeces into scrubbing brushes'. Natural protests were led by one 'Ignoramus', who in the Melbourne Morning Herald, 1 August 1849, condemned Shaw as a mere newcomer and claimed that the squatters were doing as well as possible, considering their shortage of funds and labour. But Shaw had gained welcome publicity: improvement of wool by wiser breeding and management was brought very much to the fore.

In 1850 Shaw 'was very influential in forming the Merino Import Company', as he then believed that occasional infusions of new blood might improve the acclimatized sheep. This project failed and in 1860 from the Darling Downs he produced as a Sydney publication his Practical Treatise on Sheep Breeding and Wool Growing, based on his original principle, 'suit the breed to the character of climate and pasture'; he urged: 'import no more foreign sheep of any description, but breed entirely from the Australian merino'. Especially in the Western District of Victoria, leading men, impressed by his logic and will to help them, had gradually adopted his methods. Flocks bred without crossing had become resistant to disease, and their wool 'Australian' in character. John Currie of Larra believed that to Shaw was due 'the formation of the Australian merino'. But Shaw warned, 'it would take but a short time to spoil it; one cross with any foreign sheep, and the character of the offspring is changed, the Australian qualities spoiled'. He was a tough, aggressive little man, who throve on argument and opposition. By his work with such leaders as Currie, the Learmonths of Ercildoun and Philip Russell of Carngham, he converted many sceptics.

In 1823 Shaw had married Ann Turner, by whom he had two sons and five daughters, who all settled in Australia. Jonathan, the elder son, became the leading sheep classer of his day. Thomas Shaw junior worked with his father for a time, and was so like him in character and interests that they are often confused. Both were apt to wander about Australia. But the son was teetotal, and anchored himself to his Wooriwyrite station. The father seems to have had no settled home; what money he had, he spent on drink. He is supposed to have died in the late 1860s in New South Wales, but his death is not officially recorded there.

Select Bibliography

  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 4 (Lond, 1959)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • Port Phillip Gazette, 15 Apr 1843.

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Shaw, Thomas (1800–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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