Friday, 3 March 2017

Book Review - Hauling the loads by Malcolm Kennedy

Hauling the loads : a history of Australia's working horses and bullocks by Malcolm J. Kennedy

Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1992                   ISBN 0522844553

It's not often in one's life that a book is personally recommended by a great historian, so when Geoffrey Blainey mentioned this book as a good follow-up to my reading of  The bicycle and the bush, naturally I set to and read it.

While perhaps not the definitive story of animal-powered transport in Australia, Hauling the loads is a comprehensive account of a huge part of Australia's history that has now disappeared. And while we may think that this is a story of long ago, Kennedy points out that as recently as 1931 there were over twenty thousand horses working in metropolitan Sydney and the motor car didn't fully replace the horse until after World War Two.

In a series of well-researched chapters Kennedy explains not only the development of bullock and horse-drawn transport, but also stock breeding, road and railway development and the horse export industry. As with the history of all forms of transport, necessity and cost drove the development of Australia's early choices in types of animal and material used. In the initial phase of the history of the colony, the bullock was preferred to the horse for transporting loads. Their were two chief reasons for this choice: firstly, bullocks were initially more plentiful than horses, and were cheaper to purchase and maintain in good condition; and secondly they were easier to feed and water while on the road, as their needs were less.

Hence it was the bullockys and their teams which hauled the loads for much of the early pioneering treks into the interior which began Australia's pastoral history. Of course those early settlers had saddle horses, and when it came time to till the soil, the farmers rapidly organised holdings of working horses, for their greater ability in load hauling and farm work.

The rapid increase in horse numbers from the seven that arrived with the First Fleet, - New South Wales' stock increased from 10,000 in 1829 to 251,000 in 1850 - along with the push to extend railways into the interior of Australia led to the demise of the bullock dray as a major form of transport: instead of journeys of hundreds of miles to major cities, short journeys to railheads favoured the horses quicker pace and greater load-hauling ability once water and fodder weren't such a problem. Animal-powered transport actually became more widespread after the introduction of railways, as more produce went to and came from the railheads.

Most of the horses in Australia were 'home grown'. Kennedy states that " from 1788 to 1930 over 5200 horses were imported [to Australia]". When this is put against other figures he quotes - of the peak horse population in New South Wales alone (661,800 in 1920) and the more than half-million beasts exported (mostly to India as military remounts) to 1931 - the size of the breeding operation comes into focus. Kennedy spends some pages describing the efforts to produce horses that could stand the work on Australian farms and roads, from the hardy Walers as saddle horses, to refinements of draught breeds such as the Shire, Suffolk Punch and Clydesdale.

Kennedy spends a briefer amount of ink on the social cache that owing a fine horse gave people, especially in the cities, where it was an expensive task to purchase (one year's average salary) and keep (about another average salary) a horse in stables. The requirements for feed were huge; in 1851 42% of cultivation in Victoria was given over to hay-growing for fodder. Waste-disposal was another big problem: 25,000 horses in Melbourne produced 80,000 tons of manure and 50 million gallons of urine per year.

While we in the twenty-first century think romantically of the horse-drawn era and of bullockys cracking their whips in an Australian arcadia, Kennedy reminds us that most of the time was spent in hard work: freeing bogged drays, finding feed and water, rounding up teams every morning, looking after exports on ships during storms, working the logistics of keeping transport going by having enough animals in the right condition in the right place at the right time. Not to mention the back-breaking labour of the animals themselves.

Hauling the loads is an important work dealing with a very important part of Australia's history. There is much that could still be done in this area, as in many ways Kennedy has merely scratched the surface of a huge topic, albeit with much fine and deep research. The book comes with useful apparatus, including a good select bibliography to extend one's reading.

This book is a fascinating and useful insight into our early history, and well worth reading on that basis. Recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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