Jackie Howe:
A champion

by a blue singlet

There are few more iconic Australian images than a row of shearers at their stands in a shearing shed, wearing a Jackie Howe singlet.

That the singlet is still referred to as a Jackie Howe, even more than 125 years after the event that led to its inauguration, is a tribute to the legend that is John Robert “Jackie” Howe.

 Jackie Howe

Patsy Adam-Smith, in her 1982 book The Shearers, refers to Jackie Howe as the “Bradman of the Shearing Boards” for his cricket score-like shearing records.

It was on 10 October 1892 at Alice Downs Station near Blackall in western Queensland where Jackie Howe shore a record of 321 merino weaners in 7 hours 40 minutes with blades. Just days before, he shore 237 sheep by machine after in the previous week having shorn 1,437 sheep in 44 hours, a weekly record that seems to have survived at least until 2015.

Of course, the modern-day shearer with the latest electronic shears, can double Howe’s then record daily tally. But it was another 50 years after Howe’s effort with “glorified scissors” until a shearer with mechanised equipment beat the daily record.

Jackie Howe’s father, Jack Howe, was also a shearer, a stockman and an acrobatic clown with La Rosier’s circus, claiming to be the first clown to travel the Australian colonies and to have spring-vaulted over the back of 14 horses. He was also town-crier in Warwick, southern Queensland.

 The town crier of Warwick

John Robert Howe, shearer and publican, is thought to have been born on 26 July 1861 at Killarney near Warwick, Queensland, son of John and Louisa Howe.

For many years he was the “ringer of ringers”. Shearing sheds have their own language – a ringer is the shearer who tops the daily shed tally.

He began shearing in the late 1870s and after a season in New Zealand settled at Blackall.

It is claimed he took on the record attempt because a mate urged him to lower the arrogant head of a “flash” shearer known to brag about his achievements.

He was a good shearer, too, by all accounts – pinking (exposing the sheep’s skin) was rare.


In 1900 he retired from shearing and bought the Universal Hotel at Blackall. In 1902 he bought the the Barcoo Hotel, also in Blackall, where there is now a statue of him holding a sheep. Barcoo is the area made famous in A.B. “Banjo” Patterson’s verse – “In the outer Barco where churches are few and men of religion are scanty” from A Bush Christening (published in The Bulletin in 1893).

Jackie Howe was a prominent member of the Queensland Shearers’ Union and served on its committee. He was a staunch member of the Australian Labor Party.

He was also naturally gifted as an athlete. He once ran 100 yards in 11 seconds (reputedly wearing socks) against a professional runner in bare feet. This was after Jackie had finished a day’s work where he shore 217 sheep. The race ended in a dead heat.

He is also known to have won prizes for Irish dancing.

According to legend, Jackie was wearing a sleeveless dark blue singlet on the day he set the shearing record. The sleeveless under garment became synonymous with his name.

Patsy Adam Smith writes: “It (Jackie Howe blue singlet) is said to have come about this way. A big shearer found the sleeves of his grey flannel ‘bluey” restricting and ripped them off at the shoulder, saying ‘I’ll make a Jackie Howe out of it’ – a reference to the sleeveless garment Howe wore on the record-setting day.

Jackie Howe married Margaret Alexandra Victoria Short on 24 April 1890. They had 10 children. He died at Blackall on 21 July 1920, aged 58.

The sleeveless Jackie Howe singlet lives on and is still standard dress on sheep farms, in shearing sheds and on a variety of work sites around Australia.

Howe won medals for his shearing records in 1892 and two of them and a fob watch he was awarded sold at auction at Sotheby’s in Melbourne in 2008 for $360,000 – more than 10 times the pre-auction estimate. A pair of his leather-handled mechanical shears sold at auction in Melbourne in 2013 for $38,000.

Randolph Bedford writing a tribute to Jackie Howe in the Courier Mail Newspaper on 10 July 1937 after reading a manuscript written by Jackie’s son John Howe: “The story of Jacky Howe should be incitement to the better doing of all kinds of work. The Australian in all his surplusage of production — art and literature, and music and statesmanship — is in competition with all the world. To compete successfully with the world, he must do better than most of it. He must strive to better the work of the other man, be it with pen or brush, thought, or artisanship; to defeat difficulty, as Jacky Howe beat the record of the flash shearer at Alice Downs.”

Jackie Howe’s life is the subject of a book, Jack Howe: The Man and the Legend, by Barry Muir.

Latest shearing records:

Rowland Smith, New Zealand, set a new World Record shearing 644 strong wool ewes in eight hours at Trefranck Farm, St Clether, Cornwall, England, smashing the previous record of 605 achieved by Leon Samuels in New Zealand, February 2017 (possibly the first time brothers have held two different World shearing records at the same time); Rowland Smith 644 – 8 hour strong wool ewe record and Matthew Smith 731 – 9 hour strong wool ewe record.

Akubra – the hat
that  just about
covers everything

Another Australian fashion icon is the Akubra hat.

The Akubra story traverses much of Australia and begins with the arrival of a couple of English hatters in the 19th Century.

Like the Jackie Howe singlet, the Driza-bone coat and the R.M. Williams boot they are standard fashion accessories throughout the Australian bush. They’ve even made their way into cities of the world and former First Lady Nancy Reagan was reportedly among the first Aukbra wearers when the market opened in America.

The Akubra principally owes its success to Benjamin Dunkerley. He was a hatter, but it was his invention of a machine that removed the tips from rabbit fur, allowing the shorter fur to be compressed into material suitable for making hats, that gave him a rise to fame.

European rabbits – reportedly two dozen of them – were introduced to Australia for food in the 18th century with the original 1788 First Fleet migrants. More we brought in afterwards for hunting.

The tables quickly turned, and the rabbits multiplied into plagues that ate the food Australian farmers were trying to grow.

A colony of feral rabbits was reported in Tasmania in 1827. European rabbits were released into the wild in Victoria in 1859, and in South Australia shortly after. By 1886 they were found throughout Victoria and New South Wales – even extending to the Northern Territory by the 1900s. By 1910 feral rabbits were found throughout most of Australia except the far north of Queensland and the Territory.

They are prolific breeders.

By 1920 it is thought there were 10 billion rabbits in Australia. The population has recently been estimated to be 200 million, although the population varies according to seasonal conditions and control measures.

There’s a story – maybe apocryphal – of an Australian farmer who answered a knock on his door to be greeted by a man announcing himself “I’m Nott, the rabbit inspector,” to which the farmer is said to have responded, “Thank God for that, there’s thousands of the beggars out there”.

Regardless of their numbers, they are pests and cause millions of dollars of crop damage despite the introduction of diseases, poisons and hunts designed to wipe them out.

So it was that Benjamin Dunkerley had plenty of “raw material” for his venture that he began in Tasmania.

Benjamin Dunkerley was born 1840 in Cheshire, England. He became a hatter with a specialist talent for inventing hat-making equipment.

In 1874 he left England for Tasmania to find business possibilities. Believing he could “make a go of it”, he brought his wife and children out.

The family lived in Hobart and it was here that Benjamin Dunkerley devised a machine to cut the hair tip from rabbits fur, a job previously undertaken laboriously by hand.

The family property was called St. Helena, now part of the Wrest Point Casino and Hotel complex.

Benjamin Dunkerley returned to England to patent his invention. It did not make him a wealthy man; there’s no explanation for that other than although he was a top-class hatter and inventor, his business skills may not have been all they should have.

In the late 1880s Dunkerley moved his fur cutting and machinery business from Tasmania to Sydney, into a small hat factory in Crown St, Surrey Hills, from where he supplied rabbit fur and machinery to hatters throughout Australia.

In tough times, through to the Great Depression and beyond until welfare became sustainable, rabbit hunting was a tremendous source of income for farmers and itinerant workers.

A young Englishman, Stephen Keir, arrived in Sydney in 1902.

Stephen Keir had been apprenticed to his father’s hat trade. He spent two years at hat-makers C. Anderson & Co. Ltd before joining Benjamin Dunkerley.

He married Benjamin Dunkerley’s daughter Ada Harriet in 1905.

Benjamin Dunkerley was impressed with his son-in-law that he made him general manager of his hatting company.

The business became Dunkerley Hat Mills Ltd in 1911 and got a boost in World War 1 when it was called upon to supply hats to the Department of Defence to Australia’s fighting Diggers.

 The Digger’s slouch hat

The hats also went on sale through a York St warehouse run by Mr. A.P. Stewart.

After the death of Benjamin Dunkerley in 1918, the control of the company passed to Stephen Keir who oversaw rapid expansion of the business to the extent that it outgrow the Crown St site.

Stephen Keir moved the company into a new building in Bourke St, Waterloo.

The trade name Akubra came into use in 1912, quickly entering the Australian “lingo”. Its success was its flexibility – “water your dog, fan the fire” – and for taking the punishment of rugged outdoor and outback use.

It is believed the word Akubra is derived from an Aboriginal word for a covering.

In the 1950s, the Akubra Company expanded its range when it won the licence to produce the American Stetson hats in Australia

More than 100 different styles, various colours and brim widths are now produced in the Akubra hat range.

The company is now known as Akubra Hats Pty Ltd, having moved to Kempsey on the NSW mid-north coast in 1974 to take advantage of decentralisation incentives and cheaper land prices. It could also be said it was moved closer to the raw materials that still roam the Australian bush.

 The factory floor

The Keir family and their descendants kept control through the expansion and relocation.

Stephen Keir’s sons Herbert and Stephen Keir II took over from him, followed in turn by Stephen Keir III and most recently Stephen Keir IV. The company is still a family concern; its current owners are the great, great-grandchildren of Benjamin Dunkerley.

 Three generations of the Keirs

The legendary
RM Williams,
a bushman,
boots and all

Reginald Murray Williams is a legend of the Australian bush. His name lives on today with the string of stores that bear his name and sell clothing and footwear that trace their origins back to him.

As well as an adept bushmen, at various times RM was a cameleer, bricklayer, builder, horse breeder, grazier, leather craftsman, explorer, miner, well-sinker, stockman, drover and pretty much anything else that someone with a deep admiration of the Australian bush and its people would take on.

He read poetry and wrote books.

One of his first jobs was learning to burn limestone for the construction of a church in Victoria. On the Western Australian goldfields he helped establish a mission for Aborigines. He learnt their bushcraft, cutting mulga, burning limestone, how to find water and track animals. Later in life he said that “the mastery of these Aborigines over their environment has been the inspiration of my life”.

He died on 4 November 2003, aged 95, on his property in Queensland, kleaving a legacy of great tales and achievements.

RM Williams was born at Belalie North on 24 May 1908 and grew up on a farm near Jamestown South Australia, about 200 km north of Adelaide, where the family worked and trained work horses. His family were of Welsh origins.

At the end of World War 1 the family moved to Adelaide so that Reginald and his two sisters (Effie and Daisy) could go to school.

But apparently school did not agree with RM and aged just 14 he packed his belongings and went bush as a “swaggie”, the name given to the men who walked Australia picking up odd jobs here and there and immortalised in the classic song Waltzing Matilda.

He learned to handle camels from Afghan cameleers and travelled the desert between Western Australia and Oodnadatta with Missionary William (Bill) Wade to count the number of Aborigines living there.

At age 16 he met Thelma Cummings.

They married and “went bush”, to the Adelaide Hills where RM took on work sinking wells for property owners.

The Great Depression was just around the corner and in the second half of the 1920s, the Australian economy suffered from falling wheat and wool prices, and competition from other commodity-producing countries. Australia was also borrowing vast sums of money, which dried up as the economy slowed.

Then the Wall Street crash of 1929 led to a worldwide economic depression. The Australian economy collapsed and unemployment reached a peak of 32 % in 1932.It took Australia almost a decade to recover from the Great Depression.

RM and Thelma had six children and the family moved further north to the Flinders Ranges, setting up camp at Italowie Gorge. Sinking wells remained his work.

Michael George Smith, known as Dollar Mick, turned up at RM’s campsite one day, driving a dilapidated buggy drawn by two mules.

There was an age gap of almost 30 years between the two men but they “clicked”.

Over the following months, Dollar Mick passed on his vast knowledge of leather work and craft to RM, teaching him the secrets of bush saddlery and stockmen’s accessories.

Dollar Mick and RM perfected the skill of making boots with a single piece of leather, the pattern cut out from a kerosene tin.

RM later said that this defining experience with Dollar Mick marked the true beginning of his life’s work.

RM was to record: “For two years we entertained travellers with our products and our camp fire was a meeting place for people from far and near. Dollar and I remained friends for life.”

The sandy storms took a toll, particularly through sandy blight (trachoma). One of the Williams children, Ian, became blind and his mother took him to Adelaide.

RM needed work and there wasn’t much available in the bush so in the early 1930 he returned to Adelaide.

One of the pastoralists for whom he had done work was Sidney Kidman and in 1932 RM was able to sell him some packsaddles from a basic workshop he set up.

RM wrote: “Kidman gave me a start making pack saddles and that started me off.”

The pack saddle business was under way and with a basic factory in Percy Street, Adelaide, he began developing his boot-making skills as well.

He put a two-line advertisement in The Adelaide Chronicle: “Elastic side boots made to order. Twenty shillings. Cash with order. 5 Percy Street Prospect”.

With the money from the largely mail orders that resulted, RM started buying leather and equipment. The business was off and running..

The RM Williams company was founded in 1932, building up a significant market locally and eventually overseas.

RM had to borrow money to expand the business to keep up with the orders and he was soon deep in debt.

But he had a stroke of fortune, when he bought a gold mine.

One day at the factory, an old woman dressed in black appeared. She owned a gold mine near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory which she could no longer work alone. She offered to sell it to RM for seventy two thousand pounds. This could be the way out of debt.

He got family and friends together and worked out a deal to buy and work the mine. Eventually they hit gold – so much gold that their mine, “Nobles Nob” ,became one of the richest small gold mines in Australia.

“We made many, many millions,” RM wrote. In 15 years the mine produced 80 million pounds worth of gold.

He bought Governor Gawler’s old mansion in Adelaide. But despite the luxury house and the trappings of good fortune RM was not settled.

He walked away from day-to-day management of his company in 1952 when other ventures called –including a tea plantation in New Guinea.

His marriage collapsed in the 1950s.

He bought property near the Yatala Labour Prison in Northland, north of Adelaide, and built a homestead but a setback followed. His land was compulsorily acquired by the Sir Thomas Playford State Government after much dispute.

RM moved to Queensland in 1960, vowing never to return to South Australia.

He settled on a property called Rockybar in Queensland. It was rundown and the cattle were wild but RM took up the challenge and worked hard to make a new home in the Arcadia Valley.

In 1955 he re-married, to Erica Nunn, and had three more children – a total of nine.

The RM Williams business continued to grow and eventually became a multi-million-dollar enterprise.

RM sold his interest in the business in 1988 to stock and station agents Bennett & Fisher Limited. That business went into receivership in 1993, after banks were concerned about $16 million of debts.

RM Williams Pty Ltd was then placed under the ownership of RM’s long-time friend Ken Cowley (who acted in partnership with Australian business mogul Kerry Stokes) who, presided over RM Williams Ltd for two decades.

On 26 March 2013, the Cowley family signalled its intention to sell the company to a new owner for $100 million.

At this time RM Williams Ltd consisted of 50 retail stores and 900 stockists, and also exported to 15 countries

The most successful products are handcrafted riding boots that remain unique in that they are made from a single piece of leather stitched at the rear. Versions with elastic sides have been the most popular and they can be seen on almost any farm and stockyard.

RM Williams range of products was extended to include clothing and other leathergoods.

RM Williams is now controlled by L Capital, the Singapore private equity firm backed by luxury goods company, LVMH Group (Paris-based Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton).

It was no surprise that for the team uniforms for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, that management turned to RM Williams.


In RM 1985 Williams was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), for services to the outback community.

In 1992 he was named an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), for service to business and to the community.

In 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal


The bush businessman left several legacies:

The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame. RM Williams was an original board member of this institution that was opened in Longreach Queensland, on 29 April 1988.

Founded the Australian Roughriders Association.

Helped form the Equestrian Federation of Australia (1951).

Led a committee which initiated and planned the Bicentennial National Trail.

Published works

Williams, RM (1998). A song in the desert. Angus & Robertson.

Williams, RM; Ruhen, Olaf (1984). Beneath whose hand / the autobiography of R.M. Williams. Pan Macmillan Australia..

Williams, RM (1972). The bushman’s handcrafts. R.M. Williams Pty Ltd.

Williams, RM (1995). I Once Met a Man. Australia: Angus & Robertson.

RM Williams also put his name to Outback Magazine.

Who wears RM Williams gear?

The RM Williams target market these days goes well beyond the bush where the RM Williams longhorn brand remains prominent.

The Australian Financial Review reported in 2016: The young British royals, Kate and William, both rock RMs, as does Florence Welch of indie band Florence and the Machine fame. Long-time fan Hugh Jackman put his money where his feet are, becoming a shareholder in the private company late last year. And former cricketer Glenn McGrath, who recently joined the RM Williams board, says he bowls in his RMs at backyard cricket matches.

The legendary RMs are still made by hand, in the company’s Adelaide workshop.

Sources include rmwilliams.com.au; TROVE and abc.net.au.

The coat that
keeps your
bones dry

Driza-Bones coats appear everywhere, not just the Australian bush . They were worn in the stage shows The Boy from Oz and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. They have been shown at Australian Fashion Week, and awarded a place in the Australian Fashion Hall of Fame, in Sydney’s Power House Museum.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, were given matching fleecy Driza-Bones on their visit to Australia in 2003. Madonna bought a tiny Driza-Bone for her baby daughter, Lourdes.

Driza-bone coats are exported to 40 countries, including Mongolia where they are popular with horsemen.

 A man from Guernsey Island who emigrated to New Zealand is behind the legendary Driza-bones.

“Dry as a bone” was the description used by farmers to describe land that was in the grip of drought or a dry season.

So it is somewhat appropriate that the name found its way to full-length waterproof riding coats to keep stockmen dry when the clouds did eventually break.

Emelius Le Roy was born in 1827 and served an apprenticeship in the sail-making trade. After spending a year in London he decided he wanted to go to sea and eventually became the master of the trading vessel Iliomama, plying between Sydney and Auckland. He arrived in Auckland as a permanent resident in the 1850s.

In 1852 he established a tent and sail making business in Queen St, Auckland,  staying in touch with the sailors who plied the Britain-Australia/ NZ route.

The Auckland Star reported: “He is not a man for outward show, and his customers do not look for a shop, but go upstairs where they may see a fine collection of the goods in trade. There is every description of tents and marquees, made to order or let out on hire on very liberal terms.”

Le Roy was an enthusiastic volunteer, the Star noting: “He was appointed Lieutenant to the Naval Brigade in 1868 and Captain in 1871. He went on the retired list on attaining the age of sixty with the rank of Commandant.”


 Commandant Le Roy

Summing up his character, the newspaper said: “Captain Le Roy is known as a staunch temperance man, and in business as in private life can claim a most exemplary record.”

In 1855, Le Roy married Catherine Tabel, who first arrived in Victoria, Australia, with two of her brothers before going on to New Zealand. They had eight children.

Le Roy began making wet weather coats for windjammer sailors out of torn cotton sails waterproofed with linseed oil.

These sailing ships travelled between Britain, Europe and Australia and because of their iron hulls they sailed low in the water; the sailors spent most of their time wet and some form of wet weather gear was needed.

Some of the sailors settled in rural Australia and the Le Roy coats they took with them became particularly useful in the bush during rainy season.

Le Roy saw a marketing opportunity and set up a partnership with soap manufacturer Thomas Edward (T E) Pearson, whose father started Pearson Soap in Hamilton, New Zealand. T E Pearson emigrated to Australia, manufacturing Pearson’s Sand Soap. He took some of Le Roy’s coats with him and confirmed they were extremely popular among bush workers and stockmen.

He and Le Roy formed a partnership to make the coats in Australia, from a backyard shed in the Sydney suburb of Manly.

Pearson worked on a new formula for sealing the coats so that they weren’t flammable around campfires and the Driza-bone was born.

The trademark was registered in 1933 after the name was agreed when T E’s nephew Rev Bob Pickup showed him a dried out bone from a cow or bullock.

The formula for safely waterproofing the coats remains in use to this day.

Le Roy died in Auckland in December 1905. Pearson died in Australia in 1964.

As the coat became more popular its design evolved; it was made longer for horse riding, and a fantail was placed in the centre of the back so it could fit over the horse, keeping the saddle dry.

Wrist straps stopped the arms getting cold and wet, and leg straps stopped the coat from flapping. A new oiling process was developed so that the coat wouldn’t go hard and crack in the harsh dry conditions of the Australian bush.

In 1989 British flooring and leisure products group James Halstead paid $A 9.58 million for Driza-bone but 20 years later the brand was back in Australian hands when Steve Bennett, the Australian who founded Country Road  in 1974, and his group bought the company and relocated the headquarters to Melbourne, Victoria. The factory remains at Eagleby, between Brisbane and the Gold Coast in Queensland.

Driza-bones have clothed the men who built the railways, roads and highways of Australia, served in the two world wars and travelled with the explorers —from the Antarctic to the Himalayas.

Teemed teamed with moleskin trousers, R M Williams elastic-sided boots and an Akubra hat, the Driza-Bone and those other iconic accessories form what has become a national costume.

Driza-Bone riding coats were worn by the stockmen and stockwomen at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

The coats also appeared at the 2007 APEC Summit in Sydney. The 21 leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference posed in a group photo wearing Driza-Bone attire (above).