The iconic blue singlet is as Australian as a pair of thongs (flip flops), a vegemite sandwich or a pie and sauce. But have you ever wondered how it came about?
This piece of clothing favoured by almost all Australian workers is affectionately known as a ‘Jackie Howe’. It is named after one of Australia’s greatest champions. A man who not only achieved so much in his industry but also in his chosen sporting and entrepreneurial endeavours. He personified the Australian spirit of being hardworking, loyal, resilient and fair.
An Australian Legend
John ‘Jack’ Robert Howe was born on 26th July 1861 at Canning Downs Station on the Darling Downs, Queensland. He is known as the Greatest Shearer who ever lived. What Bradman was to cricket, Jackie Howe was for shearing.
A physically impressive man, although only 178 cms tall, he weighed 114kg, had a 127cm chest, 70cm thighs and 43cm biceps with hands the size of dinner plates and wrists of iron. He was naturally gifted as an athlete. He once ran 100 yards in eleven seconds against a professional runner in bare feet. This was all after Jackie had finished a day at work where he shore 217 sheep. The race ended in a dead heat. He was quite well known for his athletic ability.
It is reported that Jackie began shearing in the late 1870’s and settled in Blackall, Queensland. He married Margaret Alexandra Victoria Short on 24th April 1890 at the Blackall Roman Catholic church.
The Record Breaker
Jackie Howe, normally content to shear around 100 sheep per day was one day insulted by the gun shearer at the station where he worked. Determined to put him in his place, Jackie went on to shear 211 sheep. Word travelled of this feat and ringers around the country attempted to beat this record.
In 1892 the search was on to find Australia’s greatest shearer. Two gold medals were on offer and Jackie Howe had his eye on not one, but both. Jackie’s competitive streak was spurred on further by someone betting Jackie that he couldn’t shear 300 sheep in one day.
On October 10, 1892 at Alice Downs Station Blackall, Jackie did just that! Using blade shears (which are little more than scissors) in a time of 7 hours and 40 minutes he shore an unbelievable 321 sheep. Taking into consideration there are stories of interference from other shearers toward the end of the shear as he neared the 300 mark. Annoyed at losing the wager, they jumped on his back, tickled him and after Jackie carrying the sheep out, the others would be bringing them back in the pen. Once he reached the 300 and had won the bet, he decided to continue. At 321 the other men shouted for him to stop and that he had done enough. He had not just won the bet but had smashed the record as well.
Later that month he set the machine shearing record of 237 at Barcaldine Downs Station and the previous week to this he had shorn 1437 sheep in 44 hours resulting in also breaking the weekly shearing record previously set.
Jackie Howe’s record was finally beaten 58 years later by a machine shearer in Hughenden, Queensland and has been beaten several times since with wider combes. There have been shearers in New Zealand who have claimed to have beaten the record using blades (not machine) but it took them 11 hours to complete, not 7 hours and 40 minutes like Jackie Howe.
Throughout his shearing career he wore a flannel undershirt. The shirt had short sleeves covering his biceps. Jackie found the sleeves to his shirt restrictive so tore them off. With the help of his Mother he had all his shirts converted into ‘singlets’ and she began making them especially for Jackie. Once the other shearers noticed it wasn’t long before they too were wearing sleeveless flannels. A manufacturer ran with the idea and later produced a singlet of lighter cotton specifically for the wool industry. Before long the singlet became a favourite amongst all industries and is still sold in huge numbers in stores today.
Jack Of All Trades
In 1900 Jackie hung up his shears and bought the Universal Hotel at Blackall. In 1902 he sold and bought the Barcoo Hotel but later repurchased the Universal in 1907 which he continued to own till 1919.
Jackie Howe fought hard for better worker conditions as part of the Queensland Shearer’s Union and was very prominent on its committee. He remained a loyal member of the Australian Labor Party and was President of the Blackall Worker’s Political Organisation in 1909 and he was instrumental in arranging for T. J. Ryan to stand for election to the Legislative Assembly. Ryan later become Premier of Queensland.
Jackie and Victoria (as she was known) later became landholders after purchasing Sumnervale and Shamrock Park, both pastoral properties near Blackall. He was given the largest send off in the town’s history when he moved to Sumnervale in 1919.
On 21st July 1920, at the age of 58 his health had deteriorated and sadly Jackie passed away at Blackall. Survived by his wife, six sons and two daughters, he is buried in Blackall cemetery.
I am immensely proud of Jackie Howe, the person he was and what he achieved in his short life. In 2014 when my second son came into the world, I decided to call him Jack. As his Mother, I hope his life can be as full and enriched as the life Jackie Howe led and that he too may find success in his life’s passion.