Travelling Australia
Blackall Woolscour
Scour line Mechanically agitated forks in the scouring trough moved fleeces along while cleaning them

The woolscour was established at Blackall in the nineteenth century to wash wool after it had been shorn. Sheep living in dusty paddocks collect a lot of dirt on their naturally greasy wool and up to 40 per cent of the total weight of a fleece can comprise grease and dirt.

The best return on wool was obtained for clean wool, and transport costs were lower if the surplus weight was removed. In the early days of the sheep industry, sheep were washed in a creek before they were shorn but water was not always available, the work was dirty and difficult, and washing often ineffective so the trend to wash (i.e. "scour") wool after shearing evolved.

At first, wool was scoured by stirring fleeces with sticks in a cauldron of hot, soapy water. Then a hand-box washing system using a series of washing and rinsing boxes was adopted. The process was labour intensive and mechanised equipment was developed to use steam-driven machinery for scouring. These were introduced in Australia in the late 1880s.

A manually operated woolscour was established at Blackall in 1893, using water from the recently sunk town bore. By the early 1900s the desirability of a mechanised woolscour to improve wool production was clear to Blackall's businessmen and a consortium was formed to establish a woolscour.

Plentiful water was essential so a new bore was sunk two miles north of the town adjacent to the railway line under construction. The site was ideal; plenty of water gushing from the ground, rail access, far enough from town so residents would not be offended by any smell or any pollution in watercourses, but close enough to town for employees to travel to the woolscour each day.

The woolscour and railway were opened in 1908. Blackall businesses and residents were enthusiastic about their future prosperity.

Shearing shed
Blackall's woolscour process began by shearing the sheep in this 20 stand shearing shed attached to the woolscour building.
Sheep from surrounding properties were driven to the woolscour and kept in holding pens. They were shorn in a twenty stand shearing shed immediately beside the scouring equipment. Fleeces were placed in the scouring troughs; each trough contained agitating mechanism which mechanically agitated and pushed the wool forward with a series of forks. The forks were attached to a shaft with cranks and levers producing the necessary motion. Soda ash was added to help the cleaning.

Roller sets squeezed the water from the wool after it had been scoured then the fleeces were passed through a dryer. The dryer used hot air obtained by blowing air across heat exchangers heated by the boilers. After drying, the wool was pressed into bales and loaded in trucks or trains.

The whole operation took place under one roof. The woolscour had a single steam engine (45 horsepower, single cylinder) driving all machinery via overhead shafts, pulleys and belts. Two boilers burning local timber (preferably gidgee) powered the steam engine.

The first scour line was built by J& W McNaught, Rochdale, England and installed in 1908. The second scour line, installed in 1913, was made by Hall Brothers of Melbourne. The woolscour operated two 12-hour shifts daily in the years after World War One (1914-1918) with an output of 150 bales per week. Output gradually declined thereafter, although the Blackall woolscour was one of the few to keep operating during the 1930s depression.

Fluctuating fortunes and changes in the wool industry in the 1960s affected the woolscour. Demand for its services had declined because the wool industry was suffering from a downturn and because export of greasy wool had become normal thus removing the need to scour fleeces. A government imposed rail freight surcharge on scoured wool, apparently to compensate the railways for the lower weight of scoured wool, hastened the end and the Blackall Woolscour closed in 1978. During some of the lean periods a small diesel was installed to operate the machinery at low capacity for a few bales of wool.
Blackall Woolscour - page 2
The woolscour was neglected and began to decay until Blackall residents formed an association in 1989 to preserve the only remaining steam-driven woolscour in Australia. Restoration had been undertaken and an oil-fired boiler installed in 2001 to provide steam to drive the original engine and associated machinery, all of which was restored. The building was restored and rebuilt where necessary to remedy the consequences of borer invasion. The machinery is now operational.

Blackall Woolscour is open as a tourist attraction. Access is permitted only in guided groups because of the potential hazard of moving machinery.

Steam engine Boiler
Belts and pulleys Firewood trolley
Top left: The single cylinder steam engine powering the woolscour.
Top right: Boiler no longer used.
Bottom left: Belts and pulleys connected the steam engine with the machinery being driven.
Bottom right: Gidgee firewood was the preferred fuel for the boiler - this grows widely around Blackall.
   The text above is based on information available at the Blackall Woolscour.