Bernie Goldie

Research links famous ballad to birth of ALP

Research by a PhD student in UOW’s School of Humanities and Social Inquiry has uncovered a much earlier version of one of Australia's most famous folk songs, linking it to a strike which almost caused a civil war and led to the birth of the Australian Labor Party.

 The discovery places the ballad popularly known as Click Go The Shears around the time of the 1891 national shearers strike, which was the biggest industrial dispute of its time.

 Mark Gregory found the lyrics in the National Archives as part of a doctoral thesis on songs and poetry linked to the Australian labour movement. The lyrics were published as The Bare Belled Ewe in Victoria's Bacchus Marsh Times in late 1891.

 Mr Gregory said that this was more than half a century before the song became popular in the 1950s, when American entertainer Burl Ives recorded an incomplete version during a tour of Australia.

 "The first time most Australians would have heard the song was actually in 1952 sung with an American accent, so really its popularity stems from that date in many ways," Mr Gregory said.

 "There were shearers who knew it -- it was always known as a song sung to an American civil war tune or song called Ring The Bell Watchman."

 Mr Gregory’s supervisor, Dr Anthony Ashbolt, said Mark had made many significant discoveries in his researches before.

 “As a collector of poems and songs, he has an impressive record and this furthers his standing and reputation within the Australian historical and musicological professions," Dr Ashbolt said.

 Mark’s co-supervisor is Dr Glenn Mitchell.

 Griffith University Emeritus Professor of History and Politics Ross Fitzgerald said the published date of the discovery was significant because it linked the song to a time when Queensland shearers almost caused a civil war.

 "The colonial government used armed and mounted troops and militia to deal with the armed strikers," he said.

 "It was a very, very inflammable situation."

 He said the shearers' defeat in 1891 and 1894 led the Queensland labour movement to move away from direct action into parliamentary representation via the Labor Party.

 "That happened so quickly after 1895 that by 1899 for a week Queensland had the first labour government in the world, led by a man named Anderson Dawson from Charters Towers from the dual [member] electorate of Charters Towers," he said.

 "Most people don't realise that Queensland had the first labour government in the world from December 1 to December 7, 1899."

 Sean Murphy on ABC-TV’s Landline program recently carried a full report on The Bare Belled Ewe.

 See performance of Click Go The Shears from the Landline program.



  • A PhD student has discovered that the ballad popularly known as Click Go The Shears can actually be traced to the time of the 1891 national shearers strike.

  • UOW PhD student Mark Gregory.