WHEN Tony Evans caught bronchitis at an early age in the 1950s, a part of the doctor’s remedy was an order to don a woollen singlet. ‘‘Back then, wool was very much a basic product and if you wore it you itched,’’ recalled Evans, who is now 68 and has chalked up 40 years as a wool broker, 30 of them in Newcastle.
‘‘But today with modern technology and superior breeding, we have magnificent stuff, the softest of cloths – it’s almost like wearing silk.’’
‘‘You don’t know how good it is until you put it on, trouble is the majority of Australians haven’t worn a wool suit. They don’t even know it exists.’’
But Evans and his broking colleagues are facing a bigger problem.
A month ago Melbourne-based Australian Wool Handlers, which provides warehousing services for more than half of the nation’s wool producers, announced it was walking away from its lease at the Maryville wool sheds, a 6.6hectare site which the Bradstreet Motor Group is redeveloping as a headquarters for its Newcastle dealerships.
The decision means that the three-day wool sales that begin on Tuesday at the Hannell Street sheds will not only be the last at the site, but the last in the sales’ 70-year history in the city.
‘‘I’m not going to jump off anything now,’’ joked Evans as he sat in his crisply-ironed, collared shirt with David Cross, his colleague at broker Schute Bell Badgery Lumby, and Harold Manttan and Matt Thomas, brokers for Australian Wool Network and Landmark respectively.
‘‘Every year we have fought and fought and fought to keep this place open because the growers wanted it and the brokers here deemed it a commercial decision.
‘‘But it would have been cheaper not to have been here.’’
For Australian Wool Handler’s chief executive officer Craig Finlay, the decision to move the operations to Sydney was also a commercial decision.
‘‘There are only four sales a year at Newcastle and the market has been eroded over time,’’ he said, citing Australian Wool Exchange figures that reveal the volume of wool sold in the city has fallen from 150,000 bales a decade ago to the 50,000 bales expected this financial year.
‘‘It’s sad, but we have to be realistic, we just can’t make it pay any more.’’
AUSTRALIA literally lived off the sheep’s back for 150 years from the 1840s, when the creamy, crimped, greasy and fibrous textile was its number one industry.
Its pungent, lanolin-drenched odour hung around the port of Newcastle as early as settlement, with the Australian Agricultural Company buying property up to the lower New England area to grow it and ship it to London.
Retired wool valuer and manager Bill Freeman said his former employer Dalgety’s built a store in the railway yards near Nobby’s for the purpose of dumping bales.
Freeman says the earliest records of wool selling in Newcastle date to 1929, when a group of New England and North West wool growers set up the New England & Northern Co-op, known as NENCO.
‘‘The quantity sold in that year was 4670 bales,’’ said Freeman, a Wingham resident who maintains a keen interest in all matters wool.
Over the years the wool sales have shifted around town operating in and around Annie Street, Wickham, the Wool Exchange in King Street, in Darby Street, Carrington, and more recently at the Hannell Street site.
During that time, Evans said, the supply and demand market has been volatile in the extreme thanks to natural and man-made pressures.
In 1950 the market was buoyant with the ‘‘a pound for a pound’’ – or one pound sterling for a pound of wool – when the Korean War brought a wool boom, but within a year that price had halved and new textiles nylon and polyester brought competition.
In the ’60s drought knocked the market about, so too rising labour costs, and by the 1970s wool industry leaders, despite opposition from many growers, convinced the federal government to introduce a reserve or floor price to stabilise the fluctuating market.
The decision would create an over-supply and a stockpile that reached 4.8million bales by the end of the booming ’80s market and would take another 15 years to sell.
‘‘We were growing 5million bales a year of which we had a market for about 4million,’’ Evans recalled.
‘‘People knew they couldn’t lose because they had a guaranteed price, but that price became too high.’’
By 1991 the floor price was stopped and the inflated market had collapsed amid multi-million dollar write-offs and hardship in rural communities.
While the wool price has risen and fallen, one thing has remained constant.
‘‘Not only is our superfine wool the best, Australia is really the only source of that best product,’’ Evans said proudly of the superfine wool grown in the Northern Tablelands, as well as the premium wools grown in the Upper Hunter and North West slopes.
‘‘There’s a little bit in New Zealand and tiny amounts in South America and South Africa, but our merino sheep are the best in the world.’’
Taking a break from preparing hundreds of wool samples for the Hannell Street sales floor, Evans and the other brokers rattled off the peaks and troughs in the wool industry, glee and glumness etched on their sun-weathered faces.
Their collective experience in wool surpasses the 70-year Newcastle sales era itself and while quick with a joke, their disappointment is palpable.
‘‘It’s quite an emotional thing, really,’’ Evans said.
‘‘We all thought we had another year [at Hannell Street]. From what I understand, there was a verbal agreement that the lease here would be extended, but then the car yard plans changed and they wanted to get on with it sooner.’’
Gerard Buchanan, Schute Bell Badgery Lumby’s Sydney manager, acknowledged that the disappearance of the Newcastle operation is ‘‘disappointing’’ but emphasised that the operations in Rutherford, where wool samples are taken and forwarded to Melbourne for testing and bales are stored before consignment, will continue.
‘‘People automatically think everything is changing, and that they are going to have to physically send their wool to Sydney but that is not the case at all,’’ he said.
Nonetheless, Evans and the rest of the brokers have each been forced to look for alternate office sites in Newcastle.
Craig Finlay said the Hannell Street sale will shift to Yennora, in Sydney’s west, where about 45 sales are held annually, with about the same number again held in Melbourne and Fremantle.
The three sales venues pale in comparison to the 20 venues that peppered the nation three decades ago.
‘‘We have done very well to still be here and I think the reason we have been able to do it is the quality of the wool and the relationship we have with our clients,’’ Evans said.
‘‘That’s why we’ve been able to hang on as long as we have.’’
THE end of this week’s sales – where an estimated 12,500 bales will fetch up to $20million – will also spell a break in tradition that has long fattened the local economy.
While the number of Newcastle sales has plummeted, the mob of woolgrowers and buyers who relish travelling to town to see the collective clip has never wavered, propping up hotels, restaurants and business.
‘‘We are renowned for getting the most woolgrowers to a wool sale out of any sale in Australia because our growers are so committed to the product they produce,’’ said Craig Brennan, a broker and auctioneer for Elders, which took over NENCO in 1927 and is the longest-serving brokerage in town.
‘‘Sure, sale numbers have dwindled, but for example in Fremantle I hardly ever get a client to a sale,’’ he said.
Brennan, who is also chairman of the Newcastle Wool Brokers Association, said the traditional Newcastle sales have survived tough conditions including drought and the global financial crisis and was now beset by Europe’s fiscal woes.
Once the dominant buyer, Italy now accounts for only 5per cent of sales, with China gobbling 80per cent of the stock.
‘‘The Italians have always paid more money but China wants it as cheap as they can get it.
‘‘Their mills have really improved in the past five years and their product is so good that they are exporting cloth to the Italians, who turn it into garments with ‘Made In Italy’ on it.’’
Brennan said the Australian Wool Handlers’ decision to move out came as a huge shock.
‘‘We never knew it was coming,’’ he said.
‘‘I wouldn’t say the dust has settled but after the sales next week it will for sure. A lot of growers are disappointed.’’
Among them is Walcha wool grower Peter McNeill, who has been in the wool game for half a century and been a Newcastle sales stalwart.
‘‘It’s a shame, it’ll be a real loss because lots of people come down and spend a bit of money about town – we buy fuel, stay in a motel and my wife likes to go shopping.
‘‘Lots of people are upset but it’s inevitable. If you haven’t got enough wool to see you can’t hold down an auction.’’
McNeill, who averages about 300 bales per year and manages to make a quid, said he’ll miss the sales banter with local growers and international buyers.
‘‘I’ll come down to say a fond farewell to the place because I won’t be back.’’
Bill Freeman will also be among the pack, so too Michael Hogg, who worked as a broker for 54 years for Farmers & Graziers (now Landmark) before retiring a decade ago.
‘‘This is it,’’ Hogg said, who still lends a hand in the sales and likes to catch up with the cockies.
For Barbara Morley, who has served the wool brokers and growers breakfast, lunch and dinner over the past 27 years, originally at the Cricketers Arms in Cooks Hill and now at Bimet Lodge at The Junction, the end of the sales era is tinged with nostalgia.
‘‘I’ve been a part of the show, behind the scenes, and I’ve seen all evil, heard all evil but I will say no evil,’’ she said of the ‘‘rowdy’’ dinners she’s hosted for Japanese, French and Italian buyers and the local wool community.
On Wednesday, she’ll don her apron and serve up dinner to 200 of them and enjoy a ‘‘chardy’’ with all the familiar faces before they disappear once and for all.
‘‘Country folk are just so unbelievable, real gentlemen and so respectful – I’ll miss them.’’