Yesterday Today | Back breaking work

HARD LABOUR: Chaff-cutting was dirty, hot, strenuous - and dangerous if you weren't careful.
HARD LABOUR: Chaff-cutting was dirty, hot, strenuous - and dangerous if you weren't careful.

Our photo this week shows a once common activity on local Bathurst farms throughout the district.

OUR photo this week shows a once common activity on farms throughout the district. 

Chaff-cutting was a dirty, hot, strenuous and back-breaking job that was often handled by contractors who would arrive at the farm with their machinery and workmen. 

After completing the job, they would either pull out their steam-driven machinery or drive it out. 

This four-man team, all with hats, show the set-up with their main steam boiler and their wooden water barrel to its right. Water for the steam engine was often obtained from a well or dam on the property.

The boiler is driving the chaff-cutter, which is being fed by a worker standing on the haystack. Often the chaff was bagged, loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and stored or sold. Some chaff-cutting teams could comprise up to 10 to 15 or more workers. 

School-children would often be kept home to help, collecting firewood or water, and doing sundry other jobs. In 1910, there were some 15 chaff-cutting machine contractors in the Bathurst district.

Contractors always had one eye on the weather as they did not want rain when making chaff. Light to moderate rain would delay any harvesting or making of chaff and the men could be delayed a day or two depending on how much rain there was. 

The men did not like rain either as they were usually not paid for the labour-intensive and dangerous job. In 1914, a contractor charged 12 shillings and sixpence per ton for 30 tons and over to chop the haystacks into chaff.

Ironically, the colony of New South Wales proved to be a pioneer in inventing and developing farm equipment. 

Horse power initially operated the machinery on the farm. Horses walked around in circles in conjunction with the “horse works”. With the development of the stripper harvester, however, the horses could not keep pace to winnow the crop - that is, separate the grain from the chaff and dirt.

Horses or bullocks were harnessed to a long timber pole and made to walk or run around in circles to drive the horse works. To make their horses move faster to keep up with the ever-increasing crops was considered too cruel on their animals.

Haystacks were once commonly seen throughout the Bathurst district and are absent today. Some haystacks could be made up of some 45 tons of wheat sheaves. One problem experienced with haystacks was spontaneous combustion when the haystack would catch on fire. Other causes of a haystack fire were from sparks from the steam boilers or lightning strikes.

The early Bathurst newspapers often reported on accidents involving chaff-cutting machinery. One accident took place in late July 1900 when Thomas Burke, aged 63 years and a resident of Barry, was feeding a chaff-cutting machine for Mr M. Toomey, of Newbridge, when his left hand was drawn into the machine. 

Four of his fingers were badly cut and one of his hands was terribly mangled by the feed rollers. He was brought into town and treated at Bathurst Hospital, where it was found necessary to amputate the fingers. The patient was reported to be in a most precarious condition owing to loss of blood.

In August 1945, aged 78, Bernard McHugh, originally from Donegal in Ireland, died. 

On arrival in Australia, he had taken up residence with the McMenamin family at Kelso. He had worked as a farm labourer for years and was, for a long time, employed by Dick Saunders on his chaff-cutting plant. 

For the last 20 years of his life, he occupied a small cottage at the rear of Western Stores and Edgley’s. Members of the staff took special interest in his welfare. 

Mr E.C. Murray, and the members of the staff, had a special room and kitchen erected for his use. In his heyday, while chaff-cutting, he was regarded as one of the strongest men in Bathurst and district, and one of the hardest workers.

Alan McRae is with the Bathurst District Historical Society