Sleeper Hewers

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Research by Gordon Freegard  2017

Many Sleepers Hewers worked the forests around Pickering Brook and surrounding areas. They generally lived a very lonely life often leaving their families for up to a whole week at a time. Living and working under very rugged conditions way out in the bush.

These remarkable axemen became very skilled at cutting and shaping railway sleepers out of felled Jarrah logs. The way they were able to use their broad axes and wedges, was beyond belief. The hewer used "Chalk-lines" to mark the logs. These were created by a length of twine covered in ash from the campfire. They were then stretched along the log to be hewed and then pinged which left a "marked " line to which the hewer would cut. They became very precise in their ability to shape a sleeper to the exact measurements required. Eash sleeper they hewed was marked with their own particular identifying mark. Once transported to the rail-head they were inpected for quality and the sleeper-hewer was only paid for the ones that passed.







The acticle below was published in
THE SUNDAY TIMES on the 25th October 1936

Remarkable Sleeper Yields From Single Trees

Brilliant work by Broadaxemen – Tallies of Notable Hewers

The fame of Western Australian jarrah has spread far beyond the borders of the State, but when “The Sunday Times” went in search of the record yield from a single tree and the best individual efforts of hewers, they were hard to find. However, we publish below some prolific yields and also some Herculean performances of the part of axemen.




The information has been collected by Mr. A. C. Shedley, Assistant Conservator of Forests, who undertook an investigation to see what information could be gathered. He sent out a questionnaire to the foresters, many of them old sleeper hewers, and the result has brought to light many interesting facts regarding some of our biggest trees, and the skillful broad axemen who hewed them into sleepers.

While it is possible that there have been bigger trees and axemen who have put up better records, the following extracts from the reports of the foresters are probably as nearly correct as it is possible to get them. The men concerned have had to rely on their memories for most of the data but the details they give are in the main from their personal experiences and can be accepted as fact.




From Forester V. Lind, Willowdale.

In July 1909, V. Lind hewed 96 9ft.6in. 10in. x 5in., and four 7ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers in 48 hours. The best sleeper cutter in my opinion was T. Roscold for quality and quantity. He never worked more than eight hours a day, and he always had the best tally in the camp. The most sleepers cut by me in one day was 29 7ft., 18in. x 5in. in McNeil’s paddock, Waroona. This included falling, billeting and squaring.

From Forester H. Smith, Narrogin.

In the Waterous district in 1907 or 1908, I felled a tree which gave a log 63ft. long. In about 2 weeks I cut 202 7ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers.
N. Smith felled a tree and hewed 26 9ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers in one day in 1913 in Hoffman bush.
W. Gamm in 1913 hewed 128 9ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers in a week.
I myself have cut 124 similar sixes sleepers in one week.



From Forester Louis N. Weston, Busselton, previously from Pickering Brook.

The late Ned Burns of Holyoake, was reported to have cut 74 small “Govvie” (presumably for the Government Railways) sleepers in one day from a tree he had actually felled.
Percy Carter felled a tree and cut 40 “Govvies” in one day at Plavins in 1912.
Fred Burley was reputed to have cut 120 sleepers 9ft. 10in. x 5in. per week for six months at Holyoake.
Old Jason Howard working in old bush at Bullocky Landing, near Nanga Brook, averaged 94 sleepers (9ft. 10in. x 5in.) for several months in 1912. This was a particularly good performance in bush which had already been cut through three times.
Another cutter at Playins, whose name I forget, cut 60 “Govvies” in one day. The “Govvies” at that period measured 6ft.6in. 8in. x 4 1/2in. or 8 1/2in. x 4 1/2in.
Tommy McMahon (Stuttering Tom) with two horses and a dray carted 400 in a day.



From Forester C. Hayter, Greenbushes.

In October, 1904, Angus McDonald cut 156 7ft. 9in. x 4 1/2in. sleepers out of one tree, the length of the log was 77ft., and the time taken was one week.

On No. 12 Group, Cowaramup, in 1923 I cut 173 7ft. 9in. x 4 1/2in. in one week. In1911 I cut 62 7ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers in one day at Saltwater Gully, Greenbushes. I was then employed by Mr. N. Phillips.




From Forester D. Middleton, Noggerup.

The greatest number of sleepers cut from one tree that I know of was 118 7ft. 10in. x 5in. This was at Noggerup in 1928. The hewer was R. Hodson and the work took six days.

I have heard of 40 7ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers being cut in one day, but I will not vouch for the statement.






From Forester W. Palmer, Dwellingup.

I worked two very big trees about 3 miles south of here near the Murray River. The first was 68ft long, 15ft 3in. girth and straight, not knot in it. I got 142 9ft. 10in. x 5in. and 42 7ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers. That was in 1912. A couple of months later I cut the other. The log was 50ft. long and I got from it, including the crown, 124 9ft. 10in. x 5in. and 78 7ft. 10in. x 5in., a total of 212 sleepers. They were good trees but I cannot remember how long it took me. I know I hewed 15, 17 and 16 9fts on three consecutive days.





From Forester M. J. O’Sullivan, Manjimup.

E. Dinneen reports that in 1911, at Kirup, he and E. McVee cut 230 8ft. 6in. 10in.x 5in. sleepers from on tree. The best yield I can get from this district was 130 7ft. 10in. x 5in. cut by G. Valitich in 1923. Most of the butt of this tree was nut cut.


From Forester A. O’Leary, Dwellinup.

The greatest number of sleepers cut from one tree that I can vouch for was 135, 125 9ft. 10in. x 5in., and 10 7ft. 10in. x 5in. This tree was cut in Worsley.

James Pears, of Greenbushes, in 1924, cut at Eastbrook 22 9ft. 10in. x 5in. sleepers in eight hours. He felled the tree on the previous day.






Many hundreds of thousands of railway sleepers were supplied from our Jarrah forests, to countries all over the world. The Jarrah sleepers had trementous lasting qualities and therefore were eagerly sort after by the railway companies.





References:     Article:      Pickering Brook Heritage Group

                      Images:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12  Battye Library
                                     13, 14          Kalamunda & Districts Historical Society

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