3 Apr 2009, 12:43pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
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The jam post and plain wire fence: An insight into York’s agricultural, ecological and economic history

Roger Underwood. 2005. The jam post and plain wire fence: An insight into York’s agricultural, ecological and economic history. Barladong (5) 2005: 16-27 (Barladong is the journal of the York Historical Society in Western Australia).

A jam post and plain wire fence (with one run of barb) in the Avon Valley – probably built in the 1920s, photographed in 2004

Full text:

ONE OF THE MOST ubiquitous features of our agricultural districts until a few years ago was the jam post and plain wire fence. Until replaced by modern fences made with manufactured link mesh wire and steel pickets or treated pine posts, jam post and plain wire fences extended over thousands of kilometers throughout the Avon Valley and beyond. They demarcated paddocks and property boundaries and river, road and railway reserves. Many of the jam post and plain wire fences constructed during the early 20th century still stand and perform a useful function today (although usually with a run of ringlock added, and a few steel pickets as supports). Others were over 100 years old at the time they were replaced. These old fences are not only a testimony to the durability and simplicity of the structure, but to the skill and hard work of the people who built them. They also provide insights into the regional economy and ecology and its social history.

One of the finest remnants of early fencing is still to be seen along sections of the York-Greenhills railway reserve, where the original jam posts, heavy gauge wire and cast iron windlass strainers can still be observed. This fence would have been constructed in 1898 when the railway was built (Tilley, 1998).

I am interested in the use of natural resources, especially timber, and I have always been fascinated by the jam wattle (Acacia acuminata) tree and its (mostly unsung) contribution to the development of the farming industry in the Avon districts and beyond. To get a sample of the extent of this contribution, I recently estimated the distance of boundary fencing which followed the subdivision of the Gwambygine Estate. This estate had resulted from the 1890s breakup into farms and homestead blocks of one of the original pastoral leases on the Avon River, south of York. I measured boundary fencing alone and the distance amounted to over 550 kilometers for this single subdivision.

When this figure is extrapolated to subsequent farm development in the York area and along the Avon Valley, together with the knowledge that one kilometer of fencing required 300 posts, 5 (and often 6) kilometers of wire, and strainer posts at every corner and every few hundred metres along the fence, it gives some idea of the extent of the task involved in fence construction, and of the vast resources of timber which were used.

Fences are so much a part of the rural landscape, that they largely go un-noticed. Nor is their history appreciated, or the way in which the development of fencing and the use of timber posts is interconnected with social, ecological and economic history. In reflecting on these issues, it is necessary to go back to the earliest days of settlement.

The first settlers arriving in the York area after 1830 were not farmers but graziers. The country they encountered along the Avon valley and beyond to the east was originally an open grassy woodland (Roe, 1836), with York gum (Eucalyptus loxophleba) growing on the alluvial and loamy soils, salmon gum (E. salmonophloia) on the heavier clays, wandoo (E. wandoo) on the sandy plains and flooded gum (E. rudis) and swamp sheoaks (Casuarina obesa) along the watercourses. Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) and jam wattle occurred as isolated understorey trees, or in clumps around rock outcrops, but the undergrowth was mainly native grass.

It was into these great savannahs that the settlers brought their sheep. The extensive clearing for crops and introduced pastures which created today’s familiar landscape did not become widespread for another 70 - 90 years. However, from the outset the large woodland trees had been cleared around the homesteads, and in small patches for orchards and vegetable gardens. Later, patches of bush were cleared for small fields for growing wheat and hay. According to Tilley (1998), the total area cleared and under crop in the York district in 1842, twelve years after settlement commenced, was still only 1075 acres (430 hectares). It is often forgotten that the original pastoral enterprise did not take place on “farmland”, but in the bush, and there it was based on grazing the native grasses.

In this situation, the first fencing was undertaken not to keep animals in, but to keep them out. These were either picket (stake) fences or brush fences, constructed around the homestead, the vegetable garden, the orchard and the wheat or hay paddock. The idea was to keep the sheep from eating or trampling the crops. Davies (1982) has written about the early days of settlement in York: In those days fences were made of stakes which were cut and stood upright side by side in a trench. Another type of fence was the “harper” fence. This consisted of rails laid one on top of the other and held in place by two upright posts. (A variation of the harper fence is described later in this paper.)

Brush or “bush” fences were made entirely from material which was close at hand, and free – i.e., logs, branches, limbs and bundles of scrub heaped along the desired line. According to Pickard (1999) the rough and ready “bush” fences were unheard of in “the mother country” and so represented a technological development by Australian settlers. Unlike in Britain there was little suitable stone available in the Avon Valley, so drystone walls did not develop. Nor were settlers in the Avon districts able to build the split slab or split post-and-rail fences which became commonplace in the southwest of WA, where jarrah (E. marginata) timber was available and ideal for this purpose. The first settlers of the inland districts quickly found that local eucalypt trees such as York gum and salmon gum have heavy dense timber with an interlocking grain, which is virtually impossible to split into posts and rails. And although the timber of the brown mallet (E. astringens) and gimlet (E. salubris) trees did split nicely, it would be devoured by white ants (termites) within a few months of going in the ground.

The harper and bush fences were cheap and easy to build, but their effective life was short, being subject to fire, wind and white ants. At best they had to be replaced every five years or so to be reliably stock-proof.

The other need for fencing right from the beginning of settlement was for yards. Thus, near each homestead, there would be a set of yards for the horses and bullocks, and sheep pens adjacent to the shearing shed. Horse and cattle yards would normally be made of bush poles attached to trees with greenhide thongs. Gimlet was the preferred timber for poles (and also for the rafters in bush huts), as it could be acquired in long slim lengths.

One ill-fated innovation by early Avon settlers was the introduction of African Boxthorn, which was planted as a “live fence”, or hedge, around some early homesteads. This was not a success, as the plants are thorny, toxic and rapidly become rampant and very difficult to manage. Today we still have a reminder of this failed venture – the clumps of Boxthorn persisting as a serious pest along the Avon River (Water and Rivers Commission, 1999).

Beyond the homestead and the shearing shed, there were no fences for at least the first 50 years of pastoral settlement. The sheep were run as a mixed flock (i.e. including rams) and their movements and protection were in the hands of shepherds. According to Sherman (1997), the flocks on the larger stations would be divided up into smaller flocks of 300-500 sheep, each managed by a shepherd. The shepherds were employees of the pastoralist and earned a small wage and keep.

In WA the first shepherds were indentured servants, later penniless migrants and after the 1850s, Ticket of Leave men (i.e., former convicts). One early indentured servant was John Fleay who later became the patriarch of one of the foremost farming families in the York-Beverley area. In 1836, Fleay and several other men were employed as shepherds by George Fletcher Moore who had acquired a large pastoral lease on the Avon south of York. Moore made an arrangement with Fleay that allowed Fleay to keep a fourth of the new lambs and start his own flock. Before long Fleay was able to acquire his own land and start his own pastoral enterprise (Gardner, 1991). Other shepherds were less enterprising and worked for wages and keep. They went everywhere on foot and lived in tiny bush huts, their only companions usually being two dogs – a sheep dog to work the flock and a hut dog for mateship. The shepherd’s diet was mutton, tea and damper, with an occasional kangaroo or wild duck. The sheep were always yarded at night, either walked in to the station homestead or camped in the bush. Camping was managed with transportable wooden “hurdles” which could be fitted together to make a temporary pen or “fold”. The hurdles were 1.8 metres long and 1 m high, and it took 15 hurdles to pen 300 sheep. The shepherds lived a lonely life, and in some places were away in the bush for months at a time, only bringing the flock in for washing and shearing.

Writing of those early days along the Avon, Gardner (1991) has said:

Fences were not used to any great extent, as shepherds simply moved their sheep from one patch of grass to another, so there was little outlay required.

Some of the early sheep stations along the Avon valley had flocks of 10,000 sheep or more by the 1880s, which meant that each station might have employed up to 20 shepherds. Shepherding was thus one of the main sources of employment in rural areas of the colony for several decades.

The availability of shepherds was not the only reason for there being no fences out in the bush in the early days. The other reason was fire. As is now well understood (Ward and Underwood 2002), the open grassy woodland which the first explorers (Dale, 1830) encountered along the Avon Valley was not so much a product of nature, as a product of the regime of frequent fire which resulted from Aboriginal burning plus lightning strikes from summer thunderstorms. The fire cycle was an inexorable one: fires running through the dry grass in summer and autumn triggered a regeneration of new grass, which in turn cured in following summers and became fuel for the next fires and so on. As Abbott (2003) has pointed out:

There is little doubt that grass flourishes in frequently burnt vegetation, that dried grass is highly flammable, and that Noongar burning perpetuated grassy swards.

These regular grass fires would not have been the raging bushfires seen these days in long- unburnt forest country in the southwest. Because the fires were very frequent, probably about two to three years apart (Hallam, 1975), they would have been of low intensity, generally burning only the grassy fuel, and leaving the tall trees intact. But although the fires were not intense, they still would have been able to set fire to wooden fence posts, and the pastoralists of the day had no capacity to construct and maintain firebreaks along their fences, or to protect a fence in the face of a large grass fire sweeping in on a dry easterly wind in January. Furthermore, the pastoralists did a lot of burning themselves, as they were well aware that sheep (just like kangaroos) did better eating fresh new green grass than they did on the old dry grass.

Finally, there was the economic factor. A permanent fence represented a significant capital investment in those days. The early West Australian pastoralists had little disposable income, and almost their only asset was their flock. When fencing wire began to become available in WA after about 1850, it was all imported from overseas and extremely expensive. It was also very heavy and difficult to get to the property on the poor roads of the time. Why bother, when shepherds fed, watered and looked after themselves as well as your sheep?

The system described above may have persisted for many years, but in the 1890s, it suddenly collapsed. For the first time fencing became an urgent imperative for the settlers in and around York.

There are several explanations for this. The most dramatic was the discovery of gold in the Yilgarn in 1888 and then Coolgardie in 1892 and the subsequent rushes to the new goldfields. This caused an almost overnight departure of the entire shepherd workforce from the Avon valley, as they abandoned their flocks to seek their fortunes. This was a disaster for the pastoralists as they had no alternative labour force. All of a sudden, some means of keeping the flock from leaving the property became essential. This led eventually to a whole new system of flock management: many shepherds were replaced by a single stockman (or “boundary rider”) on a horse, plus wire fences.

The second factor was that by the end of the 19th century there was a serious move amongst pastoralists to improve the genetic quality of their flocks. This meant separating rams and ewes, and controlled breeding using selected animals. To do this, it was necessary to fence the property into paddocks, to have yards where the sheep could be penned and drafted into sub-flocks with a known breeding history, and to have a securely fenced “ram paddock” which separated the men from the boys, as it were.

The third critical factor was that the Aboriginal population in the Avon and surrounding districts had also collapsed by this time, mainly due to introduced diseases like measles (Ward and Underwood 2002). This meant fewer and less frequent fires in the bush. At the same time, the amount of burning by the settlers was also rapidly declining, due to the increased value of their assets, including the new fences which were now being erected. Bushfire ordinances were introduced, and for the first time efforts were being made to extinguish the bushfires caused by lightning, rather than letting them run as had formerly been the practice. This led eventually to the formation of volunteer bushfire brigades, so much a part of the West Australian tradition from then on, and to the development of introduced pasture species to replace the native grasses which were no longer available in the absence of fire.

Finally, the rapid increase in the West Australian population following the gold rushes provided a huge impetus to agricultural (as opposed to pastoral) development, especially in the York-Greenhills area which was so well-placed to service both the goldfields to the east and the city to the west. It became very attractive for settlers in the Avon districts to grow wheat for flour, hay for horses and barley for beer.

The move from rangeland pastoralism to farmland agriculture necessitated two key processes: first, clearing, to allow crop and pasture establishment on former woodlands; and second, fencing, to demarcate farm boundaries, and subdivide farms into paddocks to allow crop protection, stock control and grazing management. So from the mid-1890s, the business of clearing and fencing farms in the long-settled pastoral areas along the Avon Valley rapidly intensified.

Thousands of kilometers of fences were constructed. Initially these fences were of an identical and simple construction: jam posts with plain wire run through five holes in the posts, and strained to a tree stump or a wandoo strainer post. There were some variations on the theme. Rabbit netting was incorporated into fences in some areas after the 1920s, but because of the expense, these were never widespread. In some cases the basic fence incorporated a barbed wire strand for the second wire down from the top (this gave better control of horses and cows), and many farmers preferred a six wire fence, with an extra wire just above ground level. The six wire fence was especially popular with farmers running pigs, or the smaller English sheep breeds aimed for the meat rather than the wool market.

The process of constructing a jam post and plain wire fence before the era of mechanised post-hole diggers, power tools, steel pickets and ringlock, has been described to me by retired Beverley fencing contractors Colin Carr and his father Reg. Collectively the Carr’s fencing experience in the Avon districts reaches back to before the 1920s. The first step was to locate a good stand of jam. This was very easy in the early days, but it became more difficult after about 1945 due to stands being cut out and the progressive clearing of the bush. The jam post was five foot six inches (1.6 m) long and ideally about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter and usually one jam tree would yield one post. No splitting-out of posts was required, as the jam’s cylindrical bole was already a suitable shape, size and length. A Kelly axe was used to chop the tree down just above ground level and then to trim off the branches and cut the post to length. Limbs were not used, as these were regarded as non-durable. Rarely, a much larger (and older) jam tree would be encountered and this would be cut for a six foot strainer. Enough posts for about a kilometer of fence could be cut and trimmed and stacked by one man in one day. The freshly cut posts would be loaded onto a dray and carted to the site where the fence was to be constructed.

The first job on-site was marking out (pegging a straight line from survey marker to survey marker, or along the line set out by the farmer), followed by clearing the fenceline of trees, logs, anthills, rocks or patches of scrub. This was all done by hand, with the assistance of a horse. “Swinging” the fence to avoid a large tree was permissible with the approval of the farmer, but this was rarely given. Otherwise obstructing trees had to be felled and the stump grubbed or burned out. The post holes were then dug and the posts erected and tamped tight. Reg Carr always worked on a nine foot spacing between posts (i.e., 586 to the mile, or 350 to the km), but in Colin’s day, jam had started to become scarce, and the spacing between posts went out to 12 feet. Holes were dug using a long handled post-hole spade and a crowbar and the post was sunk 22 inches (60 cms) deep. A good man could dig about 300 holes a day, depending on the time of the year - not surprisingly, winter and spring were the preferred seasons for post hole digging. Strainer post holes were sunk up to a metre in depth, and had to be only just wide enough to take the strainer, so as to maximise their firmness. In hard-set clay soils it could take two men two days to dig the holes for 10 strainer posts.

Once the jam posts were erected and rammed firm, the two-man team would then drill the five (or sometimes six) holes in each post, using a brace and bit. One man held the post steady, while the other put his back into the drilling. The most important investment made by a contract fencer in those days was his drill bit. The favoured brand was the “Ridgeway Bit”, imported from England and made of high quality British steel. The final stage was threading the wire and pulling it through and then straining each strand to the strainer posts and tying off. Pulling through and straining was accomplished with the assistance of the draft horse which had pulled the dray. In York gum country with light clearing, good digging and the stands of jam close by, a good two-man fencing team could complete about half a kilometer of fencing a day. Gates were usually left to be completed by the farmer. These were a simple construction of “slip rails”, made with bush poles which could be lifted out and replaced in an iron hook (or sometimes an old horseshoe) on the strainer post, rather than being swung open and shut on hinges. Later, when farmers became more prosperous, they could purchase fancy manufactured iron gates from farm suppliers or the local blacksmith.

Both Reg and Colin Carr built “harper fences”, usually as a surround for a homestead vegetable garden. The variation of the harper fence they remember comprised a double set of jam posts held together at the top with greenhide (later tie wire) with the pairs of posts about 1.5 metres apart. The branches and lops of the felled jam trees would be stacked length-ways between the posts, the result being a sturdy and long-lasting brush fence which kept out stock and protected the vegetables from the hot winds of summer and the frosts of winter.

The number of jam trees converted into fenceposts during farm development in the Avon districts and beyond was staggeringly high. Following a bushfire in 1998, I surveyed the farm owned by Mr. Ken Hall of Walwalling. Before the fire the Hall property had 70 kilometers of fencing, much of it being the original fences constructed with jam posts in the 1920s. At 350 posts to the kilometer this would have involved the felling of 24,500 jam trees to fence this one farm alone. When figures like this are extrapolated to the fencing of the many hundreds of farms which comprise the agricultural districts of the Avon region, the number of trees felled for posts would have numbered in the hundreds of millions.

WA wheatbelt farmers were remarkably lucky to have such a tremendous resource of such an ideal tree during the period (1900-1940) the great fencing task was undertaken. Jam was not only available in immense quantities, but the trees were the perfect size, were everywhere and were free. Although the timber of the jam tree (especially the beautiful dark brown heartwood) is very dense, and highly resistant to white ants, it can still be easily cut with a sharp axe and bored with a sharp drill while green.

The great abundance of jam trees in the Avon Valley and beyond at the time of agricultural development is remarkable. Jam wattle was not naturally a major component of the open grassy woodlands encountered by the first pastoralists, indeed it was rare enough to be highly prized by Aboriginal people, who collected the seeds to make flour and used the wood to make throwing sticks (Ludbrook, 2003). The tree has a very thin bark, and is relatively easily killed by fire, thus it was not favored by the regime of frequent fire which prevailed during pre- and early-settlement times. It is also not a long-lived species – like many Acacias, it seems to have a natural life span of not much more than 20 years. Yet by the beginning of the 20th century it was present everywhere throughout the new agricultural regions, and in vast numbers.

Bryant Stacey (quoted in Ludbrook, 2003) recalls a fencing job near Quairading before World War 1:

Dad got the cutters in and we got 26,000 jam posts… out of about 120 acres… the trees were about 97% jam trees. You’d go 4 posts to the chain and 80 chains to the mile, so there’d be 320 posts to the mile. So they got posts for 78 miles of fence from this one patch.

And another early account from south-east of York:

…the timber sought to build fences was called jam, not because it yielded jam to put on bread, but because [the timber] had a strong smell of it when cut. Jam posts had been found to be resistant to white ants….. Another advantage of jam posts was the ease with which it was obtained. There were thousands and thousands of posts available for the cutting in that country. A good axeman could cut 300-400 in a single working day… — Mouritz (1986)

I have studied the development of jam trees on my property at Gwambygine and in bushland around York. Jam trees flower and seed every year and in the absence of grazing or cultivation will regenerate prolifically. I have observed a paddock from which stock have been removed fill up with jam seedlings and saplings even in the absence of parent trees, indicating the presence of a bank of soil-stored seed. The seedlings grow into trees with a 1.5 to 2.0 metre bole (i.e. capable of being cut into a fence post) in about 10 – 12 years. Jam trees in a paddock usually start to die out at about age 20, often due to parasitism by mistletoe. However, as the older trees die, new seedlings appear, especially if there is a fire, after which they come up like a field of wheat.

These observations provide a clue to the ecological processes which gave rise to the magnificent “crop” of jam trees which were so conveniently available for harvesting for fence posts in the new agricultural areas in the first third of the 20th century.

It seems clear to me that this abundance of jam trees of just the right size just at that time was not a natural occurrence, but an artifact of the reduction in burning by Aborigines and pastoralists after about 1890. Clearly stands of jam trees were not initially (i.e. during the pastoral era) present in the bush in the numbers and age/size classes which would later provide farmers with the countless fence posts used in agricultural development. The cessation of frequent bushfires as a result of the decline of Aborigines, the loss of the shepherding workforce to the goldfields and the development of fire-vulnerable assets such as wheat crops, inadvertently allowed a widespread regeneration of jam in the bushlands. These regrowth stands then matured over the next two decades to the point at which they could be harvested for posts. I conclude that through a coincidence of events and unintentional land management practices, jam trees had become widespread and at about the right size at just the right time.

All of this is, of course, speculation, but it does seem to fit together and to explain the facts.

Had jam not been available to fence the new farming regions of the Avon and beyond, how would the early farmers have fenced their properties? Given the difficulty in splitting posts from wandoo, and the fact that none of the other local timbers are resistant to white ants, settlers would have had to import sawn wandoo or sawn or split jarrah posts from the southwest, or perhaps cypress pine (Callitris glauca) or mulga (Acacia aneura) posts from the far distant rangelands. Another option would have been to purchase iron pickets from a foundry in England or the eastern States. The star picket had been patented in 1926 (Pickard, 1994) and was being manufactured by BHP in New South Wales in the 1930s, but they were prohibitively expensive by the time they reached inland Western Australia, and the pioneering farmers had little spare capital for this sort of investment. Concrete fence posts came into vogue briefly in the 1950s, but their manufacture was labour-intensive and expensive, and because of their weight and bulk, they were far more costly and difficult to erect than the simple timber post.

Another point on which I have speculated is the failure by WA farmers (and government agencies) to deliberately regenerate cutover stands of jam so as to create a “fence post reserve” for the future. It would have been well known that jam trees do not “coppice” (re-shoot from the cut stump, as most eucalypts do) and very obvious by 1950 that the jam resource was all but gone. At that time the cheap steel picket and the treated pine or mallet post were all things of the future. Perhaps farmers regarded their old jam fences as indestructible, or maybe they were reluctant to set aside good farmland for tree growing so soon after their fathers and grandfathers had managed to clear the land of trees in the first place. Whatever, jam posts are no longer used for fence construction these days, and the only situation in which I see jam being planted is as a host species in sandalwood plantations (where it also does a magnificent job).

Thus the humble jam post and plain wire farm fences which are still today seen here and there as remnants of another era represent far more than a simple barrier to stock movement or a demarcation of property boundaries. They go beyond their original utilitarian objectives to provide insights into the social, economic and ecological history of the region and the pastoral and agricultural industries which have provided its heartbeat since the 1830s.

Gwambygine, 2004


The author thanks

Colin, Enid and Reg Carr of Beverley for their help with this story, Australia’s premier fencing historian John Pickard of Macquarrie University in NSW for his encouragement and advice, and the York Society for permission to reprint a photograph from their book The photographs of Edward Tours Hamersley.


Abbott, I. 2003, Aboriginal fire regimes in south-western Western Australia: evidence from historical documents. In Fire in ecosystems of south-west Western Australia Abbot and Burrows (Ed), Backhuys Publishers.

Dale, R. 1830. Journal of Exploration, Battrye Library, Perth Western Australia.

Davies, L. 1982. York – Its horse and hey days.

Gardner, J 1991. A farming family. The Fleays of Western Australia. Mercantile Press

Hallam, S. 1975. Fire and Hearth. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

Ludbrook, J. 2003. The Big Q – a history of Quairading. Shire of Quairading.

Mouritz, M. 1986. Only the wind was free – 60 years in the Wave Rock Country.

Pickard, J. 1994. Fences: ordinary objects integrating the history of ordinary landscapes. Proceedings of the annual conference of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney, NSW

Pickard, J. 1999. The First Fences. Agricultural History 73(1). Agricultural History Society.

Roe, JS. 1836. Journal of the explorations eastward of York. Typescript copy, Battyre Library, Perth.

Sherman, R. 1997. Shearing in Australia. Kangaroo Press

Tilley, A. 1998. To Greenhills and beyond – a history of the York to Bruce Rock Railway. Rail Heritage publication.

Ward, D. and Underwood R. 2002, Fire, flogging, measles and grass. Barladong. York Society.

Water and Rivers Commission, 1999. Water and Rivers Commission and Avon River Management Authority, River Recovery Plan, Section 10 - York, Water and Rivers Commission, River Recovery Plan Series No RRP 3

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