The following account researched and written by Hague Showell in 1998 was posted on the first brush fencing website to be uploaded to the internet. The splash page boasted "Welcome to the Only Brush Fencing Website on this Planet!" and at the time this was absolutely true. A lot has changed in just a few years however, and today with a plethora of websites, business breathes or gasps on its internet presence and Google ranking. H.S. 2012
History of Brush Fencing by Hague Showell, 1998 "Brush fencing originated in South Australia and so the following account relates to the individuals involved in the industry in this State.
Very little has been recorded of the pioneering days of brush fencing and most of the early pioneers are now dead. Consequently it has been a difficult task to track the precise origins of the craft. The following is based principally on the accounts of Wally Whitmarsh, Max Williams, and Maurie Rivett all of whom started in the industry during the 1940/1950's and are now either retired or doing limited brush work.
It is said that the early settlers of rural South Australia first used the native brush to form wind breaks, shelters and stock enclosures around farm houses. In fact it is most likely that from the beginnings of settlement, brush was used in one way or another being a readily available and 'free' thatching resource.
Early domestic brush fencing in the Adelaide and surrounding townships (which have since grown and joined to form the Adelaide metropolitan area) comprised drilled hardwood posts and wiring and internal timber rails. They had no concrete bases, capping or brush roll top finish and the brush was packed with long brush placed vertically on its sharp end on the ground and shorter brush 'ferreted' up from the bottom to cover the ends. In the early days brush was available quite close to Adelaide, from the Monarto area and to the South of Adelaide. Today all steel framing methods and concrete or masonry bases are used and brush is mostly woven in an equal length four cycle packing method. Brush today comes from as far afield as New South Wales and Eyre Peninsula, but most comes from the mallee areas of South Australia and some from Kangaroo Island.
Whilst further research is likely to take the origins back further, Matthew ('Whiskers') Keough at present is one of the earliest known brush fencing erectors. A 'silver bearded' poet writing in the 1920's and 30's under the non de plume of 'Gumsucker' he built for sale, rustic outdoor furniture from native timbers, as well as brush fencing. George ('Pop') Maynard his son-in-law learnt the brush fencing trade from Keough and Maynard's son in law, Maurie Rivett, in turn learnt from him and is still doing some packing today. Maynard was also responsible for setting up the historic annual floral display on North Terrace.
Maynard would tow a tiny trailer behind his car and enough materials for the day. He would then pack and finish as he went, often with a small fire kept alight with the offcuts while he worked. I am told that his fencing almost looked as though it were being being extruded as a finished article as he would pack a panel, fit the roll top and trim and clean up as he went. Jimmy Makin and son John ran a wood yard on South Road in the 1930's and sold brush from the yard as well as building brush fences themselves. Wally Whitmarsh recalls that one of his packers, Bill Tait, had worked for Jimmy Makin before the Second World War and whilst on leave during the war he had packed a fence for Makin (the story being that he had earnt at a better rate of pay in the service, which was meagre and that he would have been better off not taking the leave).
Arnold Hall and J. Temby are widely known as the two major brush contractors of the 30's and 40's. J. Temby who owned a hardware store in Murray Bridge opened a plumbing shop on Payneham Rd opposite the Maid & Magpie Hotel from where he made and repaired furniture, sold brush and sub-contracted brush fencing.
The building pictured still stands and until recently Temby's name was easily discernable on the shop-front. Max Williams (son of Tom Williams senior) recalls buying brush there for 2 shillings and 6 pence and carrying it to the nearby tram for transport to a job.
Temby eventually dropped dead at the bar of the Maid and Magpie Hotel opposite his shop with a glass of ale in his hand. The doctor who attended and pronounced him dead had only just had a visit from Temby and given him medication. Arnold Hall ran a very reputable business and had a top team of up to 8 or so packers and a mechanic to service his vehicles as well as a 'lad' to drill the posts and prepare for the packers. His premises were located on Magill Rd, not far from Temby. He is also reputed to have invented and made money from an egg washing machine. His team included foreman Bert Thomas and packers Tom Norman, Sam Matthews and ...(?)...Atkinson, who all worked for him for many years. Wally Whitmarsh regards Bill Tait and Tom Norman as two of the best packers of his day. Tom Norman worked in the industry for over 40 years and his son Rob Norman (see pictures below) has now also worked as a brush packer for 20 years, the last 7 years for Adelaide Brush. In his 70's and approaching retirement, Hall closed up shop in 1972 (date check?) when he found out some of his packers were stealing his materials and building fences on the weekend 'on the side'. He looked after the 'lad' who reported the thefts, by finding him a job as an apprentice locksmith, before closing his doors. The 'lad' who recently related the tale to me has been very successful as a locksmith and has now retired at the age of 50.
Other significant fence erectors of the period with teams of packers were; Enfield Timber Mills run by Bill Youdell, B & B ('Bernie') Johnson and Ron Bates. Bernie Johnson who came from a family of real estate agents and regarded as something of a black sheep of his family, was still erecting fences until the 1960's and then apparently became a successful hotel broker. Tom ('Nigger') William's who came from Broken Hill was a well known contractor from the 1940's and his sons and grandsons are still in the industry. Many colourful stories have been related to me about Tom Williams snr and his dealings, none of which I can retell here. He is credited with being the first to introduce steel capping for use with brush fencing, apparently folded at Perry Engineering using heavy gauge galvanised material which was subsequently painted. He taught his sons John ('Judge') and Tom jnr the trade and son Max Williams started in 1943. We are sad to learn that Tom snr a colourful pioneer of the industry has only recently passed away (Dec 1999).
Max relates that his father (Tom snr) started off in brush whilst working in a cyclone fence shop in Gilles St in the city. A customer asked him one day to fit brush to a cyclone gate which he did at home in their kitchen. That was the start of a three generation involvement in the industry. Max describes how he left school at age 13 in 1943 during a polio epidemic and started packing for his father. He relates that during the war, wire was hard to get and they would buy untreated wire on the black market and silver frost it. After the war cement was rationed by the hardware stores on a needs basis, and consequently, fencing which was not a high priority had bases built with as little as 1 in 10 parts cement to sand and metal (instead of 1 in 5).
I am told that Max was a world class snooker player and SA amateur champion, having played in exhibition matches with the world champion Eddy Charleton. He apparently finished 7th in the world titles held in Ireland and later was runner up in the first world championship held in Australia (where the title was decided in the final frame of 15). Wally Whitmarsh ('Wedgepak Brush Fencing') and his partner Howard Pape and Maurie Rivett and Ty ('Tiger') Elson (Elson's Brush Fencing) are some of the characters that followed in the trade from the 1950's.
Maurie Rivett still does a bit of packing and speaks with pride of his packing technique and quality, while Wally who has now retired, developed in his day a new pre-hand-packed panel system and marketed his business on his proprietry "five handful wedgepak technique", coming with a 10 year guarantee against sagging. Maurie paid great attention to detail and has a distinctive style of packing, with the fine green end material distributed throughout the fence to fill all the hollows and to give a 'green smooth look' to the whole fence surface. His other 'trade mark' was the kinking of the horizontal wires at each wire clip to prevent them from moving.
Maurie and Wally both recall buying brush from a major cutter, Jimmy Piro (pronounced 'Peero' by some and 'Pyro' by others), who cut brush (smallish bundles) at Monarto South and Peak and supplied for a shilling a bundle (brush now costs from $7 to $11 per bundle).
Piro had a yard at Payneham and would cut vast quantities of brush using a team of migrant workers. After the war, with his new 5 tonne Chev truck he would arrive back in Adelaide, with six or more workers perched on the load and crammed in the cab. Wally recalls him arriving to unload late at night with the crew half frozen from exposure.
Other brush cutters of the era were rough diamond Ray Roach (1950's to 1980's) and the McNeil brothers of Marama (1950's to the present). The McNeils' supplied large volumes of brush to Arnold Hall. Roach was reputed to have robbed a rural post office and then taken off into the bush Ned Kelly style.
Wally recalls Alltype Fencing (Gus Woods) starting up off Hackney Rd in the 1950's and Hills Industries (chain wire fencing and manufacturer of the Hills Hoist) became another major erector in the 1960's. Hills went into brush in a big way with yards full of stillages (wire caged pallets) stacked full of brush and manufactured the posts, rails and capping. They only lasted for a few years in brush, however, and sold the business to Des Symons of Barton Ornamentals. He too, soon realised that brush was a tough game and sold the residual materials to Wally Whitmarsh.
Brush packers and contractors were to some degree itinerant and might work in brush for a while and then get a job or go into some other business, before returning to brush.
Wally, for instance, from time to time stopped working his own brush business, working at the Orange Board for a couple of years, at one time owned a delicatessan and has worked as a shearer and 'wheat lumping' (handling bags of wheat). During these periods he worked part time as a sub-contract brush packer to companies such as Alltype fencing (who at one time did a lot of brush fencing and with up to 8 packers). All types was eventually sold by Gus Woods' grandson David Woods, who now runs Adelaide Letterbox. Wally speaks of what was jokingly referred to as "brush poisoning". Packers would work for a while and then go 'walkabout', before returning to brush. ie the work is tough and the type of people in the trade 'perhaps a bit fickle'.
Wally speaks of two brush packers who worked with /for him on and off over the years, Doug Larsen and Peter Carthy, both of whom he says work now for McNamara Fencing (Southern metropolitan Adelaide). Doug has apparently spent a lot of his time in the opal fields up North over the years. Wally says that Bill Sharkey (who worked for Ron Bates and then for Wally) was the fastest packer he had seen. When he was packing he would pack well up to 7 panels (16 metres) in a day, but then he would spend a lot of time in the pub and not pack at all.
Another couple of Wally's packers while drunk ran into and overturned an icecream van outside the zoo on a weekend afternoon and then tried to escape the long arm of the law by jumping into the River Torrens and swimming behind the zoo. They were found by police who had brought in a boat, trying to breath through reeds underwater in Tarzan style. As described above, early brush fencing comprised drilled hardwood posts and timber rails and with no concrete bases. Brush was placed on its stalk on the ground between the horizontal wiring and then brush was 'ferreted' up from the bottom to cover the stalks. Max Williams indicates that he introduced the later method of packing whereby brush was first put up from the bottom, then brush down from the top. Often for the Councils along the beach front they would build fences by digging a trench in the sand and burying the brush stalks about 1ft deep or drive stalks into the sand.
Over the past fifty years construction techniques have evolved from simple timber post and rails to timber posts with steel rails, then drilled steel posts and spigot fastened steel rails, to the current method of plain posts and wire fixed steel rails. All now have concrete or masonry wall bases. Although there was a period of overlap, timber posts were not commonly used after the 1960's.
Brush packing techniques have also changed. Although some packers including the Williams boys still use Max Williams technique, most now use a 4 cycle brush weaving pattern. The current method basically utilises two equal sized handfuls of brush at the top (one on each side of the rail) and then two handsfull woven up from the bottom (one on each side of the concrete base, prior to cutting the brush ends).
Horizontal wiring and wire clips ('pins') remains the only satisfactory method of constraining the brush. Two methods of wire clip placement have been in vogue; a) pre-bent to length clips placed on the horizontal wiring and slid up to the brush work face and b) the tension in place method, where the wire with a hooked end is pushed through the packed fence several inches back from the brush work face and tensioned in place. The latter method remains the most popular and effective. The resultant brush fence structure is both attractive and durable and if built properly, has a potential lifespan of some 30 to 40 years.
If you have any stories to tell, or information about the very early days of brush, or wish to correct errata in the above please contact me and I will include your contribution." Hague Showell 1998