Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
(This review was written in September but the book will not be published until early December).
From stone to post and rail, from the utilitarian to the sculptural, a well-built fence is a thing of beauty and a monument to workmanship. These practical but symbolic structures are part of the story of Australia.
When the book Fences of Australia by Jack Bradshaw arrived for review my first thought was who would want to look at a book of fence photos? On turning the pages I was surprised to see as well as the photos, text which provided a history of fencing in Australia which I subsequently found fascinating.
Reading about the materials, design and method of construction of fencing provided information about the surrounding countryside, the purpose of the structure, the type of enterprise being undertaken and even economic conditions in Australia at the time of construction. As is reported in the preface “These symbolic structures give cause to think about the lives of the people who built them and wonder at their skill and enterprise” (8).
Jack Bradshaw, the author, is a retired forester from South-west Western Australia and author of a previous book Jinkers & Whims: a pictorial history of timber-getting published in 2012. His latest offering is presented in a 150 cm x 190 cm landscape format which could easily fit into a handbag or backpack.
It is divided into thirteen parts of discrete types of fences, beginning with the rock fences used by aborigines to catch fish, through the various types of materials available then to fences with specific purposes e.g. feral fencing and fencing to control cattle and sheep and on to electric and virtual fences.
A dozen pages have been designated to the history and construction of the several rabbit-proof fences in Western Australia as well as the one in Queensland. A brief chapter towards the end of the book provides information on the 5600 km, world’s longest continuous fence, the Dingo Fence, which runs from The Great Australian Bight to Queensland’s Lamington National Park, roughly separating cattle country from sheep country. The accompanying Australian map highlighting these fences gives the reader some understanding of the immensity of the task undertaken by the original builders and those who continue to maintain these structures.
The variety of the materials used in Australian fences over the years include brush, palings, stone (similar to fences you might see in England and Wales), rock and wire. Barbed wire was invented in the United States in 1867 and wire netting was probably first used in Australia in 1868. The use of these materials triggered industries in Australia such as BHP which began making fencing wire in Newcastle. This was followed by the development of modern high tensile wire in the 1970s.
One interesting fact I discovered when reading this book was that the first electric fences were not used for stock control but to control people. Also I did not realise until reading the book that some rock fences were built to channel water to a holding area as was the case by the sustenance workers during the Depression in 1937. Today fencing can be made from synthetic materials, such as flexible polymer strap, which has become popular for horse paddocks.
Although a small book, Fences of Australia by Jack Bradshaw is packed with beautiful photos showing off the striking Australian landscape as well as a comprehensive history of Australia through the innovative and skillful use of various materials to keep animals in or out. It is one of those books that does not have to be read from cover to cover but can be delved into briefly or for longer periods, but will always provide interesting information no matter how often it is opened.
What at first seemed trivial has turned out to be quite a treasure. A must read for those who love to glean new information.
By Jack Bradshaw