Looking back on a lifetime in the wool trade.

Albert Ah Yee
Albert Ah Yee
Eagle Point, Gippsland

Albert Ah Yee reckons the first wool shed he was sent to was the roughest.

“Oh it was a terrible shed. We were about seven weeks there and we had seven different cooks,” the 90-year-old recalls.

“We arrived at Jerilderie late at night and had a 50-mile trip sitting on the back of the truck to the shed at a place called Gala Vale, and we got there, the cook was drunk, there was nothing to eat, there was no bedding, nothing there at all.”

Sitting out of the midday sun on his veranda, a cuppa in hand, Albert peppers his sentences with “oh gollies”, “chappies” and “old coots”.

Here is a man who has seen almost three times as much life as I have, yet his memory is crisp.

“There was no lighting and I was sharing a room with a chappy whose father was quite a prominent solicitor in Melbourne – Arnold, a nice college boy and it was a pretty good initiation for him.

“No mattresses for the beds in those days, just straw stuffed into two chaff bags. And we were stuffing this straw in to make the bed and there was this terrible smell. We were in the dark and we were pushing straw and couldn’t see, we didn’t know that there was a dead sheep in there.”

Albert expects he would have been 15 at the time.

After three years at Bairnsdale Technical School he’d left the family property, Sunnyside, at Eagle Point on the Gippsland Lakes, and headed for Melbourne’s wool stores.

“There was nothing here, no work, so the wool traveller — Reg Catlin was his name and he was a very good friend of the family — said he’d get me a job in the wool stores.”

With that Albert embarked on a lifetime career in the wool trade.

Wool Show
Wool Show
Melbourne Technical College c.1950, RMIT University Archives Image Collection

After almost a decade in Melbourne during which Albert received his wool classing certificate at RMIT (Melbourne Technical College) while working at Foy and Gibson’s mills in Collingwood, he returned to Sunnyside with his young bride, Joan.

Joan had lived in the city her whole life, but Albert says she took to farm life quickly.

“I think it was a big step for her, to come home and the fact I was sort of going away and we were milking 35 cows at the time and she learned how to run the dairy. She had a pretty fast initiation into farm life.”

Aged in their 20s, Albert and Joan quickly found themselves running the property, wedged between Newlands Arm and Eagle Point Bay.

“Dad had a buster off a horse; just after I’d come home I think, and fractured his spine and he spent the rest of his life in hospital.”

Albert would travel, classing wool across the southern Riverina and Victoria’s high country, often leaving Joan, and later their four daughters — Laurie, Janice, Vanessa and Georgina — to run the farm.

“The kids were growing up, they used to do all the feeding out and lambing and calving.

“I’d come home of an evening and Nessy and Laurie would have the cows lined up for me to pull calves from.”

Even though he still runs cattle, you can tell Albert has always been a sheep man. He has those hands for a start; swollen knuckles, covered in sun spots, but soft as a baby’s bum.

“There was nothing here, no work, so the wool traveller ... said he’d get me a job in the wool stores.”

The wool industry continues to serve Albert and his family well.

“I still work every day, a fair day’s work.”

Albert says it took him a while to “come round” after shearing last year and reckons he wouldn’t mind retiring. Although I’m not sure he could.

Still certified as a wool classer, he runs about 1000 sheep — half the number he used to. There are cattle, too.

With the sun sparkling on Lake King before us, we spend hours bouncing between decades and characters, just reminiscing.

Albert tells me how as a 13-year-old he rode a horse to Omeo from Eagle Point.

“Good horse he was,” and I think of the 13-year-olds I know and how they’d barely set off to school on their own, let alone a two-day journey by horseback into the mountains.

We discuss Errol Duxon from Marnoo, the first bloke to teach Albert anything about wool classing, and how after a while you’d get to know where certain wools come from.

“What type of wool, what are the faults from that area, degrees of dust and dirt, the Riverina’s and Mallee wools, Pinaroo wools.”

Then there is the young bloke, Jason, who shears for Albert, and who recently sheared 303 sheep in one day on a property near Omeo.

Albert is calm, and kind, and unassuming.

“I still work every day, a fair day’s work.”

When I visit the farm, the family is planning a party for his 90th and the house is brimming with offspring.

Joan is not here; she passed away last year.

Together they produced 11 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren.

“They’re great kids, they’re terrific, and they watch me like a hawk,” Albert says.

During the course of the afternoon, at least half a dozen of his grandchildren interrupt us to say hello and wish him a happy birthday for the day before.

Albert doesn’t mention the milestone, or the party.

Several friends have told me he won’t enjoy a fuss, and photographer Laura Ferguson has a challenge getting Albert to agree to a photo.

A grandson tells me how Albert couldn’t believe a magazine would want to bother with a man like him.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Kath Sullivan completed a Bachelor of Arts (Public Relations) in 2004. She is now the Victorian Political Reporter for The Weekly Times, where this story was originally published in February 2017.

Wool classing at RMIT

Wool Sorting class
Wool Sorting class
Melbourne Technical College c.1950, RMIT University Archives Image Collection

The wool classing program was offered at RMIT for 71 years from 1896 to January 1967, when the Wool School was passed to control of the Education Department of Victoria and transferred to the Melbourne School of Textiles.

Now fashion and textile students at our Brunswick campus have access to state-of-the-art equipment in the fabrication workshop. FABShop has a diverse range of machines, such as 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC milling machines – a far cry from the equipment used in Albert’s wool classing days.

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