I learned this from the singing of Bob and John Copper on the single LP selection from A Song for Every Season. Bob gives the background to the song in his book of the same name:
Shearing the wool off the back and belly of a sheep in such a manner as to finish up with a fleece of the maximum weight in one piece and in the minimum time was by no means a simple task. It was a skill that was developed over a number of years and, even then, really good shearers were few and far between. For this reason when it ‘came in season the lambs and ewes to shear’ a crew of expert shearers was formed to travel round from farm to farm in a given area and shear all the sheep at each farm in turn by piece-work. The crew from the Rottingdean area called themselves the Brookside Shearers, because the area they covered included all the ‘brook farms’ up the western side of the Ouse Valley from Newhaven to Lewes in what was known as Brookside Country. A crew consisted of a captain, who wore two stars on his hat, a lieutenant, who wore one star, twelve to fourteen men, picked for their skill at shearing and willingness to work hard for long hours, a wool winder to roll and stack the shorn fleeces and a tar-boy whose job it was to go round as required and dab tar – or in later years, powdered lime – on any accidental cuts in the sheep’s hide to stop the bleeding and to prevent flies from entering.
Bob Copper, A Song for Every Season, Heinemann, 1970, p116
This was the practice when Bob’s father Jim started shearing around the turn of the twentieth century, and things appeared to have changed very little for decades.
In an interview given to Vic Smith in 1970 – and now transcribed on the Musical Traditions website – Bob talked more about White Ram Night, which preceded the shearing, and the rather more rumbustious Black Ram Night which came at the end of their work:
They used to start off in their first night to make arrangements of where they were going and what they were going to do and that was called ‘White Ram Night’. They’d agree on a pub for headquarters. Usually it was the Red, White & Blue in Lewes. It’s no longer a pub. It was until fairly recently. I’ve had a drink there. Is it Friars Walk? Anyway, it’s a green tiled place. It was a horrible pub. The worst of Victoriana, but they liked it. They must have liked the landlady or her daughter or something. Well, that was their headquarters. Well, they used to start off on the first night, before the shearing actually started, on the Saturday before they started on the Monday morning. That was called ‘White Ram’. That was more or less just business. There was plenty of beer, there always was. Then they used to arrange where they were going. The captain would read out which farms they were going to. How many in each flock, “Well, we’ll get through that in two days.” And so on and so on.
Then they had a list of fines. They used to … If you leave a patch of wool as big as a half-crown on a sheep, you were fined sixpence. And if it were bigger, it would be a shilling. If you let your sheep go in the barn, that would cost you sixpence. If you called a man a fool, sixpence; if you called him anything worse, a shilling. And they all agreed on this because this all went into the kitty for Black Ram which was the last … which was the Saturday after the completion. They used to meet on the following Saturday, pay out the wages due and the fines used to go into the kitty over the counter against food, salt beef, they used to have a very good do, cooked beef and bacon and goodness knows what. That was Black Ram. That was a really good night, a real humdinger and, in fact, the strong beer they used to drink was called Black Ram very strong, stronger than Old, like a very strong barley wine. That was called Black Ram and that was a real humdinger. That was a pretty beefy affair. So that was the second one, Black Ram.
Sheep Shearing Song