55 years on and Peter hasn’t considered retirement

A BLOKE who’s been at the top of the stock and station agency game for more than five decades has just celebrated 55 years in business and he still has no plans to retire.

At 76 years young, Peter Shields just loves what he does for a living – and it’s been said he can find sheep for market where no one else can. With his wife of 54 years, Margaret, by his side, Peter has operated from his home office in Tamworth for the past 20 years, first on a 10-acre property on Warral Rd, and now in town, overlooking the Longyard Golf Course.

Peter was never fussed on academia as a child, but he made some lifelong friends while at Armidale Demonstration School and later Armidale High. 

He was more interested in sport than anything else, and said he was lucky to achieve the intermediate certificate, particularly as the headmaster suggested very politely that he leave school before attempting his leaving certificate, as he should stop “wasting your mother and father’s money”. In 1954 he took the principal’s advice and began work on Moomin Plains, at Rowena, a property his father managed, cleaning out bore drains – as well as the feral pig population.

Within 12 months of hard slog, he’d saved £1780 and bought a shiny new Ford Zephyr. His days began at 2am milking eight cows, then taking the milk to his mother to separate the cream. His mum would feed her cats with the milk – all 78 of them!

“I’d make the butter and then go to work mustering sheep. We didn’t run a lot of cattle, but it was a beautiful place,” Peter said.

He worked that property with his father for 10 years until his parents moved to Temora in 1957 to lease a hotel.

On July 12, 1957 he started work as a junior stockman with Commonwealth Wool at Temora, then moving to Condobolin when Elders bought out the business.

Born and bred in the western country, Peter has a profound love of sheep, so much so he said he could easily go into the sheep yards and roll in the sheepshit!

In the late 1950s he was keen to move to the Northern Territory but the company would not transfer him out of state, so he moved on to Dubbo where he was offered a position managing Elders in Narromine.

He struck gold on August 23, 1958 when Margaret Purtle became his wife and lifelong companion. Her brother David offered Peter a half-share in his business, so had a successful partnership until David’s untimely death at 50 years of age. 

Not long after that Peter and Margaret moved to Tamworth, buying a 64-square home on 10 acres on Warral Rd, but fate struck a cruel blow when Margaret was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Peter said he couldn’t care properly for his wife and their acreage, so after her successful surgery, they sold the place and moved to a new home being built overlooking the fourth fairway of the Longyard Golf Course.

Rather modestly, Peter says he’s found a few sheep in his time, but he’s certainly travelled lots of miles in his quest.

One record year he travelled 125,000 miles and sold 125,000 sheep, but since then, he’s stopped counting.

He describes his nephew, Patrick Purtle, as “the best auctioneer in Australia”, and they worked side by side for a time before Patrick went his own way.

Working with Patrick at Collarenebri, they signed an unprecedented 13 contracts in one day, selling a property, machinery, furniture, nine blocks of land and a house, a record Peter believes has yet to be surpassed.

In more than five decades in the game, Peter has a treasure trove of special memories, like the first time he was “forced into” conducting a sale.

The auctioneer came up to him at the saleyards, talking in sign language.

“He had laryngitis and I was as nervous as a bridegroom, but it was a good experience in the end,” Peter recalled.

Another time in Condobolin, he was bookkeeping for Fred Russell, the head auctioneer from Elders in Sydney.

“He was a terrific auctioneer and even if it was the middle of winter, he’d take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and start selling,” Peter said. “This particular day his voice sounded silly and he was wobbling about, and I asked if he was ok. He said ‘I don’t feel too good, son.’ The poor bugger was having a heart attack, so rather than stop the sale, I went on with it after he was taken away in the ambulance.

“I loved it. I’d learnt my auctioneering in the bath as a young fella. My mother would call out: ‘come on, it’s tea time. You can’t keep on selling’.”

Another memorable day was at the start of the drought years in Collarenebri and there were 8000 sheep in the yards, which was a sizeable yarding for those days.

“At the auction we could hardly sell a sheep. The blokes came down from Elders and Dalgety. In those days we would sell a lot of sheep to Walcha, so we stopped the sale and invited them to the pub.

“After a few drinks they decided they’d book rooms for the night, so about 11 o’clock, I got up on the bar and sold the balance of those sheep. None of us were real well the next day but we got all those sheep delivered. I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”

While he would have sold millions of sheep in his career, Peter’s also moved quite a few cattle out around Nymagee and Broken Hill and up into south-east Queensland. 

“I’ve always had a motto – that you work hard and play hard and get them in the right perspective.

“But you do have to like what you’re doing. People ask why I don’t retire, that I’ve had a fair innings – and I have – but while ever I feel fit enough, and Dr Kwa keeps me wound up like a French clock, I’ll keep on going.”

Despite his levity, Peter has had a few close calls over the years, including an altercation with a bull in the Walgett saleyards, which split his head open, requiring 89 stitches.

“I can still hear the doctor saying when he looked me over, ‘that brain is brand spanking new – it’s never been used’,” Peter said.

That laid him low for a while, and he’s had a few blood clots in the leg in recent years, but seemingly nothing can stop this born salesman. 

“If you love your game, you’ll stay there. If you don’t like it, you’ll move on,” he said. 

“Now I’m heading for 56 years in business, I don’t say I’ll make the next 12 months, but while ever that phone keeps ringing, I’ll keep talking to people.”

Technology has never played a huge part in Peter Shields’ life or business. He loves his telephone, tolerates his mobile and can operate a fax successfully, but computers are another thing altogether.

A small laptop computer sits in his office, with a fine coating of dust from disuse.

“That little jukebox over there – I can’t even handle that. I can’t open it up and I don’t think I’ll bother having a go at it now. I’m happy with my phone.”

Five out of six sales are made over the phone these days, which takes a bit of the fun out of it, not to mention the travelling, and the game is tougher now than it ever was, but he’s still happy to sell, as long as the demand is there for him to do it.

To celebrate Peter’s 55-year milestone in business, the couple’s daughter, Jacqueline, who lives in Toowoomba, threw a surprise party for them at the Longyard.

Peter had no idea it was happening, and afterwards, they all went home and Margaret played the piano for hours.

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