The Development of the Halls Heeler

Rock painting of a dingo and an ancestral figure from the Laura region in Queensland, Science Magazine 4 April 2016.

The Dingo arrived in Australia several thousand years ago with early seafarers and became an accepted part of the aboriginal communities who already occupied Australia.

Who these immigrants were is not clear but the hunter-gatherer Toalean people are the main contenders.

With the passing of time dingoes became less trustful of humans – attributable to the breakdown of aboriginal society and exacerbated by the attempts of sheep graziers to exterminate them. In the 1820s and 1830s, however, the Dingoes in the Hunter Valley had yet to learn fear of the white settlers and probably visited Dartbrook to scavenge for anything edible. Thomas may even have made pets of them, particularly of their pups. His familiarity with Dingoes invited the idea of crossing them on to the working dogs from Northumberland.


Consensus is rare in the Halls Heeler story, but there is consensus on one matter: Thomas Simpson Hall developed the breed on Dartbrook. One Hall descendent, remembering family recollections, told me: “He bred a lot of dogs, and he shot a lot of them”, but eventually he got what he wanted: a dog that could handle the difficulties of overland droving; a dog that could muster stock and cut out a particular beast if needed; a dog that would guard the homestead and give warning if strangers approached. Relationships with the local indigenous peoples were not always amicable.

There is also agreement on the obvious: the Hunter stations, in particular Dartbrook, were the hub for Hall cattle movement – particularly after the northward expansion of the 1840s.

James Butler (18742-1917)

In 1847, the childless William Hall learned of the death of a Macdonald Valley (Hawkesbury River catchment) farmer, one Silvester Butler. During a visit to his own land on the Macdonald, William became acquainted with Silvester’s widow, who was struggling to raise a large family. He was particularly impressed by the five-year-old James Butler and took him to live at Percy Place. In adulthood, James became known as William’s “General”. James was devoted to William and to Hall interests and, in effect, became Williams’s manager. In his later years, James shared his memories with his grandson, Neville, who not only listened but wrote them down.

James Butler described how the stations were sited in such a way that stock could easily be moved from one to the another, and they were grouped to give easy access to the three main markets of the 1860s, Sydney, Port Macquarie and Brisbane.

Hall stations c. 1840; probably incomplete. Base map: A.J.Howard

The Halls, when founding a new station, always sought a location that would fit in with their expansion program. The boundaries were then agreed upon, often following a watershed, river or creek. The site for the hut and stockyards was chosen next, on level ground near permanent water.

When the hut and yards were erected, they were enclosed by a horse paddock of some thirty or forty acres, which was fenced by a dog-leg or two-rail fence. This paddock was cleared of all cover so that anyone approaching the hut was clearly visible. The rest of the station remained unfenced. Once the station was established it did not need many men to run it. There was an overseer, either a member of the Hall family or a trusted stockman. The overseer organised the station, and kept in touch with neighbouring stations. He passed messages, usually by letter, back to Dartbrook or to the headquarters at Percy Place.

Stock routes c.1840.    Base map:
A J Howard

There was also a hut keeper who looked after the sleeping hut, doled out the rations, did the cooking and looked after the spare horses. Depending on the number of stock on the station, there would also be three or four stockmen to complete the permanent work force. At branding or drafting time, stockmen from other Hall properties came to assist. Some of the Hall brothers, or their nephews, were often in these mustering gangs. James was convinced that, had it not been for the excellent dogs that the Halls bred, they would never have been able to take up so many stations or cope with the amount of stock work involved. The Hall’s Heelers not only lightened the stockmen’s load, but were highly regarded for their faithfulness in warning them of danger during the day, and protecting them while they slept at night.

In the context of James Butler’s reminiscences, it is probable that the hut keeper’s duties also included feeding and caring for the station dogs, particularly bitches in whelp and pups. Because of the distances from Dartbrook to the Liverpool Plains and southern Queensland, Halls Heeler breeding must have been decentralised.

It is common, in present day western New South Wales, to keep dogs of one sex, only, on individual stations. The practice avoids fights, and distractions to dogs on the job. When a bitch is to be mated the necessary arrangements are made by the owners of the stations concerned. The same arrangements very likely were made between the various Hall stations.

Dispersal of Halls Heelers.

The Halls Heeler moved north into Queensland, to accompany and support the Halls’ expansion into what was still part of the New South Wales colony. Queensland became a separate colony in 1859.

© Noreen Clark 2019.


Dayton, L. (2016), How did the dingo get to Australia? https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/how-did-dingo-get-australia
Scott, J.C. James Butler becomes Hall’s General, in Warner, R.M. Over-Halling the Colony, pp. 94-96. Australian Documents Library, Sydney. 1990.

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6 Responses to HALLS HEELER STORY: 3

  1. Jennifer C. says:

    Really enjoying this series. I was wondering–if it’s truly clear that the Halls imported dogs from Northumberland, has anyone attempted to study what types of drovers might have been present there at the time? I’ve seen the suggestion of a Cur type before, but usually illustrated solely with reference to Bewick’s 18th cen. engraving, which doesn’t at all resemble an ACD. Recently, I stumbled across a pair of 1935 AKC Gazette articles by Corgi breed historian W. Lloyd Thomas (link below, rightmost page of second row) in which he mentions, and provides a couple photos of, a type he simply calls a “red herder.” This was a smallish, prick-eared, brush-tailed heeler-drover which was once “widely distributed throughout the North and Midland counties” and partially supplanted the Corgi type in Wales in the late 19th cen., after the introduction of fencing led to demand for a heeler who could actually herd cattle, not merely drive off intruding ones which was apparently the ancestral Corgi’s sole job. This dog looks nothing like Bewick’s engraving, although the temperament description is reminiscent in that Lloyd Thomas ascribes to the “red herder” an unappealingly difficult personality–suspicious, snappish, restless–despite acknowledging its usefulness.

    I’m not suggesting this type, per se, as a possibility for the mystery “Northumberland Drovers’ Dog”–it apparently wasn’t ticked, for one thing–but it was a reminder to me of how poor a guide the existing spread of English herding breeds is to the diversity that once existed. No doubt both Bewick’s Cur type and Lloyd Thomas’ “red herder” were themselves freely crossed with other types at different times and places, depending on local need. It just made me wonder whether there might be other textual sources of this type out there, that could provide some fleeting glimpses into now-lost working types of the region. The ACD’s structure (and coat pattern) are so distinctive among surviving droving breeds, and it’s always a bit dissatisfying to read speculations as to what might’ve gone into it that are illustrated with pictures of UK types which frankly look nothing like even the oldest surviving photos of confirmed ACDs, even taking into account drift in the intervening time due to selection.


    • Noreen says:

      Bert Howard corresponded, so he told me, with one Robbie Hall in Northumberland – a distant cousin of the Australian Halls. Robbie was Bert’s source for information about ticked (blue) or mottled working dogs in Northumberland; see “A Dog Called Blue”, p.9. On the same page is a photo, Fig. 10, of a ticked dog, very like an ADCB, except for absence of tan. The photo was sent to me by David Hancock. David originally published it in a piece entitled “Breeding grounds for rumour” (Dogs Monthly December 1997 p. 21-22).

      Given that George Hall came from Northumberland and that ticked dogs are still were found among English working dogs (or were up to the 1990s) I don’t think we can argue too strongly against George’ import of a ticked working dog from Northumberland. Keep in mind that “ticked” spans the range of coat colour patterns, including mottle, as I explain in another blog.

      I find Bewick interesting but not particularly useful. The engravings are only as good as the sketches originally given to the engraver, but they do give an idea of the variety of working dogs in use at the time.

      According to David Hancock there were a number of local working breeds in England until improved transport and population mobility erased individuality. Dog shows and breed standards have much to answer for.

      As to the imported ancestor of the Halls Heeler …

      We can only work back from the data we have and propose a blue mottled bob-tail.

      • Jennifer C. says:

        Very interesting about the Hall cousin in Northumberland. We definitely still have some working lines of BC here in the US that are known for producing heavily ticked dogs; Carole Presberg’s wonderful “Border Collie Museum” site has photos of some of them in her page on ticked BCs. (It was looking at that page that first led me to notice that “Bentleys” are pretty common in dogs with heavily ticked foreheads in general.) Very occasionally, Aussie and English Sheps will show fairly heavy ticking too, though since they’re almost never piebald the effect isn’t the same.

        On his website, Hancock identifies that blue mottled dog as a BC (the mouse-over captions got flipped, though; you have to look at the ACD across from it to see the intended caption): http://www.davidhancockondogs.com/archives/archive_494_585/573.html

      • Noreen says:

        Have you mentioned the caption problem to David? He sent me photos, hard copy, many years ago. I was unaware that they were on a web site. As to the ‘Bentley’; that part of the head seems to be resistant to pigmentation in several breeds and, as you point out, seems to be associated with ticking. Not in any Dingo photo, that I have seen, however.

  2. Don Smith says:

    Hi Noreen, I see you have been busy . Interesting information indeed.
    That practice of keeping only one sex of dog on a working property probably goes back to northern England & Scotland.
    Neil Ross who is the tenant overseer at Leault Farm at Kincraig and one of only 4 traditional old style shepherd farmers in GB, only has male working border collies.
    Arrangements for servicing of bitches are made and he also gets a pick of a male pup from the litter to maintain his requirements.

    • Noreen says:

      Interesting to learn that the practice of keeping single sex dogs on working properties still persists in the UK.

      Please describe “traditional old style shepherd farmers” for me.

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