A British newspaper once compared Godfrey Bowen’s shearing with the ‘grace’ of Nureyev's dancing, concluding that ‘watching him shear is even more remarkable than seeing a finely tuned machine.’
Such praise might seem unusual for an endeavour that is part and parcel of rural life in New Zealand but Bowen’s impact on the international wool industry was enormous. Godfrey and his brother Ivan revolutionised the wool industry through their improved shearing methods – the ‘Bowen technique’ – and helped lift the profile of shearing as a sport and tourist attraction.
In 1953 Godfrey Bowen became ‘world-famous in New Zealand’ when he broke the world record by shearing 456 full-wool ewes in nine hours at Opiki, Manawatu (a record later bettered by his brother Ivan). He was soon in demand at agricultural and pastoral society shows around the North Island. His abilities also attracted the attention of the New Zealand Wool Board, which appointed him as its chief shearing instructor. He trained a team of instructors while helping to establish courses on shearing at Lincoln and Massey Universities.
The Bowen technique (or ‘method’) was developed as a result of many years of shearing and observing others. The key to this method was using the non-shearing hand to stretch out the skin on the sheep to produce an evenly shorn fleece. Uneven fleeces left more wool on the sheep (or on the woolshed floor) and failed to attract the highest prices. The method was eventually adopted by shearers all over the world, adding billions of dollars of value to the international wool industry.
Bowen also promoted shearing as a spectator sport. He helped organise (and competed in) the first Golden Shears national shearing tournament in Masterton in 1961, where he finished second behind his brother Ivan.
Godfrey Bowen’s skills extended beyond the shearing shed. An effective public speaker, he helped promote New Zealand wool overseas. He was recognised for his services to the New Zealand sheep industry with an MBE in 1960. His work in many other countries was also recognised. In 1963 Premier Nikita Khrushchev awarded Bowen with the two top Soviet honours, Hero of Labour and the Star of Lenin, for his work with shearers in the Soviet Union.
In 1970 Bowen produced and directed New Zealand’s main outdoor display at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Aware of the potential role of shearing in New Zealand tourism, he opened the Agrodome near Rotorua in 1971. He and local farmer George Harford established what was effectively a theme park dedicated to the New Zealand farm. The Agrodome has since established itself as one of New Zealand’s premier tourist ventures.
In 1977, at the age of 55, Bowen showed he was still a competitive force by finishing fourth in the world championships, shearing 15 sheep in 17 minutes. His lifelong feats were acknowledged by the English press, with The Guardian describing him as a:
folk hero in his own country with only three contemporary equals – Hillary, Upham, the double VC, and Clarke, the rugby fullback. But his real importance is as a key figure in world economics.
As one of the inaugural inductees into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, Bowen was acknowledged for not only confirming sheep shearing as a legitimate sport but for making it an entertainment as well.
Godfrey Bowen died in 1994 at the age of 72.