Where would we gardeners be without our wheelbarrows? I have early memories of being carted out in one by my older siblings. They have always provided fun for kids.

Children with wheelbarrow

I was interested to  discover that the development of the wheelbarrow began in China around AD200.  Chuko Liang, a general in the Imperial Army, was looking for a convenient means of moving supplies along narrow embankments.  He ordered that a single wheel be positioned beneath a cart so that the centre of gravity of the load was directly above the axle. The conveyance was an immediate success and because of its stability and strength it was given the wonderful names of ‘wooden ox’ or ‘gliding horse’.

Ancient Chinese wheelbarrow
In the beginning,

Several centuries later a Chinese historian wrote that with the aid of a wooden ox, a man could transport his yearly food supply  a distance of 30 kilometres without tiring. Now that’s impressive.

In medieval Europe, the wheelbarrow was also born from a desire to increase manpower.  Mortar for castle buildings was carried in a wooden trough or ‘hod’, which was suspended between shafts and supported fore and aft by a man.  Impatient with progress on his home, one feudal Lord effectively doubled his workforce by replacing the front man with a wheel.

Being set well forward, the axle did not help support the load, but perhaps this was just as well.  If a serf could carry food for a year for a distance of 30 kilometres he might raid the kitchens and abscond!

From the beginning, ‘gliding horses’ were ideal for gardens.  They did not have to be fed or watered, and they were easily manoeuvred in confined spaces. Their single wheel could be trundled along the narrowest garden path.

Many years ago I interviewed the writer Kate Llewellyn. She was living in the Blue Mountains at the time. She told me she was very fond of her ‘antique’  wheelbarrow, but admitted that her claim of ownership was dubious.  It was left at her home by a tradesman and when Kate moved to the Mountains, the barrow went too. “I suppose you would have to say I stole it” , she told me disarmingly.  Never mind Kate, they  say that possession is nine tenths of the law.

Eventually my partner Rob and I moved to the Mountains ourselves. One day I spotted an old barrow abandoned in the undergrowth of my elderly neighbor’s garden. When I mentioned it, Joan told me I was welcome to have it. It was surprisingly heavy, but we managed to haul it over the fence. A few weeks later we were having morning tea with Joan and she told me the barrow’s history. Her father had made it to use while he was digging an air-raid shelter in Sydney during WWII. Good grief! I felt a bit guilty about accepting it, but I am passionate about social history and loved it even more. Joan was delighted it was going to be appreciated.

I had intended using my treasure as a planter, but it felt like desecration to drill holes in the bottom. Nevertheless, I planted it up with mauve flowering ‘star’ campanulas and grape hyacinths.

Wheelbarrow with campanulas
A wonderful relic.

Thus far, drainage has not been a problem.  I used an equally old, wooden handled shovel to create a quirky illusion. Easy to see that it’s ‘parked’ under maple trees.

I saw an advertisement recently for a ‘revolutionary new barrow.’ The tray can be lowered to the ground for easy loading and it has two front wheels for extra stability. There has also been talk of a motorised wheelbarrow but gardeners are a conservative lot and I suspect that they are a little resistant to the idea. As one old gardener commented; ‘What if the throttle jammed open  – it could rip your bloody arms off!’

The following photo illustrates the essence of togetherness in Australia. Yes, it does get hot in Blackheath…….sometimes!

Wheelbarrow work
Hot weather for wheelbarrow work.

You are never too young to push your own barrow. I snapped the following photo at the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival.

A barrow loadof rhododendrons
A barrow load of rhododendrons.

My thanks to fellow bird lover Andy Stevens for the image below of kookaburras and gumtrees. Doesn’t it just sum up Australia?

My own ‘working wheelbarrow’ is a bit knocked about from carrying wood and rocks.. It’s borrowed every Christmas by my young associate Editor Des Bear. Hmm, he’s very optimistic!

A 'Christmas stocking'barrow for Editor Des.

2 Comments
  1. What a delightful story about wheelbarrows, and I especially like the look of your vintage one. I only used my barrow once a year when it was time to spread compost onto the garden, but youngest son had mentioned he needed to get a new one, so I magnanimously donated mine to his more substantial 42 acres.

    • Pauline

      Yes, that old wheelbarrow will last another 100 years.

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