George Norman: a life dedicated to poultry

George Norman and chook.
George Norman has won many prestigious awards for his chooks, including this year’s Supreme Champion at the Melbourne Show. Olivia King reports.

George Norman traces his passion for chooks back to the age of three, when he went to live on his grandmother’s farm after his parents’ divorce. It was his responsibility to look after the chooks and to sell eggs at the front gate of the property.

Now the retired 75 year-old, who looks incredibly young for his age, has won the Royal Melbourne Poultry Show’s G. J. Shepard award for Supreme Champion in Show. It’s an award George is especially proud of because it’s named after the son of his early mentor, Bob Shepard.

Gary Shepard, Bob’s son, was a widely respected member of the poultry community. Following in his father’s footsteps, Gary spent his life being thoroughly involved in bird showing and judging, and was known as Victoria’s “greatest ambassador for the fancy”. When Gary died, the Gary J. Shepard Memorial Trophy for Supreme Champion of the Royal Melbourne Poultry Show was created in his honour in 2004. Gary not only was an active poultry fancier, but he was also one of George Norman’s best friends.

This is the first time George has earned the show’s ultimate prize, which he won with his Bantam Australian Langshan black cockerel.

George was 12 when he first decided to start showing his birds, and took some of his finest chooks to the Oakley Poultry Club’s bird night. However, he was not allowed to show them, as they weren’t pure bred. He remembers the night clearly as it was the time he met Bob Shepard after being seated next to him.

“Bob explained that I needed some pure-bred birds, so he offered to give me some fertilized eggs. I remember him asking what kind of chooks I liked, and I said black chooks. He pointed a few out at the bird night, and then said he’d introduce me to some of the breeders,” George says.  “I ended up getting australorps, langshans and leghorns and they are still the three major breeds I continue to show now. They’re good because you don’t have to wash them as much as white chooks!”

George Norman and trophy.
George Norman and trophy.

George won his first award for showing chooks in 1954 at the Dandenong Agricultural Show where the prize was five shillings. It was a large sum given that he was working at the time in the engineering industry, earning only one pound a week. He then decided at age 23 to sit a judging examination, which began his life of service to poultry.

“I’ve entered birds and judged in the Royal Melbourne Show for forty-four years now,” says George. “I’m also on the board of the Victorian Poultry Fanciers Association, who were the underwriters of The Poultry Standard, the bible for all poultry judging.” The Standard sets out the complex criteria that every judge follows in order to select the prize-winning chooks.

The Victorian Poultry Fanciers Association used to have its headquarters at the Royal Melbourne Showground, and this is where it held all its shows. “After a while, all the buildings at the show grounds got ‘concrete cancer’ and had to be knocked down. They promised they would cater for us, make sure we had a base, but they never did. The fanciers are still without a home,” says George.

The Royal Poultry Show isn’t put on at the Melbourne Show anymore, it is held in July each year at the show grounds. “It’s a shame the show is becoming less and less about agriculture, and more about the rides and revenue. This is the third year now we’ve been judged separately to the Melbourne Show, and next year will be our last year being judged at the show grounds before we’re moved elsewhere. It’s a huge shame because it’s never advertised so hardly anyone comes to see.”

George Norman is living on a 16-acre property in Benalla with his wife Faye, who has always been extremely supportive of his poultry keeping. “He’s always loved his chooks, he’s out every day tending to them, hatching babies, preparing them for shows. They bring him a lot of joy,” Faye says.

Chickens at the show
Chickens at the show.

George breeds his chooks with a method called ‘line-breeding’ where male and female chickens are specifically selected to correct imperfections in each other and create a supreme bloodline. George now has 140 mature fowls and around 400 chicks including five different breeds, nearly all of which will be good for showing.

“I usually have around five champion birds a year which I enter into various shows. I’ve been lucky enough to win awards at the Sydney Royal, the Victorian Titles, the Geelong Championship, the Seymour, the Melbourne Royal, now, and I’ve won every time at the Benalla Poultry Show – six times altogether,” George says.

George has nearly won the Supreme Champion award at the Royal Sydney Show twice. He considers the Sydney Royal to be his ultimate prize, and is hoping to finally win next year.   “I’ve been beaten twice, so it’s my main goal. I’m hoping to win next year, and if I do I’ll retire from showing. But I’ll still keep my birds.”