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Cobb & Co. - an Australian transport icon

For 70 years from the 1850s to the 1920s, Cobb & Co. coaches were a principle means of transport in the colonies of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Settlers moving inland, new immigrants hopeful of success on the gold fields, shearers, agents, squatters, children and their parents—everyone used Cobb & Co. stage coaches to move, as efficiently as was possible, around the colonies.

A cartoon of 1856 entitled Melbourne starts for the diggings that appeared in Melbourne Punch magazine. It shows men, women and children shopping for mining equipment and provisions in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, before heading off to the diggings in Ballarat and Bendigo. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: mp025177.

Even larger numbers of people, many of whom lived in remote country towns, stations or settlements, relied on Cobb & Co.'s mail delivery services. Coaches brought essential supplies, news from home and a sense of connection to others in what was perceived as a distant and inhospitable land. Cobb & Co. routes were seen as a lifeline to isolated communities and a means of taming the vastness of Australia.

The beginning of an era

Although horse-drawn coaches had been operating in Australia for decades, in the 1850's travel times were still lengthy, services irregular and journeys unreliable. The gold rush resulted in huge demand for transport services as tens of thousands of people descended upon the chaos of Melbourne and then quickly sought to leave for the diggings.

Freeman Cobb

Freeman Cobb. Image courtesy of the Cobb+Co Museum.

Coaches would typically wait until they were full (which would sometimes take several hours) and then depart. A team of tired horses pulled an English-built coach which, designed for short trips on cobbled roads, bumped and jolted its way over bush tracks. In bad weather, services stopped altogether because tracks were so overused and boggy they were impassable. During winter it was not uncommon for horses to stand up to their bellies, or coaches up to their axles, in thick mud.

In 1853 two Americans, Freeman Cobb and George Mowton, were sent to Melbourne to set up an international freight service for their employer Adams Express, an American freight company that had greatly profited from the Californian gold rush.

However, they soon found that demand was not for international freight; it was for transport within the colony—specifically to the gold fields. Melbourne at the time was little more than a frontier town, growing rapidly and without direction. Disorder and lack of infrastructure characterised the town. Roads were so bad that Mowton soon returned to California, convinced that the difficulties of doing business in such a place outweighed any opportunity.

Cobb stayed. Despite the obstacles presented by the environment and the poor roads, he saw the possibilities—thousands of people were streaming into Melbourne daily, all wanting to go north to the gold fields. Together with John Peck, James Swanton (who had been sent to Melbourne by Adams' competitor Wells Fargo) and John Lamber, they started their own business focused on passenger coach services. They called themselves 'the boys' (their average age was just 22) and ran their new venture in a hands-on way.

Innovation and adversity, 1850s

Cobb & Co coach

A Cobb & Co coach on display at Museum Victoria. This coach was probably built in Geelong in about 1880. It was pulled by a team of four or five horses and carried up to 17 passengers, plus mail and luggage. Photo: Jon Augier. Image courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Their first route was the short trip from Melbourne to Port Melbourne in July 1853, but bad weather reduced the track to a deep mud and the venture was quickly abandoned. Early in the following year, however, they began another, far more ambitious, service that ran from The Criterion Hotel in Melbourne to the gold diggings at Forrest Creek (now known as Castlemaine)—a distance of 74 miles.

Calling themselves 'Cobb & Co.', they used two separate coaches with a changeover point halfway. They ran a service each day (excepting Sundays) in each direction. The first trip was in January 1854. Soon after, the service extended a further 36 miles to Bendigo, another large gold mining town.

Concord 'thorough brace' coaches

The four founders of Cobb & Co. used 'Concord coaches' which were imported from America. Built in Concord, New Hampshire by Abbot-Downing Coaches, they were red with distinctive yellow wheels. Built to withstand a fast gallop on the prairies and tracks of mid-west America, they were ideally suited to Australian conditions. Concord coaches were known as 'thorough brace' coaches as they used an early form of suspension (thick sets of leather straps) to suspend the body of the coach and provide a more comfortable ride for passengers by absorbing some of the impact the wheels made on the roads.

Coach travel was necessary but notoriously uncomfortable and left passengers with motion sickness, bruises and other injuries sustained as wooden wheels jarred their way across bumpy roads. These more comfortable coaches went some way toward improving passenger comfort. As a result they were very popular amongst travellers who also appreciated that Cobb & Co. coaches left at a specified time and were faster than others over the same route.

Cobb & Co. coach and horses

Detail of a photograph taken of Cobb & Co. coach outside Harcourt, Warburton, Victoria. People are crammed inside the coach and on the roof and front seat. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: mp012421.

In 1854, the first year of their operation, the bad winter weather made the tracks and roads to Castlemaine and Bendigo impassable for all coaches, including Cobb & Co.'s. When the service recommenced in the spring, The Argus wrote:

Travellers to and from Castlemaine will be glad to find the Messrs. Cobb & Co. who last season won golden opinions from all sorts of people for the punctuality and speed which characterised their mode of conducting their business as proprietors of passenger coaches between Melbourne and the diggings, have reappeared on the field of action.

Their business soon expanded with services to Ballarat (which took one day—coaches averaged 10 to 12 kilometres per hour) and two Cobb & Co. booking offices opening in Melbourne. In just a few short months, Cobb & Co. had established an enviable reputation as the preferred method of transport thanks to the relative comfort, speed and reliability of their services.

Cobb and Co coach at Bumberry Hotel

Cobb & Co. coach at Bumberry Hotel near Parkes, 1892. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: HN570.

Drivers, horses and staging posts

Cobb & Co.'s other innovations included using experienced American coach drivers, many of whom had driven stagecoaches in the west. Later they also bred their own horses which were suited to the task of pulling a fully laden coach at a gallop. From the beginning, they also ensured that each trip was divided up into sections of around 10 to 30 miles so horses could travel quickly and then be swapped for a fresh team. This was perhaps one of the most important steps taken by the new company of Cobb & Co. as it meant a faster trip for passengers and a relatively more comfortable ride.

Staging posts were set up along each route where teams of horses were swapped and tired horses stabled, rested and fed. As a coach approached the changing station the driver sounded a horn or bugle to let the groom know the coach was arriving. Every driver had his own call, so the groom knew which team of horses to have ready. This system meant that changeovers could occur as quickly as possible and the coach could continue on its way.

Often families or married couples ran changing stations, with the husband looking after the horses and his wife cooking stews or damper and proving refreshments for passengers. In some places, passengers could also stay the night. On busier routes and in villages where change stations were established, stables, pubs, hotels and townships sprung up to cater to the number of passengers who passed through. Some of these hotels were little more than primitive shanties, while others became large and prosperous establishments.

In 1856 Freeman Cobb sold his share of the business and returned to America, making a fortune of around seven thousand pounds. Just prior to his departure in May of that year, The Argus wrote a glowing article praising the contribution he made to the colony of Victoria:

Mr. Cobb has conferred great and lasting benefits on this community, as well by the energy he has infused into our coaching enterprises as by the practical lessons he has taught us in all matters relating to that publicly useful line of business.
The Argus, 17 May 1856.

Across the land—expansion in the 1860s

coach piled high with baskets of mail

Cobb & Co. coach in central Queensland, about 1900, piled high with baskets of mail. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: N7002.

The Cobb & Co. network quickly spread further afield. In 1861, a consortium of new owners acquired the company. Under the direction of James Rutherford, another American, the company enjoyed good profits and massive growth for decades. He extended the company into the colonies of New South Wales and Queensland and, most importantly, secured valuable contracts for the delivery of mail. By 1870, Cobb & Co. coach routes crisscrossed Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Every week they travelled 28,000 miles and every day drivers harnessed up 6,000 horses.

Arthur Richardson

Arthur Richardson, a blacksmith and wheelwright for Cobb & Co., Charleville, ca. 1912. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 39821.

Mail and bushrangers

Delivering mail meant carrying large numbers of letters and parcels—overloading was common. The driver sometimes had to enlist the help of his passengers to stop the coach tipping over, asking them to lean to one side of the coach or another to counterbalance the huge load overhead.

Bushrangers were another challenge they had to face and on occasion the mail coaches and passengers were robbed by opportunistic gangs of thieves who laid in wait for the coach along isolated stretches of road.

Cobb and Co Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an8630233.

Australian manufacture

Within a short time, Cobb & Co had become a thriving business that encompassed all aspects of coach travel, including specialist horse breeding and coach building. Instead of continuing to import American coaches, factories were set up at various locations across Australia.

The innovative approach which had set it apart from competitors from the very beginning was one reason for the company's ongoing successes. New and creative solutions to transport challenges and passenger demand were tried and tested.

camel coach

Cobb & Co camel coach, which ran from Wilcannia to Mount Brown in NSW in the 1880's. Camels were probably used due to drought conditions.

In 1862 the Cobb & Co. Leviathan coach was built in Bendigo. Double-decker and capable of carrying up to 89 people, with separate compartments for men and women, it ran between Ballarat and Geelong in Victoria. It was, however, not a great success as the leading horses were out of range of the driver's whip, which meant he sometimes had to carry a bag of stones to throw at them when he wanted them to quicken their pace.

On other routes, which presented challenges of a different nature, even more creative solutions were devised. For instance, camels were used instead of horses as they were sometimes better suited to the conditions.

Coach trips and drivers in Australian folklore

stage coach with approaching dust storm

Cobb and Co stage coach with approaching dust storm, near Gulgong, NSW in 1871. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: L96649.

While Freeman Cobb spent just three years in Australia, the name of 'Cobb & Co' is still strongly associated with coach travel and is part of Australian folklore.

Henry Lawson, the famous Australian writer (and once a coach painter), captured what coach travel was like in a number of stories and poems, particularly The Lights of Cobb & Co . In The Buck Jumper he describes a coach arriving at a changing station:

Cobb & Co.'s mail-coach and six came dashing down the siding from round Crown Ridge, in all its glory, to the end of the twelve-mile stage The fresh coach-horses stood ready in a stock-yard close to the shanty the coach climbed the nearer bank of the creek at the foot of the ridge There were about twenty passengers aboard They got down and went inside with the driver for a drink, while the stablemen changed horses
Excerpt from The Buck Jumper by Henry Lawson

coach crossing the Alice River

Cobb and Co. coach crossing the Alice River, Barcaldine, Queensland, 1906. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: bar00009.

Average speeds were about six or seven miles per hour—quite fast for the time, considering most journeys only had short sections of flat travel on well-made roads. Most trips also involved fording streams and rivers that had no bridges, travelling up and down hills and negotiating rocky outcrops on what were essentially just tracks through the bush. Yet Cobb & Co. drivers were skilled at their jobs, often being responsible for just a couple of stages, which meant they became extremely familiar with every twist and turn of the road and therefore could navigate even difficult roads quickly.

Captain Thunderbolt and 'Silent Bob' Bates

Tom Roberts, Bailed up!, which depicts a Cobb & Co. coach being held up by bushrangers. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The well-known painting 'Bailed Up!' by Tom Roberts was based on the hold-up of a Cobb & Co. coach during the 1860's by bushranger Captain Thunderbolt in the New England area of northern New South Wales.

Roberts made the sketches for the painting in two parts. The first was a quiet area of bush just outside Inverell and the second was the coach itself. The Cobb & Co. coach that ran between Glen Innes and Inverell was set up, complete with 'models', in a back street of Inverell. Interestingly, the driver of the coach that was 'bailed up' by Thunderbolt, a well-known coach driver known as 'Silent Bob' Bates, was also the driver on the day Roberts sketched the coach and posed as the driver for the painting.

'Silent Bob' may not have been the only driver with such a reputation. Henry Lawson wrote of a similar character, perhaps even Silent Bob himself, in The Shanty Keeper's Wife:

There were about a dozen of us jammed into the coach, on the box seat and hanging on to the roof and tailboard as best we could We were tired and stiff and nearly frozen – too cold to talk We had been looking forward for hours, it seemed, to the pub where we were to change horses. For the last hour or two all that our united efforts had been able to get out of the driver was a grunt to the effect that it was ''bout a couple o' miles.' Then he said, or grunted, ''Tain't fur now,' a couple of times, and refused to commit himself any further ...

Cabbage Tree Ned

Dick Torpey

Dick Torpey, an old Cobb & Co. coach driver sitting up in the box of a coach holding the reins, wearing overcoat and hat. Image taken during a re-enactment in the mid-20th century. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: an017344.

Many drivers were well-known characters who were celebrated for their skill with horses, egalitarian natures and tall stories. Cabbage Tree Ned, who got his name from the hat he wore which was made from the leaves of the Cabbage Tree Palm, was one who was known for his horsemanship—and showmanship—far and wide. As well as driving the Leviathan coach for a time, he was also the driver for the first All-England cricket team to visit Australia during their Victorian tour. For their match in Geelong, Ned drove the cricketers right onto the oval in their new coach, pulled by an impressive team of twelve grey horses. At the end of their tour the cricketers presented him with 300 sovereigns as personal thanks for his services. Using this money to retire from coach driving in Australia, he moved to New Zealand where then he drove Cobb & Co. coaches for many years. He died in Ballarat, where a memorial to him, erected by retired Cobb & Co drivers in the 1930's, can be found in the Ballarat New Cemetery.

Mrs Byrnes

Another driver, Mrs Byrnes, who was from a farm near Orange in New South Wales, drove a Cobb & Co. coach in her spare time. If the coach was not full, she'd take along some of her 13 children for company. On one trip she noticed men ahead on horseback and correctly guessed they were bushrangers. Quickly stopping the coach, she hid her children in the bush before galloping up to the bushrangers, dismissing them outright, collecting her children and returning to Orange in time for her evening farm jobs at home.

The end of an era

Passengers on the Jundah Mail Transport

Passengers on the Jundah Mail Transport by Cobb & Co., Longreach, Queensland, ca. 1920.Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 64017.

Cobb & Co. was an expensive operation to run. It had large overhead costs of running coach building factories, keeping thousands of horses and paying hundreds of drivers and grooms. These costs were easily met in years when feed for horses was plentiful and people had money to pay for coach travel, but in drought years, expenses increased and revenue from passengers was down.

The popularity of coach travel was also greatly challenged with the advent of extensive rail networks, motor vehicles and finally aeroplanes, all of which drastically cut the time it took to travel the long distances in Australia. Cobb & Co., ever the innovator, met this challenge and for a while operated mail trucks instead of coaches on some of their runs.

Mail runs had been the chief source of income for the business from the 1870's and it was not until after the Great War that Cobb & Co.'s mail business also began to suffer. The government decided to award mail runs to returned servicemen instead of large businesses like Cobb & Co., and it was the loss of this income that lead to the demise of the business in 1929.

A ghostly Cobb & Co coach is silhouetted against two towering gum trees driving through a mountainous landscape in a 1936 travel poster for the Australian National Travel Association

James Northfield (1887-1973), Australia for sunshine & romance, ca. 1936. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3293161.

Yet the affection Australians still have for Cobb & Co. remains. The 'romance' of coach travel has been used to promote tourism to Australia years after the last Cobb & Co. coach finished its route. During the 1988 bicentenary celebrations, a refurbished Cobb & Co. coach was taken on a lengthy run from Melbourne to Cairns and over the years, many country towns have marked important dates with re-enactments of Cobb & Co. coach rides.

Today, the name lives on in the Cobb & Co. bus line and at the Cobb & Co. Museum in Toowoomba, a campus of Queensland Museum and home to the National Carriage Collection.

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Last updated: 9th December 2009
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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