Inside the Collection

Cobb and Co coach

Photograph of Cobb and Co. coach
Cobb and Co. coach. Powerhouse Museum collection. H3875.

When most people think of travel by horse-drawn coach in Australia, during the nineteenth century, the name which immediately springs to mind is Cobb and Co.  So who was Cobb and Co? The Cobb and Co Telegraph Line of Royal Mail Coaches, as they were properly known at the time, was formed in 1853 by Freeman Cobb in Victoria to operate horse-drawn mail and passenger coaches between Melbourne and the nearby goldfields. However, under James Rutherford’s management from 1861, the company quickly established its supremacy over other coaching lines and spread to other states. Cobb and Co. provided Australia’s first wide-spread public transport system throughout the country.

For seventy years Cobb and Co provided a service renowned for its speed and reliability to get the mail through on time, often contending with adverse weather conditions of drought and flood. An extensive network of change stations was developed at 28 to 48 km intervals where fresh horses replaced tired ones. The horses were specially bred. Teams of five horses were used with an additional two to provide extra pulling power when needed. This unusual arrangement was devised by Rutherford himself and enabled the driver to manoeuver all his horses with only two sets of reins. (Drivers used the western European style of one-hand driving). The horse teams were matched by colour, were active, strong and bred for the purpose. So skilled were the drivers that they could part the team to avoid obstacles.

 

Photograph of coach crossing waterlogged ground
Mail coach crossing waterlogged ground, George Bell (attributed), published by Kerry and Co, Sydney, 1890-1900. Powerhouse Museum collection. 85/1284-338

However, it was the development of the “thoroughbrace” coach (suspension of the coach on leather straps), ideally suited to Australian conditions, which was the single greatest contributing factor to the company’s success. The coaches were mounted on a cradle suspended on two thoroughbraces. These consisted of up to thirteen strips of leather sewn together which gave the coach a swaying motion. The thoroughbraces made the coaches ideal on our rough tracks but the passengers often complained of coach sickness, almost like sea sickness, because of the rolling and pitching action. But coach travel was far from romantic. The discomfort of riding inside a dark coach all night saw considerable demand for the box seat next to driver, and passengers offered money for this privilege. Some passengers preferred to sit outside in a thunderstorm, exposed to the elements, rather than being jolted inside the coach, hitting their heads on the roof. Pity the poor female passengers then who always had to travel inside. Male passengers would open the stock gates, and at night a “gate watch” was organised to make sure someone was awake to answer the driver’s call of “gate, gate, oh”. All the passengers got off and walked over stretches too steep or hazardous to ride. Although coach travel was very uncomfortable, the vehicles were extraordinarily resilient and accidents relatively rare.

Photograph 'Coaching on Cliff Road', near Scarborough, NSW
‘Coaching on Cliff Road’, near Scarborough, NSW, Kerry and Co, Sydney, c. 1884-1917. Powerhouse Museum collection. 85/1284-155.

The Museum has an eight-passenger Cobb and Co coach made in 1890. It was built at Cobb and Co’s Charleville workshops in Queensland and was last on the road around Blackall. Four passengers traveled inside the coach, two more sat up on the box seat with driver and other two perched on a roof seat. Under the box seat was the boot used to carry valuables and sometimes gold. This made the coach a target for ambush by bushrangers. Straw was laid on the floor to keep passengers’ feet warm and occasionally to hide small valuables from bushrangers. Mail and parcels were carried in large wicker baskets on the coaches’ roof while luggage was also strapped to the luggage compartment at the back. Passengers were only allowed 6 kg! The coaches had two brakes attached to the rear wheels. It was the job of the off-side box seat passenger to work the second brake lever when it was needed.

Photograph of Strong box from a Cobb and Co. coach, c. 1870
Strong box from a Cobb and Co. coach, c. 1870. It would have contained registered post, gold and valuables. Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of Australia Post, NSW Headquarters, 1998. 98/2/39.

Cobb and Co  reigned supreme throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but from 1902 the company’s diminishing profits were attributed to drought conditions, extensions to the railways in Queensland and the introduction of the motor car and later aircraft. The last horse-drawn Cobb and Co coach service to operate was between Surat and Yeulba (now Yuleba) in Queensland on 14 August 1924.

In England, as soon as the railways were introduced there in the 1830s coaching services were brought to a premature close. In Australia it was different. Here, coaching services developed concurrently with railways from the 1850s and flourished both in competition and by providing complementary services. The Cobb and Co services have much to account for this. Their operation encouraged settlement and the development of effective communication networks especially in remote country areas of eastern Australia.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport

6 responses to “Cobb and Co coach

  • I’m trying to find the route of the Cobb and Co track which goes through the Darebin Parklands in Ivanhoe [Melbourne]. Can you help please?

  • I am tracing buy family trend found a relative of mine William Eastley drove for Cobb and Co. He was one of their oldest drivers and drove between Coonamble-Warren-Dubbo. He also drove Carcear to Blaney and Cowra. I found this in the Lithgow Mercury – Tuesday 31st January 1939. Do you have any information about these routes. Thanks Judy.

  • I am writing about a coach journey from Mansfield to Geelong in 1865. Can you tell me approximately what the fare would have been and did they travel through the night? thank you for this marvellous piece.

    • Some-one travelling from Mansfield to Geelong in 1865 would probably have caught the Beechworth mail coach to Melbourne, which travelled both day and night, with the coaches changed at Kilmore, Longwood and Mansfield. The Telegraph Line of coaches advertised their cost from Beechworth to Melbourne was 5 pounds. There is an interesting account of a coach trip featured in the 1865 Melbourne paper “The Leader”.

      From Melbourne the passenger would then have travelled by rail to Geelong after the railway had been extended in 1859.

  • I would like to know what metal the strong box of Cobb& Co were made of, who made them & the route/stops the coach took from Euroa to Bendigo in Victoria Aust. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related