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.
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.
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.
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