Cobb & Co coaches: historical transport

By Kathy Riley October 18, 2011
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The pioneering 19th-century coaching conglomerate won – and lost – a great deal during its turbulent 70-year history.

IMAGINE, IF YOU WILL, that it’s 1898 in Brisbane, Queensland. You’re a young schoolteacher fresh off the boat from London and you’re headed for Adavale, a township 1000km inland. A 12hr train ride carries you 800km to the end of the line at Charleville. From here, your only option is a horsedrawn Cobb & Co. mail coach.
You’ve paid the equivalent of nearly two weeks wages for your ticket and limited your worldly belongings to the stipulated 14 pounds (6.35 kg). The 200 km coach journey is scheduled to take three days, with food and lodging provided at bush inns along the way.

Given the recent rain, which turns the fertile black soil into ‘glue-pot’, you find that you have to get out and walk when it gets too boggy, and sometimes help dig the coach and horses out, too. You also face rivers so swollen with floodwater that the only way to get the coach across is to haul it from the other side with a rope. The men and horses swim; female passengers, luggage and the all-important mail are ferried over in wash tubs. The resultant delays mean you don’t reach your accommodation by nightfall, and you have to go without dinner and sleep sitting upright in the coach. And that’s just the first day.

Despite its discomforts, Cobb & Co. provided the best of the best of coach travel in Australia – if not the world. At its peak in the 1870s, Cobb & Co. coaches were travelling nearly 45,000km a week over 11,200km of routes from the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cooktown in Queensland to southern Victoria. This made it one of the most extensive networks of coaching routes in the world. Its influence reached far beyond coaching into interests in pastoral properties, gold and copper mines, horse breeding, and coach and buggy building. It was, as author Sam Everingham describes in his book Wild Ride, “the Qantas of nineteenth century Australia: powerful, complex and highly respected”.

Cobb & Co. once mighty, but now history

But all was not necessarily as it seemed. Despite its outward success, at the turn of the 19th century Cobb & Co. was as vulnerable as a house of cards, built largely on credit in an economically unstable climate. By 1924 – 70 years after it began – Cobb & Co. had barrelled right through the hearts and minds of Australians and into the history books.

The ‘Cobb’ of Cobb & Co. was Freeman Cobb, a bright young American lad from Brewster, Massachusetts. In 1853, aged 23, he established Cobb & Co. in Victoria to convey mail and passengers between the port of Melbourne, and the Victorian goldfields. The first Cobb & Co. coach completed its maiden voyage – from Collins Street, Melbourne to the Forest Creek diggings (now Castlemaine) – on 30 January 1854 in half the time of its competitors. Within months, the firm’s reputation for speed and efficiency was running the competition off the road.

There were two main reasons for its record-breaking pace. The first was the design of the coaches. At the time, most coaching companies were using English vehicles, which had heavy, rigid bodies and stiff metal springs – perfect for the paved and genteel roads of the mother country, but totally unsuitable for the rugged Australian landscape.

Freeman instead imported Concord coaches, which had been designed for travel in the American West. They had rounded, lightweight and supple bodies resting on leather straps called thorough braces. The result was a much smoother, faster ride – although the back and forth rocking motion of the carriage prompted one passenger to liken the experience to riding “a baby camel in a hell of a hurry”. 

The second reason was Cobb & Co.’s placement of changing stations every 10-20 miles (16-32 km) or so along their routes – compared with the much greater distances of its competitors. Fresh horses meant the coaches could maintain high speeds across long distances. It was an innovative and winning combination, and by the time Freeman Cobb and his partners put the company up for sale in 1856 it was reputed to be worth £16,000 (equivalent to about $2.1 million in today’s terms).

After changing hands a number of times it was purchased for £23,000 (about $3.4 million) in 1861 by a consortium of nine men, including James Rutherford, Walter Hall, William Frank Whitney, Alexander W. Robertson and John Wagner. These five men would be integral to Cobb & Co. for the next six decades.

Success of Cobb & Co: the drivers

The driving force of the group was James Rutherford, a man whose character was as challenging and unpredictable as the roads his coaches travelled. His energy and stamina were legendary, as was his temper, which twice landed him in court – once for beating a young groom for laziness and another time for horse-whipping a local landowner who took a shortcut through Cobb & Co. property.

From 1860 through to the mid-1880s, Cobb & Co. went from strength to strength, expanding into New South Wales and then Queensland, where it continued to slash the travel times of its competitors and win coveted government mail contracts. It began a coach-building operation at Bathurst, NSW, in 1862, which by 1866 was the largest of its kind in Australia. Its drivers commanded great respect from the public, both for their colourful and entertaining personalities and also for their extraordinary skill with horses. They could control a team of either five or seven horses using just four reins, or ‘ribbons’, held in one hand – in broad daylight or pitch darkness; sun, snow or sleet; on well-maintained roads or no roads at all.

The grooms at each changing station were just as vital to the success of a coach trip. Each was responsible for 8-10 horses, as well as the upkeep of each animal’s made-to-measure collar and leather harness. The driver would sound a bugle 1 mile (1.6 km) out from the change station to alert the groom, who would have the fresh team brushed and harnessed by the time the coach rolled in.

One former Cobb & Co. driver recorded that a groom on the St George-Thallon route in southern Queensland often had to swim his team across the Moonie River between the horse paddocks and the change station. He was 60 years old but as reliable as clockwork, and dutifully swam the other coach team back across the river after the changeover.

By the early 1870s Cobb & Co. was so widely known and admired it had spawned a multitude of unrelated businesses operating under the same name – in Western Australia, South Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa, the latter run by Freeman Cobb himself.

In 1871 Robertson and Wagner took over the ownership and operation of the Victorian coaching routes and in 1885 Walter Hall stepped down, leaving Rutherford and Whitney to direct affairs in NSW and Queensland. By this time, the distance covered by the firm’s combined routes in these two states was about 10,000km.

But there was far more to the business than coaching. Rutherford, Whitney and Hall also poured money into diverse additional projects, the largest and most profitable of which was pastoralism. By 1877, Cobb & Co. owned nine sheep and cattle stations in NSW and Queensland covering close to 11,000 sq. km. In that year alone, their pastoral enterprises netted more than £77,500 in profit (about $11.3 million), compared with £11,500 (about $1.7 million) in coaching.

The downfall of Cobb & Co. coaches

Not all their ventures were successful, however, and some were downright disastrous.

An iron ore mine bought in Lithgow, NSW, in the 1870s put the company £130,000 (about $19.3 million) in debt; an attempt to fulfil a railway construction project between Glen Innes and Tenterfield in 1882 was almost as devastating. Rutherford in particular had a tendency to throw money at projects without either consulting his partners or considering debt. He dabbled in gold and copper mines and even established a Bathurst newspaper, The National Advocate. The more the company grew, the less stable it became.

Several ill winds were blowing through the 1890s and into the 1900s. Drought was one of them. The cost of feed for the firm’s thousands of horses sky-rocketed – in the period 1898-1902 the bill came to £70,000 (about $10.7 million), nearly half of Cobb and Co.’s earnings during that time. The value of its properties plummeted and vast numbers of sheep and cattle died.
Added to these woes was the growth of the railways. In 1890 Robertson and Wagner conceded defeat in Victoria and wrapped up their operations. In NSW, Cobb & Co. suffered not only from railways but also fierce competition for mail contracts. Only vast and untrammelled Queensland maintained a solid demand for coaching, with routes here peaking at more than 7000km in 1900.

In 1902 Cobb & Co. reported a net loss in excess of £18,000 (about $2.8 million) and owed £23,137 (about $3.5 million) to banks and creditors, forcing it into liquidation. It re-formed on 1 January 1903 with a mandate to drag the firm back from the brink of bankruptcy. Still the coaching routes shrank, and with them, the value of the company’s extensive collection of harness, coaches and horses. Motor vehicles appeared on the scene, and although new and mechanically unwieldy, it was clear they were the transport of the future.

In September 1911, Rutherford died of pneumonia, aged 83. After his death, Cobb & Co.’s managers dabbled in motor vehicles and storekeeping. Neither proved successful, and in 1924 Cobb & Co.’s Mail Service No. 177 completed the last coach trip between Yuleba and Surat in Queensland. 

Two years before the firm’s demise, Qantas launched its first mail and passenger flight. It didn’t take long for the national airline, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and motor cars to grab the attention and imagination of the Australian public. But the name is far from gone.

Today, Cobb & Co. bus coaches ply roads in south-east Australia, the Red Centre and the Top End, with the tagline “Pioneering a new spirit in luxury touring”. And the Cobb Highway traces a nostalgic route from Wilcannia in far-western NSW to the Victorian border. A handful of former Cobb & Co. stations and homesteads still exist and there are Cobb & Co. hotels, real estate agents and restaurants. There was even a 1950s TV show, Whiplash.

But the Cobb & Co. story was being immortalised well before then, and by the likes of Henry Lawson – who already sensed an era’s end when he penned The Lights of Cobb & Co. in 1897:

Not all the ships that sail away since Roaring Days are done –
Not all the boats that steam from port, nor all the trains that run,
Shall take such hopes and loyal hearts – for men shall never know
Such days as when the Royal Mail was run by Cobb & Co.