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The story of Cobb & Co

Cobb & Co Coach
Coach - Cobb & Co, 'Royal Mail', circa 1880 Photographer: Jon Augier Source: Museums Victoria

The last coach trip for Cobb & Co was between Yuleba and Surat in Queensland on 14th August 1924. The journey that began 70 years ago in Melbourne on 30th January 1854, ended leaving fond memories worth cherishing for a lifetime for a generation of Australians. It also left some of the most wonderful and colourful characters in the memory lane for future Australians. The Coach drivers were in many instances known as the Bushman’s Newspaper.

Freeman Cobb
Freeman Cobb

“Cabbage-tree Ned”— Ned Devine, a Tasmanian was one of the most famous drivers of Cobb and Co. He was a sort of a celebrity on those days, earning a high wage of £17 a week. The hat of Cabbage palm he wore earned him the nickname. He was an expert in handling a coach with twelve horses and the calmness he displayed while handling emergencies and his practical jokes only enhanced his charisma. He was the one who drove H. H. Stephenson’s cricketers, the first All-England team to visit Australia, on their Victorian tour. It was said on those days, when the tour ended, the cricketers presented him with 300 sovereigns. His regular run was behind eight horses in a 70-passenger coach from Geelong to Ballarat.

The story won’t be complete if we don’t mention the holdups, broken axles, burst tyres, head long dashes down mountain slides, the rubbed sores it gave by the ceaseless swaying of coaches and aching limbs.  With the feeble glow of the kerosene lamps amidst the darkness of the bush, as it entered the history books, the only memory that remained of it was the vision of a high coach with twelve horses, pawing dust along its way and its background lit with the golden glow of Sunrise.

The story of Cobb & Co. begins with the discovery of gold in Ballarat and Bendigo in the early 1850s. The much-needed transport facilities were missing, but demand was high for regular transport from Melbourne to the goldfields.

Four Americans, Freeman Cobb, John Murray Peck, James Swanton and John B. Lamber, identified the opportunity and decided to sink in. They a pulled a leaf from the pioneering days of America’s West, and imported coaches made by Abbott Downing & Co at Connecticut in USA, built of Hickory, which cost them $3000 apiece. The advantage was that the coaches were slung on thick leather braces, extending over the entire wheelbase, which acted as a good shock absorber and took strains out of a rough road drive. Another advantage was that it made on the way repairs easy. If spares were not available, it could be easily replaced with raw hide or a wire.

At first they traded as the “American Telegraph Line of Coaches. In Early 1853, the following announcement appeared in some of the major newspapers of that time which read,

AMERICAN TELEGRAPH LINE OF COACHES

Cobb and Co. beg to announce that they have determined to run a line of well-appointed coaches between Melbourne and the gold- fields, starting from the Criterion Hotel every morning, Sundays excepted, at 6 a.m., and for Forrest Creek daily at the same hour. The vehicles to be used are the new American coaches recently imported and acknowledged to be the easiest riding vehicles in the colony.

The diggings were mostly at Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine. Initially it ran a daily coach through Forest Creek and Bendigo, a distance of 110 miles and then extended their services to many other routes. The firm entered into contract with Government to carry mails. A night service was also introduced on main routes.  The words “Royal Mail appeared on the doors of the coaches. Newly arrived U.S businessman George Tain Chipped in with investments and the company could afford to buy several US built wagons and Concord Stagecoaches. The profits were substantial from the beginning itself. The founder Freeman Cobb sold out his interests and returned to California as a wealthy man. Freeman invested his money in mines and banks in US and lost most of it. With what was left, he crossed over to South Africa at a time diamonds were discovered in Kimberley. He started a coaching business between Port Elizabeth and Kimberley. But died in 1873. Soon the other partners also sold their shares to a man named David. David sold the company to the firm of Watson and Hewitt, which sold it to a consortium led by James Rutherford. Rutherford and his partners bought the company for £23,000 of which £5000 were paid in cash and the rest in promissory notes. Within 6 months, the liabilities were paid off. Whoever bought the business, preserved the name. Rutherford was an able man with a governing spirit and for the next fifty years, he was the head of the company and it prospered becoming an Australian icon. Another name to recon is A.W. Robertson, who was also an equally able administrator.

Cobb & Co Coach
Coach – Cobb & Co, ‘Royal Mail’, circa 1880
Photographer: Jon Augier
Source: Museums Victoria

Rutherford arrived in Hobson’s Bay as a 25-year-old from New York and tried his luck as a digger in Bendigo, but luck did not favour him. An offer of £25  a week to manage a coaching business in Victoria interested him. After six months at the job, he joined A.W. Robertson, Walter Hall, W.F. Witney and J. Wagner to purchase an interest in the business.  Under them, the company maintained a good relationship with the employees and the employees were generally well paid. The drivers in its early days were mostly Americans, because Australians were not used to handling 6,8 and 12 horses from the box. But soon Australians were trained to do the job and proved their worth. The fares were generally high for the customers.

From Victoria, Cobb &Co extended to New South Wales. Gold was already discovered in Bathurst and one was just discovered at Lambing Flat. In June 1862, Rutherford took 110 horses to 10 carriages and two feed wagons from Bendigo to Bathurst as a publicity procession to announce and establish Cobb &Co’s presence in NSW. Rutherford drove the first coach and such a procession has never before left Bendigo. The entourage was so large that, on the first night, it had to camp beside the Macquarie River until suitable accommodation formmen and horses could be found.

Rutherford established a Cobb & Co buggy and coachworks in Bathurst. First it began operating regular services to Forbes from Bathurst and booking offices were setup in Forbes, Bathurst and Orange. Company established changing stations at approximately every 15 to 20km. Post Offices, Inns and shanties were used to service passengers en-route. Initially the competitors used both fair and foul methods to squeeze out Cobb& Co, even refused to carry passengers who used the services of Cobb &Co.

But Cobb’s service was efficient, time saving and competitive, which forced out many of its competitors in NSW and Cobb & Co bought out the rest. Only the best horses were used by the company and some of the bigger coaches carried as many as 75 passengers. In 1862, Headquarters of the company was established at Bathurst, and coach building factories were also established, first at Bathurst then at Hay, Goulburn and Bourke in New South Wales and at Charleville in Queensland. Coaches built for NSW and Victoria were usually painted red and yellow, and Queensland coaches were painted white.

Cobb & Co began their services in Queensland in 1865. H. Barnes, one of its old drivers and road managers came to Brisbane to open up the road routes.  Brisbane to Ipswich was the first route, which Barnes drove with a team of 12 horses for the first time. 16 coaches built at Bathurst factory were brought to Queensland complete with horses and other accessories and soon services to other routes were also began. Cobb &Co first became a limited company in Queensland in 1881 with a capital of £50000 , with James Rutherford as Governing director. By the 1870’s Cobb &Co has spread its coaches all over Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Its profits were invested in other businesses. It financed the first iron works at Lithgow, which grew into Australian Iron and Steel Ltd. It also pioneered the import of West Australian Timbers (Jarrah trade) to India and established many sawmills for the purpose. For some years, the company also ran a few general country stores, unsuccessfully.  Rutherford acquired large pastoral properties in NSW and Queensland and died as one of the biggest pastoralists in the country. Rutherford also invented sheep dip, through which 4000 sheeps could be dipped in a day. Walter Hall was one of the original proprietors of Mount Morgan Mine in central Queensland. The company also helped to finance “Bathurst Advocate”.

By the 1870’s the company’s coaches were travelling around 28,000 miles a week using around 6000 horses; it received around £95,000 from Government a year as mail subsidy and was paying £100,000 in wages per annum. In 1871 the business separated and the coaching activities in different states were controlled by different partners and the finances were separate too though not completely disassociated. Rutherford, Whitney, Hall and Bradley controlled the assets of NSW and Queensland, Robertson and Wagner controlled Victorian assets.

But gradually Railways and motor transport forced the coaches off the roads. Initially the company responded to the Railway’s encroachment in its territory by extending services to inner country towns by providing feeder routes. To run only the feeder routes, such a massive organisational structure was a burden and the company reduced its plants and structures bit by bit.

Through the 1890’s, it was closing its coach building factories elsewhere and transferring all of its business to Charleville site. Bathurst was closed in 1893 and Bourke in 1899. Charleville facility was closed in 1920.

Cobb &Co’s purchase of iron ore mine Lithgow put the company £130,000 in debt. Company also acted as railway contractors and railway construction project between Glen Innes and Tenterfield in 1882 was a big loss for the company. The drought of 1900’s almost doubled the cost of feeding company’s horses at that time. Apart from Queensland, both Victoria and NSW, suffered from the infiltration of Railways, advent of motor cars and fierce competition from rivals since the 1880’s and Cobb &Co was in the brink of bankruptcy in 1902. Bradley left the firm in 1870. Walter Hall retired in 1880. In September 1911, Rutherford died of pneumonia, aged 83.

 Its last coach, a 14-passenger type, ran between Yuleba and Surat in Queensland. The coach was sold to the Federal Government for £100 as a museum piece. On 25th June 1929, Cobb and Company Queensland, went into voluntary administration and its last remaining assets were five retail stores.

To conclude we will leave our reader with a poem by Will. H. Ogilvie published in the Sydney Bulletin on 23rd May 1895.

The Lights of Cobb &Co

By, North and South, and East and West,

By dawn and dark of day, By swamps and plains and mountain-crest,

They take the foremost way;

And where the slanting sun rays dip,

And underneath the stars is heard the thunder whip and creaking of the bars

And out beyond the reach of rail,

As far as wheel-tracks go, 

The drovers round , their  campfire hail,

The lights of Cobb & Co

The settlers wait at death of day

To hear the rolling wheels,

When faintly through the twilight grey

The far whip challenge steals;

They take the messages of love,

And bring them safely through

The faithful sun that shines above

Is not more loyal true —

They bear the lines or shame and sin,

The words of weal and woe;

And life itself is trusted in the hands of Cobb and Co.’

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    The last coach trip for Cobb & Co was between Yuleba and Surat in Queensland on 14th August 1924. The journey that began 70 years ago in Melbourne
    [See the full post at: The story of Cobb & Co]

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