Horsedrawn vehicle, Cobb & Co mail and passenger coach, timber / metal / leather, made by Cobb & Co Coach and Buggy Factory, Charleville, Queensland, Australia, 1890
This Cobb & Co thoroughbrace coach was built in 1890, the second eight-passenger coach produced by the company's Charleville workshops in Queensland. It was the combination of strength, stability and the forgiving suspension of the Charleville-built coaches that led them to be described at the time as "the most scientifically built long distance horse vehicles known".
Cobb & Co was the most famous coaching firm in Australian history. For seventy years it provided a service renowned for its speed and reliability, delivering letters and passengers on time despite often adverse weather conditions. The company developed a large network of change stations, its own specially bred horses, and extremely reputable and skilled drivers who knew their routes well.
The development in the USA of the 'thoroughbrace' coach, ideally suited to Australian conditions, was the single greatest contributing factor to the company's success. (The term 'thoroughbrace', including an archaic form of 'through', refers to the suspension of the coach body on strong leather straps.) Cobb & Co coaches operated in every Australian State except Tasmania, as well as in New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. The extent of these coaching operations even surpassed that of the famous American coaching company Wells Fargo.
The Cobb & Co Telegraph Line of Royal Mail Coaches was formed in 1853 by Freeman Cobb to operate horsedrawn mail and passenger coaches between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields. Whereas in England coaching services were closed after the introduction of railways in the 1830s, in Australia coaching services developed concurrently with railways from the 1850s and flourished both in competition with them and by providing complementary services. This encouraged settlement and the development of effective communication networks in remote country areas of eastern Australia, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Under James Rutherford's management from 1861, the company quickly established its supremacy over other coaching lines. Along the coach routes were inns or change stations, at 15 to 30 mile intervals, where fresh horses replaced tired ones. A bugle carried on the coach was always blown as they approached an inn, change station or town stopping place. The horses were strong and bred for the purpose. Five horses matched by colour were harnessed for the eight-passenger coaches, a formation devised by Rutherford for Cobb and Co.
After 1902, Cobb & Co.'s diminishing profits were attributed to drought conditions, extensions to the railways in Queensland and the introduction of the motor car and later the aeroplane. The last horsedrawn Cobb & Co coach service to operate was in Queensland between Surat and Yeulba (now Yuleba) on 14 August 1924. After that the company only operated motor vehicles until it went into voluntary dissolution in 1929.
It is believed that the Museum's coach was last on the road at Blackall in Queensland, although the Museum acquired it from Narrabri, New South Wales, in 1936. In the mid 1950s half of the coach was painted in the New South Wales Cobb & Co livery of red and straw, to give an impression of its appearance in service. Although this resulted in a strange hybrid object, we are thankful today that at least half of the coach is in 'as found' condition, its original fabric not obliterated by modern paint.
Austin, K. A., "The Lights of Cobb & Co.", Rigby Ltd, Adelaide, 1977.
Cuffley, P., "Buggies and Horse-drawn vehicles in Australia", Pioneer Design Studio Pty Ltd, Lilydale, 1981.
Stringer, M., "Australian Horse-drawn Vehicles", Rigby Ltd, Adelaide, 1980.
Lees, W., "Coaching in Australia: A History of the Coaching Firm of Cobb & Co"., Carter Watson , Brisbane, 1917.
Murdoch, Sally, obb & Co. : A select bibiography, La Trobe Research Section, State Library of Victoria, available on internet at http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/slv/latrobe/cobb&co.htm
"Old Coaching Days in New South Wales" in "Main Roads", Vol. XVII, No. 2. pp. 40-45.
Hatherly, J. "Reminiscences of the Old Coaching Days" in Royal Australian History Society Journal, Vol. 24 1938. pp.241-244.
The Cobb & Co coach owes its origins to the American Concord coach first designed and built in Concord, New Hampshire in the 1820s. It was distinguished by a slightly convex body with a side profile shaped like a truncated "U". Built largely of light but resilient hickory, Concord coaches withstood the jarring and jolting of rough frontier roads far better than any other type of vehicle. The key to their success was the method of suspension: the body was suspended on several thicknesses of tough buffalo hide "thoroughbraces" which no road shocks could break (unlike steel springs) and which provided a relatively comfortable ride.
The coaches designed and built in Australia by Cobb & Co. at Bathurst and later Charleville altered the "U" shape of the Concord coach to a more rectangular shape. These were cheaper to build and featured large open windows more suitable to the Australian climate. The famous thoroughbrace suspension remained.
It was largely the durability of the Concord coach and wagon which made the vehicles so suitable for Australian conditions. In 1853, Freeman Cobb and three other American partners set up the American Telegraph Line of coaches, operating between Melbourne and the goldfields. After less than two and a half years Cobb sold his ownership of the company to a fellow American coach proprietor and retuned to America. The company underwent several rapid changes of ownership during which time the name was maintained and services extended throughout Central and North-Eastern Victoria. In 1861 or 1862 another young American, James Rutherford, bought what was to become a controlling interest in Cobb & Co for the next fifty years. The company's operations expanded north to New South Wales in 1862 and the headquarters and a coach-building factory was set up at Bathurst.
Cobb & Co secured the contract to carry the Royal Mail, and the monograms of three consecutive British sovereigns were painted on the sides of the coaches in turn. Mail was carried in huge mail baskets or bags, and overloading was common. Disastrous capsizes were often avoided by the driver exhorting his passengers to throw their weight to this side or that to preserve the balance.
In 1865, the company moved further north to establish coaching lines in Queensland. A coachbuilding factory was soon in operation in Brisbane, but problems were experienced with moisture content of the timber. As the coaching routes extended inland it was found that the vehicles built with timbers seasoned on the coast would not stand the dry climate and would crack and gape at the joints. It was decided to move the factory, and the site chosen was the central Queensland town of Charleville, some 500 miles inland. This location was also selected to maintain a viable patronage away from the competition with the coastal railway system. The plant and equipment from both the New South Wales factories was moved to Charleville in 1886. Large stocks of timber were purchased and seasoned in the same hot dry climate in which the vehicles were to be built. This remedied the problem and, from the late 1880s, all Cobb & Co. coaches of eight and fourteen passenger capacity were produced in this factory for service in all states. Those coaches which operated in Queensland were painted white, while the New South Wales lines retained their red and yellow colours. It was the combination of strength, stability and forgiving suspension of the Charleville-built Cobb & Co. coaches that led them to be described at the time as "the most scientifically built long distance horse vehicles known"
By 1870 Cobb & Co coaches were in operation in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, travelling 28,000 miles a week and harnessing 6,000 horses each day. In addition to the ordinary coaches, the company owned seven extra large coaches built to carry seventy passengers.
Along the coach routes were inns or change stations,15 to 30 miles apart, where fresh horses replaced tired ones. A bugle carried on the coach was always blown as the coach approached an inn, changing station or town stopping place. The horses were strong and bred for the purpose. Five horses matched by colour were harnessed for the eight-passenger coaches, a formation devised by Rutherford for Cobb & Co. Two horses were used as "polers" for the heavy work in the back row, while three horses were the leaders to "make the pace". The centre horse in the front row was the leader and played a major part in steering the coach. The coach travelled quickly over smooth level roads, but because of streams without bridges, hill country and sandy plains, their average speed on the majority of routes was only about 6 or 7 miles per hour.
Male passengers would open the stock gates, and at night a "gate watch" was organised to ensure someone was awake to answer the driver's call of "gate, gate, oh". Passengers alighted and walked over stretches which were too steep or hazardous to ride. The other slight risk in coach travel was being bailed up by bushrangers. Straw was laid on the floor of the coaches to keep passengers' feet warm and occasionally to hide small valuables from bushrangers.
The coach drivers were required to manage a separate rein for each horse. They had to remember every steep decline, sharp corner, heavy bog and winding path along the route, which had to be to negotiated in all weathers and at night.
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 out in a thunder storm, exposed to the elements, rather than being jolted inside the coach, hitting their heads on the roof. Female passengers always had to travel inside the body of the coach. Although coach travel was very uncomfortable, the vehicles were extraordinarily resilient and accidents were relatively rare.
Drought conditions, extensions to the railways in Queensland and the introduction of the motor car and later the aeroplane all contributed to the diminishing profits of Cobb & Co after 1902. The last Cobb & Co coach services in New South Wales probably ran on the Hebel-New Angledool and Hebel-Goodooga-Brewarrina routes in 1913. Services in Queensland were maintained until 14 August 1924, when a 14 passenger coach from Surat to Yeulba (now Yuleba) ran for the last time. The company went into voluntary dissolution in 1929.