Friday, June 26, 2020

Cobb & Co: Getting the mail through

Hooves drumming in perfect unison, whip cracks, clattering Wheels - out of the dust cloud over the rise comes a Cobb & Co coach - surely one of the most romantic sights of the last century and one of the most welcome to news-starved inland Australians before the days of electronic communication.

The company, set up in 1853 by the American Freeman Cobb and three compatriots, began operating the following year between Melbourne and Sandridge (Port Melbourne). Of course, e were coaches before that - Australia's first real public conveyance ran weekly from Sydney through Parramatta to Windsor and Richmond in 1814. But from the time Cobb & Co. began taking passengers to the Bendigo goldfields, other coaching companies in the eastern colonies gradually faded into obscurity.

Cobb & Co sign, Gundagai (RE)
Cobb & Co.'s first coaches were imported from the United States. They were light, robust vehicles, suspended on leather straps attached at either end to iron jacks, and were reliable on the roughest roads - and the timetable was respected with frequently changed horses a feature of the Cobb & Co. service. Passengers were not so much jarred and bumped as rolled from side to side the motion made some of them 'seasick', Not the most comfortable of rides - one passenger complained: Every two or three minutes the wheel goes into a hole or over a stump with such force as it would almost throw you out of your seat'

The touring light-opera singer, Emily Soldene, wrote graphically of her travels with Cobb & Co., her words bringing to life the rough and tumble of the ride: 'suddenly we go, down a mountain as steep as the side of a house, down into and through a rushing, roaring tumbling, bumping, yellow river! Splash! Then with a 'houps! hi! and a big lurch, out again and up the opposite side, galloping, always galloping, breathless, the driver shouting, cracking his whip, and the horses shaking the water from their sides, tossing their heads, and jingling their harness.

Cobb & Co. Coach No 48 in the Queensland Museum (supplied)
In 1859, Cobb sold the business to a fellow American, James Rutherford, who secured a monopoly on government mail contracts. He shrewdly kept the name already associated with fast and efficient service. In 1862, after the gold rush to Lambing Flat, Cobb & Co headquarters moved to Bathurst in New South Wales. The company moved into Queensland in 1867 but never reached South Australia, Western Australia or Tasmania.

By 1870, 6000 horses were harnessed daily, the coaches covered 45000 kilometres a week, the yearly income from mail subsidies was 95 000 pounds sterling and the yearly wages bill was 100 000 pounds sterling Cobb and Co's other undertakings included stores, inns and factories. The Leviathan was the pride of the Cobb & Co. fleet - it ran from Castlemaine to Kyneton pulled by twenty-two horses which wore pale blue rosettes over their ears. It carried up to seventy-five passengers. The driver had two or perhaps four postilions to help him with the reins. These men were local heroes and the most famous was a Tasmanian called Edward Devine - "Cabbage-tree Ned'. In 1862, he drove the first visiting English cricket team round Australia in the comparatively diminutive Great Coach, drawn by twelve grey horses. At the end of the tour, Ned was rewarded with a banquet and 300 sovereigns.

The drivers faced many dangers: the appalling state of the roads, fire, flood and gold-hungry bushrangers. There was an attack on Frank May in 1859 when he was driving between Broadford and Seymour in Victoria, but popular history claims there were only four fatal accidents in seventy years of service - an incredible record if true.

Cobb & Co. was inevitably destined to be overcome by the steady march of progress. Gradually, the railways took over the coastal routes and the coach network went inland where it helped to open up remote areas. The last service ran between Yeulba and Surat in Queensland in 1924 - the coach that covered the distance is now in the Queensland Museum.

Text source: Readers Digest Guide
to Australian Places 1995

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