Cobb & Co
Chinese passengers leaving for the diggings by Cobb & Co. coach, Castlemaine, Victoria. State Library of Victoria, Picture Collection.
Cobb & Co was the name of a successful coaching company in Australia, established in 1853. The name Cobb & Co grew to great prominence in the late 19th century, when it was carried by many stagecoaches carrying passengers and mail to various Australian goldfields, and later to many regional and remote areas of the Australian outback. The company name was also used in New Zealand and South Africa.
Although the Queensland branch of the company made an effort to transition to automobiles in the early twentieth century, high overhead costs and the growth of alternative transport options for mail, including rail and air, saw the final demise of Cobb & Co. The last Australian Cobb & Co stagecoach ran in Queensland in August 1924.
Cobb & Co has become an established part of Australian folklore, and the company has been commemorated in art, literature and on screen. Today the name is used by a number of Australian bus operators.
Establishing the Company
The original company was established in Melbourne in 1853 at the height of the excitement created by the Victorian goldrushes, by four newly arrived North Americans - Freeman Cobb, John Murray Peck, James Swanton and John B. Lamber. Initially the company traded as the "American Telegraph Line of Coaches," a name that emphasized speed and progressiveness. With financial support from another newly arrived US businessman George Train, they arranged the importation of several US-built wagons and Concord coaches. By early 1854, the Company operated a daily service to Forest Creek and Bendigo, and soon afterwards, expanding the service to Geelong and Ballarat other goldfields.
In common with many operatives, Cobb & Co's horses were changed every 10–15 miles along a stagecoach "line", often at inns or hotels that could also cater for the needs of drivers and passengers. As Historian Susan Priestley notes, "Coach lines did not attempt to compete with... railways. Instead, as rail lines extended, coaches were transferred to feeder routes and were timetabled to link in with trains."
Within a few years, Cobb & Co had established a reputation for efficiency, speed and reliability, although they had not won any of the lucrative mail contracts. Their imported coaches used thorough-brace technology whereby thick straps of leather provided suspension to the body of the vehicle, thus providing the passenger with considerable comfort on the rough roads to the goldfields, by comparison to coaches with traditional steel-springs.
Under James Rutherford
In May 1856, the four partners sold out. Cobb and Lamber returned to the US while Swanton continued in coaching for a few more years. John Peck stayed in Melbourne, eventually to establish a stock and station agency. Passing through a number of owners, the company rose to greater prominence after 1861, when bought by a consortium of partners, led by another North American, James Rutherford who, like Cobb, had arrived during the gold rush. Rutherford's partners included Alexander William Robertson, John Wagner, Walter Russell Hall, William Franklin Whitney and Walter Bradley. Rutherford re-organised and extended the Victorian services and won a monopoly on major mail contracts. By 1870, most of Victoria was serviced by a network of coach routes.
Expansion into NSW and Queensland
In June 1862 Rutherford oversaw the extension of the business into New South Wales following news of the Lambing Flat gold rush. Rutherford moved ten coaches from Bendigo to Bathurst with great publicity, to announce and establish Cobb & Co's presence. Bathurst became the headquarters of a new syndicate, led by Rutherford and four others. Rutherford had intended to spend 6 months in Bathurst, but stayed on to the end of his days, becoming one of the city's leading citizens. Rutherford established a Cobb & Co buggy and coachworks in Bathurst, and the firm also began to invest in properties - the first being "Buckiinguy" station near Nyngan, New South Wales. On the road, Cobb & Co began buying out or forcing out many New South Wales competitors.
In 1865 the company again expanded, this time into Queensland. The first Cobb & Co service in Queensland was between Ipswich and Brisbane in 1865. Services were soon expanded into all parts of Queensland and this allowed for otherwise isolated communities to maintain regular contact with the rest of the world. In 1881 the firm became a company, with a capital of £50,000, running some 3000 horses a total of around 10,000 miles a week, the largest transport company in Queensland. A large coachworks was established at Charleville in the 1886, which turned out a variety of vehicles including over 120 coaches.
In 1871, the formal links between the Victorian Cobb & Co company (taken over by Robertson and Wagner) and Rutherford's New South Wales and Queensland operation were finally dissolved, but harmonious relations continued. In Victoria, coaches carrying the name "Cobb & Co" were operated by four local coaching firms, running particular routes by mutual agreement and cooperation. In time, successive operators of the various Victorian stagecoach lines would continue to use the trading name Cobb & Co.
Beyond Eastern Australia
Another company, also branded as Cobb & Co, took over the South Australian mail and coach business of William Rounsevell in 1866 after several years of ruinous competition. Its ownership was held by four interests of a quarter each. One quarter by Canadians, Peleg Whitford Jackson & Jasper Bingham Meggs; one quarter by Fuller, Hill & Co; one quarter by Joseph Darwent and one quarter by Rounsevell's son Ben Rounsevell. The business was taken over by John Hill & Co and years later was merged into Graves, Hill & Co.
Such was the renown of Cobb & Co that the name was also used on coaches operating beyond Australia. Charles Cole, and Henry and Charles Hoyt, who had operated coaches in Victoria, started companies bearing the name in New Zealand in 1863 and Japan in 1868.
Although he never returned to Australia, Freeman Cobb took his family to South Africa in 1871 to establish a Cobb & Co Ltd stagecoach service with Charles Cole, operating between Port Elizabeth and the new diamond fields at Kimberley. He died at Port Elizabeth in 1878.
Cobb & Co in Folklore
Through the later nineteenth century, travel by Cobb & Co coach was increasingly romanticized in literature, but when Henry Lawson wrote the famous poem forewarning of its demise; The Lights of Cobb & Co in 1897, the days of coaching were already coming to an end in Victoria and New South Wales, and Australia was an increasingly urbanised society. The nationalistic art, music and writing of late 19th century Australia romanticized a pioneering rural or bush myth and Cobb & Co, its colourful drivers and managers easily fell into this tradition. Writer Sam Everingham also notes that Cobb & Co was "the first great home grown service provider Australia had known... Born out of the country's gold rushes, the name Cobb & Co has come to represent the pioneering spirit, a willingness to battle against the odds, to reliably connect far-flung communities."
Carrying cash and gold, coaches were famously a regular target of bushrangers. Everingham notes that Cobb & Co's expansion into New South Wales coincided with an increase in the number of armed hold-ups by bushrangers. At least nine coaches were attacked in the Bathurst district, in the seven months after the company established itself there.
Tom Roberts, a key member of the Heidelberg School, painted "Bailed Up" near Inverell in 1895, modelling the figures on "local townspeople, including (Cobb & Co) stagecoach driver 'Silent Bob Bates' who had been held up by local bushranger Captain Thunderbolt three decades earlier."
Cobb & Co's operations across Australia were eventually superseded by the expansion of railway networks, the arrival of cheap, reliable automobiles and the emergence of Air Mail. In 1920, the Charleville coachworks closed and by 1921, Cobb & Co in Queensland had lost most of its mail contracts running out of Charleville. The company also had a vast amount of debt due to over-expansion into industries like wool. Rutherford had died in 1911, the same year the Company approved its first purchase of motor vehicles. In New South Wales, the last coach probably ran on the Hebel-Goodooga-Brewarrina routes in 1913, while the last coach ran in Victoria from Casterton to Mount Gambier in 1916. Australia's last horse-drawn stagecoach service was run by Cobb & Co from Yuleba to Surat in Queensland on August 14, 1924. With the rapid decline in wool prices in 1929, Cobb & Co Queensland finally went into liquidation. Gordon Studdert, a former employee, kept the Cobb & Co name as his Surat store business name until his death in 1955.
The 598 kilometre Cobb Highway in western New South Wales is named in commemoration of the company.
Only one Concord or "Jack" coach of the type imported from the United States by Cobb & Co in the 1850s and 1860s survives. According to Deborah Tranter, while Australian built stagecoaches utilized the thorough-brace technology found on the Concord coach, they were generally smaller, lighter, straighter in line and had less room for passengers than the US coaches. Coaches built at the Charleville coachworks were generally designed for either 8 or 14 passengers.
In addition to reproductions, a number of original Cobb & Co stagecoaches still exist in varying states of preservation. Often repainted in the twentieth century, the provenance of some is now difficult to determine.
- An imported "Concord" coach built by Abbott and Downing of New Hampshire. Imported by F.B. Clapp and Co, c1869 and used in the Ballarat area. It is preserved in original condition and held by Museum Victoria
- Another stagecoach, possibly built in Geelong, Victoria c1880, is held by Museum Victoria. It is believed to have been the last mail coach to operate commercially in Victoria - in 1916.
- Two stagecoaches, numbered 48 and 100, built in Charleville, Queensland in the late nineteenth century, are in the National Carriage Collection at the Cobb & Co Museum in Toowoomba.
- Another stagecoach built in Charleville, Queensland, c1890 is preserved at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
- An Australian built stagecoach, possibly also built at the Cobb & Co factory in Charleville in the late nineteenth century, is in the collection of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Often described as the "Nowlands Coach," it was owned and operated by Nowlands Line of Coaches in the Liverpool Plains district.
- An Australian built stagecoach is in the Western Australian Museum at Kalgoorlie.
- A locally built stagecoach is on public display in the main street of Hay, New South Wales
- A stagecoach built in Bathurst is on display in the Visitor Information Centre, Bathurst, New South Wales.
- William Henry Ogilvie mentions Cobb & Co in his poem How the Fire Queen Crossed the Swamp
- The Coach of Cobb & Co is a song on the album Australia: Our Land, Our Music.
- Lionel Long wrote and sang The Ballad of Cobb & Co.
- The television series Whiplash was inspired by the life of Freeman Cobb and starred Peter Graves as "Christopher Cobb."
- K. A. Austin (1977) A Pictorial History of Cobb & Co. Rigby Ltd, Adelaide. ISBN 9780727003164.
- Jan Bassett (1986) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Australian History OUP, Melbourne. ISBN 0 19 554422 6.
- "Old Coaching Days". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 10 June 1922. p. 7. Retrieved 9 October 2012.
- Hacker, D.R. (1999). Petries Bight: a Slice of Brisbane History. Bowen Hills, Queensland: Queensland Women's Historical Association Inc. pp. 19, 20. ISBN 0-9590271-8-1.
- Susan Priestley (1984). The Victorians: Making Their Mark, Pages 61-63. Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, NSW. ISBN 0 949288 00 4.
- "Cobb & Co. - an Australian transport icon". Retrieved 19 September 2016
- Environmental Protection Agency (Queensland) (2002). Heritage Trails of the Queensland Outback. State of Queensland. p. 11. ISBN 0-7345-1040-3.
- "COBB AND CO.". The Queenslander. National Library of Australia. 1 September 1917. p. 3. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
- Deborah Tranter (1990)Cobb & Co: Coaching in Queensland, p.13, Queensland Museum, National Library of Australia. ISBN 0 7242 4140 X.
- "A Man's Duty is to Serve His Country". The Mail. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 13 September 1913. p. 2 Section: Second Section. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
- "On the tracks of Cobb & Co, Heritage Australia, March 1, 2006. Jeff Powell" (PDF).
- "Webpage updates of Wildride, The Rise and Fall of Cobb & Co, Sam Everingham".
- "Australian Dictionary of Biography: Freeman Cobb".
- The Lights of Cobb and Co. by Henry Lawson
- Leigh Astbury (1985) City Bushmen; the Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology. P.2, Oxford University Press, Melbourne. ISBN 0-19-554501-X.
- Sam Everingham (2007), "Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Cobb & Co," p.292 Penguin Books, ISBN 9780143011095.
- Sam Everingham (2007) p.63-65
- "Tom Roberts "Bailed Up" Art Gallery of NSW".
- Sam Everingham (2007) p.281-294.
- "Cobb & Co mail and passenger coach, 1890, Powerhouse Museum, object description and notes".
- "Museum Victoria, object description and notes".
- Deborah Tranter (1990) pps.54-57
- Of the Australian built coaches, the Powerhouse Museum states "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.""Production Notes Cobb & Co Coach".
- For example, see Museum Victoria's "1880 coach Object Description".
- "Museum Victoria, Concord Coach".
- "Museum Victoria, Australian built Cobb & Co Coach".
- "Cobb & Co mail and passenger coach, 1890".
- "National Museum of Australia Nowlands Mail Coach".
- How the Fire Queen Crossed the Swamp by William Ogilvie
- Whiplash – Classic Australian Television
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