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All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. Can you put the horses and men back together? Drag the pieces over the dimmed picture to reassemble this photo of a Cobb & Co coach.
By Henry Lawson
FIRE LIGHTED, on the table a meal for sleepy men,
A lantern in the stable, a jingle now and then;
The mail coach looming darkly by light of moon and star,
The growl of sleepy voices—a candle in the bar.
A stumble in the passage of folk with wits abroad;
A swear-word from a bedroom—the shout of ‘All aboard!’
‘Tchk-tchk! Git-up!’ ‘Hold fast, there!’ and down the range we go;
Five hundred miles of scattered camps will watch for Cobb and Co.
Old coaching towns already ‘decaying for their sins,
’Uncounted ‘Half -Way Houses,’ and scores of ‘Ten Mile Inns;
’The riders from the stations by lonely granite peaks;The black-boy for the shepherds on sheep and cattle creeks;
The roaring camps of Gulgong, and many a ‘Digger’s Rest;
’The diggers on the Lachlan; the huts of Farthest West;
Some twenty thousand exiles who sailed for weal or woe;
The bravest hearts of twenty lands will wait for Cobb and Co.
The morning star has vanished, the frost and fog are gone,
In one of those grand mornings which but on mountains dawn;
A flask of friendly whisky—each other’s hopes we share—
And throw our top-coats open to drink the mountain air.
The roads are rare to travel, and life seems all complete;
The grind of wheels on gravel, the trot of horses’ feet,
The trot, trot, trot and canter, as down the spur we go—
The green sweeps to horizons blue that call for Cobb and Co.
We take a bright girl actress through western dust and damps,
To bear the home-world message, and sing for sinful camps,
To wake the hearts and break them, wild hearts that hope and ache—
(Ah! when she thinks of those days her own must nearly break!)
Five miles this side the gold-field, a loud, triumphant shout:
Five hundred cheering diggers have snatched the horses out:
With ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in chorus through roaring camps they go—
That cheer for her, and cheer for Home, and cheer for Cobb and Co.
Three lamps above the ridges and gorges dark and deep,
A flash on sandstone cuttings where sheer the sidings sweep,
A flash on shrouded waggons, on water ghastly white;
Weird bush and scattered remnants of rushes in the night
Across the swollen river a flash beyond the ford:
‘Ride hard to warn the driver! He’s drunk or mad, good Lord!’
But on the bank to westward a broad, triumphant glow—
A hundred miles shall see to-night the lights of Cobb and Co.!
Swift scramble up the siding where teams climb inch by inch;
Pause, bird-like, on the summit—then breakneck down the pinch
Past haunted half-way houses—where convicts made the bricks—
Scrub-yards and new bark shanties, we dash with five and six—
By clear, ridge-country rivers, and gaps where tracks run high,
Where waits the lonely horseman, cut clear against the sky;
Through stringy-bark and blue-gum, and box and pine we go;
New camps are stretching ’cross the plains the routes of Cobb and Co.
Throw down the reins, old driver—there’s no one left to shout;
The ruined inn’s survivor must take the horses out.
A poor old coach hereafter!—we’re lost to all such things—
No bursts of songs or laughter shall shake your leathern springs
When creeping in unnoticed by railway sidings drear,
Or left in yards for lumber, decaying with the year—
Oh, who’ll think how in those days when distant fields were broad
You raced across the Lachlan side with twenty-five on board.
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 and Co.
The ‘greyhounds’ race across the sea, the ‘special’ cleaves the haze,
But these seem dull and slow to me compared with Roaring Days!
The eyes that watched are dim with age, and souls are weak and slow,
The hearts are dust or hardened now that broke for Cobb and Co.
Legends, Larrikins and Lore
Ghosts tell of legends and heroes. Whip-cracks echo, chains jingle, leather softly creaks. Down through the ages drifts the story of courage and ambition: young entrepreneurs who became legends in their own time. Drivers, captains of the ‘ships of the plains’, still spin their yarns in the wind that rolls the spinifex across the deserts. Eccentric ghosts in abandoned changing stations still mumble in the secret places of the Never Never. The Cobb & Co saga in Australia is a romantic story of pioneers and adventurers, seeking their fortune and creating a nation.
Re-enactment of a Cobb & Co ride, April 1998.
Coaches and Teams
In the early days, Cobb & Co imported its horses, coaches and many of its drivers from America until reliable local sources could be established.
The company favoured the American Concord coach, which differed considerably from the English style of coach generally used throughout the colony. Instead of a system of metal springs, the Concord coach body was suspended on leather thoroughbraces consisting of layers of thick leather straps whose tension could be adjusted by a turnbuckle. The result was a coach that would react and move with the rough road surfaces, providing a more comfortable ride for passengers than had been available previously. The American coaches were modified for the harsh Australian conditions; after 1862, the company’s factories designed and produced their own.
Coaches ranged in size from eight-seaters to the famous Leviathan coaches that were licensed to seat 72 passengers (the latter were too unwieldy and not a success). New South Wales coaches were painted red with a yellow undercarriage, whilst Queensland coaches were painted white. Luggage was stored beneath the box seat (where the driver sat), under the passengers’ feet or strapped to a luggage compartment at the rear of the coach whilst mail and parcels were strapped to the roof.
Cobb & Co’s horses were bred specifically for the purpose and were strong and speedy. Coach teams were matched on performance, size and temperament, as well as colour and markings. Teams of three, four, five, six or more horses were harnessed, depending on the size of the coach and the topography of the route, and were substituted every 16 miles (25.6km) or so by grooms at changing stations. Drivers had favourite teams and it was the grooms’ job to have the correct team of horses ready as the coach arrived – woe betide them if they didn’t! Grooms could usually change an entire team within two minutes.
Contrary to popular belief, coach horses were not straight heavy or draught breeds such as Clydesdales although they did carry some of this bloodline. Cobb & Co specifically bred what were called ‘coachers’ and many properties were bought for the purpose. Coachers were a cross between a standardbred or trotter and a draught horse or thoroughbred; later, an Arabian strain was introduced. The horses were 14 to 16 hands high, wide-chested, strong and muscular with fine legs and were renowned for their speed and stamina. The breed proved so successful that Cobb & Co exported many of its horses as remounts to India. Many horses in the Australian trotting and racing industries today descend from Cobb & Co’s bloodstock.
Known as ‘whips’ or ‘Jehus’, Cobb & Co drivers were legendary in 19th Century Australia. They had to contend with heat, dust, bushfires, flies, mosquitoes, rain, fog, bog, snow, snakes, kangaroos, bushrangers, difficult passengers and post office schedules which demanded that the mail be on time or a heavy fine would ensue. Each driver specialised in particular sections of the coach runs and knew every twist and turn of the route.The driver was in complete charge of the coach and his word was law. Male passengers were required to help with any difficulty at the driver’s command and this included opening gates, which usually meant taking turns to be gate-watch at night. Where rivers were deep, passengers would be ferried across whilst the horses swam; where the terrain was steep, passengers were often told to get out and walk to spare the horses.
Some travellers paid big money to sit on the ‘box seat’ next to the driver and listen to his yarns, poetry or the latest folk songs. Occasionally, the box seat was auctioned to the highest bidder.
A journey with Cobb & Co was a very egalitarian affair. The company conveyed rich and poor alike in a one-class carriage, employed Aboriginal people (mainly as grooms) and patronised hostelries run by women; on any given trip, travellers might rub shoulders with convicts, gentry, farmers, Chinese, Aboriginal and British people. All were treated equally by the coach driver and had to accept his authority, no matter what his nationality.
Some of the drivers were great characters that became renowned over the years – names such as Cabbage Tree Ned, Sir Alex Forcett (an English baronet), Thomas Cawker and Alex Corbett were talked about widely. You can read about these men and many others in the book, Cobb & Co Heritage Trail Bathurst to Bourke by Diane Simmonds.
One interesting Cobb & Co driver was a woman, Mrs Byrnes, who lived near Orange in central western New South Wales. The mother of 13 children, she was a keen horseman and a resourceful soul who drove a coach between Canowindra and Orange in her spare time. If there were few passengers on board, she would take several of her children with her for company. One afternoon, on the return run from Orange, Mrs Byrnes spotted a couple of horsemen waiting beside the road some distance ahead and recognised the men as bushrangers. Her first thought was for the safety of her children, so she stopped the coach and told them to hide amongst the trees and scrub. She then shook the reins and galloped the horses to the ‘holdup’, dealt with the bushrangers in no uncertain fashion, returned to pick up the children then continued home in time to do the evening farm chores.
Tall Tales and True
Coach drivers certainly could spin a good tale or two. One amusing anecdote tells of a driver that had a young Englishman on board, travelling outback to become a jackeroo.
‘Do you know that we have the kangaroos trained out here?’ he asked the innocent lad. ‘Really?’ the young man replied, ‘I daresay, how?’
‘Well,’ answered the driver, ‘the property owners out here teach the kangaroos to come and get the mail for them. There’ll be one not far ahead, watch and see’.
He drove on a short distance until he spotted a big kangaroo bounding across a paddock. On seeing the coach, it stopped and stared straight at it (as kangaroos do). ‘None today, Joey!’ shouted the driver and the kangaroo turned quickly and bounded back the way he had come. ‘Well fancy that!’ said the astonished boy. ‘You wouldn’t believe it, would you?’
Hospitality Along the Route
Changing stations were combined sometimes with bush shanties or inns where the passengers could get a meal, drink or a few hours’ sleep. These inns or shanties were often very primitive (although occasionally very grand) and were often run by women. There were also other wayside inns, some incorporating the local post office, where Cobb & Co stopped for passengers or to deliver mail and many of these buildings still exist today. Changing stations were situated roughly 20km to 25km apart, sometimes closer depending on the terrain – about the distance that the horses could be expected to travel before becoming too weary.
By regulation, on approaching a changing station, a horn was blown to warn of the coach’s imminent arrival. Each driver had a distinctive call that was well known to the grooms, so they were able to have the right team of horses harnessed and ready for changing as quickly as possible.
The Lights of Cobb & Co
Unlike many of its rival companies, Cobb & Co operated its lines after nightfall and its coaches were known for their triangular arrangement of lights. Lamps were set on either side of the coach and a large central light was placed on the roof. The triangle of lights was visible for many miles across open country; the magic of the effect has been lauded in Australian literature, most famously in Henry Lawson’s poem, The Lights of Cobb & Co.
Cobb & Co coach lamp
A BRIEF HISTORY OF COBB & CO
The Company’s Beginnings
Established with the intention of servicing the Victorian goldfields, Cobb & Co quickly developed to become the most successful company of its kind during the 19th Century, pioneering transport routes, delivering mail, gold and passengers throughout the country and contributing greatly to social growth and the expansion of pastoral settlement across Australia.
Cobb & Co was set up in Melbourne, Victoria in 1853 by a small group of immigrant Americans - Freeman Cobb, John Murray Peck, John B Lamber and James Swanton – and originally was called the American Telegraph Line of Coaches. The company’s first passenger coach left Melbourne for Forest Creek (now Castlemaine) and Bendigo on 30 January 1854; the list of routes was expanded shortly thereafter to link the newer goldfields and settlements with the Victorian capital. Soon, mail contracts were awarded to the business and the Cobb & Co operated a gold escort, passenger and mail service based on reliable and efficient schedules.
In May 1856, the company was sold for 16,000 pounds to Thomas Davies and changed hands again five years later when it was bought for 23,000 pounds by a consortium headed by James Rutherford, William Franklin Whitney and Alexander William Robertson (others in the initial lineup included Walter Russell Hall, John Wagner, B Robertson, Colin Robertson and Charles Pollock). Rutherford became the General Manager and both he and Whitney were to become the driving forces behind Cobb & Co’s success.
From Strength to Strength
In 1862, the company’s headquarters were transferred from Victoria to the New South Wales town of Bathurst, a Rutherford initiative designed to follow the goldfield trade. At that stage, Bathurst was the only provincial town west of the Blue Mountains and it was an important centre for business and trade. On 26 June 1862, an impressive cavalcade of horses, coaches, wagons and drivers – with Rutherford at the reins of the first coach – arrived in Bathurst from central Victoria to be greeted by a grand turnout of locals and enthusiastic fanfare. The Cobb & Co entourage was so large that, on the first night, it had to camp beside the Macquarie River until suitable accommodation and stabling could be found.
The company didn’t waste any time in establishing itself in the Bathurst scene. Within a week, Cobb & Co was operating a regular service to Forbes, Rutherford having used the time to ride the route and establish changing stations approximately every ten miles (16km to 20km). Horses, harness, stables, grooms and stock feed supplies were organised; booking offices were set up in Bathurst, Orange and Forbes; inns, shanties and post offices were used to service the passengers en route. The speed and skill of Cobb & Co were such that an entire day was cut from the previous journey time between Bathurst and Forbes. It was the efficiency of the service and the ability to regularly change horses that provided the competitive edge to the company’s commercial operations.
From here, its fortunes went from strength to strength thanks to lucrative mail and gold escort contracts, the rapid increase of rural settlement across Australia and the company’s innovative approach to conducting its business. Before long, Cobb & Co had bought out many of its rival firms, expanded into Queensland in 1865 and embarked on a program of diversification, which included founding the Eskbank Iron Works at Lithgow, shipping jarrah from Western Australia to India, operating pastoral enterprises and becoming involved in the extension of the railway network across New South Wales. Coachworks were established in Bathurst, Bourke, Goulburn, Hay and Charleville, business boomed and the name of ‘Cobb & Co’ became the byword for cutting edge communications and transport facilities across eastern Australia.
The company was enormously successful and had branches or franchises throughout much of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan. At its peak, Cobb & Co operated along a network of tracks that extended further than those of any other coach system in the world – its coaches travelled 28,000 miles (44,800km) per week and 6000 (out of their 30,000) horses were harnessed every day. Cobb & Co created a web of tracks from Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria and Port Douglas on the Coral Sea down to the furthest reaches of Victoria and South Australia – in all, a continuous line of 2000 miles (3200km) of track over eastern Australia from south to north, with a total of 7000 miles (11,200km) of regular routes.
Cobb & Co Factories
Shortly after its arrival in Bathurst, Cobb & Co established the first of five coach works, both to supply its own transportation and as a commercial venture. The factory was situated at the Black Bull Inn, on the corner of Howick and Bentinck Streets, and a variety of prize-winning horse-drawn conveyances were built on the site (including an unsuccessful single-wheel vehicle to cater for rough and steep country). The factory was transferred to new premises in William Street in 1876, by which time Cobb & Co factories were also operating in Hay, Goulburn and Bourke in New South Wales and at Charleville in Queensland.
Coaches were adapted from the American Concord design (see Travelling with Cobb & Co) and were well suited to the Australian terrain. There were six distinct trades involved in coach building: the body maker, the carriage maker, the wheelwright, the blacksmith, the painter and the trimmer. Each was a specialist trade; great pride was taken in the quality of the workmanship and evident in the finished vehicles’ precise detailing, plush upholstery and fancy scrollwork. Tradesmen were also employed to make and maintain all the harness required for the coaching teams. Coaches for New South Wales and Victoria were usually painted red and yellow, whilst Queensland coaches were painted white.
The Bathurst factory was the company’s flagship. The original works employed between 40 and 50 men and contained four forges, a carriage maker’s shop, a painter’s room and trimming work area, as well as stabling for 58 horses. By the time the new premises opened in William Street, the Cobb & Co factory employed 25 tradespeople and provided exceptional conditions for its workers including staff picnics and, from 1882, the introduction of an eight-hour day which placed the company at the forefront of workplace reform. Other factories were also important employers for local areas – when it closed in 1899, the Bourke factory alone had 85 men on its payroll.
Throughout the 1890s, Cobb & Co gradually transferred all of its business to the Charleville site (where the weather was considered to be better suited to coachbuilding) and closed down its other coachworks. The Bathurst factory ceased trading in 1893 and Bourke shut its doors in 1899. The Charleville factory continued to operate until 1920, by which time there was little demand for its horse-drawn wares; its closure, followed by Cobb & Co’s final coach run four years later, heralded the end of an important chapter in Australia’s manufacturing and transport history.
End of an Era
The advent of the motor vehicle in the early 20th Century, as well as the political and economic effects of World War I, saw the general decline of the coaching industry and led to the eventual closure of Cobb & Co. Most New South Wales coach lines had ceased operating by 1897 (although some licenses were still held in the Bourke area until 1916) and Cobb & Co’s Charleville factory closed in 1920. The last coach run for Cobb & Co was between Yuleba and Surat in Queensland on 14 August 1924 – just over 70 years after the first passenger coach had rolled out of Melbourne on 30 January 1854. The company’s partnership dissolved in 1929.
The success of Cobb & Co was largely due to its people – the coachbuilders, grooms, innkeepers, horse breeders, dynamic managers and, above all, the remarkable coachmen that established the company’s reputation and made sure the service operated to the highest possible standard. Stories of Cobb & Co, and the tracks it pioneered, are significant parts of this country’s history, legend and culture and lend depth and character to the Australian image as we know it today.
Where to Go for More Information
For more details about the history of Cobb & Co in New South Wales, as well as some colourful tales of the people involved, order a copy of the book, Cobb & Co Heritage Trail Bathurst to Bourke by Diane Simmonds. See also the Links page for further information about Cobb & Co throughout Australia.