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.
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 thorough braces 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 standardbreed 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
Cobb & Co Coach at Burke 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.