15 August 2009

Gold fever and stage coaches, California and Victoria

Freeman Cobb (1830-1878) joined Adams & Co., the American express agents, in 1849. He worked with the coaching line which had established itself during the Californian gold rush, starting only one year earlier. Adams and Co’s rival, Wells Fargo & Company's Atlantic and Pacific Express, also moved gold, transported passengers and carried freight between the cities of New York and San Francisco, and around California. Guards rode shotgun on the stage coaches, to protect the gold and the passengers.

Wells Fargo, driver, armed guards and passengers,

Just as gold fever was starting to die down in California, it was about to start in central Victoria. Coach services in Australia had been irregular and unreliab­le. So it was not surprising that Freeman Cobb wanted to establish a branch of Adams & Co. in Melbourne. In fact several American coach drivers had arrived in Australia, rep­resenting the interests of either Adams & Co. or Wells Fargo. Neither of these two American companies did carry traffic to the Victorian gold diggings, in the end. So the very entrepreneurial Freemen Cobb joined three of the new arrivals to create a new partnership, Cobb & Co. They were John Peck, James Swanton and John Lamber.

By the end of 1854 Victoria had a somewhat better system of roads, with toll gates on all high­ways leading to the goldfields, and booking offices in all the bigger towns. Cobb and Co still struggled a bit during the first five years of service, but the company boomed when it was bought in 1858 by another recently arrived Amer­ican, James Ruth­erford. Rutherford had been the manager of one particular Cobb and Co line before he and the new partners re-organised and extended the Victorian services, and secured a monopoly on the mail contracts.

The coach drivers pro­vided mail and passen­ger serv­ic­es to the out­back, facing a tough life of rough roads, difficult weather condit­ions and even bushrangers. Soon specially sprung coaches that could handle Australia's very rough conditions were imported from America.

Every 25 ks the horses were replaced at a changing station, to get passengers to their destinat­ions faster and safer. Chan­ging stat­ions were important for the horses, but for the passengers as well since they provided an opport­un­ity for food and rest. A few examples will do. The American Hotel in rural Creswick was described as a 2-storey timber structure. During the gold rush period, the hotel operated as a Cobb and Co station, gaining prominence as one of the leading est­ablishments in the colony. And providing drinks to thirsty travel­lers! Some changing stations were not in pubs. Just west of rural Beaufort, for example, there was a free standing Cobb & Co changing station, built in 1869. In Barraba near Tamworth NSW, Cobb & Co stage coaches had a clearly marked changing station in the town’s post office.

Barraba post office
and Cobb and Co station, NSW

I have no idea why Cobb and Co headquarters were moved from Victoria to Bathurst in New South Wales in 1862. Workshops were built at Hay and Bourke in NSW, and Castlemaine in Victoria, and the service was expanded to include Queensland. The first Cobb & Co coach in Qld ran from Brisbane to Ipswich in Jan 1866. Holties House blog gave photographic proof that in the dry sandy regions of Queensland, the innovative Cobb & Co. company sometimes used camels instead of horses to move the mail and passengers.

A clue comes in Sam Everingham's book Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Cobb & Co, published by Penguin in 2007. It says while Freeman Cobb established the company in 1853 to cater for travellers between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields, it was Frank Whitney and James Rutherford who turned it into the most extensive coach network in the world, covering the all of Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Just as the name Wells Fargo went into the American psyche, so the name Cobb and Co became known by every school child across Australia. New Blog described a Queensland museum dedicated to this company in Team visits Cobb and Co museum in Toowoomba.

Cobb and Co Museum,
Toowoomba Qld

The expansion into New Zealand was sensible. In 1861, the discovery of gold in Gabriel's Gully in Otago prompted yet another gold rush, includ­ing Australian gold-diggers who sailed for Dunedin. Among these was the Cobb & Co. coach proprietor Charles Cole, who had been running the Ballarat service. Cole landed in Dunedin in 1861 with a coach, 5 wagons, a buggy and dozens of horses. Almost immediately Cobb and Co's first coach left the Provincial Hotel Dunedin for the Police Com­mis­sion­er's Camp at Gabriel's Gully, as described by Otago Gold­fields Heritage Trust blog in Dunstan Trail. The initial journey took three days, but the time was soon reduced to a one day trip by the introd­uction of stables and relays of horses. There was usually an over­night stop at Styx where the lock-up was built to protect the gold bullion.

We can find unexpected snippets of Cobb and Co history all over the blogosphere. The Humble Blog who wrote about The Coffee Palace in Barwon Heads. After describing boating, fishing, picnic parties and other touristy pleasures, visitors in the 1890s were invited to visit the lake. People wanting to participate had to apply to the manager of Cobb and Co. who had well-appointed stables and horses. Coaches left Geelong twice daily, at 9AM and 2PM, during the summer season. Poetry Galore blog included The Lights Of Cobb and Co., written by one of Australia’s most loved poets, Henry Lawson. It was stirring stuff. And art historians have argued that with his revolutionary approach to depicting the Australian bush and our light, Tom Roberts’ Bailed Up was a painting that helped define Australia’s national identity.

Tom Roberts,
Bailed Up, c1894


J Bar said...

After seeing this, I just have to visit Toowoomba.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Peter said...

Well done Hels, thanks for the 2 mentions.

J Bar said...

Yes, Hels. The design of Dulwich High is very similar to the Sydney Institute at Ultimo. I have a couple of photos of that, which I'll post at some stage. I have posted another Kemp building today, the former Pyrmont Public School.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Viola said...

Hello Hels,

Thank you very much for this post. It's of great interest to me because I think that an ancestor may have worked for Cobb and Co. in Queensland.

I didn't realise that the company expanded into New Zealand!

Hels said...

Interesting that you should say that Viola. I asked the students the next day if they knew about the New Zealand goldrush and most did not.

The Central Otago Gold Rush in New Zealand happened during the 1860s. By this time, the miners had given up on California's and Victoria's goldfields, so the timing was perfect for New Zealand.

The only thing I knew about New Zealand's gold rush was that it was the basis for Dunedin's development as a city.

Beechworth said...

My great-grandfather, an American, started up a coaching line in northeast Victoria which ran for over 60 years throughout that region and southern NSW. I have spent the last decade researching the history of this company and have over 300 of its staff listed. Cobb's company after he left Australian in 1856, was sold off in parts to individual coach proprietors who used the banner Cobb & Co. In one way it is sad that the name Cobb exists today when in fact Cobb was not the owner. The smaller individual companies have been lost in history - another reason I am documenting my ggf's line - he didn't for some 30 years take over a Cobb line and then only a small one for he had established himself without the need for the Cobb name. Lovely to see others interested in this old industry. It was the lifeline for some many in those days!Denise

Hels said...

Beechworth, I love your nick. As you can see from my post on the Victorian architecture of Beechworth, I thought it was a fantastic town.

Viola over at EdwardianPromenade wrote "It's of great interest to me because I think that an ancestor may have worked for Cobb and Co. in Queensland". You may like to check our her ancestor's name for your own research :)

Don't you love it when historical events come together? I was giving a lecture on Joseph Duveen last year when his grand nephew (of the same surname) came into the lecture room.


Hels said...

Thank you everybody.

I have added an interesting reference to the book Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Cobb & Co, by Sam Everingham. It might help those trying to find the less well known names in Australia's stage coach history.