When Cobb & Co Was King
When Copbb & Co Was King
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.