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Cobb & Co was a coaching company that connected the bush settlements of Australia from the 1850s to the 1920s. Their network of routes crisscrossed the eastern states of Australia, from North Queensland to Melbourne and across to Adelaide. They also ran coaches in Western Australia.
When gold was discovered in Victoria in the 1850s thousands of hopeful miners rushed to the diggings and settlements sprang up overnight. Four young Americans, including Freeman Cobb, saw the need for reliable transport and started the company with coaches imported from America. From 30 January 1854, Cobb & Co carried passengers, parcels, money for the banks and shipments of gold. The coaches were pulled by teams of four to six horses and driven by experienced American or Canadian drivers. The coaches were designed for the roughest tracks and they usually got through unscathed, although the passengers often became motion sick as the coaches lurched and rocked through creeks, forests and over steep mountains tracks.
Cobb & Co coaches were the fastest vehicles on the roads covering about 80 kilometres a day. Tired horses were swapped for fresh ones at change stations along the way to keep coaches going at a good trot. Stiff and dusty passengers had a chance to stretch their legs while grooms changed the horses. Some change stations sold refreshments, with meals of stew and damper common, and some even served prickly pear jam and stewed galah. Many change stations became rough ‘shanty’ pubs.
The original partners sold out in 1865 for a huge profit, but other proprietors spread the network. The company began building their own coaches in the 1860s. Workshops were established at Castlemaine and Geelong in Victoria, Hay, Bourke and Bathurst in New South Wales, and Brisbane and Charleville in Queensland. The Bathurst workshop was the largest coach factory in the southern hemisphere.
The first Cobb & Co coach in Queensland ran from Brisbane to Ipswich on 1 January 1866. At Ipswich, passengers and mail were transported by railway to Grandchester. This was the end of the rail line at that time. The journey continued on another Cobb & Co coach from Grandchester to Toowoomba. By 1900 the company operated 39 routes in Queensland, covering 7,750 km, harnessed 9,000 horses and travelled over 31,000 kms every week.
It was a huge operation but not always profitable. Cobb & Co had thousands of horses to feed, and coaches, stables and offices to maintain. There were hundreds of drivers, grooms and office staff to pay. The company made a loss in drought years buying and transporting feed for horses. Passenger’s fares were very expensive as a result. A single day’s travel cost a week’s average wage. Many people could not afford a coach trip but just rolled a swag and walked. Nevertheless Cobb & Co still played a vital role in the bush by delivering mail. And the mail was more than just letters. All sorts of goods such as medicines, pots and pans or tools were bought from mail order catalogues and delivered by coach. Cobb & Co was the lifeline to the bush.
The spread of the railway network pushed Cobb & Co off some major routes but opened up new areas for services further west. It was motor cars that eventually replaced the horses and coaches. Cobb & Co bought their first cars in 1911 but coaches were still needed on the roughest outback tracks and where creeks flooded. After 70 years on the road Cobb & Co ran its last coach in 1924 between Yuleba and Surat, Queensland. QANTAS was already carrying airmail in western Queensland and, following the First World War, many of the big mail runs were divided up, enabling returned soldiers to become mail contractors. The coaching days were over. Large mail carrying companies had become obsolete and the uptake of radio and telephone communication connected towns hundreds of kilometres apart. When Cobb & Co finally wound up in 1929 it had provided transport and communication to Australia for 75 years.
Cobb & Co’s last secretary, Gordon Studdert, kept the Company's name alive. He continued to run the Cobb & Co store in Surat until the 1950s. He gave the Cobb & Co name to Toowoomba businessman Mr W.R.F (Bill) Bolton. Bill Bolton ran a bus and trucking company called Cobb & Co Transport until his death in 1973. He also collected old Cobb & Co coaches and other horse drawn vehicles for his private museum, which opened in 1965. The collection was then donated to the Queensland Museum by Banks Pty Ltd in June 1982 and was the foundation for the National Carriage Gallery of Cobb+Co Museum when it opened in its current location in 1987.
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