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Story of Cobb and Co



Stage coaches were introduced to New   South Wales before the settlement of  

the Port Phillip district had begun, and in January, 1832, there were nine coaches plying from Sydney to various inland towns, besides others running from one town to another. They were thus a fully acclimatised institution when Melbourne and Geelong were founded, and an early attempt was made to utilise them to con- nect these two hamlets, a coach being im- ported from Van Diemen's Land about   the beginning of 1839. The absence of made roads seems to have defeated the project, to which there are various refe- rences up to the middle of 1841, and the principal means of communication con- tinued to be by water. Towards the end of the forties we find one or two hotel- keepers running "conveyances" between Geelong and the nearer settlements of the Western District during the summer months; but it was not until the opening of the goldfields in 1851 gave rise to a steadily increasing stream of traffic to the interior that coaching days really began

in Victoria.

The pioneers on the road between Mel- bourne and "the diggings" were two hotel- keepers at Bacchus Marsh, whose half- way position offered special advantages in such an enterprise. These were James Watt, of the Border Inn, and James Eli- jah Crook, of the Wool Pack, who initi- ated a service to Ballarat with a two-

horsed vehicle and a four-horsed "coach"  


respectively, in October, 1851. One of the earliest coach-lines to ply to the more dis- tant goldfield of Mount Alexander grew out of the agency for "The Argus," held at Forest Creek (the present Castlemaine) by Ryland John Howard, whom we find towards the end of 1852, carrying a couple of passengers, together with the news- papers, on "The Argus" express, and a month or two later putting a "new four- horse coach" on the road. Thus began   Howard and Co.'s "Argus" line, which for

some years ran to Castlemaine and Ben-  

digo. The passenger traffic was confined  

to the dry season of the year. "The roads are now fast breaking up between the

metropolis and Mount Alexander," says "The Argus" of April 21, 1853, and adds

that, as a necessary consequence, the

newspapers "will now for some months have to be conveyed on the pack-


It was not long before American enter- prise invaded the field of passenger con- veyance. "A company of American Califor- nians," says G. F. Train, in a letter dated December 16, 1853, "have started a line of passenger waggons (American, of course, made at Concord) to Bendigo; another party have two teams running from Gee- long to Ballarat; and some Cape Cod folks are doing a good business with some Yankee coaches between Sandridge and Mel- bourne." "If tradition is to be believed, among these "Cape Cod folks" was a young   American destined to impress his person- ality so deeply upon the coaching business during his brief career in Victoria that his name has survived as a synonym of the "coaching days" while those of most of his associates and successors have been for-


I am indebted to Mr. E. M. Lovell Smith,  

of Christchurch, New Zealand, for such per-     sonal particulars as are available concern-  

ing Freeman Cobb, founder of the famous       firm of Cobb and Co., as well as for the ac-     companying portrait. A native of Brew-   ster, Massachusetts, where he was born on   October 10, 1830, Cobb had his early train-  


ing with the Adam's Express Company of  

New York, transferring his services later  

to Wells, Fargo, and Co., who entered the

carrying business in March 1852. He is said to have been sent to Australia by his employers for the purpose of forming a branch establishment here; and it is also     alleged that after his arrival he vainly endeavoured to persuade them to go in for   coaching, finally launching out on his own  

account in partnership with some other    

young Americans, on the short but busy road between Melbourne and the port. This would be towards the end of 1852.

We get on the solid ground of documen- tary evidence with the following advertise- ment in "The Argus" of January 30, 1854:—   AMERICAN TELEGRAPH LINE OF COACHES.

Daily communication between Melbourne, Forest Creek and Bendigo.

Cobb and Co. beg to announce to the public that they have determined to run a line of well-appointed coaches between the above places, starting from the Criterion Hotel, every morn-   ing (Sunday excepted), at 6 o'clock, and from Forest Creek, daily, at the same hour.

The vehicles intended to run are the new Ameri- can coaches, recently imported, and acknowledged   to be the easiest conveyances in the colony.  

The first coach will start from the Criterion on Monday, January 30, and every attention will be given to ensure punctuality.


Proprietors   Mr. Lovell Smith, who has made a study  

of the early history of Cobb and Co., says

that the vehicles thus advertised were light Concord coaches, round-bodied, and handsomely upholstered. That they were not suitable for winter traffic is evident from the fact that as the year wore on the service was suspended, and was not


resumed until spring was well advanced. "Travellers to and from Castlemaine," says "The Argus" of October 12, 1854, "will be glad to find by the advertisement which appears in another column that

Messrs. Cobb and Co., who last season  

won golden opinions from all sorts of people for the punctuality and speed which characterised their mode of conducting their business as proprietors of passenger conveyances between Melbourne and the diggings, have reappeared on the field of action." Traditions vary slightly as to   the names of Cobb's three partners; but there can be no doubt of his own outstand- ing ability for the organisation of an effi- cient passenger service—an ability of which  


(From title page of "New South South Wales Calendar and G.P.O. Directory, 1833.")

the above paragraph gives early recogni-


By the end of 1855 Cobb and Co. had two booking offices in Bourke street, one   being at the Bull and Mouth Hotel and the other on the opposite side of the street. Both of these agencies also acted

for "The People's" line of stage coaches,

which were run to Ballarat by Thomas     Davies. Other coach proprietors also   made this part of Bourke street a start- ing point or a place of call, so that it was  

becoming something of a coaching centre.

Thanks to the activities of the Central Road Board, conditions of travel were    

rapidly improving. "The road to Bendigo will be passable, in spite of the weather,"     says "The Argus" of May 2, 1856, "when

the plank road through the Black Forest   is complete." The heyday of coaching in Victoria was, in fact, near at hand; but   Freeman Cobb appears to have been satis- fied with the measure of success he had achieved, and was preparing to return to     his native land. When his intentions be-         came known evidence of public apprecia-


(From advertisement in Gippsland "Guardian," December 30, 1850).

ion of his services to the colony was quickly forthcoming. "Mr. Cobb has con- ferred great and lasting benefits on this community," writes a correspondent in   the press, "as well by the energy he has infused into our coaching enterprises as by the practical lessons he has taught us in all matters relating to that publicly useful line of business." A farewell din- ner was given in his honour at the Crite- rion Hotel on Friday, May 23, 1856, and he was escorted to Sandridge the follow- ing day by three coach loads of enthusiastic friends, who even accompanied him on board the Royal Charter, and there once more drank his health in champagne hos- pitably supplied by the captain of that vessel. He was credited at the time of his   departure with having made "an ample fortune," but although he married a year or two after his return to America, and was for a time a State senator, he later  

drifted back to the express business in    

Boston, and in 1871 migrated to South



Africa, and established a line of coaches from Port Elizabeth to Kimberley. He died at Port Elizabeth on May 24, 1878.

Cobb and Co.'s business in Victoria was taken over by Thomas Davies, who owned the Ballarat coaches running from the same offices, and who strengthened his newly acquired position on the Bendigo road by buying out the rival firm of Foster and Vinge a few months later. The reputation which the young Americans had gained for punctuality and efficiency was a business   asset not to be neglected, and there was also, perhaps a pleasing alliteration in the phrase of "Cobb and Co.'s coaches" which caught the public fancy. Thus we find ad- vertisements of "Cobb and Co.'s Telegraph Line" to Castlemaine, Sandhurst, Mary- borough, and Ballarat in the middle of 1857, and about the same time began that co- operation of coach and mail which was a feature of the early sixties. The railway from Melbourne to Geelong was opened in June, and Cobb and Co. at once began booking passengers through to Ballarat by this route, the coach taking them on from Geelong on the arrival of the train. The successful inauguration of a "night mail," in July, 1857, right in the middle of the winter season, speaks volumes for the im- provement of the main coach road by this time. A business man who had affairs at the goldfields could now leave Melbourne by coach in the evening, or at least late in the afternoon, and, travelling all night, could reach his destination in the early   hours of the morning.

The business of Cobb and Co. changed hands twice during the latter part of 1857, Davies selling out to Alexander Walker in September, and Walker parting with it to Watson and Hewitt about a month later. These changes were followed by a division of interests which laid the foundation of that "loose confederation of proprietors" which carried the name of Cobb far and wide over Victoria, and in time extended to the adjoining States. Before the end of the year Swanton, Blake, and Co. had taken over the Bendigo line, and F. B.   Clapp and Co. the line to Ballarat; while

Watson and Hewitt bought the remaining business of Foster and Vinge, and took up   the running to Beechworth. One of the few authentic records of the coaching era   which have survived relates to the last- named purchase, and shows that it in-   cluded 250 horses and 17 or 18 coaches, the price paid being £7,250. Of the new firms   which now entered into the coaching busi- ness, Swanton and Blake are said to have been members of the original partnership of Cobb and Co., and to have themselves

driven some of the first of Cobb's coaches; while F. B. Clapp had been associated with the Ballarat road since the end of 1854, and was for some time Davies's agent at Fiery Creek (now Beaufort). Mr. Clapp is perhaps one of the most interesting figures in the history of passenger conveyance in     Victoria, for in after years he founded the   Melbourne Omnibus Company, and still   later established the cable tramway system of the metropolis. That his son should be now holding office as chairman of the Vic- torian Railways Commissioners seems to be

appropriate to the story of development with which his name is associated.

The opening of the first section of the "Melbourne, Mount Alexander, and Mur- ray River Railway" in February, 1859, tended to push the coach lines further afield, and in 1860 we find them extending   as far west as Hamilton and Portland, and north to Swan Hill, Echuca, Denili-   quin, and Albury. Cobb's coaches were not without opposition, and about this   time competition on the Geelong to Bal- larat route was so keen that the fare was reduced to five shillings! It was on this road that Cobb and Company's "Levia- than" coach made its first appearance in January, 1860, a huge vehicle, carrying nearly a hundred passengers, and drawn   by a team of eight horses.

It would be wearisome, and indeed im- possible, to follow out the ramifications of the various firms which carried the ban- ner of Cobb and Company through the 'sixties; but we may note the appearance of the scene of Robertson, Britton, and Company about the middle of 1861, as pro- prietors of the Bendigo line. The fol- lowing year the name of this firm was altered to Robertson, Wagner, and Com pany, and to their lot it fell to maintain the connection of Cobb and Company with the metropolis for more than 30 years. An "Australian Stage Company," and later a "Western Stage Company" seem to have run most of the Western district lines dur- ing this period; while in the middle six- ties Meigs and Anderson, and Watson and Hewitt carried the name of Cobb and Company into Gippsland.

But the growth of the railway system,   which took place in the 'sixties and 'seven- ties, meant, of course, the gradual disin- tegration of the coaching business. Main routes were abandoned, and country lines shrank to the position of short feeders to the railway; while for the metropolis there remained but a few coaches running to near by holiday resorts. The booking office at the Albion Hotel—last remnant of the coaching glories of Bourke street— was closed in 1890, and eight years later Robertson, Wagner, and Company passed out of existence. To-day the name of Cobb and Company, as far as the directory tells us, survives in but one country costed £0.6