The women of Cobb & Co

“Who will forget the meal served at Loder’s mail change? Roasted goat, prickly jam and jelly, splendid home-made bread, to say nothing of the hot scones and ‘nanny’s butter’, which made up a real ‘rich’ meal, and one that cheered the heart of the traveller for the next stage of the journey.”

– William Lees, on the Loders of Waldegrove change station near Surat QLD, 1916.

Cobb & Co coach drivers like Whistling Tom Elms, Flash Harry Bruce and Let ‘Er Go Gallagher were almost legendary in their lifetime, but for every coach driver there was a host of other workers keeping Cobb & Co’s coaches and horses on the roads. Grooms at stables and bush change stations harnessed, watered and fed the horses and cleaned the yards. The cooks not only fed the passengers, they grew the vegetables, fed the chickens and collected the eggs, milked the cow or goat, separated the cream and churned the butter. The cook might have even shot the wallaby or cockatoos in the stew.

Couples like Mr and Mrs Loder at Waldegrove ran the horse change between them. If there were no men around the women got on and did everything regardless. Mrs Fox and her four daughters ran the changing station at Boonoo Boonoo, on the Warwick to Tenterfield route. Women publicans and their families ran many of the country hotels where Cobb & Co’s parched and weary passengers stayed overnight. Their hotels acted as booking agents for Cobb & Co as well. Women filled vital roles in Cobb & Co’s day-to-day operations ‘on the ground’.

And women were just as important at the top of the Cobb & Co tree. Ada Rutherford, Bella Whitney and Eliza Hall didn’t look for fame or power. Their husbands James Rutherford, Frank Whitney and Walter Hall were the directors of Cobb & Co in New South Wales and Queensland, business moguls of their era.

Ada Rutherford
Ada Rutherford circa 1863. Image courtesy Sam Everingham.

Ada’s husband James was the mercurial Managing Director of Cobb & Co and its public face. He travelled thousands of kilometres each year from the office in Bathurst, checking on Cobb & Co’s coaching operations as well as overseeing their coach factories, pastoral properties and even mines and a steelworks. James Rutherford was a man of enormous vision and energy, but James lapsed into bouts of severe mental illness on several occasions over a period of decades. It was left to Ada to manage his care and rest, at times in sanatoriums in Sydney or overseas.

Each time Ada Rutherford literally managed to get James ‘back on track’, when anything less than his recovery could have spelled the end of Cobb & Co. Rarely has ‘the woman behind the man’ been so vital to the livelihood of thousands of staff. Ada and James Rutherford’s courage and strength enabled James to remain at the helm of Cobb & Co until his death in 1911, at the ripe old age of 84.

Bella Whitney
Isabella (Bella) Whitney circa 1863. Image courtesy Sam Everingham.

Bella and Frank Whitney were based at ‘at Coombing Park near Carcoar. Frank concentrated on managing Cobb & Co’s pastoral interests in New South Wales, while still keeping eye on the coaching business, particularly when James Rutherford was on the road. Like Ada, Bella Whitney grew up working in family run hotels, but she took more than a passing interest in pastoral practices and the management of Cobb & Co. The 1890s were a hard time for Cobb & Co. There was an economic depression and even banks were going broke. In the midst of the turmoil Frank Whitney died, in 1894.

Frank’s will stipulated that his assets be sold with Bella and family the beneficiaries. Cobb & Co was a tricky omelette to unscramble, with sheep and cattle properties, mines, coach factories and coach routes. Even if the Whitney’s share could be worked out, in the economic depression and a severe drought those assets would not return their real worth.

Bella decided she would run the company with James Rutherford, until she could separate out her share of Cobb & Co. Bella was ably assisted by her brother Arthur but the buck stopped with Bella, and she and James knew it. Things were more than a bit testy between Bella and James Rutherford but they managed to work together for nearly eight years nonetheless.

An act of parliament (The Whitney Estate Act in 1902) and a court case was needed to divide the business. Bella Whitney retained Coombing Park in New South Wales and the huge Claverton Station in Queensland. She formed the Whitney Pastoral Company with herself as Managing Director and brother Arthur Leeds as General Manager. Bella remained in charge of Whitney Pastoral Company until her death at the age of 97, in 1941. She became a breeder of champion shorthorn cattle at Coombing Park. People marvelled at how Bella Whitney mastered any situation. ‘Nothing is ever too hard when one knows how to do it.’(SMH 19 July 1934.)

22 Eliza Hall as she was at formation of the Trust
Eliza Hall at the time of the formation of the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust in 1912. Image courtesy the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust.

Eliza and Walter Hall lived quietly but well at Potts Point in Sydney. Walter was the clever and capable financial director of Cobb & Co, but would still inspect the company’s assets, taking long journeys in a buggy with Eliza by his side. Eliza was small and a diabetic, but no shrinking violet. Cobb & Co prospered with Walter Hall watching the books, but he formally withdrew from the company in 1885. He left much of his share in Cobb & Co in the company to keep it viable. Walter was still advising James Rutherford and Frank Whitney in the 1890s behind the scenes, and when necessary bailing them out financially. He could afford to as Walter Hall was probably the wealthiest person in Australia through his share of the Mount Morgan gold mines.

Eliza and Walter Hall supported many charities, quite often anonymously. Just one donation in 1900 for the Children’s Home Fund in Sydney totalled £1000-, a huge sum at the time. They ‘were both averse to seeing their names on subscription lists, but only those who received help knew how unending was their sympathy and generosity to deserving objects.’ (SMH 29 May 1912.)

Eliza Hall had always avoided the limelight, but after Walter died in 1911 she hit the headlines across Australia. Eliza used £1million from Walter’s estate to establish the charitable Walter and Eliza Hall Trust. It was a huge amount of money for the era and easily the largest charitable donation in Australia to that time. (At least the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars today.) Eliza had to be persuaded to use her name as well as Walters’ for the Trust.  The money was to be used in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria to relieve poverty, promote education, and for general community benefit and particularly that of women and children.  The Trust funded the establishment of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in 1915. The Walter and Eliza Trust and Medical Institute are legacies still serving Australia today over a century later.

The contribution of women in the Victorian era was vital but rarely acknowledged. Women toiled stoically. When the situation required they were capable and brave. Given the opportunity they were magnificent. At all levels women kept Cobb & Co on the road, and ensured its largesse would endure for generations.

Jeff Powell, Curator, Cobb+Co Museum

 

References:

Kay Fraser 2012, A Remarkable Gift: 100 Years of the Walter & Eliza Hall Trust. University of Queensland Press.

Sam Everingham 2007, Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Cobb & Co. Penguin Group, Melbourne.

Deborah Tranter 1999, Cobb & Co: Coaching in Queensland. Queensland Museum.

Vicki Hastrich, ‘Isabella Whitney, a grand woman of the west’, RAS Times November 2013, Royal Agricultural Society NSW.

Special thanks to Sam Everingham, and Helen Cook, Chief Executive Officer, The Walter and Eliza Hall Group of Charities.

 

Feature image caption: The Fox family of Boonoo Boonoo horse change near Tenterfield, in the 1880s. Cobb & Co employed the Fox family as grooms, and they also served meals. (From 2nd from left – Daughters Caroline and Emma, lady passenger, son James Fox jnr, Mrs Mary Fox, daughters Martha and Margaret.)