Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 9]: Cobb+Co Museum History with Jeff Powell

This week on the Museum Revealed podcast we’re rolling back to the days of horse drawn carriages with Cobb+Co Museum’s curator Jeff Powell.

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Let’s meet our guest: Jeff Powell

Jeff Powell is the curator at Cobb+Co Branch, Queensland Museum in Toowoomba, where he has clocked up more than 30 years.  Cobb+Co Museum is home to a collection of around 50 buggies, sulkies, carts and wagons along with Cobb & Co coaches. Accordingly, Jeff’s primary area of research is Queensland’s transport history prior to the First World War. 

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RB: Welcome to the Museum Revealed a podcast brought to you by the Queensland Museum Network. Join me, Dr Rob Bell, as we chat to the people that make museums so fascinating, from curators to scientists and researchers. Dive deep into conversations with these storytellers that inspire us to be curious about our past, make sense of the present and help us consider the future. Today, we are joined by Jeff Powell, who is a curator of the Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba, which not only has coaches, but all sorts of horse-drawn carts, wagons and carriages. Jeff researchers and also answers the public’s curly questions on transport technology and its effects on the history of Queensland. So, Jeff, I guess the first and most obvious question is who or what was Cobb and Co?

JP: Cobb and Co was a coaching company. You know horses out the front, big wooden coach at the back, and they carried mail and passengers and going back to the 19th century. It became like a national network before Australia was a nation. Later on, Cobb+Co was to spread from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and even went in, Japan and New Zealand and South Africa.

RB: Well, I had no idea. I mean, I’ve heard of Cobb+Co but I didn’t realise they were international there for a while. So when did it all start for Cobb+Co?

JP: Cobb and Co started down in Victoria in the eighteen fifties. Gold rushes up until that time the white settlement of Australia tended to be just for pastoralism and so there were no really big towns away from the coast. But once gold was discovered, there’d been no no town this week and ten thousand people there next week. And it was one of those things that to run towns, you need all that sort of bureaucratic stuff like the mail has to go through and money to the banks and government officials have to come and go. And of course, the passengers and the gold, the guys who started it were Americans. And only young fellows are all sort of in their early 20s. Freeman Cobb being one of them. And they’d had experience in coaching in America with some companies like Wells Fargo and Adams and Co. And so they realised when they come out here that, yes, you can dig holes to make money, but an awful lot of them realised that there’s more money to be made on gold fields servicing the the people there. So they imported the first coaches and away they went. They were all young and most of the early drivers and managers were actually either Americans or Canadians.

RB: Well, I do remember someone once saying it had to do with the business models. You don’t make money digging for gold. You make it selling shovels. And it sounds like that was sort of the ethos of Cobb and Co.

JP: It certainly was. Yeah. And they sort of expanded all the way through Victoria initially because there was plenty of money to be made. And so it just it just blossomed.

RB: So it started all around the gold rushes, but as you mentioned, sort of by the nature of boom bust. So I suppose they had to sort of expand the network once they sort of had it.

JP: Yeah. By the late 1950s, by around 1860, the easy one, gold was running out. So and the original partners in Cobb and Co had sold out. So there were a number of different companies all cooperating. All these young Americans that had worked for Cobb initially they all started competing companies, but then cooperating companies because you can’t sort of take everything off one coach and just lead people there. It has to connect to the next coach, to the next place.

But it was a very strange business model because they all shared an office in Bourke Street, even though they’d just competed to get the tenders for different mail contracts anyway that had spread with that sort of business model through Victoria. But once the money started to decline a little bit after the initial gold rushes, they were looking to expand. And just as there was the 1860s mini depression coming on, gold was discovered in New Zealand. So some of the they the people to be running Cobb and Co like the Hoyt brothers and Karloff and Co, these were Americans as well. Next thing, Cobb and Co starts up in New Zealand and spread through New Zealand. That was 1861. 1862 they’re, spreading into New South Wales. And then Cobb and Co came to Queensland in 1866. So, yes, it sort of popped up in all different places.

RB: Yeah, absolutely. So let’s focus on Queensland. That’s where we are, where you are. Can you tell us a little bit about the life in Queensland, where they sort of started and expanded through and where the roots might have gone?

JP: Well, it started off with, oh, there was one fellow who was very influential initially with Queensland, and his name was Hiram Barnes. He’d been in with Cobb and Co in Victoria. And then in there when they spread to New South Wales in poor old Hiram, like a lot of the drivers in New South Wales, kept getting held up by bushrangers. And unfortunately, he broke a rule. The rule tended to be that the Bushrangers didn’t bother the ladies and didn’t bother drivers too much. And then the drivers didn’t tend to identify the Bushrangers. And that was a good way of not getting shot, heard round. But Hiram Barnes actually did sort of dob in a few of the Bushrangers. So I think things might have been getting a bit hot for Hiram in New South Wales. So they got him to come up and pioneer some routes in Queensland. And so their first route went from Brisbane out to Ipswich. And then at Ipswich, you got on the train. The railways only started a couple of months before. And you went from Ipswich on this funny little train that only went about the speed of a coach anyway, as far as Grandchester, then back on a coach and then up the range here. You’d start off in the morning at about six o’clock. They used to blow the bugle in Queen Street at five o’clock because Brisbane was a bit like a frontier town. It was the Wild West on the coast, if you like. And that blow this bugle at five o’clock because most people didn’t have a clock. There was no town clock. And in fact, there wasn’t even street lighting. So they’d blow this bugle. So there might have been a few gaslights, but not much. They’d blow this bugle and everybody would get woken up and said they could get down to the to the coach office at six o’clock. But the funny part about it was there was one fella who wrote a letter to the editor who lived in Queen Street complaining of about Cobb and Co blowing the bugle at five o’clock every morning, waking him up. But sometimes you wonder whether people really should think before they, you know, sort of write a letter to the editor, because he then went on to say that he actually had to go to Ipswich one day. And he was so used to hearing the bugle that he didn’t wake up and he missed his coach. But yes, that Hiram Barnes actually harm was up here in Toowoomba for a while and had race horses and things. They tended to be colourful sort of characters that come and go personnel.

But yes, it was up and running and spread right throughout Queensland, eventually Port Douglas to the Laura gold fields and then eventually right over to Normanton, Cloncurry, Boulia, Longreach, right out to Thargomindah, but also like Brisbane to Sandgate and Brisbane to what’s now the Gold Coast. There were coaches that used to go along across the Nerang River and old Ferry Road and long, what’s now Cavil Avenue and along the beach. So Cobb and Co went everywhere.

RB: Yeah, quite a network. Tell me you were talking about that trip from Brisbane to Toowoomba via Ipswich and Grandchester on the train. How long would that trip have taken from start to finish?

JP: From six o’clock in the morning. You’d be getting in, well, on a good day you’re getting into Toowoomba at about one o’clock in the afternoon. And then there was another one that started about midday and you’d get into Toowoomba, you know, mid, mid evening. But when I say that was on a good day, it’s because if it rained, the coach got bogged. If the coach was heavily laden, you had to get up, walk up the range. So you were always very prescriptive when they were leaving. They weren’t real prescriptive about when they were going to arrive.

RB: It is understandable. Look. Stay with us. We’ll be coming back very shortly with some more about the current coach coaches, including what you did on some of those really long trips. So stick around. Welcome back to the Museum Revealed podcast. We are joined by Jeff Powell from Cobb and Co Museum in Toowoomba. Jeff, we started talking about coaches and the long trips that people go on and the fact that obviously it took a little while longer to travel by Stagecoach. Tell me roughly sort of what speed did they go and what would a typical long journey look like for the passenger?

JP: Well, the coaches could go about 10 or 12 kilometres an hour. But then to sort of maintain that speed. They had to change the horses every couple of hours. So about maybe 20 kilometres. So that would take up a little bit of time and then travelling during the day. You had to stop for lunch, which could be if you’re in Victoria and there’s lots of money or New South Wales. A lovely lunch and a lovely pub. Or if you got at western Queensland, it could be a bit of a bark hut and could be damper and glass stew, literally. You know, like it was pretty rugged. So in over the course of a day, you’d do about 80 kilometres in a day. By the end of that, you had been well and truly glad to get out. It wasn’t all that romantic or luxurious to ride on a Cobb and Co Coach.

RB: When you talk about changing the horses so they would literally get to a point on the route and swap horses, they didn’t obviously just have horses they could bring out of their backpacks?

JP: It’d be on a creek or a waterhole. The transport in those days would just go from waterhole to waterhole and there would be a groom there whose job was to look after the horses. And quite often they’d also put on lunch there at the little change station. And so they’d look after the horses there. And that would be it’d be like the 19th century equivalent of a Bathurst pitstop. They’d pull in, they’d take the tired horses off, put the fresh horses on. You might have time to go to the toilet behind a tree, but then back on, away you go.

RB: Oh, that sounds luxurious. So I can see why you say it’s so rustic. Tell me a little bit about the coaches. So tell me about the coaches you got in your collection.

JP: We have two of our own coaches and one coach that is on long term loan from the National Museum in Canberra. And these coaches were part of a collection that Bill Bolton, who was a business man here in Toowoomba. Lovely fellow philanthropist. He started our collection. So he got the first couple of coaches and carriages, the American thoroughbreds coach. That’s the sort of coach they were. They had these leather straps or thorough braces underneath. Instead of having metal springs, they had these very, very thick when they put it all together, thick straps that went underneath the body. The advantage was you couldn’t break it so you could go over the roughest track. And there they were, rough tracks. They weren’t roads in any real sense. And the downside was, as far as the passengers were concerned, people didn’t travel that much in those days anyway. Most people would roll the swag and walked if they were going somewhere. So they were going to get motion sickness. But these coaches will go forward and back and forward and back and forth and they’ll rock the whole trip. And, of course, people would get motion sickness. They used to say that ladies would get on with the towel and men with a hip flask. But then they’d get through where they were going. There was another unusual thing that they used to do to that you’d expect to see horses in pairs. You know, there’d be two horses in front of the coach or maybe two and two even up to six. And that’s the way Cobb and Co went as well for a long time. But then at one stage, they decided that they’d put three in the front, seemed to make it easier to drive. You have less reigns to hold and you didn’t lose much in pulling power. So that was a fairly unusual thing that Cobb and Co did to have an odd number of horses.

RB: Now you’re talking he has had quite a rough trip. I guess, you know, they weren’t going along the pristine roads that he might have these days, but they also obviously didn’t drive him rubber tyres, I guess. Talk us through a little bit about some know what they wrote on for those who have never seen one.

JP: The wheels are maybe about a metre high for the front and a bit high for the for the back wheels and wooden construction, wooden spokes and an iron tyre. And they did tend to chop up the road, but they didn’t chop up the road as much as some of the vehicles. They shared the road with, like bullock drives, pulling big bullock teams, pulling big wool drives. And if it got wet, then that would ruck the road up. And so sometimes Cobb and Co would actually have to get off the road and try and go a bit cross country. And there were a few stories. And this was Anthony Trollope, who was a British travel writer in the 19th century, and he was on a coach down in South Australia where the driver actually got lost. Or as he said, Bushed is the Australian term for it. And they ended up working out where they were. But, yes, you wouldn’t think if you got on an organised trip that you would actually get lost en route, but it was it was pretty wild and woolly getting where you were going.

RB: And now, of course, with steel tyres, you’re unlikely to get a flat. But I suppose with wooden spokes from axles, they must have occasionally broken down mid route and no RACQ to call. What would they do?

JP: Well, sometimes they did have to get an extra wheel and they put they quite often had spares in the little towns and they’d be, you know, they had their own carriage factories, Cobb and Co. They actually made coaches for themselves and their competitors. They really couldn’t lose that game if they didn’t get the mail contract on a route they’d sell the other bloke a coach so that when they get sometimes into the town, they would chop down a fairly thick sapling and take the wheel off and then tie that to the undercarriage and go on three wheels and a stick to get into town. They also used to use saplings sometimes if they were going down a very wet and steep slope, like going down the Great Dividing Range and that tow a log behind all sorts of vehicles did this and it would actually dig into the road was like throwing out the anchor made a terrible mess of the road, but it didn’t sort of run over the horses. And going down hills was always a bit scary anyway, because it’s like a semi-trailer. If that if the trailer starts to go faster than the prime mover or if the coach started to go faster than the horses. You’re in a lot of trouble. So the best you could do, you’d try to use the brakes. They did have a brake, but if the brakes wasn’t working, then you would just have to crack the whip and make the horses go faster. So, yeah, they used to scare the hell out of some of the passengers by the time they hit the bottom of the slope.

RB: Oh, boy, I can imagine. And look, that’s for Downhills. But what if the uphill was a bit too steep or someone packed a bit too much luggage, never enough to get out and walk or push.

JP: They’d have to get out and walk. Firstly, the men would get out and walk, but it was too steep. The women would have to get out and walk too. And the men were obliged to help dig it out if they got bogged. I don’t think they made the ladies dig it out though. And for all that, you got charged an enormous amount of money. It was about the equivalent of a week’s wages. So it might be like, say, you know, twelve hundred dollars to go 80 kilometres. Nowadays, it’d be it’d be more expensive than charter flight. But of course, changing the horses every few miles and then having staff there and a driver and an agent in each town, it was enormously expensive company to run and there was fodder for all the horses. And if there was a drought often Cobb and Co lost money. So as big as it was, it went like from North Queensland all the way to the South Australian border, at least in Australia. And there were years when it lost money.

RB: Well, look, it sounds like a fascinating way to travel. I’ve got to say, as much as I loved hearing about it, I’m probably glad I don’t have to travel that way these days.

JP: It’s it’s one of those things, you know, some people know about Cobb and Co from Henry Lawson’s poem and the lights of Cobb and Co, and that is quite romantic and rolling along. But the funny part about it is if you read Henry’s tales of actually travelling on Cobb and Co, he was no more enamoured with the company than anybody else. He said he said it gets that way, all the passengers that that annoyed with one another, that no one’s game to speak in case there’s an argument. They all just wait for the next drink on you. Henry, you like to drink, too. So that probably was also on the cards.

RB: But at least he could romanticise about it in poetry.

JP: Oh. I mean, I think a lot of things are romantic in retrospect.

RB: Indeed. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us from Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba. And thank you everyone else for joining us from the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover in this episode? Interested in learning more when follow the Queensland Museum on Social Media @qldmuseum, or head to the website, which is qm.qld.gov.au And while you’re there, you can sign up for the e-news list. And don’t forget, there are show notes that go along with this podcast so you can check out a whole lot of the stuff that Jeff’s been talking about. All right. Until next time Stay Curious.

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