To the beach, by Cobb & Co

By Jeff Powell, Curator, Cobb+Co Museum

Cobb & Co delivered mail and passengers to some of the most remote and dusty corners of Queensland such as Boulia, Croydon, and Thargomindah, but Cobb & Co was just as important to settlements around Brisbane and southeast Queensland.

The opening of the railway between Brisbane and Ipswich in 1875 spelled the end of Cobb & Co’s original route in Queensland, but the manager Fred Shaw leapt on a business opportunity. He started a service from the new railway station to Sandgate. Coaches ran twice daily and once on Sunday to coordinate with the trains from Ipswich. Rail passengers from as far afield as Toowoomba, Warwick and Dalby joined their Brisbane cousins for a paddle in ocean and picnic by the sea, for 2 shillings and sixpence each way. Extra coaches ran on public holidays (1). The 16 km coach service along ‘the Sandgate road’ had stops at the little settlement of Albion, and German Station (Nundah) in the centre of pineapple farms and fruit groves. Sandgate was connected to the rail network in 1882, thus ending the coach traffic. Cobb & Co had already relinquished this route in late 1879, in anticipation of opportunities south of Brisbane.

Cobb & Co had a coach route down ‘the Logan road’ from Brisbane to Pimpama from 1870. Again Cobb & Co manager Fred Shaw saw opportunities as new areas were opening up for settlement. He established a sugar cane plantation called ‘Luscombe’ on the Albert River in the early 1870s, and represented the area in Queensland Parliament in 1875-1876. (Today’s Luscombe Park and Shaw’s Pocket Road are in the vicinity.) The coach route was extended to Nerang in 1871. Downstream from Nerang was the timber milling settlement known as ‘Nerang Creek Heads’. A town was surveyed in 1874 and the first land sales for the ‘Village of Southport’ were held in 1875 (2). A newspaper article in 1876 listed the attractions of the area, not least of which were the rock oysters, crabs, whiting, bream and rock cod. A steam boat was under construction at Nerang to carry goods and passengers down to Southport, as the settlements first hotel opened (3).

A Cobb & Co coach at Pimpama, circa 1875, William Boag Collection. Image courtesy State Library QLD.

Reaching another seaside destination for Cobb & Co was tantalisingly close, just a few kilometres from Nerang. Unfortunately, the track to Southport was in a very primitive condition. When a visiting Brisbane cricket wanted to play a combined local team in January 1878 Cobb & Co had to send Hiram Barnes, a veteran of 20 years and ‘the cleverest driver in Cobb & Co’s employ…’ to drive the coach and five horses (4).

A visit by the Minister for Lands and two other members of Parliament the following year may have led to improvements in the road. The covered wagonette, hired from Cobb & Co for the trip and driven by experienced driver Roderick McRae, overturned when the road gave way on one side. The dignitaries were sandwiched between the carriage and a slip rail fence. All members of the party suffered minor injuries (5), but it may have been a fortuitous accident for Cobb & Co for soon the Nerang – Southport road was improved and designated a mail route.

Cobb & Co manager Fred Shaw had stables erected in Southport in mid-1879, and had himself constructed ‘a fine house’. Indeed it turned out to be a fine public house, the Labrador Hotel (6). The coach route to the growing seaside town of Southport terminated at Fred Shaw’s pub!
The attractions at this time were more akin to fishing, paddling and taking in the fresh air and scenery than swimming, which was only done discreetly and out of public view if at all. It was a wealthier clientele than the Sandgate afternoon trippers. A sojourn to the South Coast was only for those who could afford the cost of travel and a couple days away from work. Still, the number of ‘tourists’ grew along with Southport itself.

A Cobb & Co coach on soft sand near Southport in the 1880s. Image courtesy of the State Library QLD.

Cobb & Co extended its route from Nerang through the hills and dense forests to Mudgeeraba and Tallebudgera in 1883. There was also an alternate route to Tallebudgera via Southport from 1881. The track went along Ferry Road (naturally enough) to Meyer’s ferry, across the Nerang River to Elston (Surfers Paradise), and along the hard sand on the beach to Burleigh Heads, and finally along the creek to Tallebudgera. Presumably Cobb & Co also used this beach route as well as the inland road. A smooth and even ride over hard sand would have been a joy compared to rocking and rolling over bush tracks. The Queenslander reported in 1884 that coaches were going from Southport as far as Coolangatta via the beach, and getting there before three o’clock in the afternoon depending on the tides (7). There must have been plenty of tourists going past Burleigh because the Cobb & Co driver, Washington Waters took a leaf out of Fred Shaw’s book and opened Burleigh Heads’ first hotel in the 1880s.

The Brisbane Courier reported that,

‘A steady inflow of visitors to Southport is continuing. All the hotels and other places of accommodation are doing good business, the beautiful beach and delightful scenery around Burleigh attracting many. Cobb & Co leaves Tallebudgera at 5 am, via Burleigh, meeting the Brisbane coach at Pimpama, returning home by about 6pm. The journey requires driver of iron constitution and endurance, for it means little short of fourteen hours over a heavy road with the brake almost continuously in use.’ (8)

Cobb & Co connected Tallebudgera to Murwillumbah in 1886. The arduous track over the eastern end of the McPherson Range went up and down steep pinches and through rainforest, but it became an important communications link from northern New South Wales to Brisbane. Later, when Brisbane was connected to Sydney by rail in 1889, Tweed Valley mail went to Nerang by coach, by rail to the Brisbane Post Office to be sorted, then onto the ‘Sydney Mail’ train. This at a time when Queensland and New South Wales were independent colonies, prior to Federation (9).

Tweed Heads was the next spot on the expanding tourist itinerary, and Cobb & Co (formerly) extended their mail service from Tallebudgera in 1888. However, their time at the ‘South Coast’ was drawing to an end. The railway reached Southport in 1889, and steamships of increasing size and amenity also plied between Brisbane, Southport and the Tweed. Cobb & Co concentrated their attention on northern and western Queensland, but the coaching era at the Gold Coast was not over yet. The Gaven brothers (Thomas and William) operated the difficult Nerang to Murwillumbah mail coach route for several years (10), to be followed by the Jarvis family (Arthur, James and David), who unfortunately had a couple of accidents on the horrific track. In each case they were exonerated and blame placed squarely on the condition of the ‘road’ (11).

Tourists, holiday makers, day trippers; a new class of people enjoying the view at Kirra Hill around 1899. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

Coach travel was far from over on the Gold Coast beaches as well. Otto Vetter had the mail contract from Southport to Tweed Heads from 1888, and continued running his horse-drawn coaches and carriages along the sand at least until the railway reached Tweed Heads in 1903. And what was the destination of Vetter’s coach line?

The Commercial Hotel Coolangatta (Tweed Heads). Mr Otto Vetter desires to inform the public that he has purchased the above Hotel, which has been thoroughly renovated and enlarged. Visitors may depend on every home comfort and attention. Buggies, horses and boats for hire. Charges moderate. Otto Vetter Proprietor.’ (12)

Which only goes to show that package tours have been around since the horse and buggy days at least.

Railway Station Southport, Queensland. Mail coach leaving for the Tweed Coast. The coach in this photo from the late 1890s may have belonged to Otto Vetter. Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

Endnotes

1. Brisbane Courier ‘Telegraphic’, 19 June 1875. p5.; Darling Downs Gazette ‘A trip to Sandgate’ 18 July 1879. p3
2. Telegraph, 18 March 1875. p3.
3. ibid ‘Nerang’, 19 February 1876. p5.
4. The Queenslander ‘Field Sports’ 15 January 1878. p5.; Pugh’s Queensland Almanac ‘Country Postal Directory’ 1878; 1879.
5. Brisbane Courier ‘Beenleigh’, 3 May 1879. p7.
6. Logan Witness ‘Southport’, 23 August 1879. P3.; Brisbane Courier ‘Classified Advertising, 23 December 1881. p4.
7. The Queenslander ‘Country News’, 13 December 1884. p944.
8. Brisbane Courier ‘Nerang’, 20 February 1883. p3.
9. Logan Witness ‘Local and General’, 13 April 1889. p3.
10. South Coast Bulletin ‘Obituary William Henry Gaven’, 2 June 1948. p16.; Telegraph ‘Nerang News’, 1 November 1894. p6.
11. Brisbane Courier, 11 July 1901. p4.; ibid, 8 March 1902. p6.
12. ibid, 2 July 1892. p7.

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