Cobb+Co Museum’s Horse-Drawn Omnibus

By Jeff Powell, Curator Cobb+Co Museum

Next time you catch a bus, have a thought for “commuters” of Brisbane in the nineteenth century!

Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba contains over 50 horse-drawn vehicles, including a horse-drawn omnibus. The museum preserves the history of what was known as the ‘the horse and buggy era’, but we concede that most people could not afford a buggy, nor even the horse to pull it. Perhaps the nineteenth century should be called ‘the pedestrian era’ as walking was the most common form of transport, particularly in towns and cities.

However, by 1861 Brisbane was beginning to spread out as the population grew to around 6000. To accommodate this urban sprawl, two horse-drawn buses, ‘omnibuses’, were introduced to provide public transport from “the Valley to the top of Queen Street”.[1] 

A Queensland style omnibus in Ipswich. The canvas blinds are extended out for shade, and a canopy protects the driver from the elements. (Photo Roberts’ Collection)[2]

Throughout the 1860s the number of omnibuses and routes increased along with Brisbane’s growing population. Bus routes were extended to Breakfast Creek, and to Woolloongabba once the bridge to South Brisbane was finished in 1874. Omnibuses could also be hired for school or ‘trade picnics’. Industries such as boot makers, bakers, butchers, and many more had their respective picnic holidays to the ‘seaside’ or nearby spots in the country.

There were 61 licensed omnibuses paraded for the annual Council inspection in 1881.[3] However, the speed of trotting horses still limited the size of ‘town’. It was a half-hour commute to the then ‘outer suburbs’ of Bowen Hills, Albion and Hamilton or the ‘Gabba and Highgate Hill. 

The ‘omnibus stand’ in Eagle Street near Queen Street, Brisbane, 1879. Most omnibuses left from here or the North Quay end of Queen Street. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.)

The route to Rosalie in the 1890s was operated by Leah Morton. It was unusual to have a woman heading a business in those days, but she successfully ran the company for around 20 years. Her sons also worked in the business, Walter as a driver and Ernie in the stable. At least one of her omnibuses was a little grander than the norm for Brisbane. Most Brisbane omnibuses were open at the rear, and sides. Passengers were protected by canvas blinds which could be propped out for shade or rolled down to keep out the rain. Mrs Morton’s omnibus was built in Sydney and featured glass windows, a rear door and roof seats. It was licensed to carry the impressive number of 25 passengers.

Picnickers on Leah Morton’s omnibus. The omnibus would be available for hire on public holidays but Mrs Morton also held an annual picnic for own employees’ families and friends at Manly. The women on the front and top of coach were posing for the photo. Women were only permitted by law to ride inside. (Photo courtesy Royal Queensland Historical Society. #P53630)

Expanding tram and rail networks pushed omnibuses away from the centre city and into the suburbs in the 1900s. Leah Morton’s omnibus was purchased by the Kedron Omnibus Company in 1912 to run from Wooloowin Railway Station to Aspley. The omnibus and horses were stabled at Hamilton’s Coachworks, Chermside.  It operated on this route until 1924, well past the time other omnibuses had been replaced by trams and motor buses.

Nearly fifty years later Leah Morton’s Sydney style omnibus was donated to Queensland by Mrs J McClurg, and restored by coachpainter Alex Hamilton who had maintained it in his youth with the family business. The omnibus is now on display at Cobb+Co Branch, Queensland Museum in Toowoomba.

[1] Darling Downs Gazette, ‘Brisbane’ 30 May 1861. P3

[2] Australiasian Coachbuilder and Saddler, 15 October 1896. P109.

[3] Brisbane Courier, 21 December 1881. P2.