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Fellow travellers of May 1853

On the very same day that the passengers and crew were publicly applauding the work of their stand-in ship's surgeon on the "Prince Arthur", another noteworthy advertisement appeared in the same "Public Notices" column, on exactly the same page of exactly the same edition of the same newspaper. By a remarkable coincidence, it was the very next notice published, immediately following the one that had so lavishly heaped such grateful praise on Henry T. Fox, the "young gentleman in the Saloon". At the very bottom of column six, it read as follows:

  ADAMS & CO.'s EXPRESS.

We shall despatch our first express to England and America per Steamer Harbinger on Saturday, 14th inst. Through receipts given for gold dust, specie, and packages of all descriptions, fully covered by insurance, and delivered as addressed, in any part of England or America. Drafts on England, Canada, or United States, in sums to suit, of amounts not under £5. Commissions executed in either of the above places.

ADAMS & CO.,

North-east Circus, Queen and Collins-streets,
May 11th, 1853.
 

One of the major coaching lines in the United States, Adams Express competed with the more famous Wells, Fargo on the busy and lucrative routes to the Californian goldfields. George Mowton, a 35-year-old senior representative of the company, had arrived in Melbourne with his wife Caroline and two children in late April01, to try to establish an international freight and transport office, and the above advertisement was one of the new venture's first manifestations. And so it came about that in May of 1853, an auspicious month in an auspicious year for Melbourne, at almost exactly the same time that William Henry Hadden walked ashore in Melbourne, another American, a 23-year-old New Englander named Freeman Cobb from Brewster, Massachusetts, was also disembarking there02. The son of a sea-captain, Cobb was also travelling, like Mowton, as an agent for Adams Express, where he had been employed since 1849.

It is commonly suggested that Mowton quickly and unfavourably assessed the chaotic state of the infant colony's development and the abysmal condition of the infrastructure on which his business would depend. It is supposed he concluded that the business could not be viable, and promptly decided to return to the United States, whereupon Freeman Cobb launched himself into his own allied line of business, and the rest, as they say, is history. However, it seems more likely that it took Mowton some time to arrive at this conclusion (and approval from head office to abandon the venture took rather longer than an international email or phone call does these days), because it was not until August of the following year that auctioneers were advertising the sale of his household effects:
 
SYMONS and PERRY have received instructions from George Mowton, Esq., to sell by auction, at his residence, Brunswick-street, Collingwood, on Tuesday, 16th inst., at 12 o'clock, the whole of his household furniture, carriages, horses, etc , consisting of --
  • Dining room furniture
  • Drawing room do.
  • Bedroom do.
  • Kitchen utensils
  • Horses
  • Carriages, &c
Terms at Sale.
Further particulars in future advertisements03.
 

At the same time, his Brunswick Street residence was being advertised to let for ten months, with immediate possession04. Without formally winding up the business, in November of 1854 Mowton lodged the following advertisement in the "Argus":
 
NOTICE. -- The undersigned, being about to leave in the Norna, for England and the United States for a short period, would respectfully inform the public that, during his absence, Messrs Samuel L. Cutter and Freeman Cobb will attend to the business of Adams and Co., in Australia; the former will have the superintendence of the Banking and Exchange business, and the latter the General Business of the House, in the express department.

GEORGE MOWTON,
Resident Partner of ADAMS and CO., in Australia.05
 

Young Freeman Cobb, on the other hand, did not share his gloomy view of the unpromising state of the local market. Quite to the contrary, he was adamant that the bulk of the new colony's untapped potential lay in moving thousands of people daily between the still-new capital, by then bursting at the seams, and Victoria's even newer goldfields, and that this opportunity was being overlooked. It is a measure of his remarkable capabilities that by the end of 1854 – rather than conducting his own business instead of that of Adams Express, as is often suggested by his biographers – the above advertisement clearly indicates that Cobb's own activities were in addition to his original employer's day-to-day operations.

In a further remarkable coincidence of timing, yet another young American, George Francis Train, an enthusiastic, then-24-year-old merchant, importer and entrepreneur from Boston, Massachusetts, had also arrived in Melbourne in May, 1853 (on the 23rd, aboard the Bavaria). He wasted no time in placing the following advertisement in the "Argus":
 
AMERICAN COMMISSION HOUSE.

EBEN CALDWELL and George Francis Train, forming the copartnership of Caldwell, Train and Co., having both arrived at Melbourne in the ships Plymouth Rock and Bavaria, from the United States, would respectfully notify the public that they have taken an office for the present at 13, Elizabeth-street, where they offer for sale an assortment of American produce and general merchandise.06

 

In partnership with fellow countryman Ebenezer Caldwell, Train set up large warehouses for incoming goods at both ends of the then-new Melbourne to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) railway line for passengers of the recently-founded White Star shipping line – of eventual “Titanic” fame -- for whom the firm of Caldwell, Train & Co. operated as agents (and on whose behalf, incidentally, Train became one of the largest front-page advertisers in the very first edition of the “Age” newspaper when it was published, on October 17th, 1854).

Noting the flood of new arrivals into the infant state, Freeman Cobb initially had his eye on the same route. In company with three other even more recently-arrived young American coachmen who had disembarked from the Eagle in June07 (and who collectively called themselves “the boys” since their average age was barely 22), they began ferrying freight and passengers along the rough and “short but busy”08 road between Melbourne and Liardet's Beach -- officially Sandridge, and later Port Melbourne -- in July of 1853. The heavy rains of a particularly wet winter turned the poorly-formed road into a quagmire, and quickly led the team to suspend the service before abandoning it.

In a letter dated December 16, 1853, George Train nevertheless wrote that “... some Cape Cod folks are doing a good business with some Yankee coaches between Sandridge and Melbourne.”09 One of these “Cape Cod folks”, of course, was Freeman Cobb, whom Train, barely 18 months older than Cobb himself, had encouraged with advice and funding in the establishment of his business. The “Yankee coaches” were an elegant pair of one-ton “thoroughbrace” Concord coaches, imported by Cobb's employer and landed from the Eagle in June of 1853. First built in 1827 by the firm of Abbot and Downing at Concord, New Hampshire, the Concord coach was reputed to be “the finest road vehicle of its time -- a supreme achievement of American stagecoach building” that was regarded by many as “the finest coach the world has ever known.”10 It could carry up to two tons, had a track of barely 1.7 meters in width (and thus didn't demand a very broad roadway), and cost a little over $US1,00011. The coachwork was of such quality that it was said to take a very keen eye to distinguish where the spokes of the wheels ended and the hubs began.

Museum Victoria's Cobb & Co coach

Museum Victoria's beautiful Cobb & Co. Concord coach
Private collection

Developed in the early 1800's as the swift and legendary stage-coach of the Wild West, Concords proved themselves equally adaptable to frontier transport in Australia, and in the relatively short 70-year interval before their work was taken over by rail, motor and even air transport, they quickly acquired a legendary status of their own here, too. They were much admired for their elegant design, quality and durable construction, but more than anything else, it was the “thoroughbraces” that distinguished these coaches from the traditional, heavier English coaches with heavy wheels and steel leaf-spring suspension that had been in use since the 17th century, which were better suited to paved roads than to the rough and ready coaching tracks of a new colony. “Coach travel was necessary but notoriously uncomfortable and left passengers with motion sickness, bruises and other injuries sustained as wooden wheels jarred their way across bumpy roads. These more comfortable coaches went some way toward improving passenger comfort”,12 although it should be noted that “the purpose of the through-braces was not, as is often reported, to ease the ride of the passengers. They were installed to prevent injury to the horses, which were much more valuable to the stage line than any passenger”.13

Cobb & Co coach near Walhalla, 1886

Cobb & Co. coach at Flourbag Cutting on the Walhalla - Brunton's Bridge track, 1886
Photo courtesy of G Wachter, Noble Park Historical Society

The design of the Concord coach suspended a rugged passenger compartment on sturdy leather “thoroughbrace” straps in an effort to iron out the roughness of primitive coach roads, although their true value on Australian roads was possibly oversold, particularly on rougher tracks. The “thorough braces” themselves were strips of leather several layers thick and 8-10 cm wide, “cured to the toughness of steel and strung in pairs to support the body of the coach and enable it to swing back and forth. This cradle-like motion absorbed the shocks of the road and spared the horses as well as the passengers. It also permitted the coach to work up its own assisting momentum when it was mired in a slough of bad road. These thorough braces were carefully wrought and intricate in arrangement, and it usually required the hides of more than a dozen oxen to supply enough of them for a single coach ... These braces allowed the coach to rock back and forth and swing sideways, too, providing forward momentum for the teams”.14

It also meant that if they ever broke on the road (as they sometimes did, often as the result of a coach hitting an obstruction), passengers would not necessarily be stranded, as they would be if a steel spring were to shatter. Rather than wait for a spare part to arrive, or limp slowly to the nearest blacksmith for makeshift repairs, thoroughbraces usually required no more than a competent leather-worker's skills, at a time when such skills were relatively commonplace: “if it broke, it could be fixed by any fairly skilled person with a leather punch, a sharp knife, and a tanned cowhide, while a broken spring would require a highly trained blacksmith with his forge and special steel stock”.15

The coaches had adjustable leather curtains to roll down over their unglazed window spaces, but “when closed, they made the interior pitch dark and steam-heated. ... The inside of the Concord Coach was only a bit over four feet [1.2m] in width, and its height inside was about four and one-half feet [1.35m]. The interior, upholstered in padded leather and damask cloth, had three seats providing space for nine passengers. The seats, covered with leather-covered pads, were reported to be harder than the wood beneath them. The middle seat unfortunately was just a bench with no back support. Some had a leather strap across the back that was fastened to one side of the stage, and was hooked across to the other side. This seat was reserved for the late-comers who were subject to a tortuous, uncomfortable ride”.16

Veteran drivers, often Americans, were highly skilled and were in many cases dedicated to very few “stages” which they learned to navigate in all sorts of weather, night and day, “which meant they became extremely familiar with every twist and turn of the road and therefore could navigate even difficult roads quickly”.17 And just as well -- “They had to remember every steep decline, sharp corner, heavy bog and winding path along the route, which had to be negotiated in all weathers and at night”.18 Pulled by teams of four or five horses, the coach would make good time in fine weather over well-formed roads, but for most routes, these were the exception, and the average speed was only 10 or 11 kilometers per hour. “Male passengers would open the stock gates, and at night a 'gate watch' was organised to ensure someone was awake to answer the driver's call of 'gate, gate, oh'. Passengers alighted and walked over stretches which were too steep or hazardous to ride”,19 and would be expected to help unpack and repack the freight on top of the coach, sometimes piled up to a considerable height, if it became unstable or was upset.

Cobb & Co at Surat, Queensland

Best seat in the house -- a Cobb & Co. coach at Surat, Queensland
Photo courtesy of National Archives of Australia ref NAA: J2879, QTH313/4


One fortunate passenger would usually be permitted to ride in the box seat, alongside the driver, and this was often considered the best seat, although rarely for reasons of the driver's sociable company: “passengers offered money for this privilege. Some ... preferred to sit out in a thunder storm, exposed to the elements, rather than being jolted inside the coach, hitting their heads on the roof”.20 Women had no such option, and were usually expected to travel inside the coach, although “the body of the coach was so strong, that sometimes as many as ten or twelve adventurous passengers could be seen perched up on top”.21

With the assistance and encouragement of George Train and others, Cobb and “the boys” spent the final months of 1853 preparing to launch a passenger carrying service to the goldfields, and by early 1854, as “The American Telegraph Line of Coaches”, they began offering a daily passenger service in both directions between the Criterion Hotel in Collins Street, and the Forest Creek diggings (just short of Castlemaine, later re-named as Chewton), eventually extending to Bendigo, every day but Sundays:22

Advertisement for American Telegraph Line of Coaches, 1854

Advertisement from The "Argus", Monday, January 30th, 1854

They used two coaches with a changeover point halfway into the 74-mile [120 km] journey.23 The efficiency and reliability of the operation quickly captured the public's imagination, and the partnership soon became better known to the general public as the more alliterative and euphonious “Cobb and Co.”, a name which not only soon became synonymous with the romance of coach travel, but also quickly entered into the Australian vernacular.

In three short years, Freeman Cobb revolutionized the coach industry in Australia at a time when it seriously needed an overhaul. Rather than the custom of waiting at the depot for enough passengers to fill a coach prior to its departure, he offered scheduled departures and reliable arrival times. He used shorter “stages” of 15 to 20 miles where teams of horses would be exchanged and rested, the driver announcing his arrival from a distance with a distinctive blast on a bugle to let the waiting groom know whose team to prepare. The introduction of shorter stages “was perhaps one of the most important steps taken by the new company ... as it meant a faster trip for passengers and a relatively more comfortable ride”.24

He set out on a lightning program of acquisitions and what today looks almost like franchising, lending his name to more and less tightly affiliated coach lines across the state. By March of 1855, Cobb & Co. had acquired the remnants of Adams & Co.'s operations in Australia;25 by the end of the same year, they had two booking offices in Bourke Street, one at the Bull and Mouth Hotel and the other on the opposite side of the street.26 According to Geoffrey Serle, “by 1855, Cobb & Co. had gained a near-monopoly of passenger transport”.27

Bull and Mouth Hotel, Bourke Street, in 1854

Bull and Mouth Hotel in Great Bourke Street, 1854
Slide by S T Gill from National Library of Australia


But just as swiftly and dramatically as he had built the business up, in characteristic style, on May 16th, 1856, Cobb announced that the business and all its assets had been sold (for a handsome profit) and literally within days, on the following Monday, the 19th of May, this advertisement appeared in the columns of the “Argus”:

 
NOTICE. -- The Undersigned, intending to leave this colony, requests that all Unsettled Accounts, and Claims of every description, be presented at the Booking Office, No. 28 Bourke-street east, on or before Thursday next, 22nd inst., for settlement, after which date they will not be recognised.
FREEMAN COBB.
Melbourne, May 16th, 1856.28
 



Within the week (on Friday, May 23), he was to leave Melbourne forever, to return to America on board the Royal Charter, prompting the following letter to appear in the "Argus" of May 17th, 1856:

 

HONOR TO WHOM HONOR.

To the Editor of the Argus.

Sir, -- Understanding that Mr. Freeman Cobb is about to quit our shores by the Royal Charter, I deem it a duty to suggest that he be invited to a public dinner, and that if time will admit of it a still more substantial mark of the public appreciation of his successful efforts to extend the advantages of quick, easy, and safe communication to all parts of the colony be at the same time presented to him. I believe that every one who has travelled by Cobb's admirably-managed coaches will cordially join me in saying that Mr. Cobb has conferred great and lasting benefits on this community, 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.29

 


A lavish farewell dinner was hastily convened in his honour at the Criterion Hotel at 360 Collins Street, a location favoured by Cobb and other Americans for its compatriot ownership, sympathetic ambience and annual 4th of July festivities.30 The dinner was hosted by some of the leading merchants of Melbourne and a number of his friends and fellow countrymen, and on May 26th, the dinner was reported comprehensively in the “Argus”, including the following summary: “Mr. Cobb ... has ... gained the good opinion and respect of the whole community, wherever he is known. It would be superfluous to add that, at this entertainment given in honor of Mr Cobb's enterprising and honorable career in Victoria, the warmest feelings of regard were manifested to him, coupled with the warmest wishes for his future prosperity”.31 No doubt feeling a little the worse for wear, he “was escorted to Sandridge the following 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 hospitably supplied by the captain of that vessel”.32

Criterion Hotel, Collins Street

Criterion Hotel at 360 Collins Street in the 1850s
From an engraving by Redaway & Sons,
State Library of Victoria

Within a year or two of returning to an America that was about to become immersed in its Civil War, he married a cousin, Annette Cobb, and briefly became a state Senator, before migrating to South Africa in 1871, where he operated yet another line of “Cobb and Co.” coaches between Port Elizabeth and Kimberley. That business foundered, however, and although he managed to salvage it to the point of continuing to operate it with modest success for a further two years before his health failed, he was to die insolvent on May 24th, 1878, at his home in Port Elizabeth.

Meanwhile the business in Australia went from strength to strength under a succession of owners, largely due to the reputation which Cobb had so assiduously fostered for its punctual, efficient and reliable service. The “brand” was sought by any number of affiliated coach lines, and so it was, in the mid-1860's, that no fewer than two coaching companies,"Meigs and Anderson, and Watson and Hewitt carried the name of Cobb and Company into Gippsland".33

One early Walhalla resident wrote of a coach trip to Melbourne in his youth in the late 1860's as follows: “We departed early in the morning, on a ride of about thirty miles to Shady Creek -- I had never been on horseback before -- where we met the non-stop Sale to Melbourne coach. It was really full before we joined, but our fares had been accepted so my friend had to carry a young girl on his lap, while I sat on the knees of a rather portly, elderly gentleman. When running over many of the bumpy places in the road, I would bounce nearly to the roof of the coach, and when I fell back, my supporter could not have felt comfortable. What most impressed me on this journey, however, was the number of meals we took, usually when horses were changed. All the meals were of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes, with plum pudding to follow. We arrived near the G.P.O., Bourke Street, early in the morning, and lodged near the present Law Courts".34


Cobb & Co at the Royal Hotel Dandenong

Cobb and Co.'s Royal Mail coach outside the Royal Hotel -- Dunbar's until October, 1880 -- in Lonsdale Street, Dandenong
(Note the stables down the side lane)
Photo courtesy Dandenong & District Historical Society


By 1870, Cobb & Co. coach routes had spread from Victoria into New South Wales and Queensland, where the firm was eventually wound up in 1924, no longer able to compete with advances in rail, motor and air transport networks. To pay them their due, however, a commonly quoted “key performance indicator” metric of the transport industry from Cobb and Co.'s heyday had recorded that “every week they travelled 28,000 miles [45,000 km] and every day, drivers harnessed up 6,000 horses".35

And thus the stage is set (no pun intended) for the dashing story of Cobb and Co. to intersect with the lives of both Dr William Henry Hadden and a woman named Sarah Hanks, at a then-primitive Gippsland gold-mining settlement called Shady Creek, south-west from Walhalla.


Home

One more May arrival, also coming ashore early in the month from another ship named Eagle -- not June 20th's arrival from New York, but in this case a Liverpool clipper of the same name, of over 1000 tons, which routinely boasted in its advertisements at this time of holding the record of 76 days for the trip "home" -- was Ellen [Corkill] Callow, aged 29, and her son William, aged 10, migrating from the Isle of Man36.

Her husband (also known as William, but whose arrival a month earlier on the Tantivy was registered as "Thomas" Callow) was a builder and joiner who worked at his trade around Melbourne for two years before moving to the central goldfields until 1863, when he took his family to the Dunstan diggings in New Zealand. Returning to Australia with £1,000 that he earned running a store there, he went first to Grant, before -- like Henry Hadden -- finally settling in Walhalla in 1866, only in his case as a builder and contractor, where on June 26th, he paid £350 for crown allotment 17 in what was to become the town's main street. So note the name "William Callow" -- we'll hear of him again there, as an early storekeeper and the town's undertaker.
 




 

Footnotes

01 Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists for British, Foreign and New Zealand Ports 1852-1923 at Public Record Office of Victoria retrieved December 22nd, 2011.
02 Presumably May 18th -- a passenger “Cobb” is listed as arriving on P&O's “Shanghai” in the “Shipping Intelligence” column in the “Argus” of Thursday, May 19th, 1853, p 4.
03 The “Argus”, Tuesday, 8th August, 1854, p 6.
04 The “Argus”, Wednesday, 9th August, 1854, p 1
05 The “Argus”, Friday, 24th November, 1854, p 6
06 The “Argus”, Wednesday, 25th May, 1853, p 12
07 “Shipping Intelligence” column in The “Argus”, Monday, 20th June, 1853, p 6 : "ARRIVED. June 19. - Eagle, ship, 715 tons, Silas Hardy, from New York, Feb. 8, and Rio de Janeiro. 15th April, with sixty first, and one hundred second class passengers. Capt. Hardy, agent."
08 A. W. Greig, “'Scorching' to the Diggings – the Story of Cobb & Co.”, in the "Argus", Saturday 20th May, 1922, p 5
09 Ibid.
10 Elizabeth Larson, “The Concord Coach”, retrieved 15th February, 2012.
11 Christine Jeffords, “Here She Comes! The Stage Coach”, retrieved 21st March, 2012.
12 From “Australian Stories: Cobb & Co. - an Australian transport icon”, retrieved 19th March, 2012.
13 Elizabeth Larson, (op. cit.).
14 Mary A. Helmich, “Stage Styles -- Not All Were Coaches” at California Department of Parks and Recreation, retrieved 11th March, 2012.
15 Christine Jeffords, (op. cit.)
16 Elizabeth Larson, (op. cit.).
17 “Australian Stories”: (op. cit.).
18 Powerhouse Museum, Sydney: Cobb & Co mail and passenger coach, 1890
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Elizabeth Larson, (op. cit.).
22 "Cobb, Freeman (1830–1878)" in Australian Dictionary of Biography
23 “Australian Stories”: (op. cit.)
24 “Australian Stories”: (op. cit.)
25 “Adams & Co. Express's Relationship to Freeman Cobb” at “Australian Postal History and Social Philately”, retrieved 5th February, 2012. In addition to displaying an 1853 envelope addressed to George Mowton, this site also suggests that another contributing factor to Adams Express never getting off the ground in Melbourne was monopolistic "muscle-flexing" by the colony's infant Post Office.
26 A. W. Greig, op.cit.
27 G. Serle, (op. cit.), p 235
28 The “Argus”, Monday 19th May, 1856, p 7.
29 The “Argus”, Saturday, 17th May, 1856, p 5
30 Barry J Crompton, “A Walking Tour of Civil War Melbourne”, retrieved 27th April, 2012. This is one of a number of sources that site the Criterion Hotel "at the current location of the old stock exchange of the 1960s"; others, such as the Port Phillip Pioneers Group, locate the Criterion Hotel at "38-40 Collins Street West." It's likely that both mean the same thing -- Lenore Frost from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria advised me in an email of September 24th, 2012, that according to an 1865 commercial directory of Melbourne, "No 2 Collins St West was at Elizabeth Street" (i.e., roughly halfway along Collins Street) and "The Criterion was still listed at 36".
31 The “Argus”, Monday, 26th May, 1856, p 5.
32 A. W. Greig, op.cit.
33 A. W. Greig, op.cit.
34 Personal memoir of F K Esling, forwarded to Walhalla Heritage and Development League by Mr R Meadley in March, 2008.
35 “Australian Stories”: (op. cit.)
36 Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists for British, Foreign and New Zealand Ports 1852-1923 at Public Record Office of Victoria retrieved October 22nd, 2012.
 

© 2013 Bernard Bolch for the Walhalla Heritage and Development League.


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