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Appendix: The Hazards of Coaching

Bogged at night in the gluepot

Bogged at night in the "gluepot"
Australasian Sketcher, November 1st, 1873, p 131

The above contemporary picture, and the following evocative extract01, together provide a flavour of the misery and perils that awaited the average, unsuspecting coach passenger of the time on venturing into the “gluepot”:

Bogged at night in the gluepot

The reference above to the driver as a “citizen of the Great Republic” reflects not only the preoccupation with the then-recent American Civil War, but also the common use of American coach drivers on Australian routes, especially in the industry's early days. Australia also soon developed its own local legends, renowned as much for the goodwill of some as for the evil temper of others, but in all cases, acknowledged as men of consummate skill with the reins.

In his booklet reviewing Walhalla's smallpox scare, Henry Tisdall wrote in the last quarter of the 19th century about early travel to Walhalla -- from the (then) terribly modern perspective of a train traveller -- as follows: "Now at that time, the fertile part of Gippsland from Berwick to Traralgon, was covered with dense almost impenetrable scrub. Through this, a track was cut, uniting Melbourne with Sale, and along this track one of Cobb's coaches would take the weary travellers to distant Gippsland. An old Gippslander, as he sits gazing out of the train which takes him the whole distance in a few hours can hardly help thinking of the old coaching days when two long, weary days were taken up, crawling at a snail's pace through the "Glue Pot", and other delightful mudcovered parts of that wretched road. At times, the coach would be completely stopped, and the monotony of the journey enhanced by the passengers having to alight and help the vehicle out of the mud hole, and then to tramp along the heavy road uphill with the rain pouring in torrents. This is no fancy picture; it was a hard fact".02

The following passage, for example, deals with an early coach trip from Tarraville to Sale, some 80 kilometers, at worst an hour's drive over today's roads. While their new house was being built at Sale, the wife of that town's newly-arrived Dr Peck and their children had been staying with her sister at Tarraville, behind Port Albert, and travelled to Sale by Cobb and Co. coach in late 1859 (along what is said to be the oldest road in Gippsland). In a letter that she wrote to her mother soon afterwards, she described the trip as follows:

“... I must tell you something of our journey and arrival ... we had packed and made up our minds to start, and so with provisions of sandwiches, fresh eggs and a bundle of rhubarb, we breakfasted at six o'clock on Saturday morning and walked to Tarraville Hotel where the American coach was to pick us up at seven o'clock.

It is an open conveyance with black waterproof on top and curtains let down and very strong springs, and holds twelve people, three on each seat. A friend and neighbour of F—s, W Lightfoot, to whom I had been introduced the previous day, packed us in, I and the four children occupying the back seat, which had the leather curtains fastened around – Ann being there before us.

The roads were worse than driving over ploughed fields; in one part we were jerked rapidly over the trunks of trees laid close together to mend the road, which led through the bush or forest, and when one track becomes too much cut up they make another, winding in and out of the trees most wonderfully.

Every now and then one expected to stick fast in the mud, but Laura and Jenny, Dick and Sulky were each in turn, or all at once, called upon to “get up”, and we went on without accident or misadventure until we reached the first stage fourteen miles off Tarraville, where the horses were rested.

We alighted and had some tea with some of the sandwiches. Poor A-- had been very sick the last few miles, but her seat was outside and she managed to be no trouble. Bruthen's Creek, where we stopped, is a pretty trickling waterfall, a great pleasure to us all; the children found quantities of wild clematis and wreathed it about their hats and had no lack of amusement the two hours we stopped there.

The next stage was a long one, and was to end the day. It is called the Traveller's Rest, and is twenty-two miles from last stage, where Mrs – had given me a bottle of milk for the children.

An exclamation drew my attention to the fact that a bullock dray seemed stuck in a creek before, and I was rather startled to find that we had to drive down one steep bank and through the creek and up another. But it was so, and it seemed done so easily, and the horses were so beautifully managed, that after that I thought no more of passing a creek than of driving close to the trees.

After passing the creek we came upon a most lovely little clearing, and there stopped to have a picnic dinner, W Lightfoot having a box with a leg of mutton, bread, butter, water, brandy.

After this came a succession of creeks. We were getting very tired of the jolting and shaking, but the later part of the way was lovely with shrubs and flowers in bloom ... I was very glad on arriving at the rest, rooms ready for us and a cheerful fire.

The part of the Hotel(!) we occupied was recently built, and was like a cottage with a verandah in front covered with roses ... We started again before eight in the morning and in due time reached Hill Top, a large Inn, where the horses rested previous to crossing the morass, and after a few ineffectual efforts to drag the vehicle out from which most of the passengers had alighted, there was only one horse that would attempt to pull.

One of the leaders lay down and was with difficulty induced to get up, and the two shaft horses trembled violently, and could neither be led or driven to pull. At last they made one more fruitless effort, and the leader again lay down, and one of the shaft horses also. Some bullock drays were passing, and four bullocks were detached to drag us out; but it was grievous to see how the poor horses had to be flogged to make them rise and get out of the way. Floyd had arrived on horseback to meet us, having learnt at Sale, where he had ridden to church, that we were on the road up.

A number of people on horseback had assembled, and many assisted but the four bullocks soon settled the matter and dragged us in a very short space through the worst part, and now one more difficulty remained, which was the Punt Lane.

There was a long consultation how some dreadfully wet place was to be crossed. At last we drove completely into the water and went along satisfactorily until we came to the root of a tree which caught one wheel.

Two gentlemen were riding through to point the best way, and at last the horses managed to get the wheel over the root and then we were soon through the water and all difficulties were over, and we rattled into Sale at a great pace, and drove to the principal Inn, disturbing the congregations assembled for church. Mutton is scarcer than beef and dearer: 6d per lb, beef 4d. Flour is the dearest thing: 4d per lb. 03

Christ Church, Tarraville, Gippsland's oldest church

Christ Church, Tarraville -- first consecrated in 1856
Gippsland's oldest church, and possibly one of its most attractive, too.
(... said to have been built without nails ...)
- Private collection -

But while access to coach travel made remote communities like Walhalla – and Tarraville, and Sale, and many others -- feel less isolated, they were nobody's idea of the perfect way to travel. Claustrophobic, dusty, stuffy, and above all rough and uncomfortable, they were not for those of timid spirits. In America at about this time, Nebraska's “Omaha Herald” published a guide for beginners in 1877 to assist newcomers to coach travel, heeding the call to "go west". Their guide included the following sound advice among a longer list of tips, most of which would have been equally appropriate in “frontier” Gippsland:


  • The best seat inside a stagecoach is the one next to the driver ... you will get less than half the bumps and jars than on any other seat. When any old "sly Eph," who [has] traveled thousands of miles on coaches, offers through sympathy to exchange his back or middle seat with you, don't do it.

  • When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do it without grumbling. He will not request it unless absolutely necessary. If a team runs away, sit still and take your chances; if you jump, nine times out of ten you will be hurt.

  • In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor while on the road; a man will freeze twice as quick while under its influence.

  • Don't growl at food stations; stage companies generally provide the best they can get. Don't keep the stage waiting; many a virtuous man has lost his character by so doing.

  • Don't smoke a strong pipe inside especially early in the morning. Spit on the leeward side of the coach. If you have anything to take in a bottle, pass it around; a man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling.

  • Don't swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping. Don't ask how far it is to the next station until you get there.

  • Never attempt to fire a gun or pistol while on the road, it may frighten the team; and the careless handling and cocking of the weapon makes nervous people nervous[!]. Don't discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed.

  • Don't grease you hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable 'tater patch. Tie a silk handkerchief around your neck to keep out dust and prevent sunburns.

Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a picnic; expect annoyance, discomfort and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven.

A final, if somewhat tenuous, association between travel and 19th-century medicine is perhaps suggested by an observation that was penned by Peter Hiscock in an article on early leisure and tourism in Victoria, in the "Gippsland Heritage Journal", where he said that, "In the 1850s long distance travel ... was such an endurance test that any promotional literature that does survive, stresses not the leisure but rather the quick despatch. Like the surgery of the period, it was driven by the forlorn hope that speed might outpace pain."04


01 Text and (not quite such a clear) image are both from the “Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil”, of Saturday, 1st November, 1873, at the National Library of Australia's outstanding "Trove" database. In case you're not already familiar with Trove, look at this new national treasure at http://www.trove.nla.gov.au -- then do someone a favour and correct the interpretations of some of the mis-scanned text!
02 Henry T N Tisdall, “How we fought the smallpox in Walhalla”, (undated booklet).
03 Flora Johns, “The Peck Plaques”, published privately, Sale (1992), pp 30-31.
04 "Picturesque Victoria, and How to Get There in 1907", by Peter McL. Hiscock, in “Gippsland Heritage Journal”, no. 14, June, 1993, p 45.

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

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