Early coach travel in New Zealand

by Anthony G. Flude ©2001

Cobb & company

".....the terrible condition of the roads justified all the newspaper reports...
Thick mud covered the backs of the horses and the gentlemen passengers were expected to walk up the steep hills to ease the horse's load."

Travel in New Zealand - by Cobb & Co. passenger coach.

ONE can easily imagine the sharp crack of the whip over the heads of the straining horse team, the crunch of the carriage wheels on the stones and the shouts of the driver setting the coach in motion, beginning the long journey to its destination.

Cobb & Company was first formed in Australia in the year 1854 by John Peck who had arrived in Melbourne the previous year from the United States of America. There he had been employed by the American Stagecoach Company named Wells Fargo. He used his knowledge and expertise and joined up with fellow American's, Freeman Cobb, James Swanton and John Lamber as the founder members of Cobb and Co. in Melbourne. Their first coach began running in 1854.

Peck was to make Australia his permanent home, while the other partners sold out their shares in the coachline for a large profit some two years later in 1856. In 1860, Peck and one of the former partners set up the Victoria Stage Co. but again sold out the enterprise just two years later.

As the Cobb & Co. coachline developed its network throughout Australia, it gained the reputation of being fast, reliable and punctual, whenever weather conditions permitted. It was this guarantee of service, which become the preferred way to travel from place to place.

Three coachbuilding plants were opened in Australia to build carriages and livery. These were situated at Bathhurst, Brisbane and Charleville in Queensland. The latter was the preferred, as the timber employed in the coach construction proved more durable under harsh conditions and less likely to dry out and crack.
A new suspension system was introduced, replacing the steel springs holding the coach body, suspending it between two long leather straps, called through-braces, which reduced road shock and sway for the passengers. This new method proved so successful that all further passenger coach bodies were suspended in this way.

The last few of the Cobb & Co horse-drawn coach lines in Australia, were still running in the year 1924.

Cobb Carriage
The Australian  branch of "Cobb & Co" did not set up as a coach company in New Zealand during those early years. However, their trade name was used extensively by private coach owners throughout this country in subsequent years, where every operator hoped to take advantage of the Cobb & Co. public image of reliability and punctuality.

Coachlines usually followed the road construction gangs, although in many areas the so-called roads and country routes were no more than clay or rocky tracks which were often hazardous, especially in the winter months, when they became deep in mud  or frozen solid with snow and ice.
Although the early Cobb & Company coaches offered the best service for travel in those times, the journey was not made in comfort. The seats were hard and uncomfortable being upholstered with horsehair. In summer the interior was hot and dusty and in winter it was freezing cold, even with rugs wrapped around legs and feet. Passengers longed for the comfort of the next watering stop at a wayside Inn or an overnight stop to rest their aching bones.

In New Zealand, travellers  found conditions outside the main settlements could be difficult and often dangerous, where journeys of any distance could only be made on horseback or by the hire of a small covered wagon and driver to convey them and their luggage to their destination.
River crossings , where no bridge had been constructed, were treacherous, especially when the river was swollen after rain storms.
The wagons simply bogged down in the fast flowing currents or could not make it across. Passengers who had climbed onto the roof for the crossing, clung precariously to the side rails as the horses strained to pull the carriage to the safety of the opposite bank.

Prior to 1860 there were no passenger coach services between towns in New Zealand. Many small operators ran services through the rough roads and tracks between settlements with goods and freight and occasionally a passenger or two who were prepared to sit up front with the driver.

In 1861, the discovery of gold in Gabriel's Gully, Otago prompted a goldrush to New Zealand and saw many Australian gold-diggers heading for the port of Dunedin. Among these was the Australian Cobb & Co. coach proprietor named Charles Cole, who had previously been running a service from Smythe's Creek to Ballaratt, Victoria. He chartered the steamship S.S. India at Geelong and on October 4th 1861 landed in Dunedin with one 'Concord' coach, five wagons, a buggy and some fifty-four horses.
A vast improvement in comfort, the new American 'Concord' coaches were built by J. Abbott of Concord, New Hampshire. Each boasted a centre door with a glass window which could be raised or lowered; the openings either side had curtains of American leather which rolled up and down to keep out the weather. The interior was upholstered in crimson plush, while the outside was painted red, with gold ornamentation. A box seat and roof seat allowed the coach to carry five extra outside passengers, with six to nine seated around the inside.

Just one week after landing, his first "Cobb & Co Telegraph Line of Coaches" left the Provincial Hotel, Dunedin for the Police Commissioner's Camp at Gabriel's Gully. Changing stations for the horses had already been arranged at the Reliance Hotel, [Otokia] at Tokomairiro, Round Hill and Waitahuna.
In February, 1862, the Hoyts came to New Zealand, landing their coach and horses at Bluff. They moved to Dunedin when they found there was no direct route to reach the gold diggings from there and linked up in partnership with C.Cole, trading as Cole, Hoyt & Co., proprietors of Cobb & Co. Telegraph Line of Coaches.

The enterprising passenger coach  service, began to operate on a  regular basis from Dunedin to Waikouaite.  Passengers who travelled on this line for Oamaru and beyond, were transferred to a light two horse wagon for the final part of their journey, where they were met by private contractors to take them on to the Ferry Service at Waitaki.
By April, 1862, due its success, Hoyt decided to put a four horse coach team on the run, with a service of three times a week at a fare of £3 each way. The route lay through Palmerston and over the Horse Range where stops were made at the Hampden Hotel and the Otepopo Inn, before the leg to the Northern Hotel, Oamaru or on to the Waitaki River Ferry Service.

By 1863 a reasonable roadway had been cut through from Timaru to Christchurch. A Cobb & Co coachline in Timaru soon opened up with a passenger service on this route running to the north. Within a short time the coachline advertised additional services south to the River Ferry at Waitaki so linking the route with the Dunedin/Oamaru coach-teams from the lower South Island.
In the Timaru township, Archibald Fraser established the Bon Accord Carriage factory where the coaches and wheels, damaged on the rough roads, could be repaired or a new one made to order. This firm was subsequently run by Thomas Fergussen in the year 1892 where he employed a staff of eight.

Cobb & Co.
A new road was opened in 1866 between Christchurch and Hokitika leaving the way open for the Cobb & Co. coach services to run twice weekly between Canterbury and the West Coast.
Christchurch to Riccarton coaches did not begin until the year 1878. These were run by a Charles Lewis, who also owned the Horse & Jockey Inn at Riccarton.

The year 1867 saw the beginning of a passenger service provided by Cobb & Co coaches in Wanganui. The Red Lion Inn, Durie Hill, was used as a booking office for coaches travelling between Wanganui and Upokongaro.
By November of that year, the "Cobb & Co. Telegraph Line of Coaches" had begun a two weekly service between Wanganui and Turakina. This was extended to a daily service in 1868, even though the road was barely more than a track across country. These coaches bore the sign, "Cobb & Co" on the door panels and "Royal "Mail" across the front of the carriage.

A 'Cobb & Co Royal Mail' service ran from Masterton to Woodville stopping at Hastwell's stables along the way in the 1880's passing through the small township of Eketahuna. Haswell and Macara later ran the coach service run at £1 each way but later encountered  competition with a Job Vile who offered a similar service for 15/-. 
The service from Wanganui to Wellington ran twice weekly by the end of 1869, the journey taking two full days where the coach followed the sea along the beaches, crossing the small streams before coming to Langley's Hotel at Foxton for an overnight stop.
At six in the morning the passengers were rowed across the Manawatu River to meet the Wellington coach on the opposite side to continue their journey south.
Incidents of drowning were not uncommon during the crossing of swollen streams and small rivers. Water levels rose alarmingly after heavy rains, making a normally safe crossing, with water only up to the coach floor, turn into a nighmare as the water rose higher and higher, forcing the passengers to scramble out for safety and the horses loose footing. A school teacher from Dunedin was drowned when she was washed out of the coach which capsized and carried downstream, the remaining passengers escaped and swam ashore.
Wellington businessmen, Shepherd and Young also ran one of the first coach services from the capital to New Plymouth in subsequent years.

By 1875, the Wanganui "Cobb & Co" coach services, run by Mr. A. Young, had been expanded to include a daily service to Whangaehu, Turakina, Marton and also Bulls. Fares-Wanganui to Bulls 10/-.Return 15/-.
Further expansion of his services were soon to follow, with passenger runs offered between Wanganui and Napier, with stops at Palmerston North and Waipukurau.
Mishaps and accidents did occur due to the rough terrain. One coach overturned through loosing an axle nut on the road and the wheel came off causing it to capsize; a passenger named O'Reilly, who had been sitting against the guide rail was crushed and killed instantly when the corner of the box seat fell across his chest.

Further north, in Auckland, "Cobb & Co." passenger coach services began to open up. In 1870, a  New Zealand Herald correspondant described his journey to the Waikato and back in two days offered by a coachline run by a Mr. Quick. Travellers no longer had to ride to the Waikato on horseback, a  new thrice weekly coach service from Auckland to Hamilton and Cambridge had opened up, at a fare of £2.

"I left Mr. Quick's Newmarket office at 6.30 am being in a hurry to transact some business in Hamilton and return the next day. Our coach was well filled and everyone seemed pleased at the prospect of making the journey as far as Ngaruawahia within the twelve hours.

Coach at Waiwera
We arrived at Mercer at twelve noon, remaining there for one hour for dinner and then proceeded by Collett's Folly to the Wangamarino bridge. We at length reached Rangiriri........thence by Armitage's Farm to Pokekorua, with its coal mines and mission station, crossing the Maungawara by one of the best built bridges in the province and arriving at Ngaruawahia at 6pm sharp. My business in Hamilton, just twelve miles away was transacted the same evening and by 6pm the next day, I was in Auckland again....."
Mail and passenger services to the north of Auckland began from Devonport, where a twice weekly service carried mail, goods and passengers to the Wade [Silverdale] and on as far as Waiwera in 1875. In later years, this was extended further north to the township of Warkworth as road conditions improved.

In 1879 the small town of Katikati, or as it was known then as Smith's Village was not linked to Tauranga until the road was completed in 1880. In 1882 a four horse coach service was established carrying both passengers and mail twice weekly on the 12 hour trip between Tauranga and Thames, a distance of 80 miles. [128 kilometers]
In 1873, the first Cobb & Co coach arrived in Tauranga from Napier, via Taupo and Rotorua. By 1875, a new four hour service was opened between Tauranga and Rotorua, but it was not until November, 1882, that the coaches were finally able to make the journey from Thames to Tauranga in just twelve hours.

Back on the South Island, the firm of G.W. Riley opened up a passenger coach service twice weekly from Blenheim to Clarence in the year 1881 which was taken over by J.W.Allen in 1885.  Allen joined partners with W. McRae in 1887 and expanded the coach service out to Kaikoura and to Waiau.
W.Creed took over the coach services in later years, when it is recounted that the Waiau coach ran into trouble one winter's day on the cutting near the south bank of the Conway River which was well known as a trouble spot.

Percy Creed was the driver of a fully laden coach of passengers and freight, using a five horse team, when the horses swung around a corner too fast on the icy road and lost their footing, causing the coach to swing wide and across the road towards the edge of a steep cliff.  The coach and horses were precariously balanced over the edge for some time before help came, when the horses and coach were safely pulled back onto the road again. The passengers and horses were all badly shaken, but unhurt.
Mt. Cook coaches
The Mount Cook Coaching Service began in the year 1886 after a sydicate of businessmen had built Mount Cooks first "Hermitage Hotel" appointing Mr. F. Huddleston as its manager. Some four years later the enterprise was taken over by E. Rutherford and the brothers Rhodes who also held a mail contract for the district.
The firm ran a local tourist brake carriage which carried 12 passengers on scenic tours around the Mt. Cook area. They also had several horse teams; a three horse, a four-in-hand, a 'pick-axe' team of five horses and a carriage and six-in-hand, [pictured above in the painting by E. Lovell-Smith] the team being driven by J. Rutherford.

Mr. Fred Denham drove the Cobb & co coach on the return journey from Cromwell to Queenstown  for over five years, where the first horse change was at Edward's Ferry, the next at the Ballarat Hotel in Arrowtown, before the final run into the Queen's Arms Hotel in Queenstown.
A fatal accident hapened in December, 1870, when the Cobb & Co coach came to grief at the bottom of a steep hill. The coach got too much way (speed) on. Near the bottom of the hill the coach overtook the horses and ran onto them, causing one of the pole horses to fall. The coach turned over, stoving in the roof, when the king-bolt came out, allowing the horses to bolt with the fore-carriage, dragging the driver some distance. Although badly bruised, the driver escaped injury but a passenger in the coach, who had head injuries, died the next day.

The first  Cobb & Co Royal Mail Coach to run between Balclutha and Invercargill started in January, 1864 and was run by a Mr. Peters. The coach left Wood's Clutha Ferry Hotel, Molyneux for the Mataura Ferry every Monday and Thursday. It passed through the settlements of Waiwera and Popotunoa with a fare of £2/10/0 to the Clutha Ferry and £4/10/0 to Dunedin.

Coach to Balclutha William Flint's coach also connected to Invercargill, however his prices were slightly higher than the Peter's mail coach. On the 4th April, 1864, the Hoyt coaches from Dunedin ran through to Invercargill in just two days.

When the Mataura Diggings opened up, a firm called Brayton & Co put on a coach three days a week, forcing Hoyt to reduce his fares by 10/- to meet the competition. In 1870, Campbell's Royal Mail coach leaving the Prince of Wales Hotel in Invercargill, formed the connecting link with Cobb & Co coaches at John Barr's Crown Hotel at Balclutha, the booking office for both coachlines at the time.

Between the years 1880 and 1900 the railway system had reached many areas and coach travel gradually declined. Coach services still ran regularly from Christchurch to Akaroa and Banks Peninsular in 1910; it would be another ten years or more before the first motor driven coaches and service cars arrived on the main routes throughout New Zealand.

Many roads were still in an atrocious condition, while in other parts of the North and South Island , local councils had carried out major road works, opening up areas which before had been totally inaccessible to the Cobb & Co. coachlines.

By the mid 1920's, the railway became the preferred and quickest way to travel between major towns.
The small, one horse passenger taxi services continued for many years, meeting passengers off the trains, while the Cobb & Co grand coaches became gradually covered in dust and cobwebs retired and stored in backcountry barns and stables.
It would be many years before these would be eventually dragged out into the harsh light of day, dusted off and lovingly restored to their one-time glory where they could be displayed in transport museums around the country for all to see.