In 1853, a group of four young and enterprising Americans established Melbourne’s Cobb and Co. public transport company. Freeman Cobb, John Peck, James Swanton, and John Lambert initially confined their services to cartage between Melbourne and the ports, but soon abandoned that route to carry people from Melbourne to the goldfields of Victoria. Within months, new coaches were obtained, and the freight hauling vehicles were refurbished to accommodate passengers and lighter horses.
Prior to Cobb and Co. there were a few regular coaching services available to the diggings. In 1851, James Watt established one of the first public transport services in Victoria with a regular route from Melbourne to Bacchus Marsh, on the way to the Ballarat diggings. Usually, though, the journeys were uncomfortable and expensive, with carts that sometimes were inadequate to navigate the road’s appalling conditions. The atrocious conditions of the roads in winter made travel virtually impossible for many carts, and so the service was largely confined to the drier months. When it rained, creeks became torrents, and the road turned into a muddy, boggy mess. After a night of rain during his journey to the diggings, Seweryn Korzelinski found the ‘road so bad that the horse and cart constantly sank in the mud. As there were to be four miles of this bad road, we had to unload half our goods and proceed with the other half at least three miles to a locality called Five Mile Creek.’
In late 1853, Cobb and Co. made their first foray out of Melbourne when they established a daily service to and from Forest Creek, a distance of seventy-four miles one way. Routes to Bendigo and Ballarat soon followed, in late 1853 and early 1854. The seventy-eight mile journey to Ballarat cost four pounds and departed from Melbourne’s Criterion Hotel, Monday to Saturday, at six in the morning, arriving at Ballarat that afternoon. By late 1854, Cobb and Co. were so successful that they had two booking offices in Melbourne’s Bourke Street, one at the Bull Mouth Hotel and the other at the Albion Hotel.
Using American Concord coaches, Cobb and Co. made travel a more comfortable experience, and a more profitable business. Pulled by four or six horses, Concords were able to carry up to fifteen people, thereby increasing the returns for each trip. In 1858, some new Concord coaches were imported from America with a capacity to seat twenty to thirty-two passengers. In 1862, Cobb and Co.’s Leviathan coach was built in Ballarat – it was able to carry between fifty-six and a staggering eighty-nine people. The double storey coach was a sight to behold, but was impractical as the lead horses were out of range of the whip – drivers had to carry a bag of stones to throw at the front horses when they wanted them to hurry up. The routes were divided into parts, with each driver responsible for one or two particular sections. Over time, drivers became intimately familiar with their route and with all its hazards and peculiarities.
By the late 1850s, Ballarat and Castlemaine were thriving coach-building centres. They serviced the needs of the horse-drawn public transport industry and employed ‘coachbuilders, wheelwrights, salesmen, drivers, booking agents, stable hands, saddlers, farriers and road builders.’ In the 1860s, Cobb and Co. had factories in Castlemaine, Sandhurst, and Bathurst.