COACHES AND COACHING
The name of Cobb and Co. is inseparably linked with the history of coaching in New Zealand, but this firm was by no means the first to function here, for McIntosh, for example, ran a coach service in Otago in 1857. There were other pioneer services in Canterbury, Wellington, and possibly in other districts, although the conveyances, wagonettes or buggies in some cases, were too light to warrant the description of “coach”.
Late in 1861 Charles Cole arrived in Dunedin from Victoria, Australia, with some 50 horses and several goods and passenger vehicles. He adopted the firm name of Cobb and Co. although the Cobb brothers, who had run coaching services in Victoria since 1853, did not come to New Zealand. It was to be an achievement of Cobb and Co. that it brought efficient long-distance transport equipment for travellers at a time when it was urgently needed. The few existing coaches were heavy, rigid vehicles quite unsuited for primitive, badly formed roads. Cobb's first “Concord” coach had a capacious body resting on straps of six to eight thicknesses of leather, instead of on rigid metal springs, and the tare weight of the vehicle was low. It could carry up to 16 passengers and the driver, although loads varied according to the particular vehicle and the route. Generally five horses were used. Some of the early coach drivers – men such as Cabbage Tree Ned Devine – were justifiably famed for their skill. It was a further achievement of Cobb and Co. that it brought to coaching that degree of urgency and efficiency so essential in modern transport. In its first venture it reduced the time for the trip from Dunedin to Gabriel's Gully goldfields at Tuapeka (Lawrence) from two days to nine hours. The company moved to Canterbury in 1863 and was able, in favourable circumstances, to do the journey from Christchurch to Timaru in a day. Its efficiency became a byword, and in the course of a few years coaches under the firm name of Cobb and Co. were to be found in many parts of the colony, although the firm's name was often used without authority. New Zealand's first steam railway from Christchurch to Ferrymead on occasions suffered losses of traffic due to the coach services run by Cobb and Co.
In the 1870s the improvement of roads made it feasible for horse-drawn omnibuses to be used in the urban areas. The great advantage of these vehicles was their larger seating capacity, and passengers experienced more comfort. The tendency of a “Concord” coach to sway violently was alarming to many people in the towns.
The expansion of a national railway system from the seventies onwards meant that coaches disappeared from the arterial routes. They remained, however, for many years in an ancillary capacity. Coaches bridged the gap in the railway line between Canterbury and the West Coast of the South Island until the opening of the Otira Tunnel in 1923. The coaching firms pioneered many of the routes over which modern motor transport runs today. The final demise of the coaches was hastened by the advent of the motor vehicle, particularly when larger and more modern types became available.
by Norman Frederick Watkins, M.COM., Research Officer, Transport Department, Wellington.