Story: Coaches and long-distance buses

Page 1. History of coaches

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Passenger coach services began in New Zealand in the 1850s, but they had a slow start. Much of the country lacked roads, or even tracks, and mountains, bush and flood-prone rivers all made inland travel difficult. It was easier to sail.

Early horse-drawn coach services carried passengers, parcels and mail. Their viability often depended on landing a contract from the government to deliver mail.

Safer by sea

Although there was a coach service from Christchurch to Hokitika from 1865, coach travel was seen as a dangerous option. In 1881, a young commercial traveller, Vernon Lee Walker, described the route as ‘frightfully dangerous … Very few people will travel that way – preferring to come round by sea.’1

Cobb & Co

Cobb & Co, named after an Australian company, was New Zealand’s most famous coach company. Charles Carlos Cole, an American who had run coaches in Australia, arrived in Dunedin in 1861, just after gold was discovered at Tuapeka, 92 kilometres away. A week after landing, Cole left for Tuapeka at 5.30 a.m. in a coach drawn by four horses. He arrived that night, to the surprise of locals, who thought the trip couldn’t be done in a day. Cole set up the Cobb & Co Telegraphic Line of Coaches, and was soon running a daily service.

From 1863, Cole’s brother Lea ran L. G. Cole’s Cobb & Co in Canterbury.

In 1866 gold was again the spur for a regular service from Christchurch to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass. The Cole brothers left New Zealand around 1870, but the company continued until 1923. Coach operators in other parts of the country borrowed the famous name.

Cobb & Co’s coaches were bright red with crimson plush seats. They were Concord coaches, like the classic American stagecoach developed in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1827. Concord coaches were light, strong, flexible and fast. They rested on leather strap braces rather than springs, so they had a swinging motion. They carried six people – or up to nine at a squeeze – inside, and five more people could perch on the box and roof seats. Parcels and luggage went on a rack at the back, and on the roof.

Trains and coaches

When the railway arrived in an area, trains replaced coach services, but coaches still took passengers from the railhead to other destinations. Trains were much cheaper and more comfortable than coaches. A coach trip in 1870 from Auckland to Hamilton cost 35 shillings, and to go as far as Cambridge was another 5 shillings. In 1909, coach travel was about four times as expensive as rail travel.

Motor power had taken over from horse power by the end of the First World War. The final Cobb & Co trip was in 1923, when the opening of the Ōtira tunnel meant the train could take the mail from Christchurch to Hokitika.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in James Watson, Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996, p. 99. Back
How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Coaches and long-distance buses - History of coaches', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/coaches-and-long-distance-buses/page-1 (accessed 17 May 2022)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010