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Interview

Sam Everingham, author of Wild Ride, The Rise and Fall of Cobb and Co.

Readersvoice.com aims to pick up a few interesting reading tips. For this issue I interviewed Sandra L. Rogers from Zeus Publishing, which caters for authors wanting to sidestep the prohibitive world of mainstream publishing. Zeus has produced some unusual and interesting books over the years, including memoirs, first novels, and all sorts of genres. Also I went along to see Sam Everingham, the author of Wild Ride, The Rise and Fall of Cobb and Co (Penguin/Viking).

The author of Wild Ride, The Rise and Fall of Cobb and Co was running slightly late for his talk at the Chermside Library, in Brisbane. A couple of people were starting to wonder where he was. Maybe he’s coming by horse and carriage, I quipped.

When he arrived, the 40-something Sydney author had a Qantas ticket sticking out of his front pocket. He hastily set up his projector, then gave a fascinating talk on Cobb and Co. with plenty of interesting old photos. It was a topic that had interested him since his childhood years, and it showed.

There were about 20 people there for the talk, mainly of retired age. I was sitting next to an older New Zealand gentleman who restored coaches for a hobby. Another elderly woman was a granddaughter of one of the families behind Cobb and Co.. She was a from a sheep station in west Queensland.

I’d been to a lot of the outback towns Mr Everingham mentioned in his talk, and I had the feeling a lot of the audience had, too. It was interesting to hear about these towns in the days of Cobb and Co from the 1850s to 1920s, because when you’re in these country towns you can imagine those days. They still have a lot of the old hotels and other buildings, and the wide flat streets down the centre of town. When I was in Winton in north-west Queensland, I bought an old, green Schweppes soft drink bottle with glass stopper that had been found near an old Cobb and Co stop.

Mr Everingham had photos of Cobb and Co carriages and horses outside a slab hotel in Cobar, New South Wales in the late 1800s. Another photo was of the Leviathan outside the Melbourne Cobb and Co booking office: this was a monstrous carriage, which had 14 horses in pairs and carried 90 people– completely impractical as it could only travel on flat streets.

There were pictures of the carriages manufactured by Cobb and Co in Charleville, western Queensland: Cobb and Co had a factory in Bathurst, NSW, but the wood wouldn’t dry properly and split on the coaches, so they moved the factory to Charleville which had a drier climate. These coaches were sold like cars to other companies. The coach factory burnt down in 1917 but was rebuilt. But Cobb and Co phased out in the 1920s with the advent of cars and expanded rail routes, and mail runs by air with the founding of Qantas in Longreach.

The author had extensive maps of Cobb and Co routes, covering the eastern states like train tracks, going to the remotest western corners of Queensland and New South Wales. Wild Ride is as much the story of the families behind the Cobb and Co. empire in Australia, as it is a history of Cobb and Co. Author Sam Everingham had access to letters and diaries from the Rutherford and Whitney families: the families of the main partners that ran Cobb and Co in Australia: James Rutherford and Frank Whitney. The families ended up feuding.

Mr Everingham said he originally wrote a novel about the story, The Partner’s Wife, based on Ella Whitney, but his publishers suggested a non-fiction account with more on Cobb and Co.
Mr Everingham spent five years researching records, and traveled old Cobb and Co. routes. Cobb and Co routes went all over the eastern states of Australia, from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, to Southern Victoria. Cobb and Co. harnessed thousands of horses each day, and basically went wherever the railways or ships couldn’t reach.
They even bought land when they worked out it was cheaper to supply their own horses. By the 1880s, Cobb and Co had become major land holders, buying stations like Davenport Downs in the Channel Country and Claverton, a sheep station with a railway siding. They even built a stretch of railway at one point, but it was an ill-fated venture.

The 320-page book tells how Cobb and Co started out in Australia running stagecoaches from Melbourne to the Bendigo and Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s. There was a need for speed: people, mail and goods had to get from Melbourne to the Victorian goldfields as quickly as possible: people wanted to stake claims. So there were changing stations every 10 miles when fresh horses were harnessed.

Cobb and Co later took advantage of the pastoral boom of the late 1800s, which necessitated transport to the remotest areas of far western Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

American James Rutherford was most responsible for expanding the Cobb and Co empire. “He had an amazing energy and charm about him,” Mr Everingham said. But he had a dark side brought on by manic depression.

The disease was covered up, so Rutherford was able to leave the company and return to resume control.

The author talked about the daily life on Cobb and Co coaches. Incidentally, not all Cobb and Co coaches were owned by the company; sometimes they sold runs to people who just continued using the company name.

Coach drivers had to have entertaining personalities to keep up the morale of the passengers. He said a typical traveler might be someone employed on a cattle station in far west Queensland, for example a nanny whose employer would pay her ticket to reach some remote homestead; or traveling salesmen. The trips could be perilous, and the author talked about the diary of a Bourke bank manager’s wife: She’d written about her Cobb and Co trip from Sydney in November 1870. The coach tipped over into a creek, then was bogged and so the passengers had to walk five miles in the mud.

Other hazards for Cobb and Co travelers included bush rangers and bolting horses. Cobb and Co used to get government contracts for delivering mail, using timeless methods for getting government contracts. The mail had to go through, as they say, to meet service standards promised to customers. So if coaches were bogged, the passengers had to set up a makeshift camp while the coachman rode a horse with the mail to the next town. Then he’d send back some help. Other routes were so dry that camels were used instead of horses. But Cobb and Co became a massive empire and logistically it was an impressive feat running a company over such a large area with none of the communications taken for granted today.

So if you want a good story that covers a lot of Australian history, or if you’re into Cobb and Co and are looking for an Australian footnote to its history, this book would be worth a look.

The author recommended The Dig Tree – The Story of Burke and Wills by Sarah Murgatroyd (Text Publishing). The coach restorer sitting next to me at the talk recommended 1421, about how the Chinese discovered the world, by Gavin Menzies, and its sequel 1434. A woman I met recommended Primo Levi: A Life by Ian Thomson, and she said everyone should read If This Is a Man by Primo Levi.

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