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Cobb, Freeman (1830–1878)

by K. A. Austin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Freeman Cobb (1830-1878), businessman and coach line proprietor, was born on 10 October 1830 at Brewster, Massachusetts, United States of America, son of Freeman Cobb and his wife Hannah, née Crosby. He was educated at public schools in Boston, and at 16 joined the dry goods firm of Witherell, Stow & Wood, with whom he stayed for nearly three years until he contracted rheumatic fever. Although the disease left him permanently lame, upon recovering Cobb joined Adams & Co., express agents, in 1849 and was employed in connexion with the coaching lines in California and Central America which the company had established during the Californian gold rush. About May 1853 he arrived in Melbourne with George Mowton, a senior employee who was to establish a branch of Adams & Co. Several American coach drivers and carriers in the employ of either Adams & Co. or the rival firm, Wells, Fargo & Co., followed in the Eagle during June, ostensibly to start carrying to the Victorian gold diggings for their firms. However, neither firm became fully established in Victoria, and Cobb joined three of the new arrivals, John Murray Peck, of Lebanon, New Hampshire, James Swanton, of Omar, New York, and John B. Lamber, of Leavenworth, Kansas, to form a carrying partnership known as Cobb & Co.

Using two Concord thoroughbrace wagons that Cobb had brought out, the partners, who called themselves 'the boys' as their average age was only 22, commenced carrying between Melbourne and Liardet's Beach (Port Melbourne) in July 1853. Unfortunately the wet winter made the primitive road virtually impassable and the venture was abandoned. Cobb and his partners, with encouragement and capital assistance from the American promoter, George Francis Train, and others, converted the carrying business to the famous coaching firm of Cobb & Co. After thorough preparations the firm adopted the title, 'American Telegraph Line of Coaches', and on 30 January 1854 began to operate a passenger service between Forest Creek (Castlemaine), Bendigo and Melbourne, in each direction daily except Sunday, using the latest Concord thorough-brace coaches. Although the original Cobb & Co. faced stiff competition and never secured a mail contract, the firm operated very profitably for two years and four months and acquired a great reputation for efficiency and reliability.

On 16 May 1856 Cobb announced that the business had been sold and on the 24th left Melbourne in the Royal Charter with Lamber for America. Of the other partners, Swanton later went to New Zealand before returning to America in 1866, and Peck settled permanently in Victoria. The business then passed through several changes in ownership which spread the name of Cobb & Co. widely as more routes were opened. In 1861 the business was acquired by a syndicate led by another American, James Rutherford, who, as general manager, extended Cobb & Co.'s operations to New South Wales and Queensland, and it grew rapidly into a great complex of loosely associated firms that together dominated the coaching industry of Australia until the early years of the twentieth century. Rutherford retained control in New South Wales and Queensland for fifty years until he died on 13 September 1911. On 14 August 1924 the last Cobb & Co. coach made its final run: on the Surat-Yuleba route in south-west Queensland.

Although Freeman Cobb spent only three years and one month in Australia, he achieved the distinction of becoming a legend in his own lifetime, and his name has passed into the Australian language as a synonym for a coach. His fame was due partly to his enterprise in introducing the latest American methods and equipment into the coaching industry of Victoria when the gold rushes had created a vast demand for passenger transport, and partly to his organizing ability. He was also popular for his interest in local affairs and for his capacity to bring out the best in his employees. A contemporary assessment of his work in Victoria appeared in the Argus, 17 May 1856: 'Mr. Cobb has conferred great and lasting benefits on this community, as well by the energy he has infused into our coaching enterprises as by the practical lessons he has taught us in all matters relating to that publicly useful line of business'. According to an obituarist he was also 'a kind, just, and indulgent employer'. His methods set the standard and as the coach lines multiplied they were freely adopted, but perhaps more significantly Cobb's name was sought after and acquired by many firms through purchase, agreement or tacit consent.

After his return to Brewster, on 6 May 1858 Cobb married his cousin Annette Cobb; they had two children, Walter Freeman and Emily. He lost money in banking investments and returned to the express business, managing for some years the Boston agency for Adams & Co. In 1864-65 he was a senator for Barnstaple County in the Massachusetts State Legislature. Early in 1871 he took his family to South Africa and settled at Port Elizabeth. With Charles Carlos Cole, an American who had operated coaches in Victoria and New Zealand, he formed Cobb & Co. Ltd and operated a coach service between Port Elizabeth and the New Rush diamond fields at Kimberley. The firm failed in 1874 but Cobb secured some of the plant from the liquidator and ran the line himself with 'considerable' success for over two years. Then his health began to fail and on 15 February 1878 his estate was surrendered as insolvent. On 24 May he died at his home in Havelock Street, Port Elizabeth. After a year his family returned to Brewster, where his widow died in 1921.

Select Bibliography

  • K. A. Austin, The Lights of Cobb and Co. (Adel, 1967)
  • E. Rosenthal, ‘Mail Coach on the Veld: The History of Mail Coaches in South Africa’, Africana Notes and News, vol 10, no 3, June 1953, pp 76-112
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Jan, 12 Oct 1854, 17 Aug 1855, 17, 22, 26 May 1856
  • Port Elizabeth Telegraph and Eastern Province Herald, 25 Sept 1874, 16 Feb 1875
  • manuscript catalogue under L. H. Earp (State Library of Victoria)
  • J. K. Moir collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • Lovell-Smith papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

K. A. Austin, 'Cobb, Freeman (1830–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cobb-freeman-3237/text4883, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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