New Zealand was crying out for a public transport network. Although it was not the first coach service in the colony, Cobb & Co. was the first to operate a timetabled service so it quickly became the biggest public transport operator in the young colony.

On the 4th October 1861, Cobb & Co. coach owner Charles Cole landed in Dunedin on the steamship S.S India with a state-of-the-art stagecoach, along with five wagons, a buggy and fifty-four horses. The American built Concord Stagecoach was a vast improvement over any coach then operating in New Zealand because its style of suspension was designed to handle extremely rough roads. At that time, ‘roads’ in New Zealand were often not much more than boggy tracks. The fully equipped coach had a centre door with a glass window which could be raised or lowered and the openings either side had leather shades which rolled up and down to keep out the weather. The interior was upholstered in crimson cloth while the outside was painted red, with gold ornamentation. A box seat on the roof allowed the coach to carry five extra outside passengers, with six to nine seated on benches inside.


Despite being state-of-the-art, the seating in the Concord stagecoach was nothing more than wooden benches covered in horse skin so riding in it was not for the faint-hearted. Passengers had to endure a queasy rocking motion and often violent swaying as the suspension tried to cope with the conditions so any journey with Cobb and Co. was far from pleasant. There were many river crossings which became more dangerous after rain as rivers would rapidly swell. There were all-to-frequent cases of passengers falling into the fast-flowing water and being swept away and drowning. There were also cases of horses slipping on ice and tumbling over cliff faces and dangling in their harnesses as the coach counted their weight. Sometimes the coach would be also hanging over a sheer drop, waiting for any sign of other travellers on the horizon that could attempt to save the terrified passengers from a gruesome death. Coming down a steep hill, if the coach was too heavy, it would overtake the horses often with dire consequences for the horses. In one unfortunate accident the coach actually flipped over killing half the poor horses while the others took off, dragging the driver to serious injury.


One week after arriving in Dunedin, the first Cobb & Co Telegraph Line of Coaches left the Provincial Hotel and headed inland to the Police Commissioner’s Camp at Gabriel’s Gully near Lawrence. Before departure, it was arranged that fresh horses would take over four times throughout the 57 mile (92km) journey, first at the Reliance Hotel, Otokia, then again at Tokomairiro (now Milton), Round Hill and Waitahuna. This new Cobb & Co service reduced the time for the trip from two days to nine hours and issued in a new era in New Zealand public transport. By 1887, Cobb & Co were operating 14 different coach services between towns across both the North and South Islands.


In February 1862, the Hoyts family came to New Zealand with their coach and horses and quickly linked up in partnership with Cobb & Co. They soon introduced a regular passenger coach service from Dunedin to Waikouaiti, initially under the name of Cole, Hoyt and Co. Before the Dunedin to Waitati Highway was opened in 1957, the only way between Dunedin and Waikouaiti was on a winding, hilly road that skirted a number of steep hills so it was quite a lot longer in mileage terms than the 40km (24miles) it is today. Passengers who wanted to travel onto Oamaru and beyond, were transferred to a light two-horse wagon for the final part of their journey. Two months after trial runs were undertaken, the service was increased to three times a week using a four-horse coach team. The fare was an expensive three pounds one way. The route went through Palmerston and over the Horse Range with stops at Hampden and Otepopo, before finishing at the Northern Hotel, Oamaru with the option to continue on to the Waitaki River Ferry Service for onward northern travel.


By 1863 a basic road had been cut between Timaru and Christchurch. Cobb & Co soon set up business in Timaru and introduced a passenger service running to the north. With an increasing number of passengers wanting to travel between the South Island towns, the coachline advertised additional services south to the River Ferry at Waitaki. This linked up with the Dunedin/Oamaru coach-teams from further south. Finally, Cobb & Co. could offer timetabled coach services from Christchurch all the way south to Dunedin, the two main towns in the South Island.


The advent of motorised transport and the development of railways from the 1870s, led to the inevitable decline in stagecoach travel. The last advertised Cobb & Co coach service was a 165 mile (266km) run from Arrowtown to Dunedin in February 1925.

To celebrate the end of horse drawn travel in New Zealand, a Cobb and Co coach was paraded through Christchurch during their 75th anniversary celebrations that same year.

Ceidrik Heward

Speak Your Mind