‘It’s not a Cobb & Co.!’

The thoroughbrace coach once used by RJ Nowland on his mail and passenger runs on the Liverpool Plains. (Photo: George Serras)

Who built the coach in our Gunnedah exhibit? Curator Isa Menzies explains why it’s not that simple.

The Nowland’s mail coach is often referred to as ‘the Cobb & Co. coach’, and though “It’s NOT a Cobb & Co. coach!” has become somewhat of a mantra for me, the truth of the matter is that we don’t really know who made it.

Though Cobb & Co. remains the most well-known Australian coaching company, there were countless other private operators delivering mail and passengers throughout colonial New South Wales. Furthermore, most towns had a local coach manufactory, because before the invention of the car, coaches were a major form of transport, and the best way of covering long distances by those who could afford the fares.

[The coach was used in the filming of the 1920 black and white silent movie The Man from Kangaroo. (Photo: National Film and Sound Archive)

The coach going on display in Landmarks was used by mail contractor RJ Nowland on the Gunnedah to Coonabarabran run. We know about that because in photographs of the coach from the 1920s the words GUNNEDAH TO COONABARABRAN can be seen clearly painted on the coach’s side. Even now, if you look at it under the right light, you can make out the faint lettering. Sadly there is no longer any trace of the words RJ NOWLAND that were once painted beside the driver’s seat.

[The letters ‘UNNE’ – remnants of the word ‘GUNNEDAH’ - are still visible under the paintwork. (Photo: Isa Menzies)

Unusually for a large technology object we know more about who owned the coach and how it was used than we do about who made it. Though it is very much in the style of Cobb & Co.’s Concord-model coaches, featuring the ‘thoroughbrace’ technology that supported the carriage on thick leather straps, it may well have been a copy of that style, which was particularly suited to the rough outback roads of the day.

A paint fragment analysis undertaken in late 2009 gave some tantalising clues into the colours the coach had once sported before it acquired its current khaki colour (which was most likely in conjunction with its role in the 1957 film Robbery Under Arms). An early layer in a purple hue may hint that it was once indeed run by Cobb & Co., as their NSW coaches were painted a distinctive maroon colour (which may well have faded to purple). Perhaps RJ bought it second-hand?

Marker indicating where a sample paint fragment was taken from the coach for analysis, and some of the underlying colours of the vehicle are exposed. (Photo: Isa Menzies)

But equally as compelling are the many advertisements for independent coach manufacturers to be found in the local newspaper, the Maitland Mercury, from the 1860s – 1890s, including the Namoi Coach and Buggy Factory, based in Gunnedah. RJ Nowland certainly didn’t have to travel far to find himself a vehicle.

It is possible that with further investigation we might be able to identify whether Cobb & Co. did in fact build this coach, but for the moment it will have to remain a mystery.

The Nowland's mail coach doing its best to blend in with more modern traffic on the way from our stores in Mitchell to the gallery in Acton. December 2010. (Photo: Kirsti Graham)

One Response to “‘It’s not a Cobb & Co.!’”

  1. Clinton says:

    Excellent, I love a mystery. It’s funny how quickly everyday objects can become shrouded in mystery as their significance, or lack thereof, is lost in time like tears in rain.