Australia: Our national stories
By Dr Robert Lee of the University of Western Sydney
Australian Heritage Commission, 2003
Chapter 3: By Track and Road: Animal Power and Australian Transport, 1788-1920
- Beasts of Burden
- Roads and Bridges in the Pre-Motor Age
- Freight Vehicles in Colonial Australia
- Personal and Passenger Transport in the Age of the Horse
The Horseshoe Bridge, Glenbrook NSW.
Photo: M Mohell/Australian Heritage Photographic Library
For the first three quarters of a century of existence of the Australian colonies, muscles - human and animal - powered their land transport needs. Early New South Wales was not much different from a slave colony, since the vast majority of its inhabitants were not there by choice, were unpaid, and had to do whatever work their masters ordered. This included working as beasts of burden, so human beings were Australia's first pack animals. However, this being a British colony, there were legal as well as physical limits to what convicts could be expected to do. Convicts were not totally deprived of civic rights, and all early administrations genuinely hoped to use the experience of colonisation to turn the majority of convicts into useful settlers and reformed individuals. In many cases, these aims were met, and for most convicts the experience of transportation was not too harsh. It was certainly a cruel judicial system, but cruelty had its legal limits, and was administered systematically to recidivists rather than indiscriminately to the bulk of the convict population. Terror of the punishment system for recidivists was no doubt a powerful incentive to reform on the part of the bulk of convicts. By 1800, when the new colony was a functioning economic unit with a significant market economy, convict labour, both used by the government and assigned to private farmers and other entrepreneurs, was part of a regular if rather eccentric economic system. By then, as convicts sentences' expired, there was also a free labour market beside the slave labour of convicts.
Thus, the convict system in its purest form, and the accompanying notion of New South Wales as a vast gaol, did not last long. Convictism would remain part of the economic and social scene until the 1840s in New South Wales, and rather later in Tasmania and Western Australia; but from the beginning of the nineteenth century it existed beside a free economy, in which individuals made their own decisions about how to make money, improve their lives, and move themselves and their property around. Convictism, like all slave systems, was not especially efficient, but it did enable early colonial governments to build infrastructure on a scale which would have been inconceivable without this essentially free labour. Sydney's lavish buildings of the second decade of the nineteenth century, many of which still stand and are still imposing, are examples of this. So was the extraordinarily good main road from Hobart to Launceston. Van Diemen's Land was a huge convict depot and in some respects a place of secondary transportation. Therefore, convictism always was far more important there than in New South Wales, which very rapidly became a prosperous land of ample opportunity, whose fair climate and fertile soils meant that, as a place, it soon held little terror for those who landed on its shores.
Convicts were used for transportation purposes in early colonial New South Wales, as is apparent from early paintings of Sydney, which feature convicts hauling and carrying very considerable loads indeed. However, animals almost always were always more efficient for such purposes than human beings; so such activities did not long endure after initial colonisation. They were the result of a shortage of animals and co-existed with notions of punishment, but were in no way a lasting solution to the transport needs of the new colony. Human power for transport lasted longer where convicts were numerous; their punishment was severe; and animals were limited in numbers. This was the situation in Van Diemen's Land right down to the 1830s and even the 1840s. Indeed the second railway in Australia (albeit a very primitive one) was built to serve its Port Arthur penal settlement and convicts provided its motive power.
Port Arthur was established in 1832 as a place of secondary transportation, where men were incarcerated who had committed crimes - or who had been unmanageable - while already under sentence of transportation to Australia. Beasts of burden were never used at Port Arthur, and convicts served all its land transport needs. These included moving the logs and stones for the construction of the establishment itself, the ruins of which remain to this day. Port Arthur had a terrible reputation for cruelty captured so evocatively in Marcus Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life. It was evidence from Port Arthur which largely led the British government to abandon transportation of convicts to Australia. However, from a transport perspective, Port Arthur's really eccentric feature was a most unusual tramway. Some four miles long and dating from the beginnings of the gaol, it ran from Taranna, a small port (landing place might be more accurate) where vessels arrived from Hobart, to Long Bay. It was almost dead straight. Convicts pushed carts along its wooden rails, leaping onto the back of carts on downhill stretches. This tramway lasted about thirty years, until the closure of the gaol.1
The Port Arthur tramway was unique, and most convicts in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land served out their sentences in far more congenial circumstances, working as servants assigned to private employers in return for board, or on public works as unpaid (but certainly not shackled or especially mistreated) labour. For talented or diligent convicts, such work could be a quick pass to freedom, since such men were soon given responsibilities, followed by tickets-of-leave (the right to work as free labour for wages and live in their own houses under remand) or even pardons. The First Fleet brought to Sydney with its load of convicts and their gaolers, seven cattle and seven horses, all obtained from the Cape Colony, then a Dutch settlement in South Africa. They flourished, despite the escape of the first herd of cattle which was found a few years later to have thrived and multiplied at the place called in honour of their discovery Cowpastures, then deep in unexplored terrain some forty miles southwest of Sydney. Cattle came from India and the Cape, as did horses although some Thoroughbreds even were imported direct from England. By 1800 there were 203 horses and 1,044 cattle in New South Wales.2
Most of the horses were of high quality, even this early, and the cult of the horse was already established. Horses were scarce and expensive, so horses were used as saddle horses by officers and the growing class of landowners to differentiate themselves from the convicts, emancipists and marines who remained as the colony's first pedestrians, a means of transit they shared with the Aboriginal population. The Australian saddle horse, a mixture of Arab and Thoroughbred, with less speed but more strength than an English Thoroughbred, was already an established breed as early as 1800. Sydney's fine climate - and the manifest enthusiasm of its early inhabitants for horse breeding, riding and racing - meant that these horses thrived. Such horses were also used for light harness work, such as drawing carriages, sulkies and buggies.
In early colonial New South Wales there was precious little harness work for horses, because there were so few carriages, or roads carriages could use for that matter. After 1810 this began to change, and Governor Macquarie set the new tone by going about town - and even into the country - in a splendid carriage drawn by four horses, an unprecedented equipage for Australia. He had convicts build stables for Government House's equine residents on such an extravagant, pretentious and even massive scale that they now serve as Sydney's Conservatorium of Music. Soon coaching and medium-weight harness horses such as the Cleveland Bay were being imported and bred, as road development and wider settlement around Sydney occurred. These horses were bred to haul wagons and coaches at moderate speed. They lacked the finesse of the earlier Arab-Thoroughbred crossbreeds and generally were unsuitable for use as saddle horses. Heavier breeds of draught horses such as the Clydesdales and Shires came later to Australia, since the poor roads meant that bullocks were better suited for heavy haulage.
Bullocks bred in Australia were a mixture of English and Indian types. Their early importation was deprecated by officials back in England as an extravagance, but by 1820 bullock teams were established as the Australian draft animals par excellence. They would remain so well into the railway age, and bullock teams continued to work in the timber industry, where roads were poor or non-existent, into the 1960s. Draught horses would have a role carting around cities, and in those rural areas where there were decent roads, but in most of southeastern Australia it was either the bullock or the railway which carted the goods until the last decades of the nineteenth century. Draught horses were about thirty percent more powerful than bullocks, but required far higher quality and far more expensive feed. Horses also cost much more. Bullocks were cheaper, more robust, and their fodder was free until settlement became denser after the 1860s. Thereafter bullockies engaged in almost constant struggle with farmers and pastoralists in their efforts to graze their beasts and avoid the cost of fodder, for, once bullockies had to feed their animals, the economics swung rapidly in favour of horse or camel teams. Bullocks had superior grip on uneven and soft surfaces than horses, but went lame more easily than shod horses on made roads. The bullock team, then, was motive power for the frontier or beyond the reach of made roads. So far as can be ascertained, Australia's last working commercial bullocks were in the forests around Gosford in New South Wales during the 1960s. This is less than a hundred kilometres from Sydney and anything but the frontier, so, in specialised situations, bullock teams were remarkably competitive with more modern power such as horses, trains and trucks.
Draught horses began to replace bullocks from as early as the 1830s. Importation of draught breeds, road building, and the increasingly ready availability of fodder were the main factors behind the shift. There was no doubt that, given a decent road and adequate fodder, horses could cart a heavier load faster and cheaper than bullocks, especially as horse prices fell during the nineteenth century with their growing numbers. From the 1830s, the Hawkesbury area out of Sydney shipped fodder to the capital, which helped in the rapid shift from bullocks to horses around Sydney. Much the same thing happened almost from the beginning of Melbourne's history. The coming of railways and river steamers also helped the change. Hay, oats and other types of horse fodder are relatively light, and rail rates for their carriage were quite low. For many years the largest building at Sydney station was the hay shed, where fuel for the city's horses was handled. Similarly, the North Coast Steam Navigation Company shipped enormous quantities of cheap maize from the fertile farming valleys of the New South Wales north coast to feed the city's horses.
In the productive interior of the continent watered by the Murray-Darling river system, trains and steamers also helped with the change from bullocks to horses. Trains ran to timetables, and river steamers could only operate for six months of the year on the upper reaches of the rivers. This made speed important, and horses were faster and more reliable than bullocks. If the spring's shearing missed the last river steamer before summer's heat made the river unnavigable, it was a serious matter indeed. Missing a train was only an inconvenience, since there would normally be another within a week, often within a day, but missing a river steamer in December could mean ruin, since the wool might not be shipped till the following August. Steamers and railways also made distribution of fodder far easier. McCulloch and Company, for instance, made Echuca on the Murray the centre of their fodder distribution network, sending bags of Victorian grains there by rail, then shipping them by steamer throughout the river basin across the west of New South Wales to feed the horses which carried the wool to the wharves. The horse teams would often return to the remote stations with their own fodder as a significant element of the backloading freight.3
This operation began with the arrival of the Victorian Railways in Echuca in 1864. The spread of the telegraph through the west of New South Wales in the 1860s and 1870s similarly helped the process of the dislocation of the bullock teams. Steamer arrival dates, movements of freshets along the rivers, shearing dates and fodder prices could all be telegraphed across the interior, enabling a far more efficient transport operation of the valuable fleeces from the shearing sheds to the wool sales of Melbourne and Geelong and thence for shipment to the world. By the 1860s this involved multiple modes - horse teams from sheep station to the river (sometimes camel teams to the Darling), river steamers to Echuca, trains to the shores of Port Phillip Bay, and finally the clipper ships which would sail round Cape Horn to Europe, where the fleeces would be transformed into clothing. This was a far cry from the bullock wagon carting the bales direct from the shearing sheds to the port. Despite the increasing prevalence of horse teams and the spread of railways and river steamers, the bullockies could still compete, especially when work was short and they were willing to cut costs. On one celebrated occasion in the 1890s bullock teams suddenly reappeared in the streets of Sydney with loads of wool from the north west of the colony, claiming they had delivered the load cheaper (although far slower) than the railway. No doubt they had too, since the squatters had employed them, and it is true that in the nineteenth century rail freight rates for wool were very expensive, but this quixotic attempt to revive the days of the bullockies' domination of the trade was not repeated.
There were experiments with donkeys and mules as pack and draught animals in Van Diemen's Land about 1820 and on the Australian Agricultural Company's estates north of Newcastle in New South Wales in the 1840s. Despite their apparent abilities to combine the best aspects of their rivals - the power of horses, the ability to traverse rough ground of bullocks, and the tolerance of dry conditions of camels - they never caught on in Australia. Donkey and mule teams did enjoy some success in mining and pastoral enterprises in the drier parts of Queensland and Western Australia in the period from 1890 to 1920, but in such regions the camel became the preferred draught animal.4
The use of camels as animals for the exploration of the dry interior of the continent was proposed as early as 1827, but the first were not imported until the 1840s. The Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-2, which was the first to cross the continent from south to north, used camels as pack animals, although sufficiently ineffectively for all but one of its members to perish in the attempt. This disaster did little to endear the camel to the Australian popular imagination, and it was Burke's horse, Billy, who was devoured in the course of the venture, not his camels, who became the four-legged hero of the affair to the public. In fact, the camel proved to be the beast which enabled the economic conquest of central Australia. One of the expeditions which set out looking for the tragic Burke and Wills, leaving from Adelaide under John McKinley in 1862, found that camels were very useful indeed in the interior of the continent. Indeed McKinley achieved what Burke had attempted without the loss of a single man and his success started something of a camel craze.
This began with the importation of 122 camels from Karachi in India (now in Pakistan) by the South Australian entrepreneur and grazier, Sir Thomas Elder, in 1866. From 1854 to 1889 over 1,000 camels were imported into Australia, all of them from India. They thrived and bred well in Australia's interior, where there was generally some water but equally generally not enough for horses or bullocks to work effectively. They were used both as pack and draught animals, predominantly the former. Generally they would work in a string of from twenty to thirty pack animals, linked by ropes from nose to tail. Each camel would carry between 400 and 600 pounds, or two bales of wool, to name a common load, one on each side. As commercial carriers, camels proved themselves in the construction of the overland telegraph line between 1870 and 1872. This was a South Australian project, and South Australia always remained the main centre of camel use. Casualties among horses and bullocks on this project were enormous, and the successful use of camels was the start of their widespread usage.
With Elder's first camels back in 1866 came their handlers. They mostly came from India's Northwest Frontier Province and from Baluchistan, both abutting on Afghanistan, and so were generally called Afghans. The 'Ghans', as they became known, had no monopoly as camel handlers, but they remained an important element in the business throughout. Indian cameleers were nearly all Muslims, which excluded them from most social life in inland Australia, which tended to revolve around the consumption of copious amounts of beer or rum.5 This distinctive cultural difference contributed to the general lack of integration of the camel as a beast of burden into the Australian popular imagination or psyche. The role of Afghan cameleers in attacking a holiday excursion train near Broken Hill in 1915 further alienated them from much of the population. They did this out of loyalty to the Caliph of Islam, the Ottoman Emperor, then at war with the British Empire, and paid for their zeal with their lives. Moreover, in a country where the horse was so highly prized, the alien camel, like the alien cameleer, was always held in some contempt. Bullockies, just like horsemen, hated camels, since they were able to undercut bullock rates in marginal country like much of western New South Wales and Queensland, and even into the Wimmera district of Victoria. Patsy Adam Smith could recall camels laden with bags of salt coming to a remote Victorian railhead near Mildura as late as the 1920s.6
Despised or not, the camels were essential where water supplies were low. Stronger than horses or bullocks; able to go for up to eight days (about 130 miles or over 200km) without water, compared with three for a horse; and not all that much slower than horses (and faster than bullocks), camels turned travel in Australia's outback from exploring into exploitation. Oodnadatta, terminus for thirty years of the railway stretching north from Port Augusta into the heart of the continent, became Australia's great camel centre, from where the camel trains left for Alice Springs and throughout the North Territory. Camels were the main beasts of burden on the major infrastructure projects in the outback between 1870 and 1930, including the Overland Telegraph (1870-1872), the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia (1908-1910), the Trans-Australia Railway (1912-1917), and the Oodnadatta-Alice Springs Railway (1927-1929).7 In the case of the two railway projects, of course, they were carrying the sleepers and rails which would help consign them to a future as picturesque irrelevancies, but for sixty years the despised camel was the main transportation motive power throughout the vast bulk of the Australian continent.
The motor age began in Australia, as in the rest of the world, almost simultaneously with the new century. However, at first the motorcar was very much an urban phenomenon, too fragile to be of much service in the bush or on rough roads. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, horses (and camels in the interior) continued to dominate the road transport scene. This domination lasted longer in Queensland than elsewhere. Throughout Australia, horse populations peaked around 1920.
From 1788 to 1930 over 5,200 horses were imported into Australia, eighty percent of them from Britain, with the rest coming predominantly from the United States, India and Arabia. This gave the country a fine breeding stock which, coupled with natural increase, produced a large horse population. The quality of this horse population was highly variable. There were some excellent horses, but a lot of breeding experiments were failures and produced 'nags', ill-formed horses not really suitable for any work in particular. In 1870, expert opinion considered 55 percent of harness horses in New South Wales to be of low quality; and only twenty percent of saddle horses to be good, meaning of sound Arab or Thoroughbred extraction. These were poor figures, and were improved with culling and more scientific breeding thereafter. The horse population of New South Wales was about 10,000 in 1829, 251,000 in 1850 and 661,800 at its peak in 1920. There was about one horse for every two people. Victoria's population, where horse quality was highest and breeding the most scientific, peaked in 1913 at 562,000, while Queensland had become Australia's largest horse producing state with a peak population of 741, 024 in 1920.8
By the late nineteenth century, Australia's horses were sufficiently numerous and of sufficient quality to be exported, mostly to India where they were highly regarded for cavalry and civilian use as both light harness and robust saddle horses. There had emerged a distinctively Australian breed, heavier and with more stamina than the Arab or Thoroughbred, but suitable for similar work. In India, these horses were (and still are) called 'Walers' (since they came from New South Wales). They showed that, within a century, a distinctively Australian equine solution to transport problems had been produced, with applicability beyond the shores of the continent.
For the first twenty years of its existence, New South Wales could scarcely be said to have had any real roads. Such commercial traffic as there was went by boat along the Parramatta or Hawkesbury Rivers, while other transport was by saddle horse or dray along bush tracks. The arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who had the personality and drive, budget, skills and technical experts to implement Australia's first ever sustained public works program. Within months of his arrival in Sydney, he called tenders for the building and operation of a turnpike road, 32 feet (10m) wide and funded by tolls, from Sydney to Parramatta. This opened by October 1812, and was Australia's first real road. Tolls were not cheap, ranging from twopence a head for driven cattle to 10d for a dray drawn by up to four horses or bullocks, to an extravagant 3s for a four-horse carriage. The next year the turnpike was extended to Windsor, where the tollhouse survives, and soon after to Liverpool. Macquarie also quickly had built slightly lower-standard carriage roads beyond these points, especially into the Hawkesbury district, and from Parramatta to the Nepean River at Emu Ford, now Penrith. These roads had no tolls and were expected to be able to take a carriage in safety if not comfort during reasonable weather. They were better than tracks, and did have some permanent structures such as bridges and earthworks, but were by no means all-weather smooth roads like the turnpikes.
The greatest of the carriage roads was built by a team of fifty convicts under William Cox in just seven months during 1814. It went from Emu Plains across the Blue Mountains to the banks of the Macquarie River at Bathurst, following literally in the footsteps of the explorers who had been the first European to make the journey the previous year. It was a hundred miles (about 160km) long, and its relatively poor quality can be gauged from the fact that its first user, none other than Governor Lachlan Macquarie himself, took five eight days to travel its length. It was the most important road yet built in Australia, and indeed could be claimed to be the single most significant piece of transportation infrastructure ever built in Australia. For this was the road which opened the vast interior of Australia to modern exploitation. Henceforth, New South Wales no longer would be a small colony timorously clinging to the sea, a suitable depot for the reception of convicts with marginal security value, but little else. Now it would be a rich and growing country, a truly valuable acquisition for the British Empire.
Cox's road crossed a summit of over a thousand metres, and climbed escarpments higher and steeper than any road built before in Australia, or indeed for another fifty years after. It was a remarkable achievement with a lasting impact. The most difficult part of the road was the western descent from the Blue Mountains at Mount York. The gradient here was 1 in 4 (or 25 percent in American terms), far too steep for normal traffic to use. Drays required an extra team (or two) of bullocks to help them up the slope, and dragged logs behind them to help with braking on the descent. All but the most confident or foolhardy riders dismounted and walked their horses down the slope. At the foot of the hill, the town of Hartley grew up to serve the needs of the road's users. It was a slow route for bullock drays, which did well to cover more than seven miles a day. In these circumstances, only wool, with its very high value relative to its weight, could stand the expense of cartage costs.
Cox's precipitous descent of Mount York has been rebuilt many times, yet it remains the most direct route from Australia's first European settlement into the interior of the continent. The first replacement was cut by Lieutenant William Lawson in 1824 and remains intact if unused, known as Lawson's Long Alley. Over the next few years, Archibold Bell and Hamilton Hume cut a new, even more arduous road from Richmond to Hartley via Bell. Completed in 1827 it was, and still is, known as Bell's Line of Road. Then in 1832, Surveyor General, Major Thomas Mitchell, who had come to the position in 1827 with a determination to build quality roads as his memorial, cut the Victoria Pass, the descent still in use, with its magnificent convict hewn rock embankments and Mitchell's Bridge, the first of a series designed by David Lennox. Finally, between 1912 and 1935 there was the easiest graded road cut through the site. Sinuous and dangerous, it was known as Berghofer's Pass and was built to enable early motor traffic to cross the range. These successive descents of Mount York, together with the two railway descents (the Great Zig Zag of 1869 and the Ten Tunnels route of 1910) a few miles to the north, together constitute a remarkably intact record of human ingenuity's wrestling with this extraordinarily difficult terrain. As an ensemble, they have claims to be recognised as the most import transport site in Australia, since it was only following their construction that the modern exploitation of the interior of the continent could begin.
By 1822, just after Macquarie had left for Scotland, there were 276 miles (444km) of made road in New South Wales, compared to none when he had arrived. By 1830, there were about 500 miles (800km) of stone-paved roads in New South Wales, on which coaches and carriages could operate safely and reliably in most weathers. There were thousands more miles of tracks suitable for bullock drays or saddle horses deep into the interior.9 Mitchell had a deliberate policy of building high quality stone paved roads on the three major radial routes from Sydney, west following Cox's line (which he substantially improved) to Bathurst, south to Goulburn, and north to the Hunter Valley. On the western road, his most notable work, apart from the Victoria Pass, was the replacement of the Lapstone zigzag on the eastern escarpment with a new, more easily graded road modestly christened Mitchell's Pass. This road involved the construction of a large stone bridge. At the time, Mitchell feared that the expertise to build such a bridge in the colony did not exist. Happily, though, the very talented Scottish stonemason, David Lennox, had just migrated, clear evidence that, even in the early 1830s when the convict system was still in full operation, there were Britons who came to New South Wales of their own volition. Lennox had been a contractor for the greatest road builder Britain had yet seen, Thomas Telford. In this way, Lennox anticipated the railway engineer of the next generation, John Whitton, who worked with the likes of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and John Fowler before migrating to Sydney. Lennox won the contract, and the result was the magnificent stone arch bridge bearing his name and standing to this day, albeit slightly overshadowed by Whitton's even more ambitious nearby stone railway viaduct of 1867. The liberally-minded Governor Bourke rode over Lennox's new bridge in 1833, confident that with such public works and manifest enterprise, New South Wales was well on the way to becoming a rich and free society.
Lennox built other bridges for Mitchell, including three in greater Sydney - Church Street across the Parramatta River; Parramatta Road across Duck Creek; and, most adventurously of all, the long (110ft or 33m), shallow arch over Prospect Creek at Lansdowne on the Liverpool Road. All three still carry extremely heavy modern traffic.10 One of Mitchell's failures as a road builder is perhaps his greatest memorial. This is the Great North Road, built by convict labour from Sydney to the Hunter Valley between 1825 and 1833. Some 164 miles (264km) long, its major features were the sharp climbs to and from Wiseman's Ferry, where it crossed the Hawkesbury River. The northern ascent, for instance, cut by a team of 550 convicts over nearly three years from 1829 to 1831, included stone retaining walls some forty feet (12m) high and no fewer than 43 stone box viaducts. The road was a total commercial failure, as only a few adventurous riders chose to use it. Hunter River producers found it far easier to ship through the port of Newcastle, an easy trip across fairly level terrain, rather than use Mitchell's road to Sydney. It would not be until the completion of the Hawkesbury River railway bridge in 1889 that significant traffic from the Hunter would be shipped through Sydney, and then of course by rail not road. The result was that the road fell into disuse. So high was its quality, though, that it remains intact, a surprising relic from the era of convict road building, and the only substantial nineteenth century road in Australia to survive in its original form. Commercial failure has ensured its remarkable preservation.
As squatters spread out beyond areas officially recognised for settlement, they were obliged to create their own roads. This saw the construction of a few private roads (or at least tracks) especially in southern New South Wales, where Benjamin Boyd had tracks cut in the 1840s from his base on Twofold Bay into the high country of the Monaro where he had a number of sheep stations. Other graziers co-operated to cut the so-called wool road, from Braidwood near the future site of Canberra to the sea at Jervis Bay at much the same time.
Apart from the three main roads into the interior from Sydney, during the nineteenth century most roads in southern Australia were in poor condition during winter. The most notable exception was the high road from Hobart to Launceston, extravagantly stone paved with the labour of thousands of otherwise unemployed convicts. This fine road was perhaps the most lasting positive result of the peculiar economic system of convictism, where investment did not need to take into account labour costs.11 It included the very fine bridge at Ross, finished by convict labour in 1836, and made possible the growth of the Tasmanian Midlands - which lacked navigable rivers - as a wealthy pastoral district. The Ross bridge, and its similarly convict-built predecessor at Richmond, completed in 1823 and the oldest surviving bridge of any size in Australia, lacked the engineering audacity and large spans of Lennox's bridges.12 Ross bridge, though, is an intriguingly decorated structure, whose surprising carvings reveal much of the mentality of its convict builders.
At the time of Victoria's separation from New South Wales in 1851, it was only a pastoral district, a very prosperous one it is true, but a pastoral district nonetheless. Therefore it had (and indeed needed) little in the way of made roads. Bullock drays and wagons could traverse the mostly easy terrain from the shearing sheds to its main ports of Melbourne, Geelong, Warrnambool and Portland. The discovery of gold in the same year as separation made good roads essential, but there was little technical expertise or administrative infrastructure to do the job. Fortunately, though, gold meant that there was plenty of money around, although, less happily for road builders, labour and materials were in short supply and available only at highly inflated prices. David Lennox, responsible for some of the finest stone road bridges around Sydney, was recruited to Melbourne and promptly set about building the new colony's first good roads. They were desperately needed. The first coach service began to Ballarat in October 1851, but had to be replaced by packhorses when the wet weather came in the winter of 1852.
From 1853, the colony's roads were the responsibility of Victorian Central Road Board, which in its brief existence built good, all-weather roads to the goldfields, as well as a number of roads around Melbourne. Very briefly, Victoria had Australia's best roads. However, after 1857, when Victorian Railways began operations and the private companies building Victoria's main railways failed, it became clear that the Government would need to fund railway construction. Naturally enough, railways were considered more urgent than roads, since they were far better solutions to transport problems with the technology available at the time. The result was a gradual neglect of Victoria's roads, which lasted until well after the establishment of the Victorian Country Roads Board in 1913. Roads became the responsibility of municipal authorities, which were always underfunded and saw no point in building or maintaining roads for any other than local purposes. After about 1880 this could be justified since no colony invested more lavishly than Victoria in its railways or came anywhere near attempting to provide rail services to almost its entire population.
The result, though, was that Victorian roads in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were some of the worst in Australia, despite its density of population. Nowhere was this clearer than at the crossings of the Murray River, where the bridges were paid for half each by the New South Wales and Victorian governments. They were all built to New South Wales designs, since there was no substantial corps with road bridge engineering expertise in Victoria. On the New South Wales bank of the Murray the colonial government built well-engineered approaches. In contrast, local municipalities were left to do the job on the southern bank, and there were cases of bridges opening without any approaches at all on the Victorian side!
In South Australia, as in Victoria, there was not as much to do in the way of road bridge building compared with New South Wales, simply because there were far fewer rivers and in any case the pastoral and agricultural areas were much nearer the coast and so served by its cheap railways. South Australia, though, was the only place in Australia that laminated timber arches were used with any success, and Australia's last such bridge survives there at Angle Vale near Gawler. Some similar examples were built for railway usage in New South Wales in the 1860s to the 1880s, but all had been replaced by the 1920s. South Australia's most important road bridge was the large iron girder bridge over the Murray River. Built between 1873 and 1879, it was considered such a wonder that the town which grew up around it became known simply as Murray Bridge. Bridges were largely the work of the South Australian Main and District Roads Board, established in 1849 rather than the municipalities, but it confined itself to building the few bridges the colony really needed, since the dry climate meant that natural roads served coach traffic adequately most of the year. South Australia's interior presented few challenges to road-builders (until the arid far north of the colony was reached) and its early roads, both those cut to serve the copper industry at Burra and elsewhere from the 1840s, and those cut to encourage agriculture, required no structures of any special note.
In Queensland, most roads still had natural surfaces, and there was greater emphasis on building many miles of light and very cheap narrow-gauge railway. The outback, though, had few railways. The 1889 Picturesque Atlas of Australia found much to praise in Cobb and Co's coach services there, but was sarcastic on Queensland's roads:
The bush-roads are not the smallest part of the piquant treat of coach travelling. The deep ruts cut by teams travelling with heavy loads of wool or stores are regular pitfalls. The banks of the creeks and gullies are steep and stony and few have bridges. In flood-time they are dangerous in the extreme. The country is for the most part flat, but over the ranges the descents are precipitous, even neck-breaking, and the roads often mere tracks. In dry weather the sand smothers the traveller with dust, in wet weather the black soil becomes an impassable bog.13
Western Australia had better roads, not so much because the population justified it, as because there were otherwise unemployed convicts there later than in the eastern colonies to build them at negligible cost. The most important road ran from Perth to Albany, Western Australia's most important port and a coaling station for steamers plying between Europe and eastern Australia. Entirely convict built, it was not heavily used. In the mid-1880s it enjoyed a fortnightly mail coach service, which covered the distance of 261 miles (420km) in about fifty hours, although on one occasion when the Governor was travelling it was completed in 23 hours. Even this convict-built road could be so boggy in winter though that passengers had to get out to help push the coach out of the mud. Little wonder that once steamer services between Perth and Albany began few passengers bothered any longer with the mail coach.14
In the late colonial period, New South Wales had better roads than any other Australian colony, and needed to. In Victoria, railways were built extravagantly to every inhabited corner of the colony in the 1880s (and to some uninhabited ones too!). By contrast, New South Wales built a simple system of main railway lines, leaving local transport needs to road or river transport and coastal transport to steamers. In the long run, this would be good business for the railways of New South Wales, which have always been among the best financial performers in the country; but it imposed the need for considerable investment in the colony's roads and bridges. Moreover, New South Wales has a lot of large coastal in inland rivers, and thousands of substantial creeks. Put simply, there were a lot of rivers to cross there, especially compared with South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. In addition, in New South Wales it was the colonial government which was obliged to build and maintain these roads and bridges, because only a tenth of New South Wales was incorporated into municipalities until the local government reforms of 1906. By contrast, virtually all of Victoria had been incorporated into shires and municipalities, many of them with slender resources, and these had the responsibility of building and maintaining such works. This meant that, in New South Wales, road bridge designs came out of the large and professional drafting office of the Public Works Department in Sydney, whereas, in Victoria especially, bridges were often the work of untrained contractors.
The scale of road investment in New South Wales can be gauged by figures which show that almost as much was spent on roads as on railways during the period of the great railway boom. In the half century from 1857 to 1906, the New South Wales government spent a total of 72,505,241 on transport, divided as follows:
|Roads and Bridges||23,837,410|
|Harbours and Rivers||14,318,124 15|
This pattern of expenditure reveals the continuing importance of road transport in the railway age. New South Wales had a clearly articulated and thought through road transport policy, established in the 1850s when Ben Hay Martindale was Commissioner for Inland Communications, which included both roads and railways. His aim was to build three main roads to decent standards from Sydney west to Wellington, southwest to the Murray at Albury, and north from Newcastle to Tamworth. These aims were enshrined in the Main Roads Management Act of 1858.16 Elsewhere, the government would provide bridges and other essential works to make 'natural' roads more easily used by bullock teams. In reality this was an extension to the now defined and truncated borders of New South Wales of the scheme Macquarie had begun back in the second decade of the nineteenth century.
For much of the second half of the nineteenth century, the New South Wales Commissioner for Roads was W.C. Bennett. He followed Martindale's general principles, and also found funds to build a few remarkable roads of his own, including the Glen Innes to Grafton road, intended basically for bullock wagons of wool to use to reach the coast, yet boasting such features as a tunnel cut through sheer rock and a lattice iron girder bridge over the Orara River. No other colony would even contemplate such features on such a remote road, and its enduring quality is one of many testimonies to the seriousness of the late nineteenth-century New South Wales road-building program. New South Wales even built a very large American-style Whipple steel truss bridge for road use across the Shoalhaven River at Nowra as early as 1879. This was an amazing structure for what was then merely a local road, and it is still in use for the heaviest highway traffic. Once again, it is a stunning example of New South Wales primacy in bridge construction in Australia at this time.
Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to assert that in Australian road bridge construction right up until after World War II, it was a case of New South Wales first, Queensland second (on the strength of the Indooroopilly and Storey bridges across the Brisbane River), and the rest nowhere. Any one of dozens and dozens of bridges of this era still existing in New South Wales would be considered remarkable if it was in any other state. Even the NSWGR got into the act of erecting adventurous road bridges, building a Schweidler iron truss with a single span of no less than a clear 135ft (41.2m) for a road across the railway yard at Bathurst in 1888.17 Once again, it is still in service. While the Nowra and Bathurst truss bridges were extraordinary enough as early examples of metal road bridges, the outstanding feature of New South Wales road bridges at this time was the work done with timber. New South Wales had plentiful supplies of ironbark and turpentine, just about the best bridge-building timbers in the world. It also had a Public Works Department with a commitment to building quality roads and bridges throughout the colony, with a budget sufficient to do a lot of such building, but not so generous as to allow for extravagances. The result was the design and construction of a collection of timber bridges probably unequalled in the world. A recent Victorian study of timber bridges in that state constantly explains why Victoria never built timber bridges on anything like the scale or to the quality of New South Wales, and concludes that 'by 1900, the most efficient timber-truss bridges being built anywhere in the world were in New South Wales.'18
A total of 422 timber truss road bridges were built in New South Wales between 1860 and 1936, a wealth of such bridges unparalleled elsewhere on the planet. Of these 82 survive. They fall into five basic types, from the Old Public Works Department design, based in English precedents, through the local developments each named after NSWPWD engineers. In chronological order these are McDonald, Allan, De Burgh and Dare trusses.19 Indeed it is remarkable that NSWPWD engineers of this period have timber truss designs named after them, internationally recognised as such. The work of PWD engineers in developing timber road bridges was aided by Professor William Henry Warren, who had come to Sydney as an engineer in 1881 and in 1884 became the first Challis Professor of Engineering at the University of Sydney. He worked and wrote extensively on timber bridge construction, giving a solid academic and theoretical base to practical task of spanning the colony's all too numerous rivers and creeks economically and enduringly. John Whitton and E. O. Moriarty, the PWD engineers in charge of railways and harbours respectively, also designed some truly remarkable timber structures, so there was in Sydney an expertise in timber engineering of a depth which matched the natural resources of the forests of New South Wales.20 Bennett and Whitton were inclined to be conservative and favoured British over American bridge-building technology, although not in too doctrinaire a way: after all the Shoalhaven road bridge and Hawkesbury railway bridge - both distinctively American designs - were built under their direction. Both retired in 1890, with enormous achievements to their credit, but their successors unquestionably were more innovative and adventurous.
Some of the timber bridges of this era were opening bridges, including a number over the Murray (half paid for by Victoria, but entirely Sydney-designed, and including Swan Hill, Tooleybuc and Barham) and others on coastal rivers, such as the McFarlane Bridge on the south arm of the Clarence at Maclean. There is a particularly dense concentration of timber truss bridges around Maitland, including the two surviving early PWD style bridges, an opening bridge at Hinton and a long truss bridge at Morpeth. This is a rich agricultural district which, in classic New South Wales style, was served by just one main line of railway with only one short branch (to Morpeth, reluctantly built by the railways because a shipping company pressured them into it), as well as a few colliery lines). Most traffic was carried by river or road, whereas in Victoria a comparable district would not have had a navigable river, scarcely any trafficable roads, but a reasonably dense network of branch line railways.
The outstanding timber bridge in Australia, though, and one of the world's finest timber bridges, is Percy Allan's Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney. This is a long bridge of 1,635 feet (500 metres) divided into 90ft (27m) timber Allan truss spans. In its centre is a swing span which opens to allow shipping to pass. This was the first electrically powered opening span in the world, and Allan used ordinary Sydney electric tram motors and control equipment to do the job, so that they could easily be repaired or replaced. Opening in 1902 it astounded expert opinion around the world with the speed of its operation and 'the phenomenally low cost' of its openings. A technically identical but shorter opening bridge was opened to Allan's design at Glebe Island (only a kilometre away on the other side of the Pyrmont Peninsula) the following year. Both of these two bridges survive, evidence in the heart of Sydney of New South Wales world leadership in timber road bridge technology at the dawn of the twentieth century.21
Surprisingly early in its transportation history, Australia developed its own vehicles peculiar to its conditions. In general, Australian goods vehicles were heavier than their European progenitors. The first was the dray, a two-wheel cart based on the very first wheeled vehicles used by humanity - the two-wheeled ox-carts of ancient Mesopotamia. Australian drays were based on the Scotch cart, and were essentially a box mounted on a single axle. Local development soon went to two directions: first into a light dray used for farm and general light haulage work, and drawn by a single draught horse in the shafts (although many were sufficiently light for harness horses to be used); and second into a heavier dray hauled by teams of between four and ten horses or (more commonly) bullocks, arranged in pairs on either side of a pole. The latter, also called the pole dray, was the pioneer vehicle of Australian inland transport, and could carry reasonably heavy loads over unmade roads for long distances. Braking was its greatest weakness, a serious issue on the colony's first road into the interior over the Blue Mountains. Such desperate remedies as dragging a log behind the dray downhill to provide braking power were all too common.
The pole dray was soon superseded around Sydney and Melbourne by four-wheel wagons of various designs. However, wherever there were no made roads, the dray's flexible design remained in favour for moving stores out to remote properties and hauling the bales of wool back. A typical pole dray could carry more than two tons, or about twelve bales of wool. Although rare in settled districts after the 1840s, they remained common where there were no roads until the end of the nineteenth century, especially in outback Queensland. The light dray was more versatile and has remained in use virtually unmodified in design to the present. Wherever light loads of up to a ton needed to be carried relatively short distances, this was an extremely economic form of transport. If there was a horse around not otherwise gainfully employed, it was virtually free. As such it was much favoured by small farmers well into the twentieth century, and is still competitive with motor transport on properties where horses are used.
From the 1820s, four-wheel wagons replaced drays wherever there was the semblance of a road. These required a road, since they lacked the dray's ability to make sharp turns over obstacles such as stumps, logs and rocks. Developed from the English box wagon, they were heavier in construction and used the stronger and denser Australian hardwoods. As such they were tough vehicles. Their great disadvantage was their inability to make sharp turns, a serious issue as much in Sydney's narrow dockside streets as in the bush. The solution was the development of the pony truck. The front pair of wheels, placed outside the box on a rigid axle on early wagons, were replaced by a swivelling pony truck to which the poles through which traction from the animals hauling the wagon was applied to the vehicle. This was a more complicated design, and required sound iron fastenings, but it permitted sharp turns to be made. It was also inherently more fragile, because of the increased number of moving parts, and so was better suited to operations where roads were adequate. It also required higher skill levels to maintain, because of its crucial ironmongery. That said, it was a much more efficient design, and became general in more settled area than the old design with fixed external front wheels. By the 1850s, once again in places where roads were better, these vehicles were being fitted with springs. Such vehicles were nearly always worked by draught horses rather than bullocks, since, if the conditions existed for such relatively sophisticated vehicles, they also existed for horses to be more efficient than bullocks. The size of these pony wagons varied enormously, from one or two horse delivery wagons used in city streets (in the case of one Sydney stationer until the 1990s!) up to eight-ton capacity wagons worked by teams of twelve horses.
During the 1880s, there were two major innovations in wagon design. First was the introduction of the light American Conestoga wagon, the vehicle with which the American West was won. This suited hawkers and drovers, because it was cheap and light, but had limited applications in the Australian pastoral and agricultural industries. More importantly, and uniquely Australian, was the development of the giant flat-top wagon. These carried loads which in most places would have justified the building of a railway. The point was, though, that Australian sheep stations produced only one, extremely valuable, crop a year, not enough to justify a railway. This wool had to be transported to the nearest navigable water or railway station as quickly as possible, not because it spoilt (wool lasted for years in storage or transit) but so the grazier could sell it at the spring sales and so maintain his cash flow.
The response was the development of the giant flat-top wagon, worked by teams of up to thirty horses or bullocks. These required space to operate, since the leading animals were more than 100 feet (30m) from the swivel-pin, the all-important piece of ironmongery through which traction was transmitted to the wagon. It was more than twenty feet (6m) long with front wheels five feet (1.6m) and back wheels seven feet (2.2m) in diameter. These carried loads of up to an extraordinary 32 tons, or as much as a modern articulated truck. Wool and wheat were the main commodities they carried, although their enormous size meant they were also well suited to lighter goods such as chaff and hay, the all-important fuel for their equine motive power. From 1880s to the 1930s, these giant wagons delivered the riches of Australia's interior to the wharves along the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers, and to railway stations from Hay to Cloncurry. The extremely spacious layouts of these New South Wales and Queensland inland railway stations (which survive to the present) were designed with these wagons in mind. They were never seen in the coastal cities, where they would have been unmanageable. Many survived to be replaced by World War II surplus ex-Army trucks, and so represented the ultimate development of the muscle-powered vehicle in Australia.22
Pedestrianism was and has remained, of course, the most basic of all personal transport options, although even as early as 1810, freed convicts were putting all their spare money into buying horses, as much to prove that they no longer needed to walk (like convicts) but rode (like gentlemen) as because they needed one. Owning a horse was as much about status as transport, and so it has remained till the present, although car ownership has largely (but not entirely) replaced horse ownership as a means of social cachet. Of course, few people had greater psychological need to prove their status and respectability than former convicts or their offspring, so the Australian obsession with saddle horse ownership had deep roots in the mind and the soul.
Of course, a saddle horse was also extremely useful. A journey took (and still takes) only a fifth the time on horseback as on foot, and the rider has the sense of command and authority which height and speed bring. With just a saddle horse and a packhorse for supplies, a single rider could cover enormous distances. Not until the introduction of the bicycle in the 1890s was there any rival to the saddle horse for fast personal transport. A horse was not that cheap. For most of the nineteenth century, a good saddle horse cost about 15, saddlery about 2, shoes up to another 2 each year, and feed (if kept in the city) 20 a year. This was when decent wages were around 50 to 100 a year. Obviously the economics of horse ownership were always more favourable for farmers and graziers and their employees than for urban dwellers, since feed was free in good seasons. Most horses, because of their cost, were expected to work, even if the work was simply carrying their master to work. Until the early twentieth century, saddle horses were widely used for personal urban transport by middle class men in Sydney and, more especially, Melbourne, where the horse cult was (and in some ways remains, albeit confined now to racetracks and their environs) virtually a fetish.
While the saddle horse was the main means of personal transport, from the early nineteenth century the very rich and those with a point to make drove carriages. Until about 1815, this was an expensive way to be pretentious, since the carriages were imported and rather fragile, and roads so poor that the carriages required constant repairs. With road development under Governor Macquarie, and the simultaneous growth of a more affluent society, this began to change, and carriages were imported in larger numbers. Most were used by people who wished to make a statement about themselves, although public carriage transport began as early as 1805, when William Robert began Australia's first land public transport service, a 'stage wagon' which ran from Sydney to the Hawkesbury. This took sixteen hours and cost 7s 6d, which were substantial investments of time and money. The service did not thrive, as a saddle horse could always do the trip faster, cheaper and, given the primitive roads, more comfortably too. William Highland revived much the same route with a weekly service between Sydney and the two Hawkesbury towns of Richmond and Windsor in 1814.
A true stagecoach system on the English model, with quality carriages and regular staging of horses, was not introduced until 1819, when services began between Sydney and Parramatta and between Hobart and Launceston. These were then the only two decent roads in Australia. Then in 1820 William Watsford began a twice-daily service between Sydney and Parramatta, a route his coaches would dominate until he closed the service with the opening of the railway in 1855. By 1823 Watsford's coaching services had been extended to Penrith and Windsor; and in 1824 other operators began services from Sydney to Parramatta, Windsor, Liverpool, Penrith and Bathurst. What is astonishing about these early services of the 1820s is how closely subsequent railways followed the same routes, and indeed the way in which rail services nearly two centuries later mirror these very first coach services.
Watsford's main competitors were Ireland and Richards, who by 1834 were running services from Sydney to Goulburn and Bathurst (exactly the routes planned for the Sydney Railway Company a couple of decades later). They used nine imported coaches worked by four-horse teams changed every ten to fifteen miles (16 to 25km). We know a lot about their enterprise, because they went spectacularly bankrupt in 1834 and their entire business was valued and auctioned. Their collapse prompted the government to begin land transport regulation with the Stage Carriage Act of 1835, setting fares rates and awarding mail contracts. These contracts were the basis of profitable coaching companies throughout the coaching era. Services were known as the Mail, a terminology which was transferred to the trains which replaced them on the busier routes after the 1850s and survived until Australia's last mail trains, the North Mail, South Mail and Western Mail, ran out of Sydney in 1988. Once again, the continuity of transport arrangements between early colonial and modern New South Wales is striking indeed.
The styles of coaches used varied considerably. On the better roads near Sydney and between Hobart and Launceston, where there was sufficient mail and passenger traffic to justify frequent (meaning daily) services, English coaches were used, typically costing 200 each with as much again for their sets of harnesses. From the 1830s, the horses used were mostly Cleveland Bays, an English breed developed specifically for harness work. They combined speed with endurance, at a cost of strength. Thus four Cleveland Bays formed a typical team to haul the quite light coaches. By the 1830s, English coaches were being modified for colonial conditions, basically by strengthening their springs. Coaching services were over made roads, not bush tracks, and, by the 1840s in New South Wales and Tasmania at least, these roads, while often the subject of complaint, were far from primitive, and featured extensive earthworks and fine stone bridges. Hence, modified English coaches were appropriate to these tasks. Every ten miles they stopped at coaching inns to change horses, and colonial travel had begun to resemble that back in England. The mail coaches were colourful and impressive, nearly always painted red with yellow lining and black ironmongery, lettered in gold 'VR' (Victoria Regina) and 'Royal Mail'. Much the same livery would be used later in the century by nearly all Australian railways for their passenger coaches. They had a driver and a guard (once again the railways would later use the same terminology), who would sound a bugle when entering towns and villages, and had charge of the mail. Travel was reasonably fast where roads were decent, typically covering sixty miles (100km) a day, even over mountainous terrain such as between Sydney and Bathurst, which was done in two days with one overnight stop.23 This distance of sixty miles became typical of that between towns in much of rural Australia, as coaching inns developed into townships.
In the more remote areas, light horse carts (with accommodation for the odd passenger or two who for some reason did not want to go on horseback) covered the mail contracts. By the mid-1840s, the coaching business was sufficiently mature for a weekly coach service to be established between Sydney and Melbourne, although its primary function was to carry mails and some passengers to, from and between intermediate places on the route, rather than any through traffic. Coastal steamers would remain the fastest and most comfortable way of travelling between the two cities until their direct rail connection, and remained competitive with rail well after that.
The era of English-style coaching lasted until the 1850s, when there was a sudden shift to American practices. The innovators were the founders of what was soon known as Cobb and Co, destined to become Australia's greatest (and last) coaching company. The four partners in the enterprise, Freeman Cobb, John Peck, James Swanton and John Lamber, were all Americans attracted to Melbourne by the promise of the Victorian goldfields. Like so many others, they decided that doing what they knew best in a boom economy had better and surer prospects than digging for the elusive metal. In their case, this was the coaching business, and they brought with them distinctively American techniques and styles. In 1853 they began operations on the busiest route in the country, from Sandridge (Port Melbourne) to Melbourne. They dominated the traffic for a year until Australia's first steam railway opened over the same terrain
Cobb and Co introduced the American Concord coach to Australia, so called because it was first built in Concord, Massachusetts. The principle of the Concord coach was that sprung suspension was replaced by leather straps (called thoroughbraces) on which the entire body was suspended. This made for a smoother ride on rough roads, although the ride was not as good as a sprung coach on a paved or well-metalled road. Passengers in Concord coaches often felt a sensation of seasickness, because of the coach bodies' free swaying motion, supported as it was only by the very flexible thoroughbraces. In fact, a combination of braces and springs, as later developed by Cobb and Co, gave the best ride. Cobb and Co soon developed a distinctively Australian design, lower, squarer and more open (since Australia's climate was much milder) than the American stagecoach on which it had been based. Thus, in coaching as in so much else in Australia, the ideal practice proved to be a compromise between British and North American notions, with a few colonial innovations (notably wide open unglazed windows) added.
In 1854, as the railway took over their business in Melbourne, Cobb and Co moved into the equally lucrative traffic to the goldfields, establishing routes linking Melbourne with Castlemaine and Bendigo, and Geelong with Ballarat. As with the first New South Wales coaching routes, these anticipated Victoria's first mainline railways. By then, the roads to the diggings had been improved dramatically from a few years before, and the coach services were reliable and efficient, and could even reach their destination in a single day from Melbourne. With characteristic marketing flair, the called their services the American Telegraph Line, a name which captured all that was new and speedy in the 1850s. On the route from Geelong to Ballarat, traffic was so intense that they built a special coach accommodating ninety passengers and drawn by a team of no fewer than sixteen horses. This they modestly christened the Leviathan.
By 1862, when the railways opened to Ballarat and Bendigo thereby depriving Cobb and Co of their heaviest traffic, the original partners had made their fortunes and sold out. The new owners, a consortium led by James Rutherford, retained the name but changed the philosophy. Railway building compelled them to look further afield than the rich pickings around the Victorian diggings. As early as 1861 Rutherford moved Cobb and Co's headquarters north to Bathurst, centre of the New South Wales goldfields. It would be another decade before the rails would reach Bathurst from Sydney, so the Company's future was far more assured there. Soon after, it began operations in Queensland, operating first between Ipswich and Brisbane (which were not linked by rail until 1875) and from the railhead west of Ipswich up the range to Toowoomba. When the railway along this route was completed, the emphasis of Cobb and Co's Queensland operations moved to the interior, linking Toowoomba with Warwick, Dalby, Roma and the Condamine. Under Rutherford's direction, Cobb and Co never attempted to compete with railways, but tailored their services to act as feeders to the new inland railway termini. This ensured friendly relations with the colonial governments, which, after all, were investing huge sums in railways and had no desire to succour competitors. These relations in turn led to Cobb and Co winning nearly all the colonial mail contracts. These formed a reliable revenue base on which to run the coach services. So dominant was Cobb and Co in the coaching business that one writer has claimed that 'the story of coaching in Australia is essentially the story of Cobb and Co.'24
As railways were extended, Cobb and Co's operations moved west and north. Rutherford set up coach building works in Bathurst and later in Brisbane and Charleville, a long way from the Company's Melbourne origins. The company's operations in Victoria wound down rapidly in the 1880s, as a railway network was built covering virtually all that colony. In New South Wales and Queensland, though, where railway networks were never as dense, coaching would remain important right through to the motor age. Rutherford opened the Charleville works in response to the peculiar conditions in which the Company found itself. Its routes increasingly were confined to the outback, where the climate was (mostly) very dry. Timbers tended to crack when exposed to such dry conditions, so he built coaches in Charleville so that timbers could be cured in the dry inland air and so be less susceptible to cracking.25 It was an attention to detail typical of the Company, a characteristic it shared with Australia's better shipping companies and railways.
The period from1870 to 1900 were the halcyon days of Cobb and Co's operations in the interior of New South Wales and Queensland. In 1870 it was harnessing 6,000 horses every day and its coaches were running 28,000 miles a week. As settlement moved further into the interior and population increased rapidly, its business kept expanding. As one route was closed by the opening of a new railway, another - deeper in the interior - would start. Its services could be remarkably fast, although not especially cheap. For instance, in 1880 Cobb and Co's coach from the Victorian railway station at Geelong to Mortlake took just thirteen hours to cover the 92 miles. The fare was an even pound, three days' labour for an unskilled worker, so coach services were not for the poor.
Mail contracts included the carriage of gold from the diggings to the capital, and transport of banknotes and coins on behalf of banks. This meant that Cobb and Co's coaches could be rich pickings indeed for bushrangers. Their guards were armed, and, when bushrangers were active, coaches were often accompanied by troops of mounted police. The interior of Australia was never quite as wild as the American Wild West, largely because the colonial authorities moved in very quickly to establish courthouses, police stations, gaols and the general coercive apparatus of the state as soon as there was a significant population which needed policing. Not one Cobb and Co driver was ever killed by a bushranger, although a few did have shots fired at them in anger. The most lucrative robbery under arms of a Cobb and Co coach was early in the Company's history, when in 1861 Frank Gardiner's gang robbed the Forbes to Orange coach in New South Wales of some 12,000 in gold and banknotes. Perhaps more typical of the hazards of a bushranger's life was the confession of William Green, who in 1851 complained that his robbery of the Melbourne to Port Fairy mail coach had yielded far more love letters than valuables.26
Coach travel, clearly, was neither as safe nor as comfortable nor as cheap as train travel, but Cobb and Co did have a good safety record and its drivers were of a high quality. The first drivers were Americans, but soon most were locals. They had a reputation for being extremely trustworthy, reliable, a touch autocratic, but with the understandable vice of being inclined to flirt - in a chivalrous way - with unaccompanied female passengers. Accidents were more common in the early days, when the coaches operated in more mountainous districts. In their later years, plying outback routes across the plains, they were extremely safe and reliable.
Horses were less inclined to break down than motor vehicles in the vast expanses of the outback, where farriers and blacksmiths were numerous but motor mechanics unknown. For this reason, Cobb and Co's coaching services lasted well into the motor age, into the 1920s in fact in western Queensland. The Company, lacking the entrepreneurial drive of its early days, did not move into motor transport, and was wound up in 1924, when the teams hauled its last coach from Surat to Yeulba. It was a significant event, although perhaps Cobb and Co's historian has exaggerated a little in claiming that its coaches made in Charleville and used on its last services were 'the last and most successful of man's attempts to ally his own ingenuity with the strength of the horse to produce an ideal vehicle for conditions encountered in virgin country.'27
Cobb and Co's coaching services ceased at much the same time as the last horse bus services in Brisbane and Sydney. Horses continued to be used to haul hansom cabs about Australia's cities for another decade, but in the 1920s the era of horse-powered passenger transport came to an end. It was, however, the motor vehicle and not the railway which replaced the last generation of coaches in the outback.
Of all the pre-mechanised forms of transport, none seems more basic than droving. This is the deceptively simple-looking business of drovers on horseback driving flocks of sheep or herds of cattle to market. In fact, though, droving was a complicated business, with an economics all its own and surprising legal and infrastructure requirements.
Droving skills began with the European settlement of the interior of New South Wales in the 1820s. Squatters and their small staff of a few overseers and stockmen (often assigned convicts in the first couple of decades, but increasingly free labour) would drive cattle from settled districts onto virgin pastures, which they would then occupy. This was called overlanding, and was the crucible in which European Australians learned their bushcraft skills. By 1860, all the good land in southeastern Australia had been taken, and the squatters were no longer illegal occupants of 'empty' land, but had become the extremely wealthy pseudo-landed gentry of Australia. Overlanding, though, continued in the harsher conditions of the more remote parts of the country.
Ironically, it was the disaster of the Burke and Wills expedition of 1861-2 which provided the stimulus to the exploitation of these remote regions. It quickly became evident that Burke and Wills had died as a result of incompetence, not because the country was so hostile as to be fatal. In the following thirty years, cattle stations were established right through western Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley district of Western Australia. Deserts there were, but there was also plenty of adequate grazing country, and the overlanding skills learned in the early squatting days of the 1820s and 1830s were applied to the far larger distances if the remote north. A typical feat of this era was Nat Buchanan's droving of 900 bullocks from Wave Hill station in the Northern territory to Murchison in Western Australia, a distance of about 1,800 miles (2,900km), in 1892. This was overlanding and droving on a grand scale indeed.28
During the 1870s the great droving routes were established in an arc across the north of the continent, linking the Kimberleys in Western Australia, through the cattle country of the Northern Territory and the Gulf Country of Queensland, and the western railheads of the Queensland and New South Wales Railways; and to the northern railheads of the South Australian and even the Victorian Railways. By the 1920s about 40,000 head of cattle a year were being driven from the Northern territory into western Queensland, so this was a busy route. A branch track, one of the most arduous of all, left far western Queensland along the route of Eyre Creek to the South Australian railhead of Oodnadatta. This was the famous Birdsville track, which, skirting Lake Eyre and passing through the driest cattle stations in Australia, had surprising significance as a commercial stock route. This was because it had access to good bore water and served the southwest corner of Queensland, which was very remote from the nearest Queensland and New South Wales railheads. The Port Augusta to Oodnadatta railway was significant in the development of a cattle industry in the occasionally well-watered centre of the continent. From an enormous arc stretching at least from Alice Springs to Birdsville large numbers of cattle were driven to Oodnadatta (or Marree) until the railway was opened through to Alice Springs in 1929. For instance, in 1907 about 50,000 head of cattle and 300,000 head of sheep were driven from the Northern Territory to Oodnadatta for railing south to supply the South Australian market.29 This was a peak year, as sheep did not last long in central Australia. The average number of cattle driven to Oodnadatta on Birdsville Track was 19,000 per year from 1910 to 1924, while an average of 11,300 came each year over the same period from the Alice Springs region.30
Similar to the Birdsville Track, and perhaps even more arduous, was the Strzelecki Track along the course of Strzelecki Creek in the far north of South Australia. This creek is almost always dry, but it has a number of natural permanent waterholes along its course. From the 1870s it became an important route for driving cattle between Farina (formerly Government Gums) railway station and the centre of the continent. It ceased to be used after the extension of the railway from Marree to Alice Springs in the late 1920s. Both the Strzelecki and Birdsville tracks followed routes used for millennia by Aboriginal people to travel through the arid country.
The heartland of the droving industry was always western Queensland and New South Wales. Stock routes led from Queensland south through Hungerford on the New South Wales -Queensland border to Bourke and further south to Hay, Deniliquin and Echuca. Bourke and Hay were not much more than 24 hours by cattle train from Sydney, and Echuca and Deniliquin only a day trip from Melbourne. As destinations for drovers and the graziers who paid them, they were clearly superior to Oodnadatta, for instance, which could be reached along the arduous Birdsville Track, only to leave them at the railhead of a slow narrow-gauge train to Port Augusta. As a market and a port, Port Augusta could hardly compete with Sydney or Melbourne. Nor could the Birdsville Track compete with the well-watered and well-maintained New South Wales stock routes, except for the isolated cattle stations in Queensland's extreme southwest.
Not all droving routes were through arduous country. There was an important route along the northern bank of the Murray through Wentworth linking New South Wales and South Australia. This was well watered and extensively used, even well into the railway age, since the route by train was indirect and required transhipment because of break of gauge. Since the two colonies were affected by different weather systems, there could be drought in one and plenty in the other, so large numbers of cattle were driven along this route.
Between 1857 and 1907, the New South Wales government spent no less than 1,700,000 on water supplies for stock routes. To put this huge figure in context, this was almost as much as the 2,294,854 spent on the same period on Sydney's and Newcastle's tram systems, which included the electrification of the former.31 This massive New South Wales investment in stock routes ensured that state's domination of the meat trade, allied as it was with a network of mainline railways which carried stock (or refrigerated meat, for there were abattoirs at Bourke and the NSWGR was a pioneer of refrigerated rail wagons) the long distances from places like Bourke and Hay to Sydney at discounted rates. Droving then, was a trade allied with modern transport and formed part of a complementary network of linkages between this most primitive form of cattle movement and the most modern transport the world then offered.
The New South Wales expenditure on ensuring water on stock routes was a wise investment. Not only did it produce profitable traffic for the New South Wales Railways, it also increased the general productivity of the country, for droving could be a hazardous business, and during drought heavy losses of stock were common. This investment was sanctioned by the Public Watering Places Act of 1884, itself a response to an 1880 report which had found that of the eighteen stock routes in the colony, only seven were well watered, nine fairly watered and two poorly watered. By 1900 there was permanent water along 1,400 miles (2,255km) of New South Wales stock routes, and similar (although not as ambitious) programs were under way in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.32 These included the provision of perfectly adequate water supplies, drawing on the underground reservoirs of the Great Artesian Basin, along the Birdsville Track. Droving remained a favoured method of moving stock well into the twentieth century, largely because there were very few north-south railways in the inland, and this was the flow of most cattle. It has been estimated that as late as 1920 some 1.3 million cattle and 7.95 million sheep were being driven along stock routes at some time during the year.33 Moreover, rail charges for cattle were not cheap, and droving could be competitive in price, especially in good seasons when feed and water were abundant. Even rail travel itself was an extension of droving, as the railway administrations provided accommodation for drovers on cattle trains. The drover, not railway officials, was responsible for watering and otherwise caring for the cattle while they were on the train.
Not all traffic on stock routes comprised cattle and sheep destined for market. Stock were moved between different parts of the country to avoid drought and take advantage of surplus pasture when there were shortages elsewhere. Because the northern two thirds of Australia (roughly north of a line drawn from Sydney to Oodnadatta) is monsoonal and enjoys summer rain, while the southern third (once again, roughly south of Sydney) has winter rainfall, there can be drought in some parts of the country and plenty elsewhere. Occasionally cattle and sheep from the Port Augusta region of South Australia were driven up to feed on the Birdsville Track, when monsoonal rains brought rare rich pasture to the country north of Oodnadatta, while the usually far better watered gulf region of South Australia languished in drought. The diversity of weather patterns affecting Australia, and the fact that the centre of the continent mostly (but certainly not always) misses out on rain patterns coming from whatever direction, has had much to do with determining the use of Australia's remotest stock routes in the interior.
One of the last great stock routes to be established (and one of the least ever used) was also the longest. This was the extraordinary Canning Stock Route which linked Halls Creek, a remote and tiny town in Western Australia's tropical Kimberley district, with Wiluna, an equally tiny town about 115 miles (180km) from the railhead of Meekatharra, the furthest point into the northwest of the state reached by the tracks of the WAGR. This was a distance of about 1,190 miles (1750km), across some of the most arid country on the continent, including the Great Sandy Desert, the Little Sandy Desert, the Gibson Desert and the Tanami Desert. It was pioneered in response to the 1898 prohibition by the WA Government on the Kimberley cattle farmers shipping their cattle to abattoirs elsewhere in the colony. The reason was then infestation of the cattle herds there with a tick imported from Java with some of the stock. The tick thrived in the humid conditions of the sea voyage to market, but died in dry conditions. Taking the cattle overland to Meekatharra seemed to be a solution. In 1906 Alfred Canning and a party of eight, supported by 22 camels, surveyed the route and, with the help of local Aborigines, found supplies of surface and artesian water on the way. Between 1908 and 1910 the track was built, the main works being the establishment of 51 watering points, mostly wells, about 15 miles (25km) apart. This required a work party of 31 men and 70 camels.
The Canning was never much of a success and only ever carried a relative handful of cattle. It was just too long and too rigorous for drovers to use it with any good prospects of a commercial return. Described as 'unquestionably the loneliest, most difficult and dangerous stock route in Australia', it is scarcely surprising that its use never met early expectations.34 It was very rare for more than two mobs a year to use the track. The stock routes leading east into the Northern Territory and thence to the railheads in western Queensland and New South Wales were always far more attractive than the Canning to Kimberley graziers. By 1929 it had fallen into disrepair, although in 1930 its wells were rebuilt in an attempt to revive trade, and the railway was even extended all the way to Wiluna in response to a brief minor gold rush to the town. Its wells were derelict again by 1942, when once again they were repaired in case the Canning were needed as an evacuation route from a possible Japanese invasion of the northwest. It was not, and the last cattle were driven south in 1958. One of the most interesting features of the Canning was that it was the last part of Australia where there was active (and occasionally violent) Aboriginal resistance to European exploitation of the land. There were spears thrown and shots fired (with fatal results on both sides) during its construction, and tension between local Aborigines and drovers (many of whom ironically were also Aboriginal, but more integrated into the modern economic and social system) was a long-lived characteristic of its use, which certainly increased its hazards.
Droving, the most elemental of all means of animal transport, lasted longer than any other form of muscle-powered transport in Australia. This was because it was reasonably priced and was an effective way of moving cattle and sheep along routes where there was no railway. State investment in watering facilities meant that - in all but the very worst seasons - it was a secure trade, certainly a romantic one, and even a comfortable one for those who enjoyed horses and camping. This could even be true on the Birdsville Track, since most droving took place in the cooler months, although it was never true of the Canning. Sydney solicitor A. B. Patterson certainly thought so when he compared the droving life with 'the fiendish rattle of the tramways and the buses'35 outside his Sydney office, but he always was one to romanticise the bush. Large-scale building of developmental roads in the remote inland only began in the 1950s, so it not until then that trucks acquired the ability to move loads of a size and at a speed previously only seen on rail. With this development, droving at last began to drift into obsolescence, more than thirty years after the horse was displaced by the motor vehicle for most transport tasks in the more settled parts of the country.
The Birdsville Track became in the 1930s one of the pioneering outback roads, with a regular mail service by truck beginning in 1936, as discussed in chapter 7 below. Large trucks, though, required good roads to be economical, as transport costs by truck were twice those of rail and six times those of droving. What the trucks did offer though, was extremely rapid and direct transport. For, even if a truck travelled only marginally faster than a train, the real difference was in loading and unloading and transferring cattle to the railhead. Trucking enabled cattle and sheep to be moved large distances in a couple of days, certainly at a high cost, but a cost which could be justified in terms of giving the producer maximum access to the best pasture and best prices. By contrast, the old system of droving to a railhead (where rail cattle wagons had to be booked in advance) committed the pastoralist to an early decision as to what would happen to his cattle. The old system of using droving and railways came to an end during the 1960s and 1970s. The last mob of cattle was brought to Marree along the Birdsville Track in 1972. It was the end of an era, as the boss drover, a familiar figure on the Birdsville Track called Eric Oldfield, rode on horseback driving a mob of cattle into Marree's railway stockyards for the last time.36 Now the railway is closed beyond the coalmines at Leigh Creek and the Birdsville Track has become an adventure playground for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. Road trains on development roads now meet the pastoralists' needs to move their cattle.
1 E. E. Morris (ed), Cassell's Picturesque Australasia, London, Cassell, 1889pp 792-95.
2 Malcolm J Kennedy, Hauling the Loads: A History of Australia's Working Horses and Bullocks, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1992, p 7.
3 Ibid, p 30.
4 Ibid, pp 25-6.
5 Max Colwell, Australian Transport: an Illustrated History, Sydney, Paul Hamlyn, 1972, pp 29-34.
6 Patsy Adam Smith, Romance of Victorian Railways, Adelaide, Rigby, 1980, p 156.
7 This account is based on T. L. McKnight, The Camel in Australia, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1969.
8 Kennedy, Hauling the Loads, pp 78, 81, 93, 96, 106.
9 Kennedy, Hauling the Loads, pp 51-55.
10 Don Fraser (ed), Sydney from Settlement to City, an engineering history of Sydney, Sydney, Institution of Engineers Australia, 1989, p12.
11 On this road, see G. H. Stancombe, Highway in Van Diemen's Land, Launceston, 1974.
12 The oldest surviving bridge once carried Mrs Macquarie's Road (now a footpath in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens) across Farm Cove Creek. This dates from about 1812, but is so modest in size as to be more a culvert than a bridge.
13 E. E. Morris (ed), Cassell's Picturesque Australasia, London, Cassell, 1889, p 641.
14 Ibid, pp 862-863.
15 Richard Raxworthy, The Unreasonable Man, the life and works of J.J.C. Bradfield, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1989, p 23.
16 Robert Lee, The Greatest Public Work, the New South Wales Railways, 1848-1889, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1988, p 40.
17 Don Fraser, Bridges Down Under: the History of Railway Underbridges in New South Wales, Sydney, Australian Railway Historical Society, 1995, pp 42-43.
18 National Trust of Victoria, Timber Bridges Study, Melbourne, The National Trust, 1997, p 42.
19 Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW, Timber Bridge Management, Sydney, Roads and Traffic Authority, 2002, pp 4-6.
20 Don Fraser (ed), Sydney from Settlement to City, an engineering history of Sydney, Sydney, Institution of Engineers Australia, 1989, pp 289-292.
21 Ibid, p 106.
22 This description of freight vehicles is based on the extremely comprehensive accounts in Kennedy, Hauling the Loads, pp 31-9 and H. McGregor, The Horse and Buggy Days, Canberra, Roebuck Books, 1981.
23 On early coaching, see Colwell, Australian Transport, pp 50-61, and Kennedy, Hauling the Loads, pp 43-46.
24 The Australian Encyclopaedia, Sydney, The Grolier Society, 1976, vol 2, p 220.
25 Unstead, R. J. & Henderson, W. F. Transport in Australia, London, A. & C. Black., 1970, p. 33.
26 Green's complaint is included in Marcella Hunter, Australia Post, delivering more than ever, Edgecliff, Focus, 2000, p 37.
27 K. A. Austin, A Pictorial History of Cobb & Co: The Coaching Age in Australia 1854-1924, Adelaide, Rigby, 1977, p 89. This account draws heavily on Austin's work.
28 Kennedy, Hauling the Loads, pp 65-7.
29 Ibid, p 130.
30 Leith Yelland, Pads, tracks and waters, South Australia's pastoral stock routes, Adelaide, South Australia Department of Primary Industry and Resources, 2002 , p 53.
31 Raxworthy, The Unreasonable Man, p 23. See also T. L. McKnight, The Long Paddock: Australia's travelling stock routes, Armidale, University of New England, 1977.
32 Kennedy, Hauling the Loads, pp 125-126.
33 Ibid, p 130.
34 Keith Willey, The Drovers, Melbourne, 1982.
35 In 'Clancy of the Overflow'.
36 Yelland, Pads, tracks and water, p 90.