Three quarters of a century after coachman Tommy Thompson completed the last Cobb & Co run in Australia, a group of horsemen and women commemorate the event with a ride along Tommy’s route from Yuleba to Surat, Qld.
Story By James McEwan
Fred “Tommy” Thompson, bundled up against the morning chill, took aim, kicked the rear wheel and dislodged a dusty, yellow clod. There were only a few of Yuleba’s 300 residents up and about in the still minutes before dawn; this part of southern Queensland could be cold enough to keep anyone, bar a sheep farmer, firmly in bed. Tommy would have preferred a nice, hot mug of tea and time to read last week’s Queenslander but the coach and team came first.
The five horses stood like great warm trees as he leant against them one by one, looking for lameness, running his leathery fingers round their collars, testing the thick traces, twisting buckles and straps. This was the last run to Surat and as the last of the real coachmen he wanted comfortable horses and no breakdowns.
Service No. 177 carried only the Royal Mail and parcels from the store – it was August 14, 1924, and the final run of a Cobb & Co coach in Australia.
The coach was due to be sold off and replaced by a truck service with the big horses set for other working lives. Tommy himself was a fair engineer and a dab hand under the bonnet of a car or truck so he would be all right. The old white coaches were seen as old hat, dusty and just not modern enough for 1924 but the mail contract had to be fulfilled and Tommy had to load up and make a mile or two.
It was a bit different from a few years before, when the sudden rains would hit the black-soil plains and motor wagons and Model T Fords would slide off the track and bog themselves down to the axles. Then the old coach and horses were good enough to be called out to get the mail and passengers through.
Tommy had one last tug at the ropes around the freight as the postmaster called, “Tea’s up.”
Dawn 85 years later on August 14, 2009, was just as clear and chilly so the cups of tea – as well as bacon, eggs and snags – served by the jolly Yuleba ladies in the park were just as welcome. Hundreds of locals, riders and coachmen from all over Queensland turned out to celebrate that last Cobb & Co run and a sense of the romance and history of those pioneer days was in the air.
The idea for a commemorative ride came from the Yuleba Development Group, which thought it would be a good idea for a few locals to ride to Surat to mark the occasion. Committee president Paul Masson says the committee didn’t really advertise the idea. “But the horse-owners’ grapevine worked overtime and we ended up with 101 riders registered, the Cobb & Co Tommy Thompson coach and five other horse-drawn vehicles,” Paul says. “I’m delighted too that we will be carrying a special commemorative stamped envelope from the Yuleba Post Office to Surat. The old drivers would have liked that.”
The focus of the celebrations was the coach usually on display at the Surat Changing Station Museum. Slightly longer and wider than the original, the replica was built by coachbuilder and driver Steve Ralph in his workshops at Glass House Mountains, Qld.
“We used authentic, original timbers and methods but there were a few improvements incorporated into the old design to give a slightly better ride,” Steve says. “Some of the early Cobb & Co wagons were boneshakers.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #69
Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2010