Travelling by stagecoach

In the late sixties of last century [19th], when the “Diggings” were in full swing, there was an excellent service of coaches owned by Cobb & Co. Coaches left Dunedin daily by the main north and south roads; the distance covered each day was well over seventy miles, so that an early start was the rule.

stage west coast

Breakfast at 5 a.m. “with our hats on” was the beginning of the first journey alone for three little sisters who set off to spend a happy summer holiday with an elder sister in her home on the banks of the Molyneux River [Clutha].

Our own road down the Glen joined the South Road a mile or so out of Dunedin, and we had, therefore, no share in the bustle and importance of the daily start from the office in town. We had not long to wait before the coach appeared on the crest of the hill and rattled down towards us. Good-byes were said and last instructions given as the big coach pulled up with a swing and stood heaving and swaying on its great leather springs, while the harness creaked and clattered as the six big greys shook it, stamping with impatience at the delay.

We were soon in the places reserved for us at the back of the coach, where we would be well protected from the weather by big leather curtains – on this fine morning rolled up so that we might enjoy the pleasant country through which we drove.

Besides the seats of honour on the box and above it, there were four (or more) seats set across the interior – just hard wooden seats with very little padding and a wide leather strap for a back. The coaches were generally overflowing with diggers, usually very cheerful, confident that they were on their way to make their fortunes, or, still more cheerful, with fortunes in their pockets, on their way to town to spend them……

The number of horses in use by Cobb & Co. must have been enormous, and the quality was outstanding. Beautiful greys were always reserved for the entrance into town, and the procession of the Gold Escort was indeed a sight never to be forgotten. Armed out-riders led and followed the special coach bringing in the gold; and there was frequently a prisoner or two, in which case the armed guard on the box, and riding alongside, would be considerably increased.

Vintage postcard of two stagecoaches on the Christchurch to Greymouth road.

All that, however, was a thing of long past when, after my marriage, I travelled by coach, this time to my new home on the Maniototo Plain. The railway that was eventually to stretch from one end of the [South] Island to the other could now be used to shorten distances, and our coach journey began at Palmerston, following up the Shag river, to Naseby – one day’s journey. In the earlier days the coach had to break the journey for the night at a so-called accommodation house that bore the very descriptive name of Pig-root.

Some of my happiest recollections are of these old coach journeys to our up-country home, my children enjoying the adventure, tucked away inside the coach with their nurse. Of course, there were inevitable discomforts, but one could forget the bumping into and over frozen ruts on a winter’s morning when looking out on the frost-laden snowgrass, the sun covering the great white domes with jewels, and icicles veiling the blue depths of fairy halls below them.

The driver, appreciating my husband’s eye for a horse, always kept the box-seat for us, and his fund of yarns was inexhaustible, so that on many a drowsy summer afternoon their voices seemed to me to grow fainter and fainter as the coach wound up the sunny side of the Range. But, at the top, the fresh breeze in one’s face was like the meeting with an old friend, and, with a crack of the long whip and the rattle of loose swingle-trees, away we would go, down the long cutting and across the river-bed, till, in the cool dusk, sweet with the scent of the flax blossom and dewy tussock, we pulled up at the wayside hotel where we changed horses for the last stage that day.
J. M. Buchanan, a contributor to ‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, 1940.

The stagecoaches illustrated here, with the popular five horse configuration, are similar to the one Mrs. Buchanan would have taken on her trip to Naseby. These coaches travelled some New Zealand “roads” until the early 1920s.

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