MAIL COACH DRAMAS IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS

CROSSING THE MOUNTAINS  BY COACH AND HORSES

In the 1850’s  the journey across the Blue Mountains of New South Wales  was truly daunting.    On Sunday, November 27 1853, Thomas Simons was driving the Bathurst mail coach from Sydney when he came to the top of Mount Victoria. Ahead was a long, steep descent. In those days there were no proper brakes  on the coaches; the horses themselves  did all the   restraining work.  Thick straps (breechings)  went around their haunches, to allow them to push back.  In order to assist, passengers were in the habit of  leaving the coach and walking down the  steepest section.

On this occasion Simons requested that the travellers  alight, but the man sitting up beside him refused, saying ‘If it’s safe for you to ride,  so can we.’  The driver explained that he was only going to  stay in his seat  because it was easier to manage the horses from above.

BUT WE PAID TO RIDE!

Cobb and Co Stagecoach

Cobb and Co. stagecoach ready to go.

Unfortunately the man’s attitude was infectious and the  other passengers refused to climb down too  (both metaphorically and literally). They had paid their fare and they were staying put. With no alternative, the  heavily laden coach started off down the mountain. Almost immediately one of the lead horses shied.  There were no fences and it plunged into the gully below, dragging the other horses  and the stagecoach with it.

Recalling the accident years later a reporter for the Sydney Mail wrote;

One man (Mr. Fitzptrick, a storekeeper from Bathurst) was killed, and the others crippled, but the coachman fell into the fork of a tree and was not seriously injured, though his four horses were all killed and the coach was wrecked.

The Sydney Morning Herald published a report  a few days afterwards;

FATAL COACH ACCIDENT – On Sunday afternoon last, the mail coach, on its upward route to Bathurst, was precipitated into a deep abyss  whilst descending Mount Victoria, together with driver, horses, and passengers, when Mr Thomas Fitzpatrick, brother of Mr James Fitzpatrick of this town, was so dreadfully bruised and lacerated that he has since died….Considering the depth of the gully where the accident occurred, the source of astonishment which appears to prevail is that a single individual escaped with his life. One man to save himself instinctively sprang from his seat whilst the coach was making its first revolution, and without noting the direction, leaped down the precipice, rolling and tumbling from rock to rock until he landed at a depth variously estimated at 120 to 150 feet. Singular to say he was not seriously injured.

It must have been a horrific scene, and was the impetus for installing brakes on the stagecoaches.

Victoria Pass, Blue Mountains.

Looking up Victoria Pass circa 1880. Note that a fence has been built.

THE COACH IS HELD UP!

One night, the Bathurst coach was bringing  gold  bullion to Sydney from the diggings with a police escort. When they were about opposite the cemetery between Little Hartley and Big Hartley, the driver noticed that a sapling fence was blocking  the road. Realizing it was the work of bushrangers he  whipped  up the horses and charged straight through it.   Unfortunately it slowed the coach enough for the bushrangers to take aim. They fired  a volley, shooting one horse dead.

The driver jumped off and ran to the hotel at Little Hartley to report the ‘sticking up’ to Mr Markell at the Rose Inn.  Meanwhile, the police escort  engaged in a gunfight with the outlaws and managed to save the gold.

 

Old Rose Inn at Hartley looking back to the Victoria Pass.

The old Rose Inn at Hartley looking up to the  Mt. Victoria Pass.

The last  living Cobb & Co. driver appears to have been a man called Jim Snow. He was in his nineties when he was interviewed by the Nepean Times in 1926.  aJim had a rather unorthodox way of coping with bushrangers on the Blue Mountains run. He would load up with supplies they wanted and leave  them at prearranged locations. It was said that he never lost a coin to the gangs.

Jim knew the notorious Ben Hall quite well. On one occasion an elderly lady was travelling to Sydney with Jim, and had a couple of hundred pounds with her. Jim hid the money in a hole in the driver’s seat. It was just as well, because  Hall and his gang intercepted the coach. Jim told him that his only  passenger was heading to hospital and was penniless. ‘Poor old soul’, said Ben. ‘Don’t frighten her with any yarn about us. Give her this.’ He handed Jim a roll of banknotes.  If this story isn’t true it damn well should be.

Bushranger Ben Hall

Bushranger Ben (Wikipedia)

Bushranger Ben Hall's gang at work.

The Hall gang at work (by Samuel Calvert)

Ben Hall’s life was full of drama and he went to an early grave.  The outlaw was shot  dead  by police and  and buried across the Mountains at Forbes.

For more  on the death of Ben Hall click HERE

                                          Arms of Australia Inn at Emu Plains, one of the old staging-post inns. It is now a museum.

BIRTH OF THE RAILWAY…..DEATH TO THE MAIL COACH

By the late 1880s  travelling to Bathurst was still a bit of an adventure. I love this account by an old-timer, published in the Daily Mercury in 1939. he and his family had started out from Penrith at the foot of the Mountains;

The coach driver with only mail bags aboard found it difficult to get up some of the pinches, although his team consisted of five good, corn fed horses….

Cobb & Co. mail coach

Old Cobb & Co. mail coach

Our destination that night was a roadside hotel called the ‘The Weatherboard’ – a bit rough, but all hands were very glad when we got there.  (Note….Weatherboard became the name of the settlement, which afterwards changed to Wentworth Falls.)

During the first part of the journey the navies were at work on the new railway construction, a portion  that afterwards was known as the  [eastern] Zig-Zag, which for many years after the completion of the railway was, because of the beautiful view, looked upon as quite a show portion of the railway. It was afterwards done away with, and instead of going over some of the high places, now we go through them by tunnel…..We reached Bathurst on the evening of the second day and rested the next day at the house of a friend until the evening, when the coach for Orange called for us.

Of course the western  Zig-Zag Railway was restored and became  a wonderful tourist line, maintained by volunteers. It has been through many traumas over the years, both from vandalism and bushfires.  To their credit, the volunteers never give up, I so admire their dedication.

John Whitton

The brains behind the Zig-Zag Railway. Memorial at Central Railway Station in Sydney.

N.B. Much work has been done in recent years to make the Victoria Pass safer for heavily laden trucks.  No doubt there will be  a by-pass one day…..or a tunnel.

By the way. There is still a stagecoach in Blackheath.  Seems the horses have run off.

Blackheath Stagecoach

An apprentice bushranger on the Blackheath stagecoach.

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13 Comments
  1. I travel that stretch of road regularly and even today it’s hair-raising in places – and that’s in a car. I can’t imagine what it would be like travelling over it in a coach!

    • Pauline

      Yes, Christine. The Vic. Pass is still a worry, especially with all the huge trucks. I always notice that run off road for when the brakes fail!

  2. The Zig Zag referred to is the Eastern one, at Lucasville. It is now incorporated into the A42, where the M4 becomes the Great Western Highway at Lapstone. The Western Zig Zag is at Clarence.

  3. Love your stories Pauline.
    We have found an old photo of a toll collection point outside The George Hotel 194 Great Western Highway, Blackheath,we think the photo may be around 1890. We assume it was just one of many collection points.
    Do you know when they operated or how much they charged?
    Cheers
    Vicki

    • Pauline

      Hi Vicki, how interesting. I’ve only heard of toll-bars at Wentworth Falls and Mt Victoria. Would love to see your photo. It seems the toll-bars were owned privately, but I don’t know how much was charged.

  4. That run-off road looks awfully steep. I’d hate to have to use it.

  5. There was a Toll Bar at Linden and a pub called The Toll Bar Inn run by a Thomas Ellison – he went on to settle in Penrith and has a suburb named after him.. Trove has some interesting info on prices they charged.
    http://trove.nla.gov.au/list?id=59533

  6. Hi Pauline. I do detest it when i am enjoying another of your stories and it comes to an end. Never mind i will keep reading them. Interesting short story. You keep putting them up here and i will keep reading them. Take care.

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Diane. I really appreciate your interest and support.

  7. I’m with Diane, I always want more… i have a distant connection to Fred Ward, better known as Thunderbolt.. It didn’t faze me one bit when I found out, after all, I have lots of convict ancestors as well, and a few who should have been… convicts that is.

    • Pauline

      Thanks, Chris. My Shadbolt convict ancestors were described by a judge as being a dreadful criminal gang. And they were!

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