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Nowland's mail coach

At a glance

  • Used as a mail coach by the Nowlands in northern New South Wales
  • Featured in Australian films
  • Thorough-brace suspension technology
  • Ideal for rough dirt roads in the Australian outback
Wooden mail coach, painted brown.
The 1880s thorough-brace mail coach used by Nowland's Line of Coaches across the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales. Photo: George Serras.

Mail coach turned movie star

Coaches played an important part in Australia's transport and communication history.

This thorough-brace coach was used to transport mail and passengers in northern New South Wales. It also has a rich connection to the silver screen.

The coach may have been made by the Cobb & Co. coachworks at their Charleville or Bathurst factory, but it is hard to be sure, especially given the prevalence of local coach-builders who proliferated in the latter part of the 19th century.

It was originally owned by the Nowland family and used on their network of mail and passenger services in the Liverpool Plains area in the 1880s.

What has made the coach a favourite among National Museum staff is its role in Australian films. It featured in the 1920 silent film The Man from Kangaroo and the 1957 production of Robbery Under Arms.

The Concord: American technology adapted to Australian roads

The thorough-brace technology used on this vehicle originates with the Concord model coach, which is a significant example of a particular type of horse-era technology. The Concord model was developed in Concord, New Hampshire, in the United States. Prior to this, coach suspension consisted of steel springs. Though suitable for paved and cobbled roads in England, the rougher conditions of the American west demanded a different system as coaches with steel spring suspension jolted violently on ruts and bumps, and the springs often broke. Thorough-brace suspension used thick leather straps that more effectively cushioned its passengers, although its swaying and rolling motion could cause 'sea sickness,' and many passengers preferred the box seat beside the driver.

This flexible suspension had the further benefit of reducing the weight on the wheels and the strain on the horses, an important factor for travelling the vast distances of the frontier. Since Australian road conditions were similar to those in the American west, the Cobb & Co. coach company realised the potential of the Concord in an Australian market and they released their first Concord in Australia in 1854.

The thorough-brace technology on this coach would have made it ideal for transporting mail in the Australian outback. It was designed to deal with the unsealed dirt roads, full of potholes and ruts, which were typical in northern New South Wales in the 1880s. At its a top speed of 15 miles an hour it ensured fast delivery of the mail in an era before telegraphic technology.

Although by the 1880s bushranging had signficantly declined in New South Wales, in December 1863 one of the Nowland's mail coaches was held up on the road between Murrundi and Willow Tree. Bushrangers robbed the passengers and slashed the mail bags, but somehow managed to miss a bag of gold stowed in the back. Though that event pre-dates the manufacture of this coach, a mail coach was held up by bushrangers in Australia as late as 1910. So, the threat of bushrangers to this coach would still have been a real fear for the Nowland family.

The Man from Kangaroo

The Man from Kangaroo was shot near the coach's original home around Gunnedah, and further south in Kangaroo Valley. The film stars Reginald 'Snowy' Baker, an Australian all-round sportsman, who remains the only person to represent Australia in three separate sports at the Olympics. Baker was also interested in developing the Australian film industry and he co-founded Caroll-Baker Australian Productions to realise this dream.

The Man from Kangaroo is held in the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia collection. It features Baker in the role of John Harland, a boxing parson whose romantic interest, Muriel Hammond, is played by American film star Brownie Vernon. Baker's athletic abilities were put to good use through spectacular stunts, all of which he performed himself. He is seen diving into a rock pool, boxing villains and riding his horse at breakneck speeds along dusty bush tracks in pursuit of cattle thieves.

The film also features a coach stunt on Hampden Bridge, a heritage-listed suspension bridge on the Moss Vale road, which is still in use in Kangaroo Valley today. Vernon has been abducted by cattle-rustlers and taken away in the coach. Baker follows in hot pursuit, gaining on the villains and executing a death-defying leap onto the coach in mid-gallop. He defeats the kidnappers, and to make good their escape, Baker and Vernon leap from the roof of the coach as it moves over Hampden Bridge, plunging into the Shoalhaven River below.

Coming out of retirement

Following the making of The Man from Kangaroo the producers donated the coach to the Royal Australian Historical Society in Sydney. There, it was put on permanent display in the 'Museum of Australian Historic Objects' at Vaucluse House.

Though coaches were fast being superseded by the motor car, the last of the Cobb & Co. passenger coaches was not retired until three years after this donation, in 1924.

In 1957, the coach came out of retirement to once again feature on film, this time in the Rank Organisation's production of Robbery Under Arms. The film was shot around Bourke in New South Wales and Wilpena Pound in South Australia. The coach was transported by road in a special trailer from Vaucluse House to Port Augusta.

In Robbery Under Arms the coach features in a hold-up scene. It is first glimpsed barrelling down an inland highway before being bailed up by the fictional bushranger Captain Starlight, and his gang. Starlight was played by renowned Australian actor Peter Finch, and in Finch's portrayal of the debonair Starlight, the coach's interior is seen from different angles as Starlight flirts with the two female passengers.

Conserving the coach

The Nowland's mail coach was acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 1980. It was purchased from the Royal Australian Historical Society with another coach, a wooden horse-drawn landau known as the Ranken coach.

The Nowland's coach came into the collection painted the khaki brown, seen in the picture above, which is not original. The manufacturer's plate and any other insignia have been painted over but curatorial research and conservation work have revealed more of the coach's history, despite the lack of visual clues.

Ongoing research is being scheduled, including using X-ray imaging to establish the coach's original paint colour. Additional investigation will determine what structural modifications have occurred throughout the coach's life and potentially confirm its manufacturer.

Landmarks

The Nowland's mail coach is on show in the National Museum's Landmarks gallery.

Landmarks: People and Places across Australia