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Making and Using Transport on the Goldfields

Ballarat’s coachbuilding industry and horse-drawn transport, as depicted in Victorian cultural collections.

During the nineteenth century, horse-drawn vehicles were an essential part of life in rural Victoria. In Ballarat, local coachbuilding firms assisted with the town’s growth in more ways than providing passage to the diggings. Horse-drawn vehicles were vital for the delivery of goods, responding to emergencies and often symbolised one’s social standing.

The Gold Rush ushered in a period of incredible growth for colonial Victoria. Ballarat’s escalating population and burgeoning industries highlighted the need for horse-drawn transport – not only for getting to the diggings, but also for delivering goods and building material, responding to emergencies and performing significant social rituals.

In the early nineteenth century, the goldfields were dominated by vehicles either imported from England or English-style vehicles built locally. Coaches, carriages and carts were typically constructed part-by-part, one at a time. As a result, each vehicle was highly unique.

By the mid-1850s, the American coachbuilding tradition had arrived on the goldfields. The American method, which had been developing since the 1840s, relied on mass-produced, ready-made components. In comparison to English designs, American coaches were known to be more reliable for goldfields travel; they were primed for long-distance journeys on rough terrain and were less likely to tip over.

As the nineteenth century progressed, a plethora of English, American and European vehicles populated Ballarat – both locally made and imported. The abundance of coaches, carriages and carts – and their value to the Ballarat community – can be seen in photographs and objects catalogued here on Victorian collections.

Banner image: S.T Gill, Arrival of Geelong Mail Man Road Ballarat, Lithograph, Sovereign Hill and Gold Museum.

Photograph (Gazzard Bros. Coachbuilders)

From the 1850s, Ballarat became the headquarters for a number of successful coachbuilding firms. Larger firms typically employed a range of skilled experts for each stage of the manufacturing process – from selecting materials to final trimmings. The primary construction of horse-drawn vehicles was carried out by a body maker, a carriage maker, a wheelwright and a blacksmith. For fancier and more elaborate vehicles, specialised workers such as painters, tinsmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths and coppersmiths were employed to assist with finishing touches. As the Gold Rush unfolded, many coachbuilding businesses went through a cycle of being formed, sold and re-branded.

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Photographs mounted on card

These photographs depict one of Ballarat’s most famous coachbuilding partnerships – McCartney and Aldred. John McCartney and Thomas Aldred joined forces between 1858 and 1861, and probably met while working together under a larger coachbuilding firm. In newspaper advertisements, the pair claimed that they could make “every description of English and American vehicles” – a declaration supported by the range of vehicles in this photograph collection. Their expertise was put to the test when they were commissioned to build a carriage for the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Ballarat in 1867.

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Photograph (Craig's Stables)

For some Ballarat residents, owning a horse-drawn vehicle was impractical. For others, it was impossible. Although smaller vehicles – such and gigs and buggies – were relatively inexpensive, not everyone had the money or space to care for one. Livery and bait stables offered a solution, and were a common sight across the goldfields. Vehicles of all sizes could be hired for a small charge, and sometimes for as long as necessary. The service was especially popular among Sunday school groups and sporting clubs, who would hire larger carriages for weekend picnics. Livery and bait stables also provided weary travellers a sheltered place to keep their horse overnight, and were often conveniently located next to a hotel.

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Photograph (Funeral, 1900)

With the prevalence of death on the goldfields, local coachbuilders became skilled makers (and sellers) of horse-drawn hearses. Hearses were witnessed on the goldfields as early as 1850, and were typically more box-shaped than later designs. They were always painted black, and usually elaborately decorated. As the nineteenth century progressed, funerals for wealthy Ballarat residents became an increasingly lavish affair. In many instances, the hearse bearing the casket would be followed by a trail of four-wheeled ‘mourning coaches.’

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Painted Colour Sketch (Ballarat East Fire Brigade)

The Ballarat East Fire Brigade was formed in January 1857, in response to a particularly devastating fire which had claimed several lives one year earlier. The team was initially known as the ‘Aquarius Fire Brigade’, and immediately advertised tenders for a ‘fire engine’ (manual water pump), a two-wheeled hose carriage and a hook and ladder carriage. This sketch, created in a later decade, also displays the Brigade’s first steam-powered fire engine.

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Photograph (Cab, 1897)

Although captured towards the nineteenth century’s close, this photograph exemplifies the artistic aspects of coachbuilding. Features such as the coach lamp, paintwork, window glazing and dressing would have each been completed by a highly specialised tradesman. Similarly, all interior work was carried out by a ‘trimmer.’ Trimmers working on particularly high quality vehicles were often skilled leatherworkers, carpenters and tailors – with an eye for decorating. Although sewing machines were available for industrial use by the 1850s, they weren’t readily accessible to all trimmers in the coachbuilding trade. As such, many still prepared articles by hand.

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Photograph (Cobb & Co.’s ‘Leviathan’ Coach)

The iconic Cobb & Co. transport service was introduced to Ballarat in 1856, and within a few years spread throughout eastern Australia. While most of Cobb & Co.’s vehicles (like the Concord ‘Jack’) were relatively small, one coach was unlike anything Victoria had seen before. In 1859, the firm commissioned Ballarat coachbuilder J. D. Morgan to create the ‘Leviathan’ – described by the Star as a “ship on wheels.” Capable of carrying over 80 passengers, ‘Leviathan’ made a few trips during the 1860s but was found unpractical because of its enormous size. A decorative panel from this impressive coach was recently acquired by the Gold Museum.

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Postcard (Sovereign Hill)

Since 1970, horse-drawn vehicles have been a common sight at the Sovereign Hill outdoor museum. When Sovereign Hill opened it already had several vehicles in its collection, one of which was an ambulance. A designated ‘carriage museum’ was soon proposed for the historical park – both as a means of educating visitors, and supporting the dwindling coachbuilding trade. Today, the trade is kept alive at Sovereign Hill’s W. Proctor Wheelwright & Coach Manufactory.

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