Horse-Drawn Vehicles on the Victorian Goldfields

Until the 1850s, most of the horse-drawn vehicles available to Victorians were either English imports, or locally built and based on English designs.

Horse carriage at Sovereign Hill

In the English tradition of coachbuilding each wheel, undercarriage and carriage body was made specifically for a single vehicle.

As a result, there was great variety amongst vehicles belonging to the same family; no two buggies, wagons or dog-carts looked exactly alike.

This method contrasted remarkably with the American coachbuilding tradition, introduced to the goldfields in the late 1850s. American firms, such as the Abbott-Downing Company of Concord (New Hampshire) relied on mass-produced ready-made components, guaranteeing consistency between vehicles.

American vehicles were also visibly different to the typically squarish, box-shaped English designs which were practical for manicured country lawns – but not the unkempt roads to the Victorian goldfields.

Primed for long-distance travel on difficult terrain, American-built coaches like the Concord ‘Jack’ incorporated leather thorough braces to ensure passenger comfort and to prevent the coach tipping over.

Cobb & Co Leviathan Coach (Ballarat Historical Society, 157.80)

Cobb & Co Leviathan Coach (Ballarat Historical Society, 157.80)

Originally purchased as imports by Cobb and Co., American coaches quickly garnered favour with travellers for their comfort and reliability.

It wasn’t long before Ballarat firms, including Robert Watson and William Proctor, started constructing American-style vehicles – both for Cobb & Co. and for private use.

Although American coaches became extremely popular for long-distance travel, local firms continued to build English and European-style vehicles.

Goldfields residents also continued to commission and purchase them for commercial, working and private purposes.

As the nineteenth century progressed, horse-drawn vehicles began exhibiting design influences from both the English and American coachbuilding traditions.

This is particularly evident in the variety of ‘buggies’ made and used in Ballarat during the 1850s.

Trembath & Sons Coach and Carriage Builders, Ballarat, circa 1890

Trembath & Sons Coach and Carriage Builders, Ballarat, circa 1890 (Ballarat Historical Society, 132.79)

Across Australia, buggies were initially constructed according to the two-wheeled English design.

By the 1860s, coachbuilders were also building four-wheeled buggies (as was common in America) but maintaining a dashboard, upholstered seating and varying types of boot – all elements used by English coachbuilders.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, new vehicle designs continued to emerge from England and Europe, and the goldfields became a melting pot of horse-drawn vehicles from across the globe.

Written by Carissa Goudey, Historian, Sovereign Hill Museums Association