The Rutherford Family

James Rutherford of Cobb & Co
In July, 1948 the Mountain District Free Press, which was published in either Belgrave or Ferntree Gully, published an article stating that my mother's grandfather James Rutherford had had a business cutting timber in the vicinity of The Basin in the Dandenongs soon after he left the goldfields, after coming to Australia during the gold rushes, and that this had provided the money he used to buy into Cobb & Co. This prompted my mother to write the following letter to the Free Press.
[From Mountain District Free Press. August 6, 1948, page 6.]

Hills Pioneers’ Granddaughter Recalls Cobb & Co.

A GRAND-DAUGHTER of James Rutherford, who built up Cobb and Co. on the fortune made from cutting timber in the Dandenongs has written to “Free Press” with more details of the family. She is Mrs A. W. Riordan, of Mt Dandenong, who writes: –


As a grand-daughter of James Rutherford, of Cobb & Co., I was greatly interested in the article published in your issue of 21st July.

A fire which burned down my grandmother's house in Bathurst destroyed the family records, with the result that very little is now known of James Rutherford's early days in Victoria. If the facts mentioned in your article are correct, it is clear that you have access to some source of information of which the Rutherfords are ignorant, but which would be of value to them.

The story of Cobb. & Co., which is one of the most fascinating chapters in Australian history, did not end until 1924, when the last coach was taken off the Surat-St. George run in Queensland and taken to the Brisbane Museum.

After Freeman Cobb and three American associates had made a fortune from the firm in the Victorian gold rush, they sold out and Cobb & Co. was in low water when it was bought for £23,000 by a syndicate of five, of whom James Rutherford was one. He became the general manager, a post which he held for over fifty years, and under his control the business flourished.

On the 4th June, 1862, New South Wales was ‘invaded’ on his initiative, James leaving what was then Sandhurst at the head of a ‘cavalcade – quite an imposing affair – 103 horses 80 of which were in harness, drawing 10 coaches and two feed wagons’, for the town of Bathurst, which became the headquarters of the New South Wales company where he established large coach and harness factories.

Cobb & Co Coach
Etching by Lionel Lindsay

By 1870 the firm was harnessing 6,000 horses a day, their coaches were travelling 28,000 miles a week, mail subsidies amounted to £95,000 a year and the annual pay sheet totalled £100,000. It is said that 1,000,000 sheep a year were being shorn on the Cobb & Co. and Rutherford stations in Western Queensland and outback New South Wales under the famous ‘Diamond Tee’ brand so named from the Diamentina River, where the largest Rutherford station was situated.

But for James Rutherford the infant steel industry at Lithgow would have been abandoned; it was bankrupt when he took it over and re-organised it, later selling out to the Hoskins.

When it was proposed to build a railway to Bathurst he submitted a plan for a series of tunnels to overcome the problem of the difficult descent from the Blue Mountains. His plan was rejected on the grounds of expense and the Zig Zag was built. This involved the use of two engines and sometimes three, for every train which made the ascent. Some thirty years later when it was decided to abandon the Zig Zag, someone in the Department, remembering James' plan, wrote asking him if he still had a copy and the present line was built largely in accordance with his original suggestion.

The history of the Rutherford family is no less interesting than that of Cobb & Co. Originally from Roxburghshire in Scotland the family went to Ulster about 1660, where they were prosperous farmers until the "troubles" of 1798, in which year the then James was ambushed and murdered by Irish rebels, his house then being burned down and the occupants butchered, with the exception of his wife, her infant son – also a James – and a nurse.

The widow went to relatives in New York State, where the second James later had a farm 40 miles from Buffalo.

James, of Cobb and Co., was born on this farm in 1827; before arriving in Australia to try his luck on the gold fields he had been a poor schoolteacher. Soon after arriving in Victoria he married Ada Nicholson, the descendent of a former officer of the Royal Navy who had joined the American rebels and later commanded the celebrated U.S.S. "Constitution" better known as "Old Ironsides."

Commodore Nicholson left much property in America and his widow was so alarmed by the possibility of her daughters being married for their money that she abandoned the estates and came to Australia, a strange choice when a gold rush was in progress.1 The outcome, however, was a happy one; Ada was married for her own sake by a man destined to build up a large fortune, solely by his own energy and ability. This fortunate partnership ended with the death of James at Bathurst in 1911, at the age of 84, still energetic enough to break in his own horses.2

James was not only a great organiser, he was also a great Australian, whose work was of national importance. Original in everything he did, he refused to let his children go to the same schools, sending them to Scotland, Germany, Switzerland and America. My father, the fourth James, who rowed for Geelong Grammar School in the '80's, was the only one who was not sent abroad to [attend school? – line lost in fold of paper].

If the information in the "Free Press" article is correct, it is a remarkable co-incidence that great-grandchildren of the first Australian James should now be living in a district which furnished that means that made possible the vast expansion of Cobb & Co. specially as no member of the Rutherford family had lived in Victoria since 1862, until my husband, who was then a regular soldier, was stationed in Melbourne on his return from the Staff College, Camberly, in 1937. – A.W. RIORDAN. (Mt. Dandenong).

[Ed] The information was taken from an article in the "Digest of World Reading" by Mr J. Bennett, of "Free Press", on American colonisation in Australia. As far as Mr Bennett can recollect, he gathered the information in the Oxley Memorial (Historical) Library in Brisbane, possibly from the late William Lee's authoritative work on Cobb and Co.

1. This story (which is apparently shared by many families with ancestors in New York) is nonsense.
Firstly Cdr. Samuel Nicholson died in 1811, while James Rutherford's wife Ada Nicholson was born in 1841. Her father was Robert Nicholson (1804-1846), who was either or son or a nephew of Cdr Nicholson.
Secondly my late wife Sally and I visited Boston in 1996, and we spent a day trying to establish the relationship between Ada and Cdr Nicholson. I found that the Public Library had a copy of the probate of Cdr Nicholson's estate, and thought that this would list his descendants. However I was disappointed to find that in fact he was living in penury, and was seriously in debt, so there was no estate to distribute, and hence no list of heirs. So much for fleeing to Australia to escape fortune seekers!
By coincidence, Roslyn Rutherford visited Boston on her way to England in 1917, and I have a postcard she sent home which shows the main stairway in the Public Library.
2. A former Bishop of Bathurst wrote a letter to the Bulletin in (I think) the 1980s, which cast a different light on this "fortunate relationship". According to his story Ada Rutherford detested the colonies, and was desperate to escape to England. On one occasion, while James was on a trip to Queensland, he became desperately ill and was not expected to live. Mrs Rutherford rushed into Sydney, booked a passage to London on the next available ship, and bought her "widow's weeds". When James eventually recovered she was exceedingly narked! Unfortunately I don't seem to have kept a copy of this letter.
 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

James Rutherford, of Cobb & Co