Suffolk lad who found riches Down Under
The Cobbolds, the family behind the famous Ipswich brewery, were an amazing clan - but Frank Cobbold must take the biscuit.
The Cobbolds, the family behind the famous Ipswich brewery, were an amazing clan - but Frank Cobbold must take the biscuit. Tempests, hurricanes, cannibals, typhoid, droughts . . . and a �700,000 fortune left to charity. His story has everything, as Steven Russell discovers
FRANCIS Cobbold enjoyed childhood holidays on the River Deben in Suffolk, and among the fishermen at Mersea Island in Essex, but his sights were set on warmer climes. He dreamed of one day sailing his own ship on the Southern Seas - waters that had claimed the life of one of his brothers. Francis was a member of the Ipswich brewing dynasty, but thoughts of a managerial job with the family business couldn't have been further from his mind. Young Francis was an adventurer, pure and simple.
Sarah, his mother, was dead set against him going to sea, and father Arthur tried to talk him out of it, but Francis knew his mind. Late in 1867, the 14-year-old was taken by his dad down to London Docks to sign on as an apprentice with the clipper Ann Duthie, which was taking train rails to Australia. The owners received �60 for teaching him the ropes. Arthur told the captain: “He is small and thin but you will find him active.”
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Beneath their rough exteriors, the officers and crew were kindly men and Cobbold learned quickly. The food was terrible, though, with no fresh meat or vegetables. Brick-hard biscuits, made of bran and meal, were often weevilly.
An apprentice was swept to his death off the rigging during the 84-day voyage. It was a raw lesson about the fragility of life. On the return journey the vessel nearly sank during a tempest while rounding Cape Horn, at the tip of South America. It came through the night, but the ship's carpenter admitted it was the worst storm he had ever experienced.
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Francis - or Frank, as he became known - was already ambitious. He left the Ann Duthie - and his apprenticeship - early, when the ship was next in Sydney. In Melbourne he visited sister Sarah, recently arrived in Australia, and accepted a clerking job from his brother-in-law. But a desk job wasn't for him. There were tales of fortunes to be made in islands such as Fiji for anyone growing cotton, though these could apparently be rough and violent places.
Cobbold, still only 15, wasn't deterred. He worked as bookkeeper to the Albion Hotel in Levuka and then became friends with a shepherd from New Zealand, called Pilbrow, and a captain's son, Wetherall. Pilbrow reckoned land was too dear and suggested the New Hebrides - a venture that “appears to be one of the most sublime as well as the most harebrained ever undertaken by courageous youth”, says Arthur Upfield, who penned an unpublished biography a few months before Frank's death in 1935.
Born in England but a long-time resident of Australia, Upfield is best known for his detective fiction featuring Det Insp Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police Force.
A typescript copy of the biography was acquired by The Cobbold Family History Trust a couple of years ago. Trust keeper Anthony Cobbold had some time earlier read a scant note revealing that “Francis Edward Cobbold of Melbourne died 1935 leaving no children. He left the residue of his fortune to the Royal United Kingdom Beneficent Association for Suffolk domiciled gentlefolk of reduced means.” Upfield's writings supplied the details.
“I thought it was a fascinating story that was worthy of at least limited publication,” says Anthony. The biography has now been edited by Sandra Berry, author of a book about one of Frank's brothers, and published as The Gifts of Frank Cobbold.
“The thread of the story is the selfless way in which Frank Cobbold made his money, but the garment is the thousands of people whose lives have been improved as a result of his generosity and Rubka's skills. 'Go on or go under,' he used to say. He would be pleased to have been heard and heeded,” says Anthony.
On Sandwich Island, Frank and his bold pals bought land - natives helping them build a substantial house with bamboo walls and a coconut grass roof. But it wasn't paradise.
One after another the boys succumbed to malaria or fever. Cobbold, the only one with experience of firing a gun, went out into the jungle - once the rains cleared - to try to bag a pigeon or another edible bird. Health and strength waned, and Pilbrow took the chance to leave for New Zealand when a small steamship arrived to take on water.
Relations with the natives were strained, too. When, in 1871, a passing schooner was sighted - amazingly enough, captained by Wetherall's father - it was just in the nick of time, “for the two lads were in poor physical condition through the ravages of fever and an unbalanced diet. Despite frequent doses of quinine, their legs were swollen to twice their normal size”.
Later, young Cobbold bought 125 acres on Vanua Levu. He couldn't find enough workers, however, “and he was detained so long that his capital dwindled and finally vanished . . . One after another, projects to which he turned eager hands failed, due less to any lack of a business sense than to the rude conditions of affairs in general and to the universal lack of money in particular”.
Frank, not yet 19 but anxious to get on, sold his land and on November 1, 1873, departed for Australia, where there was the potential to make big money in wool and cattle.
While doing surveying work on one of the greatest sheep stations in New South Wales he was captivated by his first experience of the Australian bush. Offered a job there as a bookkeeper and storekeeper, in slack times he got out and learned about growing wool. He learned quickly.
After 15 months he bought a couple of horses, said goodbye and rode off to the empty south-western part of Queensland, working for nearly a year on a cattle station and then driving (as in herding) 350 bullocks south to market at Melbourne in late 1877.
The following March he was back on a cattle station, sorting out the books for the owner and then joining the muster of more cattle for the Melbourne market. Then he fell ill. An alcoholic old soak, a former doctor employed as a cook, diagnosed typhoid and nursed the sick man for seven weeks, despite having no medicines to hand.
Back with the cattle, Cobbold developed sandy blight: a severe rash on the insides of the eyelids that brings the threat of temporary or even permanent blindness. There was nothing for it but to ride to the homestead 20 miles away, where there was a lotion that could treat the affliction.
Cobbold, partially blind and able to see the ground only if he dismounted and bent low, was effectively relying on his old horse to guide itself. Unfortunately, it didn't. He spend five days lost, and without food, until he reached a river he knew from his surveying days and followed it down to a dam-maker's camp where he could get help.
Restored to health, he took 60 wild horses on a 400-mile drive to establish a new settlement, and didn't lose a single one. His impressed boss offered him job as manager of a new cattle station that covered 1,200 square miles of land and had 1,000 cows. Frank improved it no end. Another firm, Cobb & Co, sought him to run two of their huge stations in northern Queensland. Cobbold was not yet 30.
Three partners running a neighbouring ranch - an Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman! - bought The Oaks and invited the capable Frank to become a partner as well as run the enterprise. He married, too - Bessie, his bride in June, 1889, was the daughter of his neighbours.
By the following year, the stations he controlled had 57,000 cattle and 13,000 branded calves. O'Brien, Cobbold & Co bought more grazing land in southern Queensland. Then came the big bank smash of 1893 . . .
At the time, Frank had 18 men driving 3,000 bullocks south - and the banking arrangements he'd carefully arranged en route were frozen.
Cobbold managed to gain access to funds because of his good reputation. But the market for cattle was worsening by the day. With a horse and buggy bought for �30, Frank travelled across New South Wales for 10 weeks, arranging deals large and small. He sold 1,000 bullocks.
Eventually, the pastoral economy recovered and some of the stronger banks reopened. O'Brien, Cobbold and Co didn't lose a penny of the money they had deposited and by 1894 the firm was “well established and financially sound”.
Frank was convinced that the time to buy was when the market was low. He and his partners bought more properties. By 1895, Cobbold controlled five big country properties with thousands of cattle.
In October, 1898, Bessie died of uterine cancer. They'd been married only eight years. Tragically, Frank's father, Arthur, died on the same day, at his home near Sudbury.
Two days before Christmas, 1901, Frank married Beatrice Child, who was in her early 30s. His business partners were dying or immersing themselves in retirement. Cobbold's key partnerships spanned 17 years, “an association unmarred by jealousy and meanness, suspicion and distrust”. At its height the operation had six large properties, with Frank hugely influential in building them up.
Cobbold wasn't ready for pipe and slippers. “Now, physically and mentally, he was as fit as a man half his age,” says Upfield. “To retire from the pastoral industry was quite impossible. To stagnate in a suburban villa and potter about in a garden, or even to retire to Sydney and take up yachting, was unthinkable. He had to 'go on or go under' and there was no impediment to hinder him from going on.”
He bought from his brother-in-law an equal share in a ranch in north-west Queensland and transformed it into a well-oiled machine. Then he bought into three sheep stations that, in their peak year of 1924, turned a profit of more than �90,000.
He also had a nose for trouble ahead, and would sell off stock before times of recession.
“He begrudged his partners not a pound; he wanted only freedom of action, and in this lay the secret of his success . . .” says Upfield. “FE (Frank Edward) delighted in taking hold of a cattle or a sheep station, surveying its disadvantages, planning improvements, and creating a very much finer property.”
Making money was of less concern “than the fact that the money proved his plans and ideas, his recommendations and his judgements to be well founded”.
Beatrice was keen to put down roots. The couple bought a home in a Melbourne suburb, but Frank still wasn't finished. He bought a couple of ranches outside the city, to keep himself busy.
The couple made their last visit to England in 1933 and Frank died on the last day of August, 1935. Neither marriage produced children. He left a life interest to his wife and then, following Beatrice's death in 1951, the �700,000 fortune went to The Royal United Kingdom Beneficent Association. The legacy was the largest ever received by the charity, now called Independent Age.
His will stated that the interest should support needy Suffolk residents. Early on, there was �22,500 a year coming in - more than enough money to help people in his home county. Rukba sought and got High Court permission to use surplus cash elsewhere in the British Isles.
Frank also left Rukba the two sheep stations near Melbourne. These were sold in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, with the sums (�226,000 and �450,000) nearly doubling the original value of the legacy.
By 2007, Independent Age was able to pay out �190,000 to beneficiaries of the FE Cobbold Trust Fund, while keeping capital of �9.6million. In Suffolk alone, it now helps 200 people over the age of 70 live independently in their own homes.
Upfield's portrayal does appear rather gushing in places. Anthony Cobbold, keeper of The Cobbold Family History Trust, says, however: “We just do not know whether Upfield was invited or whether he offered to produce the work. It is clear that Upfield admired FEC enormously and felt he came from 'good stock' and that his heredity was largely responsible for his success in life. Upfield claims not to have made a hero out of FEC but simply to have put flesh on the bones FEC provided.”
Anthony tells the EADT: “The rather surprising thing to me is that nothing was done with the script, other than typing it up, after FEC died. If FEC had commissioned it with enthusiasm, then surely his wife - who lived another 15 or 16 years - would have had it published as a tribute to him. Equally, if Upfield had written it because he thought it was a story that had to be told, why didn't he do it? Why did it stay in the closet so long? I doubt we'll ever know!”
The Gifts of Frank Cobbold is available via www.cobboldfht.com and www.amazon.co.uk or for �17 (including postage) from No 11 Publishing at PO Box 459, New Malden, Surrey, KT3 9DH, with cheques made out to No 11 Publishing. Weblink: www.number11publishing.co.uk