Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Ned Devine - The Prince of Whips

Ned Devine – The Prince of Whips

When Cabbage Tree Ned Devine arrived in Otago in November 1863, he was already rich and famous. The Otago Daily Times described him as “the best known and most popular of the Victorian whips” (‘whip’ being the popular name for a coachman) – and for once, this was no exaggeration.  As a youngster, Ned had acquired a reputation as a skilled handler of large teams and for a time he had driven a Cobb and Co ‘Leviathan’ between Geelong and Ballarat.  This enormous double storied coach could hold up to eighty nine people and was pulled by a team of twenty two horses.   Driving a Leviathan required special skills; apart from the ever present danger of bushrangers, the driver of this mega-coach had to direct horses that were beyond the reach of his whip.  Stones were thrown to encourage lagging horses to speed up and Ned was known to drive the coach holding reins in one hand and a pistol in the other in order to discourage bushrangers.

Ned Devine and the Leviathan outside the Black Bull Hotel, Geelong, Victoria

On one occasion Ned drove at speed directly through the middle of the bloody Eureka Stockade conflict; on another occasion when his coach’s brakes failed on a steep incline he avoided disaster by whipping his team into a gallop in order to prevent them from being crushed by his runaway carriage.  However his most newsworthy exploit was far less dangerous.  When the English Cricket Team paid their inaugural visit to Australia in 1862, Cabbage Tree Ned was chosen to be their driver. With typical showmanship, he drove their carriage, pulled by a team of twelve grey horses directly onto the Geelong Oval, providing a spectacular start to the match.  At the conclusion of their tour the English team awarded Ned three hundred sovereigns as a token of their gratitude.                                                     Canny Ned used this money to travel to New Zealand – railways were encroaching on the Australian coach routes and the goldfields of pioneer New Zealand provided fresh opportunities for a man with his particular skills.  Ned was employed by Cobb and Co and soon became a regular driver on the Dunedin to Palmerston route. 

Ned Devine in Palmerston in the 1870's           
Ned had acquired the name ‘cabbage tree’ on account of the type of hat that he habitually wore – a type of panama woven from the leaves of the Australian cabbage tree palm.  This explanation was too colourless for the garrulous Ned however.  On one occasion he convinced a visiting Englishman that he had acquired the name because he had been abandoned in a cabbage tree as a baby and had been rescued by Maori.                                                                                          

Cabbage Tree Ned soon gained a reputation as a prankster, raconteur and rebel who was as fond of a yarn as he was averse to bureaucracy.  Children enjoyed the sweets that he carried in his pockets, Men admired the skill he demonstrated in navigating the atrocious roads of Otago, and Women respected his chivalry. When his horses tired on the Kilmog hill, gentleman were instructed to get out and walk, and the much valued ‘box seat’ beside the driver was always reserved for a lady.  A seat in the fresh air was vastly preferable to one inside the crowded swaying coach – an experience that was likened to travelling in an enclosed rowboat.       

His yarns and jokes became legendary, on one occasion he dispatched an undertaker to measure a man for a coffin.  Ned cheerfully refunded the undertaker’s expenses for a wasted journey – the man that he had been sent to measure being found to be alive and quite well.     His passengers often bore the brunt of his hoaxes.  When the coach stopped at various taverns admiring travellers often bought him drinks.  The barmen knew him well and would substitute neat brandy when he ordered a ‘Sarsaparilla and bitters.’  When a passenger questioned the strong smell of liquor, Ned told him that he added brandy to the horses feed in order to give them ‘wind’ (stamina).  On another occasion Ned informed a passenger who was carrying a bundle of fresh fish that unspecified poisons in the waters where his catch had been landed would make the fish inedible.  The disappointed passenger left his bundle behind when he alighted; that night Ned enjoyed a fine fish dinner. The rich and famous were not immune from his jokes; he once questioned Johnny Jones while driving him between his properties in Waikouaiti and Dunedin. “Is it true Mr Jones, that each of your daughters will receive ten thousand pounds when they marry?” When Jones confirmed the fact, Ned offered to take Jones’s (plain?) youngest daughter, Janet off his hands for a knockdown price of five thousand.                                                                                                     
Coachmen often delivered news as well as passengers and goods to remote communities.  In 1869 the paddle steamer City of Dunedin disappeared while en route to Dunedin, the vessel’s loss caused great consternation. A certain gentleman (who should have known better) asked Ned for news, and accepted his reply that the vessel had anchored safe and well in Waikouaiti. The news was telegraphed to Port Chalmers, just in time to make the morning edition of the ‘Times.’  A meeting was convened and a vessel was dispatched to Waikouaiti, the rescue attempt being based on nothing more than a second hand report of Ned’s flippant remark.   When no ship was found, Ned the prankster was criticized “for treating with levity a calamity which has thrown so many into mourning.” He was soon forgiven however; in 1869 he was “entrusted the duty of tooling the eight greys which drew the first Royal personage (the Duke of Edinburgh) to Dunedin” 
Ned tired of ‘tooling,’ when bureaucracy began to impinge on his driving.  In 1873 he was charged with allowing passengers to sit on the luggage on top of his coach and in 1874 an attempt was made to fine him for allowing his horses to round a corner at a trot.  A year later at a meeting in Hawksbury, Ned tendered his application for the position of curate in the Waikouaiti Church of England.  Whether this was another prank or an honest attempt to change profession, Ned was denied the opportunity to join the clergy.  A more suitable candidate was quickly appointed; Church hierarchy having sensibly recognising that in Ned’s case popularity would be no substitute for piety.  

In 1878 Ned retired from driving coaches, warning his successor to ‘mind the peat bog and give my love to the tussocks.’ He settled in the Waikouaiti district where for a time he adopted the lifestyle of a country gentleman, breeding and racing horses and dogs. A year later the Tuapeka Times reported that Ned had inherited a fortune.  This was very possibly another instance where a publication rashly accepted one of Ned’s anecdotes as truth.  Ned never conspicuously” occupied the position of a millionaire,” six months after this rumour was published he purchased the dilapidated Commercial Hotel in Waikouaiti – a strange acquisition for a supposedly wealthy man.  Ned’s tenure as a publican was short lived, the Commercial Hotel’s license was not renewed and in September of 1882 Ned was declared bankrupt.  His fortunes did not improve and some years later he returned to Australia.   
In 1891 it was reported that “Cabbage Tree Ned, the prince of coach drivers” was a member of Doctor Carver’s Wild West Company. The show was enthusiastically received by Melbourne audiences.  ‘Cowboys’ demonstrated sharp shooting and trick riding while on an imaginary prairie ‘Indians’ attacked a settlers’ cottage and chased a stage coach driven by Ned. There were worse roles to play, the Melbourne Argus described the scene in which a horse thief was lassoed and dragged behind a horse “a decidedly unpleasant experience for the man who is called upon to play the corpse.”  In later life Ned once again fell upon hard times, in 1904 he was admitted to the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum – an institution that housed “the poor and distressed, with a view to affording them consolation and assistance in old age.” He became a well-known figure driving the institutions Waggonette on the streets of Ballarat until his death aged 71, in 1908.   

Ned was buried in a pauper’s grave; however some years later admirers raised funds to erect a suitable memorial.  In 1937 Ned’s remains were relocated to a fine tomb in a prominent location, its headstone is appropriately inscribed with a tiny Cobb and Co Coach. 

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