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Sir Joseph Cook (1860–1947)

by F. K. Crowley

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Joseph Cook (1860-1947), by Crown Studios, 1910s

Joseph Cook (1860-1947), by Crown Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23309790

Sir Joseph Cook (1860-1947), prime minister, was born on 7 December 1860 at Silverdale, Staffordshire, England, son of William Cooke, coalminer, and his wife Margaret, née Fletcher. He grew up in poverty. In 1873 his father was killed in a pit accident and he became the family wage-earner, a responsibility which developed in him a high degree of self-confidence and a strong sense of obligation. During his teens he joined the Primitive Methodists, and marked his conversion by dropping the 'e' from his surname. He eschewed alcohol, gambling, sport and other forms of entertainment, and sought self-improvement through study at home. Solemn and humourless, he nevertheless enjoyed the company of other people, among whom he was invariably quiet and modest. He became a lay preacher and a successful public speaker. He also became involved in trade union affairs: before he was 25 he had been elected successively to all the executive positions in his union lodge, and had also become interested in political issues; he supported tariff protection as a method of improving working conditions in the coalmining industry. By the early 1880s Cook had fulfilled his obligations to his family and, after being several times unemployed, he decided to migrate.

On 8 August 1885 at the Wolstanton Primitive Methodist Chapel he married Mary Turner, a Chesterton schoolteacher whose brother was one of a number of Silverdale miners already settled at Lithgow, New South Wales. Cook left for Lithgow shortly after his marriage and by January 1887 had established a home there and was employed at the Vale of Clwydd colliery. In his spare time, having abandoned earlier studies for the Methodist ministry, he learned shorthand and book-keeping, and helped manage the Lithgow Enterprise and Australian Land Nationaliser; he also audited the books of the Lithgow Mercury and, in 1890, those of the municipal council. He served in the important position of check-weighman in his mine, and as secretary and president of the miners' lodge. He also took part in the 1888 public demonstrations against Chinese immigration. Politically, he was then a republican and a supporter of the Land Nationalisation League which, under the influence of the single-taxer Henry George, strongly supported free trade. In August 1890, during the maritime strike, he served on the Labor Defence Committee while the Lithgow mines were worked by non-unionists under the protection of a contingent of the permanent artillery.

In May 1891 Cook was elected president of the Lithgow branch of the Labor Electoral League, and was subsequently endorsed as its parliamentary candidate. In June he won the seat of Hartley in the Legislative Assembly. He was elected leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in October 1893. Party members were divided on the tariff issue, and many were also unwilling to accept the directions of those organizations which had made their election possible. He became spokesman for those who wished to retain their independence in parliament. At a conference in March 1894, however, it was resolved that members had to bind themselves to accept caucus direction. Cook was the leader of those who refused to sign the 'solidarity' pledge and it was as an independent Labor member that he was again returned to the assembly in July. His immediate acceptance of the position of postmaster-general in the Reid government at £1500 a year was seen by members of the official Labor Party as an act of opportunism never to be forgotten or forgiven. It was the beginning of Cook's long drift from Labor to Conservatism, and from Free Trade to Protection.

However, he was convinced that the Reid government's programme was close to his own, and that he could serve the cause of Labor better as a minister than as a back-bencher. Conversely, his inclusion in the government assured Reid of reasonable support from the independent Labor members. Cook's Hartley electors again returned him with a huge majority at the ministerial by-election. He then built a large house in the centre of Lithgow, and came to be highly respected in the town because of his new role as head of the postal department, one of the most important of the colony's public services.

Although Cook had ceased to represent only the working classes he held Hartley easily at the snap election of July 1895. Thereafter, he was associated with the Reid government's social reforms. He had always thought it the moral duty of government to elevate the working classes, as 'some sort of parent to the people'. As postmaster-general until August 1898, then secretary for mines and agriculture until September 1899, he took pride in his departments, and got on well with Reid, to whom he was steadfastly loyal.

An administrator who gave close attention to detail, Cook carefully implemented the government's policy of retrenchment in the public service; he also expanded the telephone network, completed the line between Sydney and Newcastle, issued charity postal stamps, and introduced postmen to bicycles. As minister for mines he failed to get reforming legislation through parliament because of opposition in the Legislative Council, but he supervised an executive order which compelled all skips of coal to be weighed according to the provisions of the Coal Mines Regulation Act (1896). As minister for agriculture he appointed William Farrer to the position of government wheat experimentalist. However, as a private member, Cook was unable to persuade parliament to adopt local option for the control of public house licences, and his administrative action in preventing lottery tickets passing through the mails was revoked after he had left office.

He gradually came to admire the institution of the monarchy, and to value the ties which bound the Australian colonies to the mother country, and he gave strong support to Britain at the outbreak of the South African War. He was slower to see the practical value of Australian Federation, mainly because Reid's 'Yes-No' label did not give him the guidance he had come to expect of his leader. Cook opposed the constitution bill at the first referendum because it would give equal, and therefore undemocratic, representation to each State in the Senate, and because, more significantly, he believed it would disadvantage New South Wales. However, after Reid had obtained concessions, both he and Cook supported the bill at the second referendum.

The Reid government lost control of the assembly early in 1899 and the Labor Party gave its support to (Sir) William Lyne's Protectionist group. As a private member of the Opposition, Cook successfully persuaded parliament to pass a Truck Act (1901) to prevent wages being paid other than in money. At that time his political ambition was probably limited to succeeding Reid as leader of the New South Wales Free Trade Party. However, early in 1901 he was persuaded to contest the new Federal seat of Parramatta, which included Lithgow and most of the Hartley State electorate. Unopposed by Labor, he easily won. He then moved to a new home at Marrickville, and joined Reid on the Opposition bench in the newly assembled House of Representatives. Tom Roberts, who recorded the occasion on canvas, noted that Cook was 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) in height, weighed 12 stone (76 kg) and his hat size was 7.

In the new parliament, he excelled as a doggedly pugnacious Oppositionist and unsparing critic of the Barton and Deakin Protectionist governments, especially during the debates on the first Federal tariff. Re-elected in December 1903 Cook was not invited to take office during the brief period of the Reid-McLean coalition in August 1904–July 1905, but he did help Reid to establish a Liberal League and an anti-socialist campaign. In July 1905 he was elected deputy leader of the Free Trade Party, his first official party position, and thereafter developed the pronounced conservative views which characterized the rest of his political career.

Cook had been fourteen years out of the mines and now believed that no one class in society ought to benefit at the expense of any other and that there should be no unnecessary restrictions on personal freedom. He saw social reform as a slow and laborious achievement. He declared that all Labor Party policies were sectional and socialist, while his own were liberal and in the national interest. He attacked the Labor pledge and its organization and, during the long absences of Reid from parliament, was strongly critical of its policies and sometimes rude to its members. He unsuccessfully led the fight against increased tariff protection and New Protection, but otherwise had much in common with Deakin's Protectionist government. He supported the encouragement of immigration, electoral reform, old-age pensions, the appointment of a high commissioner in London, and an Australian flotilla of the Royal Navy. Hard-working, physically tireless and shrewd, he was incisive and combative in debate, with a thorough grasp of parliamentary manoeuvring, but he could be irascible and was always humourless.

Cook was prominent in New South Wales during Reid's anti-socialist election campaign of late 1906, and was returned unopposed. He then moved house to the most exclusive part of his electorate, Baulkham Hills. But the election had not improved his party's strength; at the end of 1908, Cook had spent almost eight years on the Opposition bench and had held no ministerial office. Deakin's biographer wrote of him that 'if there had been roots of geniality in his nature their growth had been inhibited by years in opposition'. The adoption of the new protective tariff in May 1908 meant that the Free Traders had no future in national politics; it became imperative that they should join forces with the Protectionists so as to provide an effective counterforce to Labor's growing electoral strength.

Cook became leader of the Free Trade Party after Reid's retirement in November 1908 and next year accepted a position as deputy leader and minister for defence in a fusion ministry led by Deakin. The government had the support of a majority in both Houses and enacted a substantial programme during its brief period in office. Cook did his most lasting work as minister at this time. His Defence Act laid down the principles of compulsory military training and the establishment of a military college; he also took charge of the visit of Lord Kitchener to report on Australian defence and concluded with Britain the agreement which established the Royal Australian Navy.

However, in April 1910 the electors passed a strongly adverse judgement on the opportunism of the new fusion by giving the Labor Party a landslide victory in both Houses. For the fourth successive election Cook was a member of the defeated party, and for the next three years again sat on the Opposition bench. The surviving fusionists formed themselves into the newly titled Liberal Party, and Cook took part in developing an effective extra-parliamentary organization. By January 1913, the Fisher Labor government had implemented many radical proposals to which Cook's vociferous opposition had been unavailing, in particular the introduction of a Federal land tax and the establishment of a Federal government bank.

By then Deakin had realized that his mental powers were failing and he resigned, suddenly, from parliament. At a party meeting held on 20 January, Cook defeated Sir John Forrest for the leadership of the Liberal Party by 20 votes to 19, a division which seemed to reflect the party split on the tariff question. Thus, at the age of 52, the former Labor leader and free trader had become the national leader of a political party which since the fusion had become both protectionist and conservative. In his public manner, his speech and his social activities there was no longer any trace of his working-class origins. In private he was still deeply religious, and a devoted husband and father to his wife and nine children. He continued as a lay-preacher.

At the Federal elections of May 1913 the Labor Party lost its majority in the House of Representatives, though it kept control of the Senate. In June Cook became Liberal prime minister of Australia, twenty-two years after his first election to represent Labor in the New South Wales parliament. As he could control the House of Representative only by the casting vote of the Speaker or the chairman of committees, his government had little chance to sponsor new legislation; his only practical achievement was to provoke the Opposition in the Senate into creating the constitutional situation for a double dissolution: this was done by proposing to abolish preference to trade unionists in government employment, and to reintroduce postal voting at Federal elections. In the ensuing poll of September 1914 the Labor Party easily regained control of both Houses. Cook went into Opposition once again, though now as a member of His Majesty's Privy Council, his first public honour.

Meanwhile, war had broken out in Europe; one of Cook's last public acts as prime minister had been to pledge his government's full support for Britain, including the transfer of the Royal Australian Navy to the British Admiralty, and to offer to send a contingent of 20,000 volunteer troops overseas. After the election Cook and his colleagues endorsed the Labor government's war policy, as well as the recruiting drives to raise troops, though they were annoyed that the Labor Party had rejected their proposal to form an all-party national government, and Cook was displeased at the increased land tax and the introduction of a Federal income tax.

By May 1916 Cook and his Liberal Party colleagues were convinced that compulsory military conscription for overseas service was the only way in which Australia could meet its commitment to Britain. Although this view was entirely unacceptable to the majority of Labor members it was supported by the new prime minister, W. M. Hughes, who organized a national plebiscite on the question in October 1916. After the proposal was narrowly defeated, Hughes left the Labor Party with a small following to form a minority government, hoping for support from Cook's Opposition. This was an unworkable situation, and a coalition was negotiated early in 1917 which kept Hughes as prime minister and made Cook his deputy. Cook chose to be minister for the navy in the new government, although the senior portfolio, defence, had been accepted by (Sir) George Pearce. Cook then moved house once more—to the inner Sydney suburb of Summer Hill.

In the election of May 1917 the Nationalist coalition government won a majority in both Houses. Soon afterwards the parties fused. Cook, who had often been the recipient in parliament of Hughes's most barbed phrases, loyally accepted him as leader, and became his efficient deputy, as he had been to both Reid and Deakin. Hughes thought Cook plodding and unimaginative, but valued the way in which he was scrupulously loyal to the government in public. Cook recognized Hughes's success as a wartime prime minister and approved of strong leadership. Despite the defeat of the proposal to introduce overseas military conscription at a second plebiscite in December, the Hughes government remained in office during the closing stages of the war.

In June 1918 Hughes and Cook represented Australia at the Imperial War Conference and in the Imperial war cabinet; next year they were delegates to the Peace Conference where Cook sat on the commission which gave the Sudeten Germans to the new Czechoslovakia. Appointed G.C.M.G., in 1918 he had a hero's welcome at his birthplace. However, Hughes delegated no real responsibility to Cook during the discussions in London on the war and the peace treaty, and Hughes's biographer has suggested that Cook was 'solaced for any neglect' by the knighthood.

The Nationalists won the election of December 1919. From July 1920 until November 1921 Cook served as treasurer during a particularly difficult economic period. He was opposed to wage increases and did nothing to control unemployment, though at the time the government did not have the constitutional power to deal with Australia's finances effectively on a national scale. Cook was acting prime minister from April to September 1921, while Hughes was at the Imperial Conference in London, and in November he resigned from parliament in order to become high commissioner in London. He represented Australia well, and immensely enjoyed London's social round; his wife was appointed D.B.E. in 1925 for her services to the Red Cross Society. Cook returned to Australia in 1927, and in 1928-29 was chairman of a Federal royal commission which inquired into the finances of South Australia. He retired from public life and built a large block of flats at Bellevue Hill, Sydney, where he died on 30 July 1947, survived by his wife, five sons and three daughters, and leaving an estate valued for probate at £23,269. He was cremated after a state funeral.

He had refused to compile his memoirs, but he told relatives and friends that he viewed his career with every satisfaction. He felt that he had always done his duty and had never avoided his responsibilities. Joe Cook was an eminently successful politician and an able parliamentarian during an eventful period of Australian political history, because he was able to adapt to changing circumstances and because his sense of duty, as he understood it, triumphed clearly over adherence to early principles. Unfortunately for his career, he was most frequently in opposition and represented minority interests; his only notable achievements were the Defence Act of 1909 and the double dissolution of 1914. A harsh critic might say that when in office Cook saved the taxpayers' money at the expense of the class from which he had risen, and when in opposition he was an unprincipled opportunist. A sympathetic admirer would stress that he was a self-made man who rose to the top with those very virtues of hard work, perseverance, self-improvement and a sense of duty which formed the central and uplifting message of the Primitive Methodists. A portrait of Cook by Norman Carter hangs in Parliament House, Canberra, and another by Sir James Guthrie is held by the National Gallery in Edinburgh.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1964, 1979)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • J. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1976)
  • J. R. M. Murdoch, Joseph Cook: A Political Biography (Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1968).

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Citation details

F. K. Crowley, 'Cook, Sir Joseph (1860–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Joseph Cook (1860-1947), by Crown Studios, 1910s

Joseph Cook (1860-1947), by Crown Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23309790

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cooke, Joseph

7 December, 1860
Silverdale, Staffordshire, England


30 July, 1947 (aged 86)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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