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Cocks, Sir Arthur Alfred Clement (1862–1943)

by Greta Gerathy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Arthur Alfred Clement Cocks (1862-1943), by unknown photographer

Arthur Alfred Clement Cocks (1862-1943), by unknown photographer

City of Sydney Archives, NCSA CRS 43:1914 p10

Sir Arthur Alfred Clement Cocks (1862-1943), merchant and politician, was born on 27 May 1862 at Wild Duck Creek, Heathcote, Victoria, fourth son of English parents Thomas Cocks, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Adams. About 1873 his father moved to Melbourne and set up as a hosier and tailor. Arthur was educated at a state school at Richmond and started work at 14 in a softgoods warehouse. About 1880 he joined W. Wood & Co., wholesale opticians, and became a commercial traveller. On 17 September 1884 at Richmond he married Elizabeth Agnes Gibb. In 1886 he was sent to Sydney to establish a branch of the firm. He gradually gained financial control and in 1899 registered his own firm, Arthur Cocks & Co., wholesale jewellers and opticians; he remained managing director until 1939. In 1911 the company was reconstructed and by 1914 he had set up branches in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Cocks became active in commercial circles. He was a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales and was a director of the City Bank of Sydney, Arthur Rickard & Co. (Extended) Ltd, and the Australian Alliance Assurance Co. He also invested in the film industry and was a director of Spencer's Pictures Ltd, Australasian Films Ltd, the General Film Co. of Australia Ltd and Union Theatres Ltd. In 1916-18 Cocks was president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce. Several times chairman of the Importers' Association of New South Wales, in 1940 he was first president of the new Wholesale Importers' Association. He contributed to the standardization of optometry in New South Wales.

Cocks had represented Lang Ward on the Sydney Municipal Council in 1906-14 and was lord mayor in 1913; he was vice-president of its electric light committee in 1909-14. In 1911, with Sir William McMillan and (Sir) Thomas Henley, he started litigation, which went to the Privy Council in 1915, to force the State government to use Government House only as the residence of the governor. He chaired the 1913 royal commission of inquiry into the question of a greater Sydney, which proposed the creation of inner and outer zones. He was founding president in 1921 of the Citizens' Reform Association.

Cocks was elected as a Liberal to the Legislative Assembly, for St Leonards, in October 1910 and held the seat as a Nationalist from 1917 until 1920; in 1920-25 he was a member for North Sydney. In the House he showed particular interest in the development of Sydney and the growth of its industry and commerce. On 20 December 1921 he was treasurer in Sir George Fuller's seven-hour ministry. He held the same portfolio in Fuller's coalition ministry from 13 April 1922. Faced with a deficit, Cocks preached economy and recommended that cabinet should enforce the Board of Trade's decision to reduce public servants' wages by 3s. By a tax agreement with the Commonwealth government he abolished duplication of income tax returns. He produced small surpluses in his two budgets, despite reducing income tax (from 1s. 3d. to 9d.) as well as other taxes. He also negotiated loans for the State in London. In 1924 he ordered (Sir) Bertram Stevens and John Spence, Public Service Board inspectors, to reorganize the Government Printing Office; some employees were retrenched or demoted and both inspectors promoted.

From early 1923 Cocks had hinted he would not stand at the next election. He was appointed K.B.E. in June and next year there was speculation about his possible nomination to the Legislative Council, but he resigned on 14 February 1925 and became agent-general in London. Melbourne Punch, 5 February 1925, approved of his appointment because 'this large, silent, slow-moving man with the dim eyes, the big head, and poker face leaves nothing whatever to chance'. While in London he was executive commissioner at the British Empire Exhibition. Cocks resigned on 17 September, after Jack Lang, premier from June, had attacked him in the House. Lang later alleged that as treasurer Cocks 'had faked the public accounts'. On his return to Australia in December, Sir Arthur expressed his disgust with public life; in the early 1930s he praised the New Guard.

A leading Congregational layman, deacon, lay preacher and Sunday school superintendent, Cocks consistently contributed to charities. He was a director of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales in 1913-19, a member of the board of the Carrington Centennial Hospital for Convalescents, Camden, and president of the Young Men's Christian Association in 1924-34. His appeals for film censorship and temperance seemed incongruous with his film interests and persistent cigar-smoking habits. He lent members of his staff the money to buy their houses and during the Depression often called at needy homes with boxes of groceries.

Cocks was very much a family man. He enjoyed tennis and auction bridge and was a member of the New South Wales Club. Afflicted by blindness and bronchitis, he died at Mosman on 25 April 1943 and was buried in the Congregational section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was predeceased by his wife, son and daughter. His estate was valued for probate at £42,908.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 13 (1913), 295
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 16 (1914), 404
  • Attorney-General for New South Wales v J. L. Williams, Law Reports, Appeal Cases (House of Lords and Privy Council), 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 1923, 17 Feb 1925, 26 Apr 1943
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • YMCA, minutes, 81st annual business meeting 1935 (Sydney)
  • newsclippings, vol 157, 18-27 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Greta Gerathy, 'Cocks, Sir Arthur Alfred Clement (1862–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/cocks-sir-arthur-alfred-clement-5704/text9643, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 February 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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