Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cooper, Robert (1776–1857)

by R. L. Knight

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Robert Cooper (1776-1857), distiller, was born in London, the son of Robert and Eliza Cooper. He became the proprietor of two public houses in London, the White Swan on Ratcliffe Highway and another in Piccadilly; they had a joint annual volume of business of £17,000 when he was convicted, in October 1812, of receiving stolen goods, raw silk and ostrich feathers, valued at £3000. To support his contention that he had the goods merely smuggled, not stolen, Cooper produced witnesses who testified that he had frequently been prosecuted for smuggling. The judge commented on the extraordinary nature of his defence, proof of guilt of one sort of crime being offered as proof of innocence of another, and Cooper was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years to New South Wales where he arrived in the Earl Spencer in October 1813. In January 1818 he was granted a conditional pardon.

His first business undertaking was a shop in George Street opposite the Town Hall. By 1822 he was part-owner, with Solomon Levey and Daniel Cooper, of the Campbell Macquarie, 135 tons, trading with Van Diemen's Land, and he had an auctioneer's licence. By 1827 he was operating a distillery and in 1830 he established a brewery. In 1829 he was milling flour and baking bread. Other interests were cedar cutting, production of gunpowder, and weaving of cloth; he was also one of the principal shareholders in the Bank of New South Wales.

Although an emancipist he put himself forward as a candidate for one of Sydney's two seats in the Legislative Council at the first elections in June 1843. He set out to win the support of the working classes. 'They wanted something more than high flown nonsense, they wanted something to be done to give them meat and drink and work', he told the voters. He took part in the agitation for government action to relieve the colony's severe economic distress, and in April 1843 called a public meeting at which he made the novel suggestion that the colonists should petition the governor to close the law courts for six months. He also busied himself as well with building some forty cottages for his tenants so that they could qualify to vote for him. Because of his record and lack of education the conservative press attacked him viciously in the campaign. His supporters linked his name to that of another candidate, Captain O'Connell, much to that gentleman's discomfiture; O'Connell's defeat was largely attributed to this unwelcome political alliance. Cooper finished at the bottom of the poll and renounced all further political ambition.

His name figured frequently in the courts, where he seems to have been adept at remaining within the letter of the law while occasionally evading its spirit. Appearing before the Legislative Council in September 1845 when that body sat in committee on a tariff bill, he revealed, with unconscious humour, trade secrets as to illicit methods of distilling.

Cooper's first wife died in England soon after his departure and their children joined him in Australia in 1818. His second wife, Elizabeth Kelley, died in childbirth on 5 July 1821 and on 29 January 1822 he married Sarah, the daughter of Lawrence May, of the Hawkesbury River district. Altogether he had some twenty-eight children. Cooper died at Paddington on 25 May 1857, aged 80, and his widow died on 6 November 1863.

A stout, kind-hearted man, described by a contemporary as 'lusty', Cooper was known affectionately as 'Robert the Large'. One of his sons, Frederick Augustus (1834-1908), became a barrister and served as a member of both the New South Wales and Queensland legislatures.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 12, 14, 23
  • The Whole Proceedings on the King's Commission of the Peace, Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery for the City of London and also the Gaol Delivery for the County of Middlesex: Held at Justice-Hall in the Old-Bailey on 28 Oct 1812 (Lond, 1813)
  • 'Old Bailey', Times (London), 31 Oct 1812, p 2, 2 Nov 1812, p 3 and 3 Nov 1812, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan, 11, 25 Feb, 14 Apr, 14, 16 June, 29 Nov 1843
  • Sun and New South Wales Independent Press, 6 May 1843
  • Australian, 10 May, 14 June 1843.

Citation details

R. L. Knight, 'Cooper, Robert (1776–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-robert-1920/text2283, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 11 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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