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Cooke, John (1852–1917)

by E. A. Beever

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

John Cooke (1852-1917), meat exporter, was born at Belfast, Ireland, son of James Cooke, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth née Douglas. First apprenticed to a linen manufacturer, he migrated to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1873 in search of better health. He found work in a warehouse, then as a journalist on the Otago Guardian, and finally in the office of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co. In 1878 he went back to Belfast where on 9 August he married Edith Marshall. On his return to New Zealand Cooke was appointed manager of the company's Christchurch office.

In 1880 news arrived of the successful shipment of frozen meat from Australia by the steamship Strathleven. Cooke was quick to see the possible benefits for a depressed New Zealand, and was prominent in the successful promotion of the country's frozen meat export trade. In November 1881 he arranged a meeting which led to the formation of the Canterbury Frozen Meat Co. In 1889, while still a director of that company, he secretly founded a rival concern, the Christchurch Meat Co. (now the New Zealand Refrigerating Co.). His action angered the chairman of directors of the C.F.M. Co., a valued customer of Cooke's employers. His sudden transfer to Australia was probably the loan company's response to their client's displeasure.

Cooke was relieving general manager for the N.Z.L. & M.A. Co. in Melbourne for two years before becoming the Australian manager for the Australian Mortgage (Mercantile), Land, and Finance Co. Particularly emphasizing ownership and control by producers, Cooke helped to form the large producer-sponsored Queensland Meat Export and Agency Co. in 1890 and a smaller producer co-operative at Geelong in 1894. Most ambitious of his early promotions were meatworks at Deniliquin, New South Wales, which began operations in 1895. In this, his pet project, Cooke extended the concept of producer control by trying to match production with export needs and by killing stock as close as practicable to the pastures.

While initially a champion of producer self-help, Cooke realized that this was a passing phase. Resigning from the A.M.L. & F. Co. in 1895, during the next decade he built up the largest meat export business in Australia. In 1896 he acquired freezing works at Newport, the largest in Melbourne until (Sir) William Angliss opened at Footscray in 1905. In 1899 Cooke promoted a company to buy Sydney's largest freezing works, at Sandown near Parramatta, along with associated chilling works in the country. Four years later he took over works at Redbank near Brisbane. These three centres had been greatly expanded by World War I, and as well he treated large numbers of stock at other works. In a tribute to his undisputed leadership, a rival merchant assessed his own prospects quite simply: 'To be successful, we must supplant him'.

Cooke was an entrepreneur in the classic tradition. He speculated in shipments and in the shares of other meat companies. He pioneered new markets, notably in South Africa and later Japan. Above all, he operated an essentially one-man business. Not until 1913 was it incorporated as a company, and even then 80 per cent of the shares were held by him or his family, the balance being held by his junior partner (Sir) James Elder. But as a one-man business it was also ephemeral. Already suffering from ill health by 1914, Cooke was unable to dominate as he had, and in Elder's less dynamic hands the business declined.

Articulate and public-spirited, John Cooke played an active role in the affairs of chambers of commerce, in Christchurch and Melbourne. With E. M. Young he helped to organize the Pastoralists' Union of Victoria and was later active in the Pastoralists' Association of Victoria and the Southern Riverine. His belief in free enterprise also led him to take part in the founding of the National Association, dedicated to uphold the principle of liberty and the rights of property against the threat from the Trades Hall. Cooke was an elder of Scots Church and took an active interest in the Young Men's Christian Association.

For the last months of his life he lived in England near his son who was in hospital recovering from war injuries. Cooke died aged 65 at Eastbourne, Sussex, on 12 December 1917, survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons. His estate in Victoria was sworn for probate at £100,919. After his death the decline of his company accelerated, and in the difficult trading conditions of the 1920s John Cooke & Co. liquidated; the meatworks of a once great business were closed or sold off piecemeal to more resilient operators.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Bailey, A Hundred Years of Pastoral Banking (Oxford, 1966)
  • C. Loach, A History of the New Zealand Refrigerating Co. (Christchurch, 1969)
  • Pastoral Review, Mar 1893
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Dec 1917
  • E. A. Beever, A History of the Australian Meat Export Trade, 1865-1939 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968)
  • Borthwick papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

E. A. Beever, 'Cooke, John (1852–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooke-john-245/text9769, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 July 2017.

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

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