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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cooper, Sir Charles (1795–1887)

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

Charles Cooper (1795-1887), by unknown photographer, c1880

Charles Cooper (1795-1887), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 440

Sir Charles Cooper (1795-1887), judge, was born at Henley-on-Thames, England, the third son of Thomas Cooper, under-sheriff of Oxfordshire. He entered the Inner Temple in 1822 and became a pupil of Richard Preston (1768-1850), the celebrated conveyancing barrister and author. Cooper was called to the Bar in February 1827 and practised in the Oxford circuit. Three years later, 'seeking a healthy climate', he applied for the post of attorney-general in New South Wales, but was unsuccessful in spite of many testimonials of his 'very respectable abilities'. He remained in practice until appointed judge in South Australia in July 1838.

Next March he arrived in Adelaide in the Katherine Stewart Forbes with his sister, and stayed with George Milner Stephen while his own house was built in Whitmore Square. Here on 22 May 1839 he held his first court, after being sworn in by Governor George Gawler and declaring his hope that frivolous and vexatious litigation would cease. Cooper's secluded way of life and dedicated respectability did not endear him to Adelaide's radical press. His conscientious care led to many delays and complaints that he was timid in coming to conclusions. His homilies to juries on Sunday schools and Sabbath-keeping, his difficulty in restraining boisterous members of the Bar, and his occasional outbursts of petulance all earned pungent criticism, but in time the press came to applaud his gentleness and rectitude.

On arrival, Cooper was dismayed by the confusion in the titles to land which existed in a colony less than three years old. After a visit to Sydney in 1840 he proposed a system of registration of deeds by memorial, 'which would interfere as little as possible with private rights and prejudices' by recording only 'such information as necessary to prevent fraud, without revealing more'. A voluntary registry was duly established in 1842 and, although often criticized by reformers, it was retained almost unchanged for sixteen years. With his strong attachment to the laws of England, Cooper did little else to mould the South Australian law, although he helped to draft bills and in his most important judgment, (The Queen v. Paxton et al.) in July 1848, he disregarded the unpopular colonial ordinance imposing royalties.

In 1849, after severe influenza, he was given three months leave in Van Diemen's Land, while Charles Mann acted in his place, with 'as nice a dish of libel cases as any judge was ever set down to'. Cooper returned to his court for only two days before extending his leave. His ill health hastened the appointment of a second judge, George John Crawford, who arrived from England in June 1850 but died in September 1852. Next year Benjamin Boothby was appointed second judge.

On 7 July 1853 at St Michael's Church of England, Mitcham, Cooper married Emily Grace, daughter of Charles Burton Newenham, sheriff of South Australia. In 1856 he was given the title chief justice, granted leave to visit England and farewelled as 'a Christian as well as a Judge'. He was knighted in England and returned in 1858 to find Adelaide in tumult over Boothby's legal interpretations. In September 1860, having been commissioned to administer the government in the absence of the governor, Cooper was sworn a member of the Executive Council, this unusual appointment of a judge earning Governor Sir Richard MacDonnell a sharp rebuke from Downing Street. Because of Boothby's eccentricities and his own failing health Cooper sought to retire on a pension. This was fixed at £1000, his salary having risen in slow stages from £500 in 1839 to £1500 in 1859 when a third judge was appointed. His resignation from the bench was accepted in November 1861 and from the Executive Council in August 1862. He then returned to England where he lived in retirement until his death at Bath on 24 May 1887.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Pike, ‘Introduction of the Real Property Act in South Australia’, Adelaide Law Review, vol 1, no 2, June 1961, pp 169-89
  • Honorary Magistrate (Adelaide), July 1919
  • CO 323/137
  • R. M. Hague, History of the Law in South Australia (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Cooper, Sir Charles (1795–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 27 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Charles Cooper (1795-1887), by unknown photographer, c1880

Charles Cooper (1795-1887), by unknown photographer, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 440