Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Caroline Ethel Cooper (1871–1961)

by Decie Denholm

This article was published:

Caroline Ethel Cooper (1871-1961), letter-writer, traveller and musician, was born on Christmas Day 1871 in North Adelaide, daughter of Arthur Bevan Cooper (d.1874), deputy surveyor general, and his native-born wife Harriette Isabella, née Woodcock (d.1879), a music teacher. Ethel's great uncle was Sir Charles Cooper. Educated by a governess and at Miss Annie Montgomerie Martin's progressive school at Norwood, Ethel and her younger sister Emmie were raised by their maternal grandmother and formed a close friendship with Harriet Stirling's family. After studying music under I. G. Reimann, Ethel taught piano in rooms in King William Street.

By 1896 her sister was married and Ethel felt free to travel. She was to visit Germany five times between 1897 and 1936. Having furthered her musical studies at Leipzig in 1897-1906, she returned to Adelaide. Emmie was beautiful. Ethel's face had character. She was a small, slim woman with soft, brown hair; her voice was authoritative, her words carefully chosen and precise, salted with trenchant humour; she was described as eccentric, highly intelligent and an individualist. Wearing a black jacket and tie, she played trombone for visiting orchestras at the Theatre Royal and also formed her own Women's Orchestra. In 1911 she went back to Germany.

Her 227 letters to Emmie from Leipzig, written in English, one a week between 31 July 1914 and 1 December 1918, described living conditions in wartime Germany and people's reactions to news from the Western and Eastern fronts. The letters of an observant and literate woman, they depicted the constant struggle for food and heating, the lazarettes where she played music for the patients, the deaths of friends and their relations, and the extremes of patriotism in the war's early years. The first fifty-two were smuggled to Switzerland and posted from Interlaken; the remainder were hidden, first between the pages of scores of Beethoven's string quartets and later in the cavity of a friend's dining-table. Ethel sent them from England when she was repatriated in 1918. Emmie subsequently deposited them in the archives of the State Library of South Australia.

Early in World War I most aliens had been required to move from German towns where there were fortifications, airship sheds or army installations, yet Cooper received a pass which stated that her presence 'was agreeable to the military authorities'. Throughout 1917 she made several attempts to leave, but was prohibited 'for military reasons'. Her premises were often raided and searched by police, but she had a wide circle of loyal friends who shared her love of music. She kept a pet crocodile ('Cheops') in her apartment. Back in Adelaide in 1921-22, Cooper soon returned to Europe. While not a Quaker, she joined a relief-team of the Society of Friends to work in Poland. Her fellow workers nicknamed her 'Pharaoh'.

At Salonica (Thessaloniki), Greece, Cooper did further relief-work in 1924-28, resettling refugees from Turkey: the society recorded its appreciation of her 'initiative, powers of organisation and her knowledge of the Greek language'. She bought a donkey and named it 'Agamemnon', and offered insects as sacrifice on her altar to Pan. For three and a half years she travelled in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, indulging her passion for archaeology.

Finally settling in Adelaide with the widowed Emmie in 1936, Ethel worked as a translator and censor during World War II; one colleague deemed her 'a wicked gypsy'. Cooper drove an A-model Ford, sometimes regardless of other vehicles, and invariably with a cigarette in her mouth. In old age she suffered from arthritis and Parkinson's disease. She never married. Survived by Emmie, who lived to be 100, Ethel died on 25 May 1961 at Malvern and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Bowen, Drawn from Life (Lond, 1941)
  • D. Denholm (ed), Behind the Lines (Syd, 1982).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Decie Denholm, 'Cooper, Caroline Ethel (1871–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024