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Sir Pope Alexander Cooper (1846–1923)

by J. C. H. Gill

This article was published:

Pope Alexander Cooper (1846-1923), by Fegan Studios

Pope Alexander Cooper (1846-1923), by Fegan Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23419496

Sir Pope Alexander Cooper (1846-1923), politician and judge, was born on 12 May 1846 at Willeroo Station, Lake George, New South Wales, son of Francis Cooper, a wealthy squatter, and his wife Sarah, née Jenkins. When his family began to grow up, Francis moved to Sydney seeking schooling for them. Pope was placed first with private tutors; later, at Sydney Grammar School, he was well grounded in classics and the mathematics which became a lifelong joy. At 18 he matriculated, and at the University of Sydney, as a friendly rival of both (Sir) Edmund Barton and (Sir) Samuel Griffith, won several scholarships. Graduating M.A. in 1868, he went to London, enrolled at the Middle Temple, passed the intermediate law examination of the University of London in 1871 and was called to the Bar on 6 June 1872. On 19 August 1873 he married Alice Frener Cooper at Kensington.

Cooper returned to Australia in 1874. Admitted to the Queensland Bar on 13 May he entered the Public Service and advanced to crown prosecutor in the northern district Supreme Court in 1878. After the death of Henry Rogers Beor, (Sir) Thomas McIlwraith appointed Cooper his attorney-general. The appointment was ratified on 24 January 1881 when he won Beor's Bowen seat. Though unhappy in politics, Cooper held his office and seat until 5 January 1883 when he was appointed to the northern bench of the Supreme Court. He became noted for severity in criminal cases.

For much of Cooper's twelve years in the north, his ability was obscured by a long quarrel over his circuit travelling expenses which, because of his extravagant tastes, were often excessive. This was aggravated when new circuits to Mackay, Charters Towers, Cairns and Normanton, established during Cooper's incumbency, made the allowance of £400 inadequate. His threat to close a circuit before completion brought some relief. Northern service was a martyrdom to one of his cultured taste, but he spent as much long leave as he could arrange in Britain and the south.

He was elevated in October 1895 to senior puisne judge in Brisbane. When Griffith became chief justice of the High Court of Australia, the Morgan ministry appointed Cooper chief justice of Queensland on 21 October 1903. His colleague Patrick Real complained publicly when he was being congratulated, but was placated. Cooper was knighted in 1904. His judicial style has been described as 'grand, pompous and arrogant'. There had been objections to his exaggerated view of judicial dignity in 1888 when he censured a country policeman for disrespect, and in 1889 when he reacted savagely to a personal attack on himself. In 1903 he began trying to secure through legal processes the exemption of judges from income tax; the case failed before the High Court in June 1907.

Although Cooper had temporarily deputized for the governor in 1906, when the need to appoint a lieutenant-governor to succeed Sir Hugh Nelson arose in 1907, Lord Chelmsford could not ignore the objections of Premier William Kidston and he was passed over. Chelmsford described Cooper's K.C.M.G. awarded in 1908 as 'a kiss for the place to make it well'.

Since Cooper had publicly censured the Ryan ministry in November 1915 (he had complained also of other governments), and had publicly objected to its socialism, he was still regarded as unsatisfactory for the lieutenant-governorship; but with no alternative, Governor Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams had to appoint him as deputy for short periods in 1917-19. In November of the latter year the Theodore ministry decided to appoint William Lennon as lieutenant-governor. Seeing the appointment as a prelude to the abolition of the Legislative Council and the governing of Queensland 'on Bolshevik lines', Cooper objected bitterly. Early in January he made an emotional appeal for support to the governor-general, and refused to admit the validity of a commission for Lennon drafted locally on telegraphic instructions from London; he deputized himself from 27 January to 3 February 1920 until Lennon's commission as lieutenant-governor arrived.

That year while Lennon was on diplomatic sick leave in New South Wales, Cooper again became lieutenant-governor under his dormant commission. When asked, he refused to sign the executive council minute appointing Lennon president of the Legislative Council; he argued that the council was already over strength. On his return, Lennon was forced to appoint himself to the council and to its presidency. On 30 March 1922 a proclamation under the Judges Retirement Act of 1921 removed Cooper, Real and Chubb—all well over 70—from the bench.

In 1912 Cooper joined the Senate of the University of Queensland and was chancellor in 1915-22. Described when young as 'an enthusiastic sportsman and capital shot', he enjoyed racing, bowls and golf and had a taste for wine and music. He was said to be one of the best judges of china in Australia. He speculated with Robert Philp and others in the Raub syndicate's dubious Malayan mines. Cooper was president of the Queensland Club in 1897, 1900, 1905 and 1910. Tall and handsome, with the pointed beard and manner of a Renaissance noble, he did not have a first-class mind but was a skillful politician. Predeceased by his wife, he died at his Chelmer home on 30 August 1923. He was survived by two daughters and a son. Most of his estate, valued for probate at £3142, was left to an unmarried daughter. He was buried in the Anglican section of Toowong cemetery by the archbishop of Brisbane after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • University of Queensland, Report of the Proceedings at a Presentation of Chancellor's Robes to the Chancellor of the University, Sir Pope Cooper (Brisb, 1916)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland—Our Seventh Political Decade 1920-1930 (Syd, 1931)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • A. P. Haydon, Sir Matthew Nathan (Brisb, 1976)
  • W. R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 4 (1906-07), 1304-1334
  • Brisbane Courier, 22, 28 Oct 1903, 16, 19 Nov 1915, 1 Apr, 18, 31 Aug 1923
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 1, 3, 4 Oct, 22 Nov 1915
  • Bulletin, 6 Sept 1923
  • B. A. Knox, The Honorable Sir Arthur Morgan, Kt … (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1956)
  • Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Palmer-McIlwraith papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • A21534, and COL/G52, 53, 57, and GOV 16, 36-39, 58, 68, 69, and JUS/G29, 41, and PRE 13 (Queensland State Archives)
  • CO 418/103, 149, 179.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. C. H. Gill, 'Cooper, Sir Pope Alexander (1846–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Pope Alexander Cooper (1846-1923), by Fegan Studios

Pope Alexander Cooper (1846-1923), by Fegan Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23419496

Life Summary [details]


12 May, 1846
Collector, New South Wales, Australia


30 August, 1923 (aged 77)
Chelmer, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.