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Walter Hampson Cooper (1842–1880)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Walter Hampson Cooper (1842-1880), journalist, playwright, politician and barrister, was born on 6 July 1842 at Liverpool, New South Wales, son of Joshua Cooper and his wife Anne Jane Drummond, née Thompson. An outstanding shorthand writer, he served on the Queensland Guardian and became a parliamentary reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1866. He later joined the Melbourne Argus, but by 1871 was back on the literary staff of the Herald. Meanwhile he had written several small plays, notably 'Fuss', a satire on Sydney life, and enjoyed a minor vogue. He developed into a journalist of flair and style with a taste for the bizarre oddly combined with a partiality for politics. His distinguished series of articles on 'Sydney by night' mirrored vividly the dives and bawdy-houses and their European and Chinese clients. A strong advocate of printing Hansard, he discussed seriously with (Sir) Henry Parkes a proposal to establish it although he professed to be unnerved by the 'fat languor of officialism'. By 1871 he was well known as a man about town.

In 1873 the Illustrated Sydney News warned Cooper:

There once was an ogre called Parkes,
Very fond of political larks,
Who dined off his chums,
Making soup of the crumbs,
And threw their old bones to the sharks.

He had become acquainted with Parkes in 1871, when he saw him as 'the only statesman worthy of the name living in the country'. Their relations warmed to friendship before ending in recriminations in 1878. In the 1872 elections he was Parkes's agent in the Goldfields North (Tamworth) and Liverpool Plains electorates. He campaigned with verve and vigour, and his letters give an accurate and fascinating picture of the rumbustious nature of colonial elections with their local sectarian and personal cross-currents. He reported that John Robertson was 'received with such a chorus of hoots and yells, that he seemed positively relieved when the throng, suddenly changing their tune, roared out a deafening chant … that “Old Jack Robertson has gone up a tree” … [that] the local paper [was] in a condition of strict neutrality owing to its editor having been drunk and incapable for the last fortnight', and that a local worthy, 'Being groaned at … became wroth, and facing the audience said he “would like to see any one man of them step forward and groan at him”. His desire was instantly gratified and he sat down apparently quite satisfied'. He predicted that James Rodd had no chance at the poll, but he was elected and voted with Hanley Bennett, who won the other seat, for Parkes's motion that defeated the Martin-Robertson government. Cooper's successful experience intensified his dream of a gallant parliamentary career highlighted by 'brilliant speeches, [and] trenchant attacks upon the “honorable gentlemen opposite” and … final triumph'. He was appointed secretary to the Public Charities Commission in 1873.

In that year Martin became chief justice and Cooper, though an 'uncertificated bankrupt', ran for his seat of East Macquarie, a difficult district for Parkes men. After initial hesitancy Parkes caught some of Cooper's confidence and enthusiasm and backed him with money and influence. With the help of 'a few R.C.'s, but not many', and distrusting 'these Orangemen who I know are ordered to support Rotton but who nevertheless profess enthusiasm in my behalf', Cooper mounted an exuberant and successful campaign. In parliament his crusading zeal was checked by his disdain for some members and nullified in January 1874 by his indiscreet and hurtful opinion that 'for every one of the yeoman class to be found among the selectors, they would find ten whose only stock in trade was a bullet mould and a harness cask'. Thereafter his political career was doomed, although he was a conscientious member, especially helpful to Parkes in the Frank Gardiner crisis debates; his pamphlet, The Crisis (Sydney, 1875), analysed some of the constitutional issues in the case. Discredited in East Macquarie, he was dissuaded by Parkes from contesting East Sydney in the 1874 elections and finally ran for the Lower Hunter but was beaten by what he termed 'a severe … illness … styled the “Bullet Mould Fever”.'

Cooper then visited America but failed to have his plays produced. On his return he lived precariously as he strove to realize his long-standing fancy for a legal career. He was sustained by substantial loans from Parkes. In April 1875 he returned a promissory note and assured Parkes of 'the heartfelt sentiments of one in whom admiration … has warmed into steadfast affection'; in October Parkes remarked, 'You quite puzzle me by telling me so coolly that you have not the remotest recollection of the Bill due on the 19th'. Cooper was admitted to the Bar on 13 December 1875 but his financial position did not improve. In March 1876 Parkes reminded him, 'When I paid the last £100 on your account to Mr. R. B. Smith I had to borrow myself to enable me to do it and altogether I have suffered seriously by my advances to you', Cooper responded, 'it is my poverty and not my will [that] consents to your remaining under a load of liability, which I wish to God had never been incurred … I don't say that you'll ever hear of a suicide in Brougham St. but you might; and but for my dear wife and children and my——dear creditors, it is even probable that you would'.

In 1877 Cooper's income increased and he paid some of his debts. He offered discerning advice when Parkes was negotiating to form his second ministry and warmly congratulated him when he succeeded. In April Cooper gave him a long, thoughtful analysis of current political problems and their solutions. But his tangled domestic affairs imposed a bitter personal strain; his professional practice slumped and his political judgment deviated. In 1878 he was labelling his old friend, 'Sir Henry Free-trade-protectionist-anything-you-please Parkes', and 'A true British snob', and speaking of 'his ignorance of History', 'hardness of heart' and 'determined purpose not to advance Australia'. He became vice-president of the protectionist Political Reform League and a leader of the anti-Chinese agitation; in August he disrupted a lively meeting of W. E. Gladstone's admirers and was hustled off the platform.

In 1879 he separated from his family; as a result his brother-in-law sought him out, scuffled with him and fired a revolver shot that missed Cooper but singed the arm of his alleged paramour. The report of the affair in the Evening News, 15 February, led Cooper to assault (Sir) John Heaton and he was arrested and fined £10 with a bond. In June 1879 he appealed again to Parkes for help. He said his life had been 'a bitter struggle … against adversity, which was all the more potent because my own hand guided its weapons and Poverty, Humiliation and Friendlessness were my companions'; he had just freed himself from arrest for debt, had parted with his 'books … every literary relic and every implement of literary labour and of my profession', and had to be 'at Port Macquarie Quarter Sessions on the 7th and have not the means of leaving Sydney … nor the means of leaving support for my family should I make the journey'.

Cooper died on 26 July 1880 from debilitated constitution, heart disease, haemorrhage and exhaustion. He was buried in Waverley cemetery. The Herald, 28 July, implied that Cooper had lacked the personal qualities that would have enabled his undoubted brilliance to shine consistently. In 1867 at Sydney he had married Ellen Elizabeth Kelly according to the rites of the Free Church of England; they had five sons and one daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Martin, ‘Henry Parkes and Electoral Manipulation, 1872-82’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 8, no 31, Nov 1958, pp 268-80
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 23 Dec 1873
  • Town and Country Journal, 22 Feb 1879
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 July 1880
  • Evening News (Sydney), 27 July 1880
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Cooper, Walter Hampson (1842–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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