Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Spencer Cope (1821–1891)

by G. M. R. Rathbone

This article was published:

Thomas Spencer Cope (1821-1891), by Heiner Egersdorfer

Thomas Spencer Cope (1821-1891), by Heiner Egersdorfer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/12/91/16

Thomas Spencer Cope (1821-1891), judge, was born on 19 April 1821 in London, son of Thomas Cope of Hampstead and his wife Julia, née Parkin. After attending a private school he was educated at Launceston, Cornwall, by his uncle, Rev. Richard Cope, LL.D., a Dissenting minister, and at the University of London (LL.B., 1841). He entered the Middle Temple in April 1842, studied under Thomas Chitty and was called to the Bar in 1845. While practising in the courts at Westminster he reported for the Law Times, The Times and the Daily News. In 1851 he emigrated to Natal but, on hearing of the gold discoveries in Victoria, went to Melbourne and after his arrival in April 1852 was admitted to the local Bar.

Cope soon built a flourishing side-practice at Ballarat where he strongly sympathized with the miners against the administration. In January 1855 he took the lead in arranging the defence of the Eureka prisoners without legal fees. He was soon requested to stand for one of the Ballarat seats in the new parliament, but refused. In 1858, after serving as deputy-judge in the Ballarat district, he was appointed judge of the Court of Mines and of the County Court and chairman of General Sessions at Beechworth. He made frequent and difficult journeys to other townships and mining centres, including Buckland, Morse's Creek (Wandiligong), Yackandandah, Bright and Woods Point. Because of floods he once had to crawl along the top rails of a fence to reach the court-house. He was a highly respected community leader in the district.

In 1868 he was transferred to Melbourne where he remained for the rest of his life. From August 1885 to June 1886 he was temporarily on the Supreme Court bench. He had a reputation as a slightly eccentric judge who was more inclined to decide on grounds of humanity than legal technicality. He was a penal reformer, an advanced Liberal who in politics supported state ownership of land, and a member of the Church of England. Cope was a leading member of the Yorick Club with a reputation for lively anecdotes, was a good musician, and had an active interest in racing, yachting and boating.

He retired in April 1888 and died at Brunswick on 11 November 1891, survived by his wife Maria, née Tucker, one son and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men, 2nd ed (Melb, 1887)
  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1891
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1891.

Citation details

G. M. R. Rathbone, 'Cope, Thomas Spencer (1821–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Spencer Cope (1821-1891), by Heiner Egersdorfer

Thomas Spencer Cope (1821-1891), by Heiner Egersdorfer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/12/91/16

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1821
London, Middlesex, England


11 November, 1891 (aged 70)
Brunswick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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