Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

William Cooper
1861 - 1941
William Cooper.

by Diane Barwick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Cooper (1861?-1941), Aboriginal leader, was born in Joti-jota tribal territory about the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers, fifth of the eight 'half-caste' children of Kitty Lewis; his father was James Cooper, labourer. The Atkinson/Cooper family, with Kitty's mother Maria, settled at the Mologa Mission established in 1874 by Daniel Matthews. William was one of many workers forcibly retained by the Moira and Ulupna station managers, and was later sent to the Melbourne home of Sir John O'Shanassy as coachman. He worked as shearer and handyman for pastoral employers for much of his life, because the Maloga Mission and the near-by government-funded Cumeroogunga Aboriginal Station required able-bodied men to earn wages to support their dependents.

The last of his family to be converted to Christianity, Cooper settled at Maloga in 1884, where he married on 17 June the orphaned Joti-jota 'half-caste' Annie Clarendon Murri; she died in 1889, survived by one of their two children. Six more were born of his second marriage, at the Nathalia Methodist parsonage on 31 March 1893 to Agnes Hamilton (d.1910), a 'quarter-caste' born at Swan Hill and reared at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station near Melbourne. Their daughter Amy (Mrs Henry Charles) became matron of the first Aboriginal hostel established in Melbourne in 1959; their son Dan died in World War I; another son Lynch was a champion runner, winner of the 1928 Stawell Gift and the 1929 World Sprint. There was no issue of his third marriage, at Nathalia on 4 August 1928 to Mrs Sarah Nelson, née McCrae, of Wahgunyah and Coranderrk.

Cooper had attended adult literacy classes; he read widely and wrote a good letter. His family connexions and membership of the Australian Workers' Union made him a spokesman for the dispersed communities of central Victoria and western New South Wales who were ineligible for any aid during the 1920s drought and the 1930s Depression. But officials ignored his complaints. In 1933, undeterred by age and deafness, he left Cumeroogunga to become eligible for the old-age pension, his only income for a campaign which lasted until his death: as secretary of the Australian Aborigines' League, formed by the Melbourne Aboriginal community, he circulated a petition seeking direct representation in parliament, enfranchisement and land rights. He led the first Aboriginal deputation to a Commonwealth minister on 23 February 1935, and with members of the Aborigines' Progressive Association, formed in Sydney in 1937, led the first deputation to a prime minister (to ask for Federal control of Aboriginal affairs) on 31 January 1938. Although Commonwealth and three State authorities had refused co-operation, he had collected 1814 signatures from Aborigines all over Australia by October 1937; but in March 1938 the Commonwealth declined to forward his petition to King George VI or seek the constitutional amendment necessary to legislate for Aborigines or form an Aboriginal constituency.

Bitterly disappointed, Cooper spent his last years vainly protesting State government alienation of Cumeroogunga, Coranderrk and other reserves, still citing the rights of Maoris and Canadian Indians as an example for Australia. In November 1940 he retired to Barmah. He died, aged 80, on 29 March 1941 at Mooroopna, Victoria, survived by his third wife and six children. His grave is at Cumeroogunga; his main achievement was the establishment of a 'National Aborigines Day', first celebrated in 1940.

Select Bibliography

D. Matthews, Annual Report of the Maloga Mission School (Echuca, 1876-95, copy ML)
M. T. Clark, Pastor Doug (Melb, 1965)
D. E. Barwick, ‘Coranderrk and Cumeroogunga …’, T. S. Epstein and D. H. Penny (eds), Opportunity and Response (Lond, 1972)
Argus (Melbourne), 5 Dec 1934, 29 Sept 1935, 26 Oct, 3, 13 Nov, 17, 24 Dec 1937, 17 Jan 1938, 29 Nov 1940, 1 Apr 1941
Courier Mail (Brisbane), 6 Nov 1937
D. Matthews papers (State Library of New South Wales).