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William Cooper (1856–1952)

by Les Hetherington

William Cooper, 1928 [detail]

William Cooper, 1928 [detail]

The Friends’ School Collection

William Cooper (1856-1952), company director, and social and peace activist, was born on 3 March 1856 in the village of Edgmond, Shropshire, one of seven children of Thomas Cooper and his wife, Eliza, née Downes. Thomas Cooper was a bricklayer and small-scale builder in Edgmond and nearby villages and farms. Eliza was from south Shropshire and, according to her son, ‘had Welsh blood in her veins and Welsh characteristics in her speech’. The family was of the Primitive Methodist faith and Thomas Cooper was superintendent of the Edgmond Primitive Methodist Sunday School for 35 years. ‘It was a time of real fellowship between individuals and communities’, Cooper later recalled, ‘the life of the home and the chapel  … being largely one’. Their ‘unconventional behavior’ and ‘noisy prayer meetings’ gave ‘a fair base for promotion of their primary concern “the saving of souls” ‘, he wrote in 1933, commenting that ‘the noises have now ceased, the congregations have dwindled and the “passion for souls” is apparently not much in evidence’.

Sunday was rigidly observed as the Sabbath, and included two Sunday School classes, two chapel services and ‘sometimes a prayer meeting thrown in’. William was only excused compulsory attendance at the evening service in his later school years, when ‘Bible Study or Greek New Testament for Monday morning’s lesson had procured me welcome easement’. Nevertheless, he wrote later, ‘it was Sunday in a quiet country village, and I gained a respect for the Bible and an appetite for its study which has never deserted me’.

Educated initially at a ‘dame’s school’ – a private elementary school usually run from the home of the female teacher - William was sent to the village school at seven years of age, and then the grammar school in nearby Newport. Initially headed by a ‘good old man who … ought to have been superseded years before’, the school was run by his deputy, who, although ‘an M.A.’ and ‘a man doubtless of considerable attainments’ used ‘methods ... largely enforced by manual exercises upon his pupils’ ears’. A change of headmaster with the arrival of Tom Collins, MA, improved both tone and performance of the school.

At 18 years of age Cooper’s thoughts of going on to Oxford were deflected by the headmaster’s help in obtaining a position in the Post Office in Birmingham, where he commenced as a sorting clerk. There Cooper moved from the Primitive Methodists to a Wesleyan Methodist congregation, and on the recommendation of a member of their bible class, successfully applied for a position with Cadbury Brothers. He commenced work with Cadbury in 1879 at their original Bridge Street offices, moving with the firm to their new premises at Bourneville in the same year. A committee to promote religious service, of which Cooper was secretary, was formed in the Cadbury offices and this brought him into contact with the Severn Street Christian Society, the Severn Street Adult School and the Society of Friends – although by now he was formally a member of Birmingham’s Carr’s Lane Congregational Church.

After a bout of illness it was suggested Cooper transfer to become a commercial traveller for the company and after a further year it was proposed he join Thomas E. Edwards as one of Cadbury’s two representatives in Australia. In July 1882 he left England for Sydney, where he became responsible for the Cadbury business in New South Wales and Queensland, Edwards managing the rest of Australia and New Zealand. In 1889, when on a trip back to England, Cooper visited India, and in 1891 he visited the Netherlands East Indies, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan, on each occasion with a view to expanding the company’s operations in these locations. On 26 October 1891, in Brisbane, Cooper married Ellen Louisa (Lily) Mossop, the widow of his friend the late Reverend Livingstone Mossop, and together they made a further trip to India and England. Their first child, a son, William Livingstone Cooper, was born in Sydney in September 1892. Five more sons and a daughter followed between 1895 and 1907.

In the meantime, the Cadbury business was growing in Australia, where Cooper’s younger brother, Thomas Edward (1867-1947), had joined him in 1887. Thomas also had a long career with Cadbury, retiring as a director in 1927. After a visit by Edward Cadbury and the retirement of Thomas Edwards in 1903, Cooper became Cadbury’s general manager for Australia. He held this position until his appointment in 1922 as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the newly formed Cadbury-Fry-Pascall Limited. Cooper’s key project with Cadbury-Fry-Pascall was the construction of the company’s manufacturing plant at Claremont, in Tasmania, a move probably prompted by Australia’s importance as a market and the Australian government’s wartime ban on importing chocolate products, which continued well into 1919, even after the British government had removed restrictions on their export. William and Thomas Cooper, with E.H. (Edward Harrison) Colleyshaw, had chosen the site in May 1920 and saw its development into production two years later. William Cooper remained Chairman of the Board until his retirement at the end of 1923, not long before his sixty-eighth birthday. Despite his commercial success with Cadbury, Cooper later wrote that it was doubtful he would have gone into business at all, much less so far away from his head office, ‘but my Principals’ confidence in my powers surpassed my own and remained with me throughout my forty-five years of service with them’. Two of Cooper’s sons, William and Howard, followed him into the Australian company.

In Sydney, Cooper was initially affiliated with the Pitt Street Congregational Church. But adult school connections once more brought him into contact with the Society of Friends and around 1888 he became a member and clerk of their Sydney Monthly Meeting. From then on, Cooper’s religious life was as a member of the Society, and he was, with some gaps, a teacher or leader of the Adult School for forty years, clerk of the Sydney Monthly Meeting for 25 years, and first Clerk of the General Meeting of Friends for Australia for 18 years, retiring from this last position at the Australian General Meeting held in Hobart in September 1920, over which he presided. He represented Australian Friends at meetings in London and, in his own words, came ‘into contact with well known Friends in England, America and elsewhere and I cannot be too thankful for the influences these have had upon my life’. The association with the adult school, he wrote, ‘has led me to a study of the Bible, which, built upon the foundations laid in the small P.M. Chapel at Edgmond, has been a treasure of incalculable value in my life’.

As Clerk of the General Meeting, Cooper was a senior Society of Friends official during the years of the First World War, when the Society’s conviction that ‘all war is inconsistent with the spirit and teaching of Christ’ led the Society to oppose conscription as they had opposed compulsory military training a few years earlier. As Clerk of the Sydney Meeting, Cooper appended his name to letters published in opposition to conscription in 1916, and the Friends continued their public opposition to it in 1917.

Nevertheless, some Australian volunteers, including two of Cooper’s sons, served in Britain, France and Belgium in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, formed in late 1914, under the British Red Cross Society. A third son, arriving in France after the armistice, volunteered with the American Red Cross in Belgium for six months. The Friends also engaged in broader war relief and support work for the victims of the war. They are ‘serving nobly’ a commentator wrote in September 1916, ‘nursing the wounded and succouring the distressed … at the constant hazard of their lives …’.

Cooper’s social welfare and anti-war beliefs led him to engage in wider social and political issues, in addition to his home, work and religious life. In 1897 he had joined the board of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, established in 1813 ‘for the relief of the poor, aged and infirm and for other benevolent purposes’, and was elected a vice-president in 1911. He became acting president in January 1919 and was elected president in February 1920. He retired as President in 1925 but remained a vice-president until at least 1948.

Ten years after joining the Benevolent Society board, Cooper became an inaugural vice-president of the New South Wales Branch of the London Peace Society when it was formed in 1907. When its founding president, Rose Scott, retired from that position in 1916, Cooper replaced her and occupied the position, with an absence in 1925 and a year’s gap in 1928, until 1929. Again, though, Cooper returned to a vice-president’s position, which he retained into the 1940s. With regard to war, the aims of the Peace Society were aligned with Cooper’s religious convictions: it opposed all war, proferred arbitration as an alternative to war in all international disputes, and sought mutual simultaneous arms reduction.

Other organisations of which Cooper was an active executive member included the New South Wales branches of the League of Nations Union, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Association for the Protection of Native Races, the White Cross League, the Council of Churches (of which he was President in 1934-35) and the New South Wales Temperance Alliance. Consistent with his role in the Society of Friends he was chairman of the board of The Friends’ School, Hobart from 1924 to 1949.

William Cooper died on 15 January 1952. His wife had predeceased him, her death occurring on 31 July 1951, less than three months before their sixtieth wedding anniversary. The Bourneville Board passed a special minute of appreciation of Cooper’s years service to the Cadbury company and the community, providing copies to his family. The Bourneville Works Magazine, in its February 1952 edition, commented that Cooper ‘maintained his social work after retirement from business, and when well into his eighties was accustomed to travel long distances by ‘plane in carrying out his religious and benevolent activities’. The Friend newspaper considered Cooper would ‘be remembered as the friendliest of men, kindly, warm-hearted and entirely unassuming’. ‘Whenever in our business meetings there might be considerable difference of opinion’, reported the Australian Friend of February 1952, ‘we could always rely on him to lead the discussion along channels which led to friendly settlement. He was indeed our guide, counsellor and friend.’ According to testimony from The Sydney Monthly Meeting recorded in the 1953 Yearly Meeting Proceedings, ‘from the centre of [Cooper’s] life came a stream of righteousness, strength and purity such as will make his memory a priceless possession of all who knew and loved him’.


  • Bourneville Works Magazine, February, 1952
  • William Cooper, autobiographical typescript, originally written 1933, amended 1947 and 1948 (The Friends’ School Collection)
  • Ron Rathbone, Very Present Help: Caring for Australians since 1813. The history of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1994.
  • Kathy Rundle, coordinator, The People of the School. 125 Years of Names at Friends, The Friends’ School, North Hobart, 2012
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 November 1891, 26 February 1920, 17 January 1952
  • Mercury (Hobart), 30 October 1919, 22 February 1922, 22 May 1922, 4 July 1941, 18 September 1947, 18 January 1952
  • World (Hobart), 26 May 1920, 28 September 1920, 2 February 1924
  • Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW), 11 September 1930
  • Sunday Times (Sydney), 24 September 1916
  • The Society of Friends, Yearly Meeting Proceedings, 1953 (typescript, The Friends’ School Collection)
  • FreeBMD
  • New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, online indexes
  • Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, online indexes.

Original Publication

Citation details

Les Hetherington, 'Cooper, William (1856–1952)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

William Cooper, 1928 [detail]

William Cooper, 1928 [detail]

The Friends’ School Collection

Life Summary [details]


16 March, 1856
Edgmond, Shropshire, England


16 January, 1952 (aged 95)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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