Story: Cooke, Frederick Riley

Page 1 - Biography

Cooke, Frederick Riley

1867–1930

Tailor, socialist, trade unionist

This biography was written by Jim McAloon and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Frederick Riley Cooke (registered as Cook) was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, on 28 April 1867, the son of Samuel Riley Cook, a tailor, and his wife, Mary Schorah. He started work at the age of seven and was almost entirely self-educated. By the late 1880s he had taken up his father's trade and was living and working in Bradford. On 1 August 1891 Freddie Cooke and Ida Clough, a worsted mill worker, were married in Bradford.

Bradford was dominated by the textile industry; poor working conditions, poverty, and overcrowding were endemic. Bradford workers revived the radical traditions of the West Riding, and the city and the region became the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party. Cooke's politics consistently reflected his experience in the ILP, of which he was a foundation member.

The ILP in Bradford was closely linked to the trade unions, having originated in a bitter strike by textile workers against wage cuts. It was determined to remain politically independent of radical liberalism, and to insist on the necessity of collective ownership of economic resources. There was a difference of opinion over parliamentary elections; one group regarded contesting elections as less important than building a mass socialist party by propaganda and agitation. This group, centred around the Clarion newspaper, also stressed the importance of democratic and decentralised structures within the ILP. Cooke maintained these principles consistently throughout his career.

Frederick and Ida Cooke, their four sons and a 15-year-old girl emigrated to New Zealand in 1900 as part of a group of nearly 200 socialists who hoped to establish a co-operative settlement. These settlers, the 'Clarionettes', had been attracted by William Ranstead's articles in the Clarion extolling New Zealand's progressive legislation. Although the co-operative settlement was abandoned due to a lack of suitable land, the Clarionettes were instrumental in the foundation and maintenance of the New Zealand Socialist Party. Cooke was present at the foundation of the Wellington branch on 28 July 1901, and of the Christchurch branch in January 1902.

Cooke by this time was employed in the department store of J. Ballantyne and Company; he remained there for some 10 years, a testimony to his tailoring skill, before establishing himself in business on his own account in 1911. An essential part of the latter venture was Ida Cooke's eagle-eyed bookkeeping skills. In 1913, however, Cooke took up a position as secretary of the Christchurch Tailoring Trade and Christchurch Tailoresses' unions. He became secretary of the Christchurch Dress and Mantle Makers' Union in 1919, holding these posts until his death.

Cooke soon became prominent in the Christchurch branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party; as labour politics grew more turbulent after 1905, he and E. J. Howard were the most persistent and visible members of the party, which had perhaps 200 active supporters. While fiercely uncompromising on matters of principle, Cooke never descended to abusive or vitriolic language. Although the Christchurch branch was initially sponsored by the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council, the Liberals on the council prevented the Socialist Party from becoming the political wing of organised labour.

By 1906 the Socialist Party recognised the inevitability of class antagonism, and aimed to replace the wage system with decentralised collective ownership; simple state ownership would not do away with exploitation. The party advocated full equality for women, and particularly equal pay. Few others in the trade union movement espoused these views.

Cooke stood as the Socialist Party candidate in Christchurch East in 1905, 1908 and 1911. He secured few votes, but viewed candidacy primarily as a propaganda activity. By 1911 the Christchurch Socialist Party was closely aligned with the New Zealand Federation of Labour, which emphasised the organisation of the working class into a measure of self-sufficiency and independence.

In 1909 the Liberal government had introduced compulsory military training, which many socialists were vehemently opposed to. Cooke was a vigorous campaigner against conscription; he was prosecuted a number of times during 1911 for public speaking against the Defence Act of 1909 without a permit. Refusing to pay the fines, he served short terms of imprisonment, and emerged from Lyttelton prison campaigning for prison reform. His second son, Harry, refused to register for military training and was also imprisoned a number of times. In 1913 the labour movement achieved a measure of unity at two important conferences, in January and July. Cooke, attending on behalf of the New Zealand Socialist Party, moved resolutions firmly opposing militarism and compulsory military training. Out of the unity conferences there emerged the Social Democratic Party, of which Cooke was elected vice president in 1914, and president in 1915.

Cooke was bitterly disappointed when the First World War broke out. He had cherished hopes that the workers of the world would, by a general strike, halt the war in its tracks. Although this did not happen, opposition to the war was essential in the completion of the political unity of New Zealand labour. Like many of labour's leaders, Cooke campaigned vigorously against conscription for overseas service in 1916, and was imprisoned at the end of that year. Having served his 12-month term he continued to campaign on behalf of other prisoners of conscience, publishing a small magazine, Punchi. He was, perhaps, lucky not to be arrested again.

With the end of the war, Cooke took a less active role in politics. Although he began to suffer from diabetes, he contested difficult parliamentary seats for the New Zealand Labour Party – Ashburton in 1922, Christchurch North in 1925, and Waitaki in 1928 – and failed to secure election to Parliament. However, from 1920 until his death he did sit on the Christchurch City Council, where he stubbornly maintained his distrust of moneylenders and landowners. He continued to espouse these views in Labour Party forums, and served as vice president of the party in 1920–21 and president in 1921–22.

Freddie Cooke died in Christchurch on 26 June 1930, survived by his wife and sons. He bequeathed £80 to refound the Christchurch Socialist Party as a constituent of the Labour Party. His stature had grown during the last decade of his life, with many outside the ranks of labour expressing their admiration of him. Cooke's major contribution to the New Zealand labour movement was his consistent adherence to a socialist vision, and his dogged advocacy of pacifism and internationalism.