Fred and Harry Cooke: The father and son who stood up for socialism

Photograph of Fred Cooke

Fred Cooke

‘I don't believe in murder, and I won't be trained to be a murderer.' [1]

Frederick Riley Cooke was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1867. The son of working class parents, Cooke was a founding member of the British Independent Labour Party. In 1900, Cooke, along with his wife and children, immigrated to New Zealand. They were part of a large contingent of socialists called the Clarionettes, sailing to what they hoped would become a progressive and egalitarian alternative to Britain.[2]

A member of the Canterbury Tailors' Union, Cooke founded the Christchurch branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party in 1902. He repeatedly stood for election under their banner in the Christchurch East Electorate, and was elected National Secretary in 1910.[3] Although ultimately unsuccessful in the East, Cooke considered the campaigns a useful vehicle to promote the Socialist Party's ideals. The party advocated collective ownership of the means of production, as well as equal pay for women.[4]

The father and son duo of Fred and Harry Cooke were to prove a rather formidable double-act in the fight against militarism and for Cantabrians' freedom to speak out against war.

Prior to war, Fred Cooke was repeatedly prosecuted for speaking publicly against compulsory military training (CMT) and served a short stint in Lyttelton prison.[5] The Commonweal (the Socialist Party's newsletter) noted that Cooke had spent his imprisonment 'investigating the prison system; his exposure of its heartlessness and inefficiency will lead to some inquiry into the methods adopted towards the treatment of our criminals'.[6] 

Harry Cooke would prove to be a serial offender in the eyes of the law. Harry refused to register for CMT, and repeatedly provoked the ire of the constabulary with his wilful forgetfulness when it came to paying Defence Act fines. 'Young Cooke, who evidently inherits his father's spirit, frankly told [the magistrate] that the reason he did not register was because he refused to be trained to become a murderer.'[7] Harry Cooke was duly fined by the magistrate, and then eventuallly imprisoned in August 1911.[8] In a letter to the Press, Fred Cooke wrote:

My son is aged seventeen years and is of good moral character. He refused to allow his mother to pay the fine, saying, "No. I am no dog to be registered; neither am I a slave to be trained to fight to uphold kings, aristocrats, and rich men in luxury while the workers never have sufficient of the world's goods to enable them to live a comfortable life."[9]

Anti-Militarist pamphlet 1911

Anti-Militarist Social held for Harry Cooke, September 1911

Photograph Socialist Conference 1911

Socialist Conference, 1911. Fred Cooke is in the middle row, second from right.

Harry was greeted as a hero upon his release. The Maoriland Worker wrote that 'the crowd outside [the anti-militarist meeting] commenced to cry for Harry Cooke. "We want young Cooke," and when young Cooke was carried out shoulder high, cheers and counter-cheers rent the air'.[10] The paper also wryly noted that if 'such a display had been made in favour of compulsory training it would have been blazoned from one end of the country to the other by the capitalist press'.[11]

Harry Cooke served several stints in Lyttelton jail for not paying the fines handed down to him for repeatedly refusing to register for compulsory military training.

When World War One broke out, Fred Cooke thought it only a matter of time before hostilities ceased; when the world's workers realised that they were being manipulated into fighting one another by capitalist interests. However, the war was not stopped by a sense of working-class solidarity, and New Zealand would ultimately introduce conscription. Just as he was with compulsory military training, Cooke was an outspoken opponent of conscription. In 1916, he was arrested at his home in Spreydon and brought before the magistrate on the charge of sedition. Cooke readily agreed that he intended 'whatever the results' to criticise the Military Service Act. The magistrate insisted that it was 'the duty of the people to obey the law'. Cooke would not obey that law, and was sentenced to a year's imprisonment with hard labour.[12]

Following his prison term, Fred Cooke continued to campaign against the war, and as the New Zealand labour historian Jim McAloon notes, he was lucky not to end up incarcerated again.[13] Cooke contested seats unsuccessfully for the Labour Party in Christchurch, Ashburton and Waitaki. He was more successful in local politics, and maintained a seat on the Christchurch City Council from 1920 to 1930.

Funeral of Fred Cooke

Funeral procession outside the Christchurch Trades Hall, Gloucester Street

Fred Cooke died in Christchurch on 26 June 1930. In accordance with his views, Cooke was buried without a formal service, but graveside addresses were given by Jack McCullough, Peter Fraser and Ted Howard.[14] Howard said that Cooke 'came from the factory system, where he saw little children crippled, underfed, underclothed, and badly housed. All this he fought...He was never a coward, but always fought for what was right'.[15] 

Jack McCullough asked the crowd to sing the last verse of the "Red Flag":

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bare it onward till we fall
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim
This song shall be our parting hymn

A memorial to Fred Cooke was unveiled in June the following year, attended by 'old comrades in the Christchurch Socialist Party, and past and present members of the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council'. The memorial was a large photograph of Cooke, fittingly draped with a red flag.[16] 

Fred Cooke is remembered for his unwavering belief in pacifism and socialism, as well as for being one of the foundation members of the twentieth century New Zealand labour movement in Christchurch.

Dan Bartlett 


[1] King Country Chronicle, 19 July 1911, p. 5.

[2] Jim McAloon, 'Cooke, Frederick Riley', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 6-Jun 2013,

[3] Maoriland Worker, 28 July 1911, p. 9.

[4] McAloon, 'Frederick Riley Cooke'.

[5] Maoriland Worker, 28 July 1911, p. 9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bush Advocate, 11 August 1911, p. 8.

[9] Press, 12 August 1911, p. 11. 

[10] Maoriland Worker, 15 September 1911, p. 11.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Maoriland Worker, 3 January 1917, p. 5.

[13] McAloon.

[14] Press, 30 June 1930, p. 9.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Press, 8 June 1931, p. 13.