James (Jim) Francis Cope was born in Surry Hills, Sydney on 26 November 1907 to parents George and Martha Cope. He attended Crown Street Public School until he was 14, at which point he left school to work as his family encountered financial difficulties.
He married Myrtle Irene Hurst in Sydney in 1932 and the couple lived on William Street, Redfern until the 1970s. During the Depression, he and his family were on the dole and received food coupons, struggling to survive on eight shillings and two pence per week. His experience during this time had a significant impact on his future career in politics. He noted in 1978: ‘I’ve always been an advocate of trying to alleviate and emancipate the interests of the working class people’. A resident of Redfern for 47 years, from the mid-1970s Cope and his wife lived on Fontainbleau Street, Sans Souci. He died on 3 February 1999.
Occupation & interests
His first position was as a messenger for a firm called Potter and Burkes, who were agents for Johnson’s Baby Powder. He then worked at the Randwick Tramway workshops until about 1929-30 when he was retrenched during the Great Depression. It was during the Depression that Cope recalled the difficulties of unemployment: ‘…in company with one of my brothers who was then out of work, we used to walk from Redfern over to Camperdown to a firm called Smith and Waddingtons’ Panelbeaters and line up with hundreds of other people for one day’s work. We didn’t have the money to pay for our tram fare over, we had to walk and the fact is, it was only for one day’s work, so people could readily realise what a difficult position we had in the Great Depression in trying to make ends meet.’
Cope’s experience of the Depression and the financial stress his family suffered prompted him to join the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1930. During World War 2, he was a glass tube fabricator and worked at Amalgamated Wireless Valves in Ashfield. He then worked in a glassworks in Paddington. He was also the Federal Treasurer of the Australian Glassworkers’ Union and on the State Management Committee of the Australian Glassworkers’ Union.
In an interview conducted on 1 May 1978, Jim Cope noted it was Sir William McKell who made him a Justice of the Peace (JP). Cope also described how after he became a member of the House of Representatives, he established interviewing centres in town hall rooms across his electorate in Redfern, Botany, Mascot and other suburbs, to allow residents to share their concerns and have them conveyed to the appropriate minister.
Jim Cope was a member of the House of Representatives for 20 years. On 21 May 1955, he won preselection for the seat of Cook, however, the seat was abolished. He was elected member for Watson on 10 December 1955 and then for Sydney on 25 October 1969.
On 27 February 1973, Cope was appointed the first Labor Speaker of the House of Representatives and served until his dramatic resignation on 27 February 1975. In his book, The Whitlam Mob, Mungo MacCallum notes Cope was a ‘hail-fellow-well-met type’ and a ‘nice bloke’ who was ‘entirely the wrong choice for speaker’. Cope resigned after the Whitlam government refused to support him when he named a minister of the ALP, Clyde Cameron.
Honours & awards
On 31 December 1977, Cope was awarded a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) in ‘recognition of service to Parliament’.
Local government service
In 1948, Cope was elected to fill a position at the by-election as an alderman on Redfern Council. During his time as a Redern alderman, he was appointed a liaison officer to help 16 families who faced eviction from Louis and Caroline Streets to make way for a shoe factory.
Joshua Black, ‘Cope, James Francis (Jim) (1907–1999)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cope-james-francis-jim-28206/text35889, published online 2021, accessed online 28 October 2021.
Interview with James Francis Cope, interviewer: Mel Pratt, 1 May 1978, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-214936304
Mungo MacCallum 2014, The Whitlam Mob, Black Inc., Collingwood, Victoria
‘Death of the Honourable James Francis Cope’, House Votes and Proceedings, number 16, 8 February 1999, via http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au