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Cooper, Lynch (c. 1906–1971)

by Richard Broome

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Lynch Cooper (c. 1906–1971), Yorta Yorta man, professional runner, and house painter, was born in 1905 or 1906 at Moira Lake, New South Wales, fifth of six children of William Cooper, shearer and activist, and his second wife, Agnes Hamilton (d. 1910), who was born at Swan Hill and reared at Coranderrk Aboriginal station. Lynch lived at Cummeragunja Aboriginal reserve for part of his childhood and may have been schooled by Thomas Shadrach James, a classmate being Lynch’s cousin, (Sir) Doug Nicholls. Later he attended Mulwala Public School until about grade four. He became a rural worker on Murray River levee works for the New South Wales Water Commission and fished with his father, William, to supply the family’s fish shop at Yarrawonga, Victoria.

In the mid-1920s Cooper lived at the Hindmarsh Hotel in Jeparit, Victoria, and played Australian Rules football with both the Nhill and Jeparit teams in the Wimmera Football League. Inspired by his father’s achievements in hurdling when he was a young man, he took up professional running in 1926. He entered the Stawell Gift, one of the world’s oldest and most revered pedestrian races, in early April and was backed to win £3,000, but was run out in his heat. Racing at Bendigo the next day he placed second, before coming first in the prestigious Warracknabeal Gift later that week, winning £100. To the chagrin of punters, he failed again at Stawell in 1927. Later that year he was runner-up in the Jeparit and Ararat gifts. In early 1928 he was bested at Shepparton, Horsham, and in the Melbourne Thousand, but won the Penshurst Gift.

Five feet ten inches (178 cm) tall and weighing eleven stone three pounds (71 kg), Cooper had strong shoulders from rural work and slim but muscled legs, allowing him great drive and power for running. Photographs show a handsome and seemingly resolute man. Trained by Tom Lewis, he returned to Stawell in April 1928 desperate for a win and confident in his ability. Without any financial resources, he reputedly sold his fishing boat for £20 and entered the blue ribbon sprint event. Having failed twice, he obtained odds of sixty to one for a £10 outlay on himself. Over 130 yards on the slightly uphill grass track he won his opening heat off eight yards in twelve seconds. The favourites in 1928, Tom Miles of Bundaberg and W. MacDonald of Wagga, were beaten in their semi-final heats by inches. Cooper’s odds shortened in the fifth heat of the semi-finals, which he won by a yard with the betting at evens. In the final his odds shrank to seven to four. Cooper started well but was still behind until he came home strongly over the last part of the race. As the field tired, he surged again, with a mighty effort just yards from the finish. He broke the tape ‘by inches’ (Sport 1928, 7), all five men crossing the line in a blanket finish, with a time of 11.93 seconds. His excited sister Amy, listening via radio at Mooroopna, almost launched her young son, Alf (Boydie) Turner, into the air. Cooper valued his change of luck after a string of seconds, commenting: ‘Much as I need the money, I treasure the title very much’ (Maher 1928, 11). His winnings in wagers and prize money at Stawell totalled £1,000 and he insured his legs for the same amount soon after the race. The Jeparit Sports Club later gave him a gold watch.

In 1929 Cooper entered the Melbourne Thousand and the World Sprint championship, both run over two days at the Melbourne Motordrome. The world title had come to Australia in 1927 after Tim Banner, a former Stawell Gift winner and World Sprint champion, had won it in England in 1926. The heats and finals were run over 70, 100, 130, and 220 yards, with points allocated for each. Cooper, who was not the favourite, won the 220 with a dominant run on the first day and placed second in the 70 and 100-yard events. By the last race on the second day, the 130-yard event, Cooper ran second to Victorian Austin Robertson, winning the World Sprint championship by one point, the seven thousand spectators giving him a ‘great ovation’ (Herald 1929, 3).

By 1929 Cooper had contested twenty-three professional gifts, winning nineteen and placing in the other four. He travelled to Christchurch, New Zealand, in January 1930, defeating their champions over seventy-five and 120 yards. In April he lost the world title to Robertson. Over the next fifteen years he raced intermittently, often as a backmarker due to his Stawell win. He raced at Yarrawonga (1930), Shepparton (1931), and in the St Kilda and Sandringham gifts (1933), and also played football, his ‘fine position play and accurate kicking’ (Weekly Times 1933, 65) helping the Wangaratta Magpies to win the 1933 Ovens and Murray Football League premiership.

After three years’ rest due to injury, Cooper resumed racing in 1936, entering the Stawell Gift off eight yards. The Sporting Globe remarked: ‘he looks well, has plenty of confidence and has a handy mark’ (Maher 1936, 11). However, a race favourite inched him out in a heat. That year he ran at Warragul, before winning the Keilor Gift, and Sheffield Handicap and sprint at Broadmeadows. In 1939 he raced at Stawell in the 130 and 220-yard hurdle races. On 11 February that year he married Eva Christian of Jeparit at the Methodist Church, Yarraville; they would have two children, John and Judy. He entered the Keilor Gift on the afternoon of his wedding, but his form was described as ‘unimpressive’ (Blake 1939, 13).

Running sustained Cooper through the Great Depression. The former professional running coach Merv Feenan estimated that Cooper won £3,000 in prize money overall, and probably the same amount through betting. He retired in 1946, but came out of retirement two years later to compete in the Bendigo Aboriginal Gift with his nephew Alf Turner; the race was won by Frank Stewart. Cooper maintained an active interest in sport, training young runners and footballers into the 1960s. Turner recalled that Cooper could still beat most of the ‘younger fellas’ (Turner 2020) at training sessions into his forties.

In February 1946, while living in Mooroopna, Cooper was elected president of the Shepparton-based Aboriginals Progressive Association. Thomas Shadrach James articulated its aims in a letter to the editor of the Shepparton Advertiser: to improve Aboriginal standards of living and access to education, lift community cooperation, and create a strong Aboriginal Christian community. Cooper was part of the group’s deputation to the Federal government in May 1949, advocating William Cooper’s dream of an Indigenous member of Federal parliament and Commonwealth control of Aboriginal affairs. He joined the Shepparton branch of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League after its formation in 1957 and, in 1968, was appointed to the Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Council to advise the Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

Cooper worked as a house painter in Melbourne, then in country areas from the 1940s to the 1960s. His son worked beside him as they painted whole suburbs in Benalla, Mansfield, and other regional towns. Although he was a hard worker, good painter, and a good provider, he was a ‘battling businessman’ (Cooper 2020) and never owned his own home, renting at 24 White Street, Wangaratta, in retirement. Quiet and humble, he was well liked and widely respected. His race run, he died at Wangaratta on 30 July 1971, survived by Eva and their two children. He was interred in the Wangaratta cemetery. In 1995 he was among 129 people across twenty-five sports named as inaugural inductees into the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Richard Broome is an Australian of English and Irish descent. He consulted with Lynch Cooper’s descendants in researching and writing this article.

Select Bibliography

  • Blake, Jim. ‘Keilor Gift Winner.’ Sporting Globe (Melbourne), 15 February 1939, 13
  • Cooper, John. Interview by the author, 8 April 2020
  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘By a Point.’ 25 February 1929, 3
  • Maher, J. J. ‘“Gift” an Open Race.’ Sporting Globe (Melbourne), 8 April 1936, 11
  • Maher, J. J. ‘Lightning Dive Gives Cooper Stawell Gift.’ Sporting Globe (Melbourne), 11 April 1928, 11
  • Sport (Adelaide). ‘The Stawell Gift.’ 13 April 1928, 7
  • Turner, Alf. Interview by the author, 27 April 2020
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne). ‘Some Prominent Personalities in Country Football Clubs.’ 10 June 1933, 65

Citation details

Richard Broome, 'Cooper, Lynch (c. 1906–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-lynch-30347/text37644, accessed 12 May 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012