Page 1: Biography
Cooke, Albert Edward
Rugby union and league player, shop assistant, mercer, motel manager
This biography, written by T. P. McLean, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Albert Edward Cooke was born in Auckland on 5 October 1901, one of four sons and three daughters of Sarah Jane Peterson and her husband, Albert Edward Cooke, a hairdresser. The family moved to Hamilton about 1909, and after schooling at Hamilton East School and Hamilton High School, Bert became a messenger in the Post and Telegraph Department. He played rugby league, but after being transferred to Auckland he joined the Grafton rugby union club. As a player in the club's third-grade team, he was sighted by the Auckland selector, V. R. Meredith, and chosen for Auckland in 1923.
Bert Cooke played nine games for Auckland during the season and showed such form that he was placed among the reserves for New Zealand against the touring New South Wales team. In 1924 he was selected as a five-eighth for the All Blacks' tour of England, Ireland, Wales, France and British Columbia. At the medical examination Cooke confounded his examiners by his weight of 8 stone 7½ pounds; by passionate advocacy he persuaded the doctors to record his weight as 9 stone 12 pounds. Cooke, fearless, phenomenally fast, so instinctive and gifted in attack that he scored 23 tries, was a major contributor to the team's record of winning all their 32 games. He was described as one of the 'two great players' of the team.
After the tour Cooke returned to his job as a counter-hand in the men's department of Smith and Caughey's Auckland store on a wage of £5 a week. Hawke's Bay was then establishing records in its defence of the Ranfurly Shield, and a Napier mercer and rugby enthusiast, Jack Snaddon, offered Cooke a significantly higher wage to work for him. Cooke moved. In five matches for Hawke's Bay in 1926, he scored 10 tries and the team overwhelmed all challengers.
Seeking to win the Ranfurly shield, the Wairarapa union in 1927 put up £600 to finance Cooke into the management and, effectively, ownership of a mercer's store in Masterton. Cooke was feckless with accounts and too generous to indigent mothers seeking clothing for their small sons. Having failed in business, Cooke departed to Wellington, where he played for the Hutt club.
Cooke had married Githa Camilla May French at Hastings on 23 March 1927. Because of the health of his wife and their infant son, Maurice, he was unable to tour South Africa with Maurice Brownlie's team in 1928. He last played for the All Blacks against the touring British Isles team in 1930. In 1931 Cooke was accused of being drunk at a training run for the North Island team. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union's executive secretly banned him from all future national teams, and he quarrelled bitterly with the union's autocratic chairman, S. S. Dean, over a claim for expenses. Cooke had played 131 first-class matches; his 44 games for New Zealand included eight test matches.
With his wife and son, Cooke returned to Hastings. By 1932, down on his luck, he was working in a Waikato dairy factory when fortune, of a minor sort, shone again. An astute Auckland businessman, Jack Redwood, president of the Richmond rugby league club, persuaded Cooke to play the game he had first learned. Redwood made him his chauffeur to keep him away from liquor. At his first appearance at league headquarters, Carlaw Park, Bert Cooke scored a glorious try. Week by week he filled the park. He was idolised for the skilful try he scored in a test against Great Britain.
Cooke eventually left Redwood for Olsen and Greer, a firm of mercers. He served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force during the Second World War and later worked on the Auckland waterfront. He was banned when he sided with strikers in the dispute of 1951, and found work at the Devonport naval dockyard. In the early 1970s he and his wife managed a motel at Paihia for his son, Maurice. Cooke had always been addicted to beer; dementia set in. He took to walking the streets, not knowing where he was, and died in a mental hospital at Auckland on 29 September 1977, survived by his wife and son.
Rugby rejected Bert Cooke; league did not. To the end of his days he and his wife were always the guests of the New Zealand Rugby Football League for the big games at Carlaw Park. He was peerless, one of the finest inside backs New Zealand football had seen.