Mark Cohen's origins explain both his incessant desire to improve the world and the restless drive he brought to the task. Born on 26 November 1849 in the Stepney district of London, England, he was the eldest child of Hyman Cohen, a paper stainer, and his wife, Caroline Benjamin, a hatmaker's daughter. The family, with two children, arrived in Melbourne, Australia, about May 1853; a third child, born on the voyage, died the same year. At least seven further children were born, two dying in childhood.
At first a merchant in Collingwood, Hyman Cohen later ran railway refreshment rooms at Ballarat and Brighton, a Melbourne suburb, and also managed hotels in Ballarat. Mark was educated at Mr Mitchell's and J. H. Pope's schools in Ballarat, and the Jewish school in Melbourne. His father suffered mixed fortunes, being twice forced into insolvency. By 1863 Hyman Cohen had crossed to Otago, New Zealand, where he invested in a Waikouaiti hotel, but when his family arrived in Dunedin in June he was £1,000 in debt and facing a spell in gaol. He continued in the Dunedin hotel trade, survived another insolvency in 1866, and was imprisoned for fraud in 1872. He disappeared from the record in the mid 1870s.
Apprenticed first to a painter-signwriter, then briefly articled in a law office, Mark, probably in 1865, joined the Otago Daily Times's publishing department. Caught up in a strike by paper runners against a pay cut, he refused to apologise as the price of survival and was sacked. He moved to W. J. Henningham's Evening Star as office junior, showing his abilities as a 17-year-old by keeping the paper going when Henningham fell ill. He was 'prodigiously rewarded' with a silver watch, doubled wage, the 'nucleus of a classical library', free shorthand lessons and promised promotion to reporter.
Cohen not only became rapidly fluent in shorthand, but also later took courses in French, German, English and constitutional history. After reporting for the Star he joined Julius Vogel's New Zealand Sun in 1869. He returned to Henningham when the Sun folded, and continued with the Star when it was taken over by George Bell. It was as Bell's protégé that Cohen established himself as a crusading journalist. After four years in the parliamentary press gallery in the 1870s he became Star sub-editor, then associate editor, and editor in 1893. He was supported throughout by his younger brother, Albert, himself parliamentary correspondent for 20 years and columnist on racing, sport and the theatre.
Under Cohen the Star further expanded in size and reputation, its reforming zeal apparent in editorials, news coverage and regular fund-raising campaigns for community development. Cohen represented New Zealand at international press congresses, always absorbing the latest social reforms and innovations. He was never reluctant to affirm the value of the British Empire and the desirability of compulsory military training. He retired in 1920 after 55 years in newspapers.
Sport dominated Cohen's spare time in his youth. Although short-sighted, he developed his billiards on pub tables and followed the horses more than his pocket allowed. But cricket was his real enthusiasm, first as a competent underarm bowler, then as founder of the Albion club in the 1860s, and chairman of the Otago Cricket Association.
On 3 December 1879, at Dunedin, Mark Cohen married 19-year-old Sarah (Sara) Isaacs. The couple had four children within five years; the eldest, Eva, died of diphtheria in 1884. Cohen's interests became coloured by family commitments. In 1884, when individual school committees were re-established in Dunedin, he successfully stood for the Union Street and (in 1886) George Street school districts. He immediately persuaded other committees to join a Dunedin and Suburban Schools Conference to exert leverage against the Otago Education Board and achieve further reforms: a fairer voting system, equal committee voting rights for women, compulsory school attendance, greater committee responsibility in teacher selection, and a revised syllabus. Two of Cohen's children attended a private kindergarten, and he became particularly interested in the Californian free kindergarten system, persuading Rutherford Waddell, Rachel Reynolds and others to establish Dunedin's first such kindergarten in 1889. By 1914 there were three in the city, and the movement had spread through New Zealand, Cohen always its champion.
In 1887 Cohen revived Julius Vogel's proposal for a free public library for Dunedin. Economic recession was against him, but he created the Dunedin Free Public Library Association in 1890, acting as secretary, and kept the idea alive until a substantial Carnegie benefaction made it a reality. In 1910 he encouraged Dunedin to host the first national library conference, which gave rise to the Libraries Association of New Zealand.
As founding speaker of the Dunedin Parliamentary Union, and committee man on several organisations, Cohen had virtually no home life, and his public involvement intensified when he was elected to the Dunedin City Council in 1888. Always on the side of reform, but vigorously independent – and sometimes criticised as a 'faddist' for his pet projects – Cohen held views akin to municipal socialism. He contested the mayoralty unsuccessfully in 1891, and left the council in 1896.
He had meanwhile been elected to the Otago Education Board where he reformed rules on corporal punishment, championed the introduction of post-primary technical classes and superannuation for teachers, and, particularly, jointly proposed a systematic classification of schools and teachers that became the basis of nationwide teacher grading. He was eventually appointed chairman of the 1912 Education Commission, whose recommendations became the basis of the Education Act 1914, largely shaping education up to the 1940s.
Years of overwork left a legacy of recurrent ill health, but Cohen in his 60s kept up a remarkable regime of 16-hour days, fresh crusades and regular correspondence with public figures in New Zealand and abroad. He led railway expansion schemes, promoted irrigation and established a children's convalescent hospital. Deeply committed to women's rights, he gave strong support to the Women's Franchise League – of which Sara Cohen, herself involved in movements to improve the status of women workers, was a vice president. After his appointment to the Legislative Council in 1920, he became one of Parliament's most prominent and persistent campaigners for equal rights for women.
Sara Cohen suffered delicate health for some years; she died in 1923. The Sara Cohen Memorial School for handicapped children was established by Mark in her memory. His brother Albert, sub-editor at the Evening Star and a member of the 1911 commission on the racing industry, had died the previous year. Mark Cohen, after suffering some years from gallstones, died on 3 March 1928, at Auckland, where he had been staying with his youngest daughter. He was survived by two daughters and a son.
With thin-rimmed glasses and avuncular white beard, Cohen's appearance reflected his Jewish origins, but his life straddled two cultures. Born, married and buried a Jew, he maintained his association with the Dunedin congregation and supported fund-raising for Palestine. But he also stood for assimilation, invariably supporting secular education free of any religious identification, and his family (from which his son seemed to become estranged) married outside the Jewish community. Cohen made a considerable impact on Dunedin's institutions, and left an imprint on New Zealand's educational life, its libraries, the rights of women, and many other areas of social development and reform, which could still be recognised years after his death.