Farm pioneer under the radar

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

Mention the name Albert Cockram in farming circles and you will probably be met with a blank stare.

While the early 20th century entrepreneur was a renowned and highly regarded horse racing identity, his incredible story as one of the State's agricultural pioneers seems to have flown under the radar for the past 70 years.

Until now.

Great granddaughter and South West Region MLC Robyn McSweeney has brought this visionary character back to life in her venerable Who's Who of Australia's racing, mining and agricultural industries, titled Albert Edmund Cockram: King of the Racecourse 1870-1943.

According to Ms McSweeney, while the book is a biography of the life of Albert Cockram as a well-known racing personality, it is also a look back at the history of WA's early mining and agricultural practices.

"If a family was connected to racing, mining or agriculture from 1880 through until 1940, their names are likely to be in this book," Ms McSweeney said.

Ms McSweeney said Mr Cockram's role in WA's sheep and cattle industry in the early 1900s, through his breeding and importing ventures, played a significant role in defining both sectors of the agricultural industry.

Despite his extensive involvement in racing, and his roles as president of the WA Stud Merino Breeders Association for 15 years, and vice-president of the Royal Agricultural Society for 15 years, Mr Cockram has never been formally recognised for his contribution to either the mining or agricultural industries.

Born in 1870 in Gingin, Mr Cockram felt the pull of the land early through visiting grandparents who owned farming land at Roleystone.

Before he had even turned 20, he entered his first importing venture, and soon after began working in the butchering trade.

Money from these businesses allowed him to lease and then purchase Heirisson Island and Burswood Island, the latter now the home of Belmont Racecourse.

Often referred to in this biography as Australia's King Of Racing, Mr Cockram owned both Belmont racecourse and Goodwood racecourse until his death in 1943, with the progeny of his imported thoroughbreds winning most major races across the country.

When his two sons returned from World War I, Mr Cockram bought the historical Fairfield Stud in Broomehill, and Clearhills in Gnowangerup.

Fairfield is recorded as having the first automated shearing machines in the State.

It was on these properties he experimented with breeding stud sheep, thoroughbred horses and dairy stock.

Importing up to 150 racehorses from both England and France in a single year, Ms McSweeney said Mr Cockram also imported cattle and sheep into Australia, and is documented as being the first to import England Dorset Horn sheep for the purpose of the lamb trade.

In his own words, as recorded by a Western Mail journalist just two weeks before his death, Mr Cockram said he was responsible for one of the most valuable shipments of Merino stud sheep ever imported into WA by one man, when he bought the greater part of the (Lamara) stud off Melville Collins, from South Australia, one of the most successful breeders in Australia.

"Four of the rams in this lot cost me over 500 guineas each," he said.

"I have also imported hundreds of draught horses, mares, stallions, trotters, ponies, pedigreed cattle and sheep into my native state at various periods and I believe I can claim to be the largest importer into Australia of thoroughbred stock," he said at the time.

A highly regarded horse and cattle judge across Australia, Mr Cockram was also involved in the mining industry and was chairman of WA's oldest coal mining company, Griffin Coal, in the 1930s.

Ms McSweeney said Mr Cockram's mining interests also extended to the north of the State.

"Albert was interested in exploring areas in the North West, and we know that on one occasion, in 1917, on a prospecting trip from Broome to Wyndham, he and early explorer E.J.Stuart took a cinematographer up there who captured vision of Aborigines in the area," she said.

"He took this film to Europe to encourage overseas investors into Australia's North West and while the film has been lost, I understand they were some of the first moving pictures ever made of this area."

An invitation-only book launch was hosted by former MP Norman Moore at Ascot racecourse on November 28, with Mr Cockram's only surviving daughter, Beverley Barrett, in attendance.

Public book launches will be held in Bridgetown, Pinjarra, Gingin and Albany throughout December.

For further information contact Ms McSweeney on 0407 611 957.

Albert Edmund Cockram: King of the Racecourse 1870-1943, is priced at $55.

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