Cooke, Edward (1755–1820), administrator and politician, was third son of William Cooke (1711–97), provost of King's College, Cambridge, and his wife Catherine (née Sleech). Educated at Eton and at King's College, Cambridge, he graduated BA (1777) and subsequently MA (1785). Recommended by some friends to Sir Richard Heron (qv), then Irish chief secretary, who required a private secretary, he joined the Irish administration at a salary of £200 a year in 1778. In this post Cooke had plenty of opportunity to display his abilities, and he quickly demonstrated that he was an official of exceptional capacity by embracing the task of managing public opinion. To this end, he contributed pro-government articles to the press and recruited others to write for and to manage newspapers on the administration's behalf. In addition, his adeptness at man-management ensured that he was soon involved in organising the Castle interest in the house of commons. Cooke performed this and other duties to such good effect that he quickly became a valued cog in the Castle machine – a fact emphasised in the early 1780s when he was appointed to a position in the Irish custom house. Disappointed subsequently by the failure of Lord Northington (qv) to improve his situation, Cooke emphasised his value by skilfully managing the Castle press in 1784 and 1785 when the administration was embroiled in a tense and often difficult battle for public opinion. He was less successful in representing the administration's position to the prime minister, William Pitt, when they modified the ‘commercial propositions’ to appease Irish objections, but it did little to diminish the high esteem in which he was held. Indeed, the fact that he was entrusted with the task in the first place, and that the lord lieutenant, the duke of Rutland (qv) appointed him to the lucrative position of second clerk to the house of commons in 1786, merely emphasised his value.
Cooke continued to serve the Irish administration from this position until 1789, when he was made secretary for the military department in succession to Charles Francis Sheridan (qv). He entered the Irish parliament as a representative for the borough of Lifford in the same year and, after the 1790 general election, sat for the safe government borough of Old Leighlin, which he represented until the union. He was not a notable success as a parliamentarian. Lacking the temperament and voice necessary to command a public assembly, he spoke rarely. Moreover, his reputation as a Castle apparatchik was such that when he did venture forth ‘his arguments were frequently answered by the ridicule, contempt, or invective of opposition, against the agents of corruption, the whippers-in of a party, or the government clerks’ (Public characters, 271). If this did little for Cooke's political credibility, his position in the Castle administration remained secure until 1794, when the appointment of the liberal whig, Earl Fitzwilliam (qv), to the lord lieutenancy prompted a clear-out of officials and officeholders identified with conservative policies that Fitzwilliam was determined to reverse. Cooke was so angered by his cavalier treatment he declined a pension of £1,200 a year on the grounds that it was ‘an inadequate recompense for the magnitude and importance of his services’ (Letter from Earl Fitzwilliam). Reports to this effect did little to enhance Cooke's public reputation, but this little concerned him as he was reappointed to his old office on the recall of Fitzwilliam and promoted to the office of under-secretary in the civil department in June 1796.
Earl Camden (qv) justified Cooke's reappointment on the grounds of ‘individual merit’ (PRO, 30/8/326, ff 19–20), and his new under-secretary amply repaid his faith in him by coordinating a complex intelligence-gathering system of informants, spies, and concerned citizens in the late 1790s. In essence, Cooke administered the Castle's espionage and security system and thereby played a vital role in enabling it to counter the threat posed by republicanism. Significantly, Cooke was not anti-catholic. However, he was persuaded that the empowerment of catholics was incompatible with the perpetuation of the existing Anglo–Irish nexus, so in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion he concluded that a legislative union represented the only way for Britain ‘to retain Ireland’ (Sneyd papers, 2/34). Though not in the confidence of Lord Cornwallis (qv), Cooke made an important contribution to the elaboration of the union measure in the summer of 1798. In addition, he sought to advance the unionist cause by publishing a pamphlet in the late autumn in its support. His Arguments for and against an union between Great Britain and Ireland considered did not rally the neutrals as he intended, but Cooke subsequently proved an invaluable help to Lord Castlereagh (qv), who held his ability in high esteem. Cooke would have liked to take his leave of Irish affairs after the ratification of the act of union, but he was persuaded to stay on because of his unique knowledge of the Irish administrative system and of the promises made in return for support of the union. It proved an unhappy time. The failure to fulfil the promise to emancipate catholics in return for their acquiescence in the union, and the personal disregard shown him by the chief secretary, Charles Abbot (qv), convinced him to resign from the civil department, and he returned to England in 1801. He served as under-secretary for war and the colonies under Camden (1804–6) and under Castlereagh (1807–9). Subsequently, he served as under-secretary for foreign affairs (1812–17), during which time he accompanied Castlereagh to the congress of Vienna. He retired in 1817 and died in London on 19 March 1820, some fifteen years before his wife, Isabella (née Gorges). Cooke's personal papers do not survive, but his correspondence with William Eden (qv) survives in the British Library and Keele University Library.