Brooke, Robert (1744–1811), soldier and industrialist, was second son of Robert Brooke, artist, of Rantavana, Co. Cavan, and Honor Brooks of Kinawley, Co. Fermanagh. Entering the Bengal establishment of the East India Company as an ensign in 1764, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1765 and to captain in 1767. He served with distinction under Lord Clive and Gen. Joseph Smith against several Indian leaders, including Hyder Ali in 1768–9, and, arising out of his success in quelling a revolt in Corah province, he was appointed to the lucrative collectorship of that region. After further exemplary service against the Mahrattas and in the Rohilla war, he returned on sick leave to Ireland and married (1775) Anna Maria Wynne (née Mapletoft), a widow, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Marriage made further duty in India unappealing, though Brooke continued to serve the East India Company by acting as a recruiting agent in the late 1770s.
Energetic and impulsive, Brooke had engaged in textile production while in India, and – prompted by an accidental encounter in 1780 with a group of disgruntled English artisans, disappointed by an Irish gentleman who failed to fulfil his promise to provide them employment – he determined to establish a cotton manufactory. Though he knew nothing of the cotton industry, Brooke was encouraged to take this step by the current enthusiasm for ‘Manchester manufactories’. Choosing land he owned at Curryhills, Co. Kildare, which in typically optimistic fashion he renamed Prosperous, he undertook to construct an industrial town ab initio. Readily supported by politicians eager to promote economic activity and to provide alternative opportunities that would help to defuse unrest in the city of Dublin caused by high unemployment in the difficult years of 1783–4, he easily secured financial grants and other incentives, and as a result expanded his plans still further. At its largest, Brooke's undertaking provided for ‘upwards of 5,000 persons’ (PRO, Chatham papers, 30/8/330, f. 83); but despite the provision by parliament in 1783 of £25,000, secured against the property, the expenditure of his total personal fortune of £18,000, and further large sums elicited from private investors and the public purse, Prosperous was never on a sound financial footing.
With debts mounting and trade sluggish, Brooke agreed to a parliamentary recommendation in 1786 that the administration of the manufactory and his other assets should be vested in trustees, in return for legal immunity from bankruptcy by injured creditors. With no resources, since his wife's money had also been expended on Prosperous, Brooke applied for reinstatement in the East India Company. He was refused initially, but he was appointed governor of St Helena in 1787. He served in that capacity with such distinction, notably in relieving the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, that he received the personal thanks of the king in 1795 and a presentation sword from Marquess Wellesley (qv) on behalf of the East India Company in 1799. Two years later, illness obliged him to return to England, where he lived out his life. He died 25 January 1811 in Bath.