Mitchell Library1923

The Mitchell Library in 1923

Mitchell Library Reading Room

The Mitchell Library Reading Room, now the Friends’ Room.

As a young woman, Miss Joyce Cocks became an attendant (and later a buyer) at Sydney’s historic  Mitchell Library. The Mitchell now forms part of the  vast Library of New South Wales complex.

Miss Jocye Cocks

Miss Joyce Cocks

In 1923 an armed man entered the building on Macquarie Street  and removed three  valuable paintings from a wall on the library’s third floor.  Two of the paintings were by the colonial artist Conrad Martens (1801-1878).  The third was by  Frederick Casemero Terry (1825-1869)

The man  then made his way down to the ground floor.  When he heard Joyce’s footsteps he dropped the pictures and hid in a cupboard.

As Joyce entered the room he leapt out of the cupboard and  fired his revolver at her.  By a great stroke of luck,  the gun failed to discharge properly.  However, before the young woman could escape, the intruder  picked up a piece of shelving and hit her over the head.  He then panicked, running through the Reading Room and out into the street.  The paintings were left behind, as was a badly injured Miss Cocks.  Two fellow attendants came running to her assistance and called the police, but the  assailant and would-be  thief  was never apprehended.

Painting by Conrad Martens

View of Parramatta by Conrad Martens 1838  held by the Mitchell Library

Joyce eventually recovered and  stoically went back to work.  It was not the first time she had been in a dicey situation.

When WWI broke out  in 1914, Joyce had been  studying languages and domestic science at an academy  in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.  For many weeks she was  virtually a prisoner-of-war, relying on the goodwill of the American Consulate for protection.  She was forbidden to leave the country, or even to speak English.  When she and an American friend were overheard speaking English in the street one day they were stoned by an angry onlooker.  Eventually a passport was arranged for her by the consulate.  She was able to travel to Holland, and from there catch a steamer to England.


Joyce Cocks was always very involved in public life.  Apart from her work at the Mitchell Library she wrote articles and spoke publically on women’s issues and social affairs.

In 1925 she wrote to past Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes, offering her support in the next federal election. He responded with a charming letter of appreciation;

Dear Miss Cocks

Thank you very much for your kind letter of the 14th inst. Yes! I do want all the volunteer workers I can gather around me.  

Your letter seems to have precipitated an election. I put you down as one of those rare, gifted women who have “second sight” & rejoice to think that I may count upon your help.

I will be in Sydney at the weekend and will write you from Lindfield.

He signed off and added his  phone number.

During the years of the Great  Depression Joyce worked on committees to assist the unemployed.

In 1931 she presented herself in Premier Jack Lang’s office. She was on a mission to obtain  a grant for a retired civil servant going through hard times.  Lang was an intimidating figure; well over six foot tall.   Nicknamed ‘The Big Fella’  he had a reputation for  being  abrasive and humorless. There was a somewhat gleeful account of the encounter in the newspaper;

Advancing through the large and terrifying Premier’s room, Miss Cocks found Mr Lang leaning against the mantelpiece. She took her stand at the other end and explained her errand.

NSW Premier Jack Lang in his office.

Jack Lang was no match for Joyce.

The final exchange with the Premier  went like this;

Ha! Well it is a matter for Cabinet, not for me.’

I’ve already seen the other members of Cabinet. They are agreeable, if you are.’

‘Ha! Leave no stone unturned, do you? Well, come back and see me tomorrow.’

‘Too busy to come back tomorrow.’

With that Premier  Lang gave up and granted her request.

In 1947 Joyce travelled  to Philadelphia to represent Australia at an International Women’s Conference. She retired from the Mitchell Library in 1951.

Miss Joyce Cocks

Off to America in 1947

Joyce Cocks died in 1971. An interesting life well lived, by a woman ahead of her time.


  1. Wow you find some amazing stories Pauline. I so enjoy reading them as they are great history lessons.

  2. And I thought libraries were quiet places!
    Seriously though, Joyce Cocks was a very interesting woman. Thanks for sharing her story.

    • Pauline

      When I mentioned her to the senior staff at the Mitchell they were quite unaware of her.

  3. A tough cookie indeed, with a great sense of justice.

    • Pauline

      Her papers are held at the Mitchell, I’ll have to go and read them.

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