He was born in Silverdale, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffs on 7 December 1860, the son of a miner who died in a pit accident in 1873. Leaving school at 9, he was employed as a pit-boy and after his father's death in 1873 became the family's main wage-earner. But his determination to improve himself was encouraged by the local PMs. He later joined the MNC and became a local preacher with them. Family circumstances prevented him from taking up the offer of training for the ministry at Ranmoor College. But in 1885 he married Mary Turner, a teacher in the nearby village of Chesterton, who helped him in his studies.
In December that year they emigrated to Australia. Joseph found employment in the colliery at Lithgow, NSW and became involved in trade union affairs. In 1891 he was elected as a Labour representative in the State legislature. As Postmaster General from 1894 he introduced several improvements to the service and in 1898 became Secretary for Mines and Agriculture. At the same time he was a prominent member of the PM church at Lithgow and an enthusiastic advocate of the Methodist Union which became effective in 1902. Following the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 he stood as a Free Trader and was elected to the Federal Parliament as the respresentative for Parramatta. After serving as Deputy Leader and Defence Minister in the coalition government, he became Prime minister for a few months in 1913-14. Despite his public reputation as a 'straight-laced' preacher and a teetotaler, he was a hard-working and dedicated parliamentarian. Although he was longer in opposition than in office, a suburb of Canberra is named after him.
In 1918 he attended the Imperial War Conference in London with Prime Minister Hughes, was received by King George V, awarded a GCMG and given the freedom of Newcastle-under-Lyme. He was given a civic reception back home in Chesterton, Staffs. He played a prominent part at the opening of Australia House in London and also attended the Versailles peace conference.As Australian High Commissioner in London from 1921 to 1927 he promoted British emigration to and investment in Australia. His son was a pupil at TheLeys School. Lady Cooke, who had supported her husband throughout, was made a DBE in the 1925 Birthday Honours list for her services to Australian visitors to London.
On retirement they lived at Bellevue Hill, Sydney. In 1930 he made the first private phone call between England and Australia. He died at Bellevue Hill, Sydney on 30 July 1947 and his funeral took place at the Castlereagh Street Church in Sydney. Lady Cooke died in 1950.