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Cotton, Alfred John (1861–1941)

by Michael J. Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Alfred John Cotton (1861-1941), pastoralist, was born on 21 June 1861 at St Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands, son of Charles Nelson Cotton, landed proprietor, and his wife Sarah Mary, née Frost. His father's ruin in the pursuit of South African diamonds presaged the pattern of Cotton's later life. Educated privately at Brighton, he was apprenticed at 14 to the merchant marine and by 1879 was a third mate working chiefly between London and East Asia. At 22 he left the sea to settle in Australia, working first as a jackeroo and bookkeeper on Yallaroi station, near Warialda, New South Wales. After four years he became a drover, and by 1890 employed sufficient men to have five mobs moving simultaneously between North Queensland and New South Wales. It was as a drover that he was most remembered in the pastoral industry after his death. His autobiography, With the Big Herds in Australia, was published in 1931.

In 1893 Cotton took over part of Bromby Park, near Bowen, occupied previously by F. R. Bode, father of Annie Isabel Jane, whom he had married at Bowen on 11 December 1891. When Cotton's attempts to buy the property in 1895 were hampered by the cattle-tick plague, he turned to exporting hides and tallow. Instead of selling to Sydney he dealt directly with London through family contacts. By 1900 he had begun to speculate in cattle properties. He had also secured important contracts to supply horses for South Africa and China, but he abandoned them at the end of the South African War to concentrate on pastoral speculation and on stud stock-breeding at Hidden Vale, near Grandchester, Queensland. He also contracted to dispose of some 85,000 head of cattle for the Bank of New South Wales. By 1912 he was able to retire to Mintoburn, near Hobart, Tasmania, where he gained some repute as an amateur yachtsman.

In 1913 Cotton formed a partnership with J. C. and F. J. White to take over Brunette Downs on the Barkly tableland of the Northern Territory. When the Fisher government demanded major improvements before renewing the lease, he became deeply involved in the debate over land tenure in northern Australia. He employed W. Massy Greene as a lobbyist in 1922-23. Next year Cotton was one of the pastoralists denounced by Arthur Blakely as being involved in 'one of the greatest boodling jokes ever put over any parliament in Australia'. Earlier in the same debate, he had been accused of having planned to cut Brunette Downs into 25-mile (40 km) blocks for sale at considerable profit if the lease was renewed under the proposed legislation. He tried unsuccessfully to make Brunette Downs pay by changing over from cattle to sheep to use fully the improvements required by the Federal government, but he finally withdrew from the partnership, reputedly at considerable loss.

In the Brisbane Telegraph in 1934 Cotton advocated closer settlement in the north; the government was to supply capital and half the initial stock for several hundred new properties at no rent. Three-quarters of the holdings were to be resumed over fifty years for more intensive development, and charges were to be levied on all products. Above all the new settlers had to be free of 'restrictive legislation and interference by politicians'.

Cotton was a convivial man, at home in the Queensland Club (to whose members he dedicated his autobiography), much admired for his energy, enterprise, and imagination. He operated on a national, at times international, scale. Though his biggest enterprise failed, he remained an optimist, but his prosperity had ended before the Depression; he retired to Southport and then to South Brisbane. He died at St Martin's Hospital, Brisbane, on 24 April 1941 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Of his four surviving children, Frederick Sidney (1894-1969) joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916, became prominent from his invention of the Sidcot flying suit and settled permanently in England. In 1938 he was involved in aerial espionage over Germany and commanded a special photo-reconnaissance unit of the Royal Air Force in World War II. He died in Sussex on 13 February 1969.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Brady, Australia Unlimited (Melb, 1918)
  • M. J. Fox (ed), The History of Queensland, vol 1 (Brisb, 1919)
  • H. M. Barker, Droving Days (Melb, 1966)
  • Pastoral Review, 16 May 1941
  • Graziers' Review, 14 Sept 1921
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 15 May 1960
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 31 July 1935, 15 Feb 1969
  • A3, NT13/11380, NT23/1677 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Michael J. Richards, 'Cotton, Alfred John (1861–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cotton-alfred-john-5786/text9813, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 September 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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