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Cotton, Frederick Sidney (1894–1969)

by John McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Frederick Sidney Cotton (1894-1969), aviator and businessman, was born on 17 June 1894 at Allensleigh, near Bowen, Queensland, third child of Alfred John Cotton, a grazier from the Channel Islands, and his native-born wife Annie Isabel Jane, née Bode. Educated at the Southport School and in England at Cheltenham College, Sid worked as a jackeroo at Cassilis, New South Wales. In England on 26 November 1915 he was appointed temporary flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. After only five hours solo, he was flying B.E.2c aircraft from Dover on Channel patrols.

With No.5 Wing, Cotton piloted a Bréguet on night-bombing sorties from Coudekerque, France. He next joined No.3 Wing at Luxeuil and bombed targets in southern Germany. In the winter of 1916-17 he devised the cold-resistant 'Sidcot' flying-suit which was to be widely used by civilians and the military until the 1950s. He flew Sopwith Pups with No.8 Squadron until temporarily grounded for medical reasons and sent to England. Promoted flight lieutenant in June 1917, he helped to prepare the Handley Page bomber which attacked Constantinople in July, but he soon conflicted with his seniors and resigned his commission. On 16 October that year he married a 17-year-old actress Regmor Agnes Joan Morvaren Maclean at the register office, Camberwell, London; they were to have a son before being divorced in 1925.

Back home, Cotton ran his father's apple-drying factory in Tasmania, then returned to England in 1919. In February 1920 he unsuccessfully attempted to fly from Hendon to Cape Town and in July he destroyed his D.H.14a in the English Aerial Derby. He was based for three years in Newfoundland, Canada, where he worked as an airborne spotter for sealing companies, an aerial photographer, an air-mail operator and a supplier of timber. Giving his occupation as landowner, on 20 February 1926 at the register office, St George, Hanover Square, London, Cotton married Millicent Joan Henry, an 18-year-old schoolgirl whom he had met in Newfoundland and whose education he fostered in England; they were to have a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1944.

From the late 1920s Cotton was engaged in various business activities, including the transfer of patents from the United States of America to Britain. Although his attempt to promote the French-invented, colour-photographic process, 'Dufaycolor', ended in failure, he eventually made a substantial capital gain. In 1927 he was engaged by members of the Dupont family to search over Newfoundland for the French aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli; in 1931 he supervised the operation that rescued Augustine Courtauld from the ice in Greenland.

Directed by the British Secret Intelligence Service in his civilian capacity, in 1939 Cotton carried out clandestine flights over Germany and the Middle East, photographing military installations, and, only days before the outbreak of World War II, obtaining valuable naval intelligence. He improved the Royal Air Force's photographic-reconnaissance capability: made honorary wing commander on 22 September and head of the new Photographic Development Unit at Heston, England, he operated a force of converted Blenheims and, later, of camera-fitted Spitfires. In June 1940, after again coming into conflict with senior officers, he was removed from his post. For his work he was appointed O.B.E. (1941). He also assisted Air Commodore William Helmore to produce an airborne searchlight, designed to illuminate enemy bombers.

From 1945 Cotton continued to combine audacity and adventure with an eye for profitable commercial ventures. Employing a fleet of Lancastrians, in 1948 he organized an airlift of arms to Hyderabad, India; he was accused of gun-running and fined the nominal sum of £200. His involvement in securing oil concessions in the Middle East was largely defeated by local politics. At the British consulate-general, Nice, France, on 1 August 1951—now calling himself a company director—he married 25-year-old Thelma Olive ('Bunty') Brooke-Smith, his former secretary. He recorded his life in Aviator Extraordinary: The Sidney Cotton Story as told to Ralph Barker (London, 1969). Survived by his wife, and by their son and daughter, Cotton died on 13 February 1969 at East Grinstead, Sussex, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Cotton had been an unconventional individualist who was often right when well-placed opponents were wrong. Somewhat arrogant and conceited, he made powerful enemies easily, which cost him recognition and financial rewards. Yet, he was a man of considerable courage and energy, with a sharp mind and a flair for improvisation. In another age he would have made a splendid buccaneer.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Mondey (ed), The International Encyclopaedia of Aviation (Lond, 1977)
  • C. B. Smith, Evidence in Camera (Lond, 1958)
  • Times (London), 21 Feb 1969.

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Cotton, Frederick Sidney (1894–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cotton-frederick-sidney-9834/text17393, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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