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Cotton, Sir Sydney John (1792–1874)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

This is a shared entry with Hugh Calveley Cotton

Sir Sydney John Cotton (1792-1874), military officer, and Hugh Calveley Cotton (1798-1881), engineer and surveyor, were the second and sixth sons of Henry Calveley Cotton of Woodcote, Oxfordshire, England, and his wife Matilda, daughter and heiress of John Lockwood of Dews Hall, Essex. Both brothers went to India, Sydney in 1810 as a cornet in the 22nd Light Dragoons, and Hugh in 1818 as an engineer in the service of the East India Co.

Sydney Cotton was promoted lieutenant in 1812 and, after his regiment disbanded, he married in 1822 Marianne, daughter of Captain Hackett, one of its former officers; they had two children. In 1822, by his only purchased promotion, Cotton became captain in the 3rd Regiment and served as aide-de-camp to his kinsman, Viscount Combermere. He then went with his detachment to New South Wales and in 1824 became acting engineer and architect at Hobart Town, his duties including the charge of stores at penal settlements and the allocation of convict working gangs to settlers. He also served on the board that inquired into the defalcations of Edward Bromley. Cotton liked the life and his work in Van Diemen's Land. Believing his regiment was to be recalled to Sydney, he asked Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur in December 1824 to arrange for him to remain in the colony, thinking that Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, 'who was favourably disposed towards him', would sanction such a request. Arthur offered to place Cotton in a situation of 'great comfort and emolument' but, apparently on the advice of his father, Sydney decided to stay with his regiment. On 20 October 1825 he sailed with his family in the Medina for India, after leading colonists had presented him with an enamelled gold snuff box and publicly thanked him for his gentlemanly manners and urbanity while acting engineer.

In 1828 Cotton became major of the 41st Regiment in Burma, transferred to the 28th and in 1835 went with it to New South Wales. Several detachments of it served under his command at the Moreton Bay penal settlement in 1836-37, and after his recall to Sydney the station at Brisbane began to be broken up in preparation for free settlement. He embarked with the regiment in June 1842 for India, where he was appointed lieutenant-colonel in 1843, and for some years saw action on the North-West Frontier. In 1857 at Calcutta he published Remarks on Drill, with Rough Sketches of Field Days, and in May, as commander of the brigade at Peshawar, planned the successful disarming of four Sepoy battalions. Later he protested vehemently against any soft treatment of the mutineers, and was notable for his severity at Sittana. Sir John Lawrence thought him one of the best officers in India, 'a master of all technical details in every arm of the service'. For his frontier services Cotton was made K.C.B. and after returning to England he was appointed lieutenant-general in 1866, governor of Chelsea Hospital and G.C.B. in 1872. In 1868 in London he had published Nine Years on the North-West Frontier of India, from 1854 to 1863, and, four years after his death on 20 February 1874, his pamphlet A Prophecy Fulfilled, 1869, The Central Asian Question was published in Dublin.

Hugh Cotton had a similar but less distinguished career. On 25 April 1825 he married Louisa, daughter of W. Brodie of Brodie, Scotland; they had six children. He took part in various engineering projects, including irrigation works at Tanjore and Agra, but after twenty-five years service he decided to seek a better climate and better opportunities for his children. He was appointed deputy surveyor general in Van Diemen's Land and arrived in Hobart in the Derwent with his wife, children, and five Scottish servants on 10 November 1842. He soon bought land at Longford, but when land sales declined in the depression, his position became something of a sinecure and he was appointed irrigation engineer. In 1843 he had lectured and published a pamphlet on the subject of irrigation, but the only rural scheme he submitted while in office was an ambitious plan for reservoirs on the upper reaches of the Elizabeth, Lake and Macquarie Rivers that was estimated to cost £40,000. However, he did save Launceston from a foolhardy scheme for water supply in 1846; his plans for Hobart were also dropped because they would have interfered with too many individual supplies.

Governor Sir William Denison was impressed by Cotton's ability and in August 1847 appealed to the Colonial Office to appoint him to the first vacancy as surveyor-general, colonial engineer or director of public works in any Australian colony. Soon afterwards, however, the position of deputy surveyor general was restored and through Denison's patronage Cotton was reappointed to take charge of the trigonometrical survey. He was far from popular: his relations with Surveyor-General Robert Power were most unsatisfactory and sections of the press credited the senior surveyors, James Calder and James Sprent, with the precision and accuracy of the survey. In 1852 when a select committee of the Legislative Council inquired into the Survey Department, Cotton was criticized for lack of experience and for decisions which undermined confidence among the departmental officers. His painstaking answers to alleged inaccuracies in the committee's report and his correspondence with Sprent were published as a parliamentary paper in 1853. Denison expressed dissatisfaction with Sprent's conduct, but even vice-regal patronage could not restore Cotton's professional reputation. Soon after Denison was translated to New South Wales, Cotton was removed from the Survey Department, and appointed assistant police magistrate at Hamilton and Bothwell. He also acted as inspector of schools after Thomas Arnold left the colony.

In 1857 Cotton printed his testimonials and circulated them privately. He was assured by Calder that 'we all know how actively malice and mischief have been at work to deprecate your professional merits here for years and years, to which the high testimonials of, I doubt not, far more able and qualified men than your maligners would give the completest refutation'. Such crumbs of comfort were small recompense for Cotton's unhappy Tasmanian experience: two of his children died there, he was twice demoted, his plans were rejected, and in 1853 he had to sell his comfortable Longford estate, partly through accusations that it caused his absence too often from his duties. He was even obliged to ask the government for an advance to pay his passage money when he left the colony in 1859. He returned to India where he resumed his irrigation projects with much success and was awarded the rank of colonel. He died in 1881.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 22, series 3, vols 4, 5
  • Legislative Council (Van Diemen's Land) Papers, 1844
  • Annual Register, 1874
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 22 Oct 1825
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 15 Nov 1842
  • Hobart Town Courier, 4 Nov 1848
  • Calder papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CSO 1/108, 139, 8/69, 124 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • GO 33/48, 59 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

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Citation details

'Cotton, Sir Sydney John (1792–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cotton-sir-sydney-john-1926/text2295, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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