John Cotton, pastoralist and naturalist, was born at Balham Hill, Clapham Common, London, the third son of William Cotton (1759-1816), and his wife Catherine, daughter of Rev. William Savery. John was educated at Crediton Grammar School and Oxford where he studied law. Afterwards he served his articles with a legal firm. He married Susannah Edwards and in January 1843 with his wife, four sons, five daughters and some female servants sailed for Australia in the Parkfield and arrived at Port Phillip in May.
Before he emigrated Cotton had published The Resident Song Birds of Great Britain … (London, 1835), and an enlarged edition of the same work, The Song Birds of Great Britain (London, 1836), with thirty-three coloured plates. After his arrival he published Journal of a Voyage in the Barque ‘Parkfield’ … in the Year 1843 (London, 1845). This contains a number of poems, and Cotton shares with Richard Howitt (Impressions of Australia Felix … Australian Poems … London, 1845) the distinction of publishing overseas the first verse to come from Victoria.
After arrival at Port Phillip Cotton and his family spent some months at Balham Hill in the Goulburn River valley with John’s younger brother, Edward, who had arrived a short time before, and in September 1843 John took up a near-by station, Doogallook, 26,800 acres (10,846 ha) with 1800 sheep and 400 cattle.
Next year he acquired Maintoongoon, 28,000 acres (11,331 ha), on the Delatite River. By 1846 he held more than sixty sq. miles (155 km²) and expected to shear 10,000 sheep. Meanwhile Cotton found time to continue his study of birds, and to write a series of letters, now of great historical value, to his eldest brother William in England.
His list of Victorian birds appeared in the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, vol. 3, 1848. He was made a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society for his work on birds.
Cotton died on 15 December 1849, leaving a widow who died in 1852, and ten children.
He had planned a book on the birds of Port Phillip illustrated with coloured plates from his own drawings, but this did not eventuate.
Cotton’s daughter Marian married Charles Ryan, father of Major-General Sir Charles Ryan and of Mrs Ellis Rowan, flower painter; Charlotte married Peter Snodgrass; Caroline married Albert A. C. Le Souef and among their children were three distinguished zoologists: William H. Dudley, Ernest A. and Albert Sherbourne Le Souef.