State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 4 October 1969


The Verse of John Cotton

John Cotton, artist, naturalist and writer, was born on 17 December 1801 at Balham Hill, Clapham Common, England. He was brought up to love and appreciate paintings, books and music, an environment to which he readily responded. All his life he was to record, with brush and pen and in letters and verse, his thoughts and the events and things which touched his life.
He studied law, but it was in the fields of art and natural history, mainly ornithology, that his real interests lay, and in 1835–6 he published exquisitely illustrated books on British birds. (Another work, Beautiful Birds: their Natural History, was published in England after his death.)
He emigrated to Port Phillip in 1843 with his wife and nine children. His tenth child, a daughter, was born here. Shortly after his arrival he took over ‘Doogallook’, a grazing property of some 26,800 acres on the Goulburn River, and although he subsequently acquired other lands, it was here that he built his home. The six years of life left to him were spent as a pastoralist, and during that time he constantly illustrated or wrote of the scene around him. It was from ‘Doogallook’ that he sent home to England to be published the poems mentioned in this paper. His death on 14 December 1849 cut short a life with many plans unfinished.
There are now two known volumes of poems by John Cotton.
Journal of a Voyage in the Barque Parkfield … in the Year 1843, Printed by Samuel Bentley and Co. Bangor House, Shoe Lane London, 1845. 48 pages.
Colophon: page 48. London: Printed by S. & J. Bentley, Wilson, and Fley, Bangor House Shoe Lane.
Several years later Cotton issued a further twelve pages, carrying on the pagination so that both sections could be bound together to complete the volume. These last twelve pages were published in 1847 or 1848. The 48 page copy contains the poetical ‘Journal’, nine sonnets and several other poems. Pages 49–60 carry a further sixteen sonnets and a poem, ‘Lines Composed upon the Ocean’. The La Trobe Library holds both a 48 page and a 60 page copy.
Rhymes of my Leisure; or Attempts at Versification. By a Squatter of Australia Felix. Printed by S. and J. Bentley, Wilson, and Fley, Bangor House, Shoe Lane, London, 1847. 70 pages. 4½ in. × 7 in.
This work, bound together with the 60 page copy of Journal of a Voyage … was carefully studied by the present author, and although the style and references to names, places, events and birds left little doubt that the poems were by John Cotton, positive proof was provided in The Leisured Connoisseur: William Cotton of Ivybridge by G. Hamilton-Edwards. It contains poems and sonnets tied up with memories of England and impressions gathered in a new land.
This paper is concerned firstly with showing that the complete Journal of a Voyage … was published in two parts at quite separate times, and secondly with providing evidence that Rhymes of my Leisure … is the work of John Cotton.

Journal of a Voyage …

When George Mackaness published The Correspondence of John Cotton in 1953, he made a valuable contribution to the literature on Australian pioneers. This work, in three parts, contains the letters John Cotton wrote during his years in Australia to his brother William in England. It is in these letters that Cotton occasionally refers to verses sent home for publication and to consequent misprints and their correction. The quotations below refer to the second section, pages 49–60.
In December 1846, John wrote to William1: ‘I have addressed this present case to you … I have also sent the few sonnets, etc., that I wish to have added to those previously printed, instead of having them printed here, in order that the same type and paper may be used.’
In March 1849, Cotton again wrote of the sonnets to William2: ‘I observe a few misprints and omissions in the few sonnets I had struck off last. In sonnet 10 the omission of the eleventh line, “And woos, impatient, for the fav'ring smiles”. S. 19, line 3, for Tarra Tarra read “Yarra Yarra”. S. 24, line 4, for world read “wold”. S. 21, line 1, for house read “hut”.’ These corrections refer to poems on pages 49, 53, 56 and 54. In the La Trobe copy the corrections on pages 49 and 53 are in Cotton's own handwriting.
This, of course, proves erroneous the belief held by Mackaness3 and others that the extra sonnets referred to by Cotton in his letters to his brother did not reach print, or if they did, that they have not survived.
John Cotton's ventures into the field of verse brought him little reward. William, the beloved brother to whom he looked for encouragement, remained silent for a long time on the matter.
‘As you have never attended to any of these productions,’ wrote John in March 1849,4 ‘I conclude that you consider them commonplace and bad, but if any of them have afforded you or others the smallest degree of pleasure or amusement, though temporary and fleeting it might have been, I should like to feel satisfied of the fact. Commonplace things are capable of giving pleasure sometimes, as Wordsworth has amply proved … I know my rhythmical effusions are minus the fire of genius and poetry, and so are my sketches of scenery, but you commend them. Are the sketches in verse so much worse than the sketches in line that you cannot find anything to interest you in them? Not having heard or seen a single comment on these things, I know not whether they are good, bad or indifferent — probably the latter would be the most appropriate term to apply to them.’
His brother's silence was, one imagines, a kindness rather than a lack of interest. The truth may have been hurtful, for if John Cotton admired Wordsworth the feeling was not mutual. On 6 September 1849, William was finally moved to write:5
‘You observe that I have not alluded to the specimens of versification you have occasionally sent home to be printed, and you are rather disappointed that I have not done so, and wish me to express opinions on their merit. That I have not given any direct expressions of my opinion on this subject before has been (gap) am willing to see anything (gap) But I am not. I am not generally an admirer of poetry, and consequently not a very good judge, but am of the same opinion with Mr. Words-


Sweet is the retrospect of classic lore!
Amidst th’ Australian forest wild a gleam
At times will flicker o'er the tranquil stream
Of thought, that, ebbing, flows to days of yore,
When luxury bask'd on proud old Tiber's shore,
And soft Italia revell'd in her dream
Of sensual joy, of pride, and self-esteem.
The villa, fraught with elegance and taste;
Its marble pavement, statues, column'd halls;
Its fountains, sculptures, and its frescoed walls;
Its paintings, arabesques, and vases chaste;
The atrium vast, the peristyle recalls,—
Triclinia, œci, vestibule, and store,
The rich tablinum, and mosaic floor.
Contrast with this th’ Australian squatter's home:
His slab-built hut, with roof of bark, and floor
Of earth; an unglazed window, and a door
Of rudest workmanship: the social room
A table might adorn, with scarcely more
Than one unbroken chair. Luxurious Rome
Would scorn the rude and semi-savage doom
That Anglia's enterprising sons are free
To seek; precursors of a happy race
Of past'ral people, willing to efface
From ev'ry island in the southern sea
Of worthless savage man the slightest trace.
Rome too of yore some barb'rous hordes subdued;
But British weapons are with peace endued.
worth, to whom Robt. Hudson showed your volume of poems, when he said that he thought your talents were more conspicuous with the use of the pencil and brush than in poesies.
“I should not have given this expression of my opinion, however, had it not been called for by your last letter …’
Written as this was, just over three months before his death, it is most unlikely that John Cotton ever saw this letter.
Apart from a few examples, the opinion expressed by Mr. Wordsworth is true. Cotton attained to more poetry, unconsciously perhaps, in his prose than he ever did in his rhymes. The verses have a value and interest, however, for they paint a picture of the times, and give an insight into the mind of the man.

Rhymes of my Leisure …

Only two references to this work arc known to the present author. The first is in Percival Serle's A Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse, Melbourne University Press, 1925. page 188; and the second in J. A. Ferguson's Bibliography of Australia, vol. 3, 1951, page 475, Item 4022a. Neither name any author.
The title page of this work is as follows: RHYMES OF MY LEISURE; / OR, / ATTEMPTS AT VERSIFICATION. / BY / A SQUATTER OF / AUSTRALIA FELIX. / [short rule] / Satius fuerat sic otiari quam turpius occupari. / [short rule] LONDON: / PRINTED BY S. AND J. BENTLEY. WILSON, AND FLEY. / BANGOR HOUSE. SHOE LANE. / [very short rule] / M.DCCC. XLVII.
Colophon: page 70. LONDON: / PRINTED BY SAMUEL BENTLEY, / Bangor House. Shoe Lane.
Cotton makes no mention of this work in his letters to his brother. The following comment, although referring to the Journal …, and the Dedication on page 5, could be connected. In December 1846 he wrote to William:6; ‘My children may like to preserve this little vol. in remembrance of their father when he shall be no more seen.’
The Dedication reads as follows:
By linking up lines in the poem ‘Lines Suggested by a Recent Visit After a Lapse of About Twenty Years to my Father's House, and the Place of my Birth. 1839’, pages 65–9, and a remark in The Leisured Connoisseur, proof of authorship is established.
In Rhymes of my Leisure we find: ‘The level plot,
Where jack and bowls afforded sport and fun,
With bow and arrow, slipper, ball and bat
Is here; the walk round which we used to run
To try our speed; the gate, so well designed,
Of garden tools; …’
and on page 22 of The Leisured Connoisseur, G. Hamilton-Edwards, describing the family home at Balham Hill, Clapham Common, writes: ‘Close by the house was another object to appeal to their childish glee. There stood leading to the orchard and fields a garden gate composed entirely, after a whimsical design of their mother's, of garden tools and farm implements.’
There surely cannot have been two such gates in England!
Tess Kloot


I am indebted to The Lady Casey for the loan of The Leisured Connoisseur by Gerald Hamilton-Edwards, which provided positive proof that Rhymes of my Leisure was the work of John Cotton, and for her interest and useful comments.
I should also like to express grateful acknowledgement to Miss P. Reynolds. La Trobe Librarian, for assistance and for so readily making available reference material, and to Mr. A. R. McEvey. Curator of Birds. National Museum of Victoria, for his instruction in bibliographical research, its need and its significance.

References Consulted

Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 1, 1788–1850. Melbourne University Press, 1966. The Australian Encvclopaedia, The Grolier Society of Australia Pty. Ltd., Sydney, 1965. Campbell, A. J., South Australian Ornithologist, April 1928, page 53. Casey, Maie, An Australian Story, Michael Joseph London, 1962. Casey, Maie. ‘John Cotton 1802–1849’, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, Vol. 4, part 2, 1963. Dickison, D. The Emu, Vol. 31, 1932, page 188. Ferguson, J. A., Bibliography of Australia, Vol. 3, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1951. Hamilton-Edwards, G., The Leisured Connoisseur: William Cotton of Ivybridge, Plymouth, 1954. Mackaness, G., The Correspondence of John Cotton (in three parts), Sydney, 1953. Miller, E. Morris, Australian Literature, Melbourne University Press, 1940. Vol. 1, pages 104, 231. Mullens, W. H., & H. Kirke Swan, A Bibliography of British Ornithology, Macmillan, London, 1917. Serle. Percival. A Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse. Melbourne University Press. 1925. Whittell, H. M., The Literature of Australian Birds, Patterson Brokensha Pty. Ltd., Perth, 1954.


The Correspondence of John Cotton, part 2, pp. 50–52.


Ibid., part 3, p. 40.


Ibid., part 3, p. 41.


Ibid., part 3, p. 40.


Ibid., part 3 (Appendix), pp. 54–6.


Ibid., part 2, pp. 50–52.