Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cotton, William (1786-1866)

COTTON, WILLIAM (1786–1866), merchant and philanthropist, was the third son of Joseph Cotton [q. v.] He was born at Leyton on 12 Sept. 1786, and was educated at the Chigwell grammar school. Despite an inclination (which recurred more than once during his life) to take holy orders, he entered the counting-house of his father's friend, Charles H. Turner, at the early age of fifteen; and henceforth all his education was self-acquired in the intervals of business. In 1807 he was admitted a partner in the firm of Huddart & Co. at Limehouse, which had been founded a few years earlier by Sir R. Wigram, Captain J. Woolmore, and C. H. Turner, in order to carry out on a large scale Captain Joseph Huddart's ingenious inventions for the manufacture of cordage. Of this business he was soon entrusted with the general management; and as surviving partner he disposed of Huddart's beautiful machinery to the government in 1838. In that year he wrote a memoir of Huddart, with an account of his inventions, which obtained from the Institution of Civil Engineers a Telford medal, and was privately printed in 1855. In 1821 he was first elected a director of the Bank of England, an office that he continued to hold until a few months before his death, having been for many years ‘father of the bank.’ From 1843 to 1845 he was governor, the usual term of two years being extended to three years, in consideration of his services in connection with the renewal of the charter, which was then being managed by Sir Robert Peel. A permanent memorial of his governorship is preserved in the automatic weighing machine for sovereigns, invented by him, which is still in use, and bears the name of ‘the governor,’ having been first introduced in 1844. This machine weighs sovereigns at the rate of twenty-three per minute, and is capable of discriminating to the ten-thousandth part of a grain, discharging the full-weight and the under-weight coins into two different compartments. A prize medal was awarded to Cotton for this machine by the commissioners of the exhibition of 1851.

But though Cotton prospered in business, his chief title to fame is derived from his lifelong devotion to the cause of philanthropy, especially in connection with the church of England in the east of London. Though never a very rich man, the total of his charitable donations would amount to a large sum, for from the first he set apart a tithe of his income for this purpose. But the time, the personal care, and the organising faculty that he bestowed were of far more value than the mere money, and won for him from Bishop Blomfield the honourable title of his ‘lay archdeacon.’ His earliest philanthropic efforts, as was natural, were on behalf of the men employed by his firm at Limehouse. Here he was the first to break down the vicious practice of paying wages on Saturday evening by orders on a public-house. This practice, it is curious to find, was supported by the difficulty of getting small change during the French war. He took the greatest interest in St. Anne's schools, Limehouse; he was chairman of the committee in 1814 that placed the administration of the London Hospital on its present successful basis; and he was active in building the church of St. Peter's, Stepney, the first example of parochial subdivision by private effort in the east of London.

Henceforth the building of churches became little short of a passion with him. A letter of his to John Bowdler [q. v.], dated 1813, may be regarded as the earliest suggestion of the Incorporated Church Building Society, which dates its actual commencement from a meeting held at the London Tavern in 1818, where his father, Captain Joseph Cotton, was in the chair. Somewhat later he was Bishop Blomfield's most enthusiastic helper in the organisation of the Metropolis Churches Fund, which afterwards developed into the London Diocesan Church Building Society. His own special work in connection with this society was the erection of no less than ten churches in Bethnal Green, the last of which (St. Thomas's) he built and endowed out of his own purse as a memorial of a son he had lost. Yet another church—that of St. Paul's, Stepney, on Bow Common—he built himself, to carry out his principle that ground landlords should thus perform their duty to those who live in their houses. To this church Bishop Blomfield gave on his deathbed the gold communion plate that had been made for Queen Adelaide; and the first incumbent was William Cotton's youngest son.

But his charitable energies were by no means limited to the building of churches. When quite a young man (1811) he was one of the founders of the National Society, formed for establishing schools in which the principles of the church of England should be taught. He was on the original council of King's College, and a governor of Christ's Hospital from 1821. For fifty years he was a member, and for a large portion of that time the treasurer, of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He was also an active supporter of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Colonial Bishoprics Fund, the Additional Curates Society, &c. With his friend, Sir H. Dukinfield, the vicar of St. Martin's, he was originator of the system of public baths and washhouses, and he was concerned in the establishment of the first model lodging-houses.

In 1812, William Cotton married Sarah, the only daughter of Thomas Lane. By her he had seven children, one of whom is the present Sir Henry Cotton, lord justice in the court of appeal. From 1819 until his death he lived at Walwood House, Leytonstone. Besides being J.P. and D.L. for the county of Essex, he served the office of sheriff in 1837, and was for many years chairman of quarter sessions at Chelmsford. The university of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L. at the commemoration of 1846, and he was also a fellow of the Royal Society. He died on 1 Dec. 1866, and lies buried in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist, Leytonstone, a church which he had himself been largely instrumental in building. A painted window to his memory was placed, by public subscription, in St. Paul's Cathedral.

[Gent. Mag. January 1867, p. 111; Church Builder, January 1867; Guardian, 27 Dec. 1866; personal information.]

J. S. C.