Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cotton, George Edward Lynch

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COTTON, GEORGE EDWARD LYNCH, D.D. (1813–1866), bishop of Calcutta, was son of Captain Thomas Davenant Cotton of the 7th fusiliers, who was killed at the battle of Nivelle a fortnight before the birth of his son. His grandfather, the dean of Chester, was the second son of Sir Lynch Salusbury Cotton, bart., of Combermere Abbey, an uncle of Sir Stapleton Cotton, the first Viscount Combermere [q. v.] George Cotton was educated at Westminster and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1836 he took a first class in the classical tripos, coming out eighth on the list. In the following year he was appointed by Dr. Arnold an assistant-master at Rugby School, with the charge of a boarding-house. Both at school and at the university he was remarkable for force of character, accompanied by a quaint and grotesque humour, was very industrious and methodical in his work, and was earnestly religious. At Cambridge his most intimate friends were W. J. Conybeare [q. v.] and C. J. Vaughan, the present (1887) dean of Llandaff. His religious views at that time were of the evangelical school, but at Rugby he speedily came under the influence of Arnold, and in the words of his biographer ‘thoroughly absorbed and reproduced in his own life and work the most distinctive features of Arnold's character and principles.’ He was ‘the young master’ of ‘Tom Brown's School Days.’ He remained at Rugby for fifteen years, gradually developing into a singularly efficient master, and devoting himself to the moral, as well as the intellectual, training of his pupils. In 1852, having previously failed in a candidature for the head-mastership of Rugby on the retirement of Dr. Tait, he was appointed master of Marlborough College, which, established only nine years before, had been very unfortunate in its management, and stood urgently in need of reform. Cotton's mastership was the turning-point in the history of the college. By firmness, method, and untiring industry he restored the finances, improved the teaching, gained an almost unexampled influence over masters and boys, raised the whole tone of the school, and at the end of six years left it in possession of the high place among the public schools of England which it still maintains. His retirement from Marlborough was caused by his appointment as bishop of Calcutta, made on the recommendation of Dr. Tait, whose colleague he had been at Rugby, and with whom he had afterwards been connected in the capacity of examining chaplain. On his leaving Marlborough the governing body of the college paid him the rare compliment of allowing him to name one of the closest of his Rugby friends as his successor.

Cotten was consecrated bishop of Calcutta on 13 May 1858, his friend Dr. Vaughan preaching his consecration sermon. At Madras, the first Indian port at which he landed, the day of his arrival (8 Nov. 1858) happened to be the day of the public reading of the royal proclamation issued on the occasion of the queen's assumption of the direct government of India. Although the rebellion had been practically suppressed, men's minds were full of questions of various kinds—among them that of the attitude to be maintained by the government of India in regard to christian missions and the education of the natives. By some persons it was alleged that the extension of education in India and the encouragement which had been given to christian missionary work by grants in aid of mission schools under the education despatch of 1854 had had much to do with the discontent which resulted in the mutiny. By others it was contended that too little had been done in recognition of christianity, and that the compulsory use of the Bible in government colleges and schools ought no longer to be delayed. At such a time an indiscreet or impulsive metropolitan might have added very seriously to the difficult task which the government had before them. But Cotton was an eminently practical man, well able to see both sides of a complicated question. While rendering most valuable help to the missionary cause and promoting other measures of great importance in their bearing upon religion and education in India, he speedily acquired an influence in the administrative and official circles of Indian life which had not been possessed by any of his predecessors. The work which will always be most closely associated with his name is the establishment of schools on the hills of India for the education of the children of Anglo-Indians belonging to those classes who cannot afford the expense of sending their children to England for their education, and also of Eurasians. At a very early period in his episcopate Cotton was struck by the insufficiency of the means of education for the children of these two classes, and by the danger of leaving large numbers of them uneducated while education was advancing among the natives with rapid strides. ‘He saw that if there could be one thing fatal to the spread of christianity it was the sight of a generation of unchristian, uncared-for Englishmen springing up in the midst of a heathen population. He felt that if there could be one thing subversive of our Indian empire it was the spectacle of a generation of natives, highly educated and trained in missionary and government schools, side by side with an increasing population of ignorant and degraded Europeans’ (Macmillan's Magazine, December 1866). The scheme by which Cotton sought to avert this danger was the immediate establishment on the hills of a school or schools imparting an education physically and intellectually vigorous, suited to the requirements of commercial life or the army or the Calcutta University, with religious teaching in conformity with the church of England, modified by a conscience clause for dissenters, and the eventual establishment in the great towns in the plains of cheaper schools on the plan of day schools for those whose means did not admit of their sending their children to boarding schools on the hills. Cotton's proposals were warmly supported by the governor-general, Lord Canning, who, discerning their importance from a political point of view, gave liberal aid to the scheme from the public funds. The schools, called by Bishop Cotton's name at Simla, Bangalore, and other places, are monuments of this part of his work.

While thus striving to meet the educational requirements of his poorer countrymen and of the Eurasians, and while devoting much attention to the duty of placing the government establishment of chaplains upon an efficient footing and supplementing it by additional clergymen, maintained partly by private contributions and partly by grants from the state, Cotton did not neglect missionary work. In the course of his extensive visitation tours, ranging from Peshawur, Cashmere, and Assam to Cape Comorin, and including Burma and Ceylon, he visited a considerable number of mission stations, examining the schools and conferring with the missionaries on matters connected with their duties. He also carried on a regular correspondence with the heads of the missionary societies in England. On the subject of native education he came to the conclusion, before he had been many years in India, that the object to be aimed at was the gradual abolition of the government colleges and a great enlargement of the grant-in-aid system, ‘instead of the impracticable scheme of introducing the Bible into all the existing government schools.’

Although thoroughly liberal in his views on ecclesiastical questions, Cotton could hardly be called a broad churchman in the ordinary acceptation of that term. He never forgot that he was a bishop of the church of England, and that it was his duty not ‘to lose sight of the chief peculiarities and distinctive merits of the English church in pursuit of an unpractical pretence at unity.’ Thus, while he was ready to meet the dissenters on common ground and to surrender all exclusive and offensive church privileges, such as the sole validity of marriages by episcopal clergy, and to meet them as far as possible in concessions such as the loan of the English churches to Scotch regiments in cases of absolute necessity, he was not prepared to make churches or burial-grounds common; and when it was proposed that the English church at Simla should be made available for a Scotch service for the few presbyterians at the station, he resisted the proposal as being uncalled for and certain to disgust the English clergy and the high-church laity, remarking that in all such matters every concession comes from the church side and none from the dissenters, and that if he became more and more of a high churchman he should be made one by captious and perverse agitations.

The great extent of the Calcutta diocese and the need of additional bishops for the Punjab and Burma—a need which has been since supplied—was much felt by Cotton. Another ecclesiastical reform which, though originating from Madras, received his cordial support, and was in fact developed at his instance on one point of considerable importance—the limitation of the period of service of the government chaplains to twenty-five years—was an increase of the pensions of the chaplains who were thus compelled and enabled to retire before being incapacitated for duty.

In the midst of his useful and varied labours Cotton lost his life by an accident. On 6 Oct. 1866, when returning in the dusk on board a steamer from which he had landed to consecrate a cemetery at Kushtiâ on the Ganges, his foot slipped on a platform of rough planks which he was crossing; he fell into the river and, being carried away by the strong undercurrent, was never seen again.

On receiving the intelligence of the bishop's death the government of India published the following order in council: ‘The right honourable the governor-general in council has learnt with the deepest sorrow the death, through a calamitous accident, of the Right Reverend George Edward Lynch Cotton, lord bishop of Calcutta. There is scarcely a member of the entire christian community throughout India who will not feel the premature loss of this prelate as a personal affliction. It has rarely been given to any body of christians in any country to witness such depth of learning and variety of accomplishments combined with piety so earnest and energy so untiring. His excellency in council does not hesitate to add the expression of his belief that large numbers, even among those of her majesty's subjects in India who did not share the faith of the Bishop of Calcutta, had learned to appreciate his great knowledge, his sincerity, and his charity, and will join in lamenting his death.’

Cotton married in 1845 his cousin, Sophia Anne, eldest daughter of the late Rev. Henry Tomkinson of Reaseheath in Cheshire. His widow wrote his life. He left one son, now Captain Edward T. D. Cotton, M.P., and one daughter.

[Memoir of George Edward Lynch Cotton, D.D., bishop of Calcutta and metropolitan, with selections from his journals and correspondence, edited by Mrs. Cotton, London, 1871; Ann. Reg. 1886.]

A. J. A.