His father was a stockbroker and grand-master in the Freemasons. Gerry Cottle was educated at Rutlish School, Merton Park, south London and left home in 1961 at age 16 to join the Robert Brothers Circus.
Cottle started by doing menial tasks, but worked his way up to have his own juggling act, billed as Gerry Melville the Teenage Juggler, and then to own his own show, which opened in July 1970, with just five performers. He established his Big Top in 1974 and ran it until 2003. By the mid-1970s the Gerry Cottle Circus was touring Britain with three shows. In 1975 he purchased a farm in Surrey to use as a winter headquarters, and lived there for 30 years. He has also presented the Moscow State Circus and Chinese State Circus in Britain. In her youth, the writer and scientist Carole Jahme was a performer in Cottle's circus. In 1995 his Circus of Horrors debuted at the Glastonbury Festival and has toured the world since then. This was a collaborative venture with Archaos, a French contemporary circus.
In 2003 he auctioned off much of his circus paraphernalia in order to concentrate on running Wookey Hole caves, a tourist attraction in Somerset. In 2012 he celebrated fifty years in the business with a new show, Turbo Circus: 50 Acts In 100 Minutes, on a 31-week tour. In 2017 after losing hundreds of thousands of pounds his circus finally closed its doors for the last time in October.
Gerry Cottle’s Circus originally toured with a variety of animals including horses, zebras, elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, and llamas. The 1980s saw an increase in public opinion against animal acts. Cottle sold his last elephant and in 1993 had a non-animal circus. In 2012 he said that he now reluctantly supports the ban on circus animal acts, which he says will improve the image of circuses in Britain.
After purchasing Wookey Hole Caves, a tourist attraction that featured show caves, penny arcades and restaurants, he added a theatre, circus museum, hotel and circus school. At the latter, local youth train in a wide range of circus skills, and perform at the theatre and in Cottle's new touring show, Turbo Circus.
He married Betty Fossett, youngest daughter of circus showman Jim Fossett, in 1968, and has three daughters and a son. In the 1980s he became addicted to cocaine and was jailed. His daughters set up Cottle Sisters Circus. He is separated from Betty and has another partner, Anna Carter of Carter's Steam Fair They have now separated .
- Gerry Cottle on Desert Island Discs
- "Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus" by Gerry Cottle with Helen Batten at Goodreads
- "Birthdays", The Guardian, p. 31, 7 April 2014
- Stroud, Clover (17 Sep 2006). "Big top, bigger life". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 February 2014.
- Enoch, Nick (20 June 2012). "Gerry Cottle's Circus is brought back for the last time as legendary showman celebrates 50 years in entertainment". Daily Mail. Retrieved 3 February 2014.
- "Cottle leaves big top behind". BBC News website. 4 October 2003. Retrieved 3 February 2014.
- "Gerry Cottle, Circus Barry Walls was a great performer of his with his sons Anthony and Richard joining Cottles Circus at a young age Showman". spitalfieldslife.com. September 27, 2013. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- "A high-wire act". The Times. August 22, 2007. Retrieved 3 February 2014.
- Carole Jahme - About
- "Circus of Horrors — The Day of the Dead". The Mill Volvo Tyne Theatre. Archived from the original on 21 February 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- Childs, Peter (May 13, 2013). Encyclopaedia of Contemporary British Culture. Routledge. ISBN 9781134755547.
- McGill, Stewart. "UK'S FOREMOST CIRCUS SHOWMAN RETURNS WITH BIG NEW TOURING SHOW". An online journal of the circus arts. The International Spectacle. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- "Circus master Gerry Cottle now supports a ban". Animal Defenders International. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- Hobart, Angela (2006). Aesthetics in Performance: Formations of Symbolic Construction and Experience. Berghahn Books. p. 220. ISBN 9781845453152.
- "Turbo-charged entertainment for lovers of circus". Western Daily Press. December 20, 2013. Archived from the original on 30 December 2013. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- "5 days in the life of ... Gerry Cottle". The Independent. 5 April 1998. Retrieved 3 February 2014.
- Tyzack, Anna (2 Apr 2012). "My perfect weekend: Gerry Cottle, circus owner". The Telegraph. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- Salter, Jessica (24 Aug 2012). "World of Gerry Cottle, circus owner". The Telegraph. Retrieved 4 February 2014.