John Swinburne was the son of Sir John Swinburne, who held the Tati mining concession in present day Botswana. As a young man of leisure he had no profession, but for some time acted as a tutor. Later he became a cow puncher in Arizona, United States of America. Before or in 1904 he came to the Transvaal Colony and settled in Haenertsburg, where he was associated with the Rand Native Labour Association. In 1916 he was issued a crown grant in respect of a holding in Haenertsburg and the farm Glen Shiel No. 2593 in the Pietersburg (now Polokwane) District. In 1920 he was appointed to commissioned rank in the Union Defence Force, but placed on the retirement list in 1924. He also occupied himself with hunting game and prospected for minerals without notable success. The last few years of his life were spent in Matabeleland, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he had several mining claims. He never married.
Swinburne collected butterflies with Captain R.H.R. Stevenson in the northern Transvaal and later in Matabeleland. Specimens that he collected are in the Lepidoptera collection of the National Museum in Bulawayo. One of these specimens was collected at Kitale, Kenya, which indicates that he visited that country in 1932. He continued collecting in Matabeleland until a month before his death. A variety of the butterfly Lepidochrysops glauca was named after him by Captain Stevenson in 1939.
Swinburne was a member of the British Ornithologists' Union. In 1904 or 1905 he became either a founder member (Ashton, 1980) or an early member (Journal of the SAOU, 1909) of the South African Ornithologists' Union. Two years before his death, in 1937, he became a founder member of the Entomological Society of Southern Africa.