Swinhoe was the brother of Charles Swinhoe, a founding member of the Bombay Natural History Society.
He was born in Kolkata ( India), studied at the University of London and In 1854 the consular corps in China. In his free time in China, he collected natural history specimens, and since many of the visited areas were open to Western researchers never before, many of the species he collected were new to science. Because of its gravity as an ornithologist many of his discovered species were birds, but also fish, insects and mammals were collected. In 1862 he returned with his collections back to England. Many of the birds he discovered led John Gould in his work Birds of Asia ( 1863).
Numerous birds and other animals were named after Swinhoe, such as the Swinhoewellenläufer ( Oceanodroma monorhis ), which he himself had first described in 1867.