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Henry Butler (1821–1885)

by Gordon Rimmer

This article was published:

Henry Butler, by J. W. Beattie

Henry Butler, by J. W. Beattie

State Library of Tasmania, 617797

Henry Butler (1821-1885), surgeon and politician, was born in Cornhill, London, the third son of the sixteen children of Gamaliel Butler and his wife Sarah, née Paine. His parents migrated to Hobart Town in 1824, leaving Henry and five other children in the care of relations. He went to a private school in Chelsea, and then trained under Sir John Fisher (1788-1876) as a surgeon at the St George's and Westminster Hospitals (M.R.C.S., 1843; F.R.C.S., 1849). In 1843 he visited Tasmania and returned to the Westminster Hospital as a house surgeon; later he specialized in diseases of the eye at the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris.

Butler sailed as surgeon-superintendent in 1849 in the William Jardine; in Hobart he complained to the Colonial Land and Emigration Office that, pending employment, free settlers had on arrival to occupy convict quarters. In January 1850 the Tasmanian Court of Medical Examiners accepted his qualifications; he practised in Macquarie Street for thirty-five years and his skill brought him large financial rewards. He also treated patients in the Brighton area where he had a country home, Shene, in Bagdad, and acted as an honorary at St Mary's Self-Supporting Hospital in Davey Street, founded by Dr Edward Bedford, and Dr Kevin O'Doherty. From 1868 Butler was a member of the Tasmanian Court of Medical Examiners and its president from 1881-84, and an honorary medical officer at the Hobart General Hospital from 1860 and a member of its board in 1877.

On 7 September 1853 Butler married Catherine Penelope, sister of Thomas Whistler Smith, of Glenrock near Sydney, an old family friend. The Butlers lived at Lambton farm at Glenorchy and later moved to Stowell, his parents' home at Battery Point. They had five daughters and five sons, the eldest of whom, Gamaliel Henry, qualified as a physician in 1879, was a member of the Legislative Council in 1896-1914 and served as chief secretary in 1909-14.

Henry Butler unsuccessfully contested the Brighton seat in the Legislative Council in 1851 as an opponent of transportation and an advocate of free trade. Three years later he was successful. After responsible government he was a member of the House of Assembly in 1856-62 and 1866-85. In 1858 he proposed that Tasmania should follow other Australian colonies by sending delegates to a conference on Federation; he was elected as one of the assembly's two representatives. His main contribution as a politician, however, was in the field of education. In 1854 he became a member of the new Central Education Board which had Thomas Arnold as its first secretary. In 1856 when Northern and Southern Boards were created Butler became chairman of the Southern Board, and after their amalgamation in 1862 chaired the combined board. In 1858 he was a member of the Council of Education which helped to establish the Associate of Arts degree and was one of the commissioners who in 1860 inquired into Tasmanian education. He was also closely connected with later educational changes: in 1861 as a member of the select committee on the distribution of annual grants; in 1862 on the select committee of inquiry into government education; and in 1867 on the royal commission which recommended compulsory education, certification of teachers, a central board with limited powers, local authorities to assess parental contributions, the appointment of inspectors and truant officers, and a fixed annual government grant instead of an annual vote. Many of these recommendations were embodied in the Public Schools Act of 1868. For these services he was hailed by the Examiner as 'the father of the system of compulsory education in Tasmania'; the Mercury observed that 'Dr. Butler was mainly instrumental in getting the compulsory clauses of the Act passed'. Although Butler clearly did not favour denominational schools he probably did little more than implement many of the proposals for state schools originally put forward by Thomas Arnold.

In August 1869 Butler joined (Sir) James Wilson's ministry without portfolio. In October 1869, when a new Ministry of Lands and Works was created to amalgamate the Departments of Lands and Surveys with Public Works, Butler became the first minister with a salary of £700; he retained this post until 1872. As minister, Butler secured the passage of three Acts. As early as 1860 he had moved for a committee to consider the future use of unsettled lands and he was a member of a committee on the disposal of waste lands in 1869. The Waste Lands Act of 1870 reserved land for settlers from India and for public purposes, and regulated sales and prices. The Mineral Leases Act of 1870 dealt chiefly with exploration licences and leases. The Goldfields Regulation Act of 1870 gave the government powers to deal with miners' rights, claims, encroachments, strikes and partnership questions. An irrigation and drainage bill which he introduced in 1872 lapsed. Finally, in Butler's ministry, work commenced on the Main Line railway. According to the Mercury, Butler was one of the colony's few leading politicians who firmly supported the railway and from 1870 'ably assisted … in persuading a reluctant ministry and timid legislature to give its sanction to the construction of a Railway between Hobart and Launceston'; but the only evidence to link him with the promoters of the scheme in the 1860s was his membership in 1862 of a select committee which recommended a northern railway and his presentation in 1869 of a petition from residents of Green Ponds who wanted the line to pass closer to their town.

In 1877 Butler was elected Speaker and retained the position until he retired in 1885. He was a member of the Tasmanian Royal Society, the Lunacy Commission, the Salmon Commission and the Board of Immigration, and one of the first commissioners of New Norfolk Asylum. He died on 22 August 1885.

Select Bibliography

  • Tasmanian Cyclopedia, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1861, 1866, 1867, 1876
  • Mercury (Hobart), 26 Aug 1849, 23 Jan 1864, 5 Aug, 20, 30 Oct 1869, 24 Aug, 24 Nov 1885
  • Hobart Town Courier, 12 Jan 1850, 7 May 1851, 7 Sept 1853, 22 June 1856
  • Examiner (Launceston), 24 Aug 1885
  • G. T. Butler, The Butler Family: A Family History (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Gordon Rimmer, 'Butler, Henry (1821–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Butler, by J. W. Beattie

Henry Butler, by J. W. Beattie

State Library of Tasmania, 617797

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


22 August, 1885 (aged ~ 64)

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