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Henry John Butler (1889–1924)

by Leith G. MacGillivray

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Henry John Butler (1889-1924), aviator, was born on 9 November 1889 at Yorketown, South Australia, son of John James Butler, wheat-farmer, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Cook. Harry Butler showed his enthusiasm and aptitude for mechanics by building models of primitive aircraft while still at school in Koolywurtie; he later accorded farm-work a lower priority than collaboration with a neighbour and lifelong mentor S. C. Crawford in building and flying one of Australia's early aeroplanes. Among the February 1915 candidates, Butler alone gained entrance as an aeromechanic to the Australian Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria. Commissioned three weeks after joining the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, he became fighting-instructor at Turnberry, Scotland, in 1917, and chief fighting-instructor at No. 2 Yorkshire School of Aerial Fighting in 1918. He alternated teaching with studying German aerial combat tactics over France, and he received the Air Force Cross in 1918.

Demobilized as captain, Butler brought back to Australia in 1919 a £2000 Bristol monoplane, a type which had proved its superiority in speed and manoeuvrability. He also purchased an Avro 504-K and three 110 horsepower Le Rhone rotary engines: he converted the Avro to carry two passengers on joy-rides at £5 for fifteen minutes. The monoplane, popularly termed the 'Red Devil', made the first Australian mail-service flight over water on 6 August 1919 when Butler covered the distance of 67 miles (108 km) from Adelaide to his home town, Minlaton, in twenty-seven minutes, reaching an altitude of 15,000 feet (4572 m). With 'luck, pluck and ability' as a formula for success, he also raised funds for patriotic purposes in several daring aerobatic exhibitions, notably a stunt-flying display before a crowd of 20,000 at Unley oval on 23 August 1919, the provision of a low-flying escort for Prime Minister W. M. Hughes's train from Salisbury to Adelaide that year, and the winning of an aerial Peace Loan Derby on 7 September 1920.

With Crawford's administrative help and the mechanical services of H. A. Kauper, Butler operated as the Captain Harry J. Butler & Kauper Aviation Co. Ltd. The firm used the Albert Park field which later became South Australia's government airport; it was voluntarily liquidated in 1921, as a result of the public's waning interest in aerobatics. Butler retained the equipment and operated on his own until his flying career was terminated by a crash south of Minlaton on 10 January 1922. Upon recovery he established an aviation and motor-engineering garage at Minlaton and in 1924 became a director of Butler, Nicholson Ltd, motor distributors and engineers.

He died suddenly on 30 July 1924 from an unsuspected cerebral abscess and was buried in North Road cemetery, North Adelaide. He was survived by his wife Elsa Birch Gibson, a nurse from Bool Lagoon whom he had married on 21 July 1920 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Adelaide. The restored 'Red Devil' is housed in the Captain Harry Butler Memorial Museum at Minlaton; an oil portrait of him is held by the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • E. R. Burnett-Reid, ‘The Harry Butler story’, Aviation Historical Society of Australia, Journal, 4 (1963), no 4
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 July, 7, 30 Aug 1919
  • Observer (Adelaide), 14 Jan 1922, 2 Aug 1924
  • H. Butler collection, PRG 207, and letters to G. Ward (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Leith G. MacGillivray, 'Butler, Henry John (1889–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 November, 1889
Yorketown, South Australia, Australia


30 July, 1924 (aged 34)