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Sydney James (Syd) Butlin (1910–1977)

by C. B. Schedvin

This article was published:

Sydney James Christopher Lyon (Syd) Butlin (1910-1977), economist and historian, was born on 20 October 1910 at Eastwood, Sydney, second of six children of native-born parents Thomas Lyon Butlin, orchardist and later a railway porter, and his wife Sara Mary, née Chantler. The Butlins lived at Singleton from about 1916; Syd attended the local public school and, after the family moved, East Maitland Boys' High School (1923-27); he displayed literary and linguistic gifts, and was dux.

In 1926 Thomas was killed by a hit-and-run driver, leaving his dependants penniless. Mary and her daughters were forced to take in washing; Syd became head of the household at the age of 16 and learned frugality and resourcefulness, traits that were to remain with him throughout his life. He was awarded a public exhibition in 1928 and enrolled in economics at the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1932). Contemporaries included (Sir) John Crawford, (Sir) John Phillips, (Sir) Ivan Dougherty, Mary Willmott Debenham (later Lady Phillips) and his own future wife Dorothy Jean Conen. Professor R. C. Mills encouraged scholarly excellence and avoided the public policy debate more characteristic of economists at the University of Melbourne. A sound training in economics and economic history was provided by such distinguished teachers as (Sir) Robert Madgwick. Butlin thrived in the freedom of university life. He combined prodigious reading in English literature with economics, and graduated with first-class honours in economics and the university medal.

Awarded several travelling scholarships, Butlin entered Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1934; M. A., 1939), at a time of growing intellectual turmoil surrounding the Keynesian revolution in economic theory. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not an uncritical convert: he was a Keynesian in spirit, but was also attracted to the ideas of the monetary theorist (Sir) Dennis Robertson. Returning to Sydney in 1934, Butlin worked as a research officer in the government statistician's office until appointed assistant-lecturer in economics at the university next year. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 9 May 1936 he married Jean who was by then a schoolteacher. He was promoted lecturer in 1939.

Life for a young academic in the late 1930s was intense and challenging. Butlin lectured both day and evening on a wide range of subjects; he contributed regularly to the press and to public inquiries. Public finance was the subject of his early scholarly publications. In 1936 he was invited to lecture on money and banking. The subject was of intense contemporary interest with the royal commission into monetary and banking systems in progress. Characteristically, Butlin sought a historical introduction to the subject. When none could be found, he spent all his spare time over the next decade in writing his own. The outcome was Foundations of the Australian Monetary System 1788-1851 (Melbourne, 1953), a monograph of rare distinction: rigorous in the use of evidence and theory, comprehensive and imaginative in scope, bold and elegant in structure. On the strength of the book, Cambridge awarded him a doctorate of letters in 1954.

Like many of his contemporaries, Butlin had spent part of World War II in public service. He was director of the economic division in the Department of War Organization of Industry from late 1941 to 1943 in Melbourne. On the principle that the official war historians should have first-hand experience of their subject, he was later commissioned to write the two economic volumes in the official series, 'Australia in the War of 1939-1945', under the editorship of Gavin Long. Again, the task involved great organizing skill and command of a vast amount of data. War Economy 1939-1942 appeared in 1955; publication of War Economy 1942-1945 (with C. B. Schedvin) was delayed until 1977 because of the pressure of university teaching and administration.

For most of the period from 1946, when he succeeded Mills in the chair of economics, Butlin was dean of the faculty of economics. With the help of an indefatigable administrative assistant, Joyce Fisher, he presided over the faculty and the department almost single-handed. His staff struggled with heavy teaching loads and inadequate accommodation in the early postwar years. While he was an excellent administrator, his style was of the elite Cambridge and Sydney of the 1930s, and he was less comfortable with the emerging mass institutions of the 1960s. He did not enjoy teaching large classes and his presentation was poor; he was at his best with small groups of outstanding students. Often resisting the creation of new departments and chairs, he found himself somewhat isolated from a number of his senior colleagues. In 1961 he published Australia and New Zealand Bank (London), an important history of the major Anglo-Australian banking group. He continued to work within a literary framework and to practise as an economic historian, preferences that did not sit easily with the growing formalist and mathematical trends of the discipline. Wisely he accepted a personal chair at the Australian National University, Canberra, in 1971. He spent his final years preparing an official history of central banking in Australia after 1945 and on a sequel to Foundations: his daughter Judith has since published his incomplete texts, the latter as The Australian Monetary System, 1851-1914 (Sydney, 1986).

An influential figure at the University of Sydney in the l950s and 1960s, he was a confidant of the vice-chancellor (Sir) Stephen Roberts. Butlin was a member of the senate (1963-67), chairman of the appointments board (1954-55, 1958-61) and of the Social Science Research Council of Australia (1958-62), president of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand (1953-54), a member of the Round Table group, and a founder and deputy chairman (1962-77) of Sydney University Press. As a chairman, he allowed committees free rein and then pulled the discussion together in a few, crisp sentences.

Quiet, shy and deeply private, Butlin was also able to draw on immense personal and intellectual reserves. He was a gifted conversationalist and raconteur, an inveterate tea-drinker and chain-smoker, as well as a courteous and kindly man who delighted in the achievements of his family. His complex and occasionally tense relationship with his younger brother Noel, another distinguished economic historian, masked feelings of deep, mutual respect. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Syd Butlin died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm on 14 December 1977 in Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Economic History Review, 18, Sept 1978, p 99, and 31, Sept 1991, p 3
  • Economic Record, no 145, Apr 1979, p 143
  • private information.

Citation details

C. B. Schedvin, 'Butlin, Sydney James (Syd) (1910–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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