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James Stewart Butters (1832–1912)

by A. C. Milner

This article was published:

James Stewart Butters (1832-1912), by unknown photographer

James Stewart Butters (1832-1912), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H5672

James Stewart Butters (1832-1912), businessman and politician, was born on 19 February 1832, in Blair Gowrie, Perthshire, Scotland, son of Robert Butters and his wife Isabella, née Stewart. After employment in a drygoods store and marrying Helen Spankie, daughter of a justice of the peace, he went to Victoria in mid-1853. He worked first in stores at Melbourne and Warrnambool and in 1856 became a stock and share broker and gold-buyer in partnership with W. G. Baillie. The firm was among the first to introduce joint-stock mining into Victoria. The Castlemaine Ajax mine was one of its many successes, while Butters's cancellation of a visit to the 1861 Exhibition in London was a result of its failures. The partnership took an important part in the Melbourne financial world. In 1857 'Baillie's stock and share list' was a recognized authority and in 1865 the firm published a shareholders' guide to the Victorian goldfields. Butters was involved in the establishment of a stock exchange in 1860 and was soon prominent in a faction opposing J. B. Were's desire that brokers should act solely as agents for clients. By 1862 two rival exchanges were operating and many years passed before Butters was again connected with the Melbourne Stock Exchange.

His wife died soon after they arrived in Melbourne and on 5 November 1860 he married Matilda, daughter of David O'Neill, a Western District squatter; they had one daughter. Butters became a member of the Melbourne City Council for the Lonsdale ward, and by October 1867 had won a close vote for mayor. Though remembered mainly for his part in the celebrations accompanying Prince Alfred's visit, he worked energetically for the city's development. The Alfred Hospital, Princes Bridge and Albert Park Lake all owe a debt to Butters, and the Melbourne Town Hall foundation stone bears his name.

Butters entered the Legislative Assembly in 1868 as member for Portland. Early next year he was a central figure in a parliamentary corruption debate; he was said to have been, before his election, the agent of an association hoping to persuade parliament to pass a bill to quieten titles and to compensate losses in land speculation suffered by the association's members. Butters was said to have bet a parliamentarian £50 to 2s. 6d. that the bill would not pass. His defence, both to a committee of inquiry and in the assembly, was often contradictory and the newspapers, though recognizing his service as a mayor, opposed him. If he was innocent, said the Age, then he was the 'worst used man in the world'. Butters was expelled, yet a few months later Portland returned him again unopposed. His attractive personality, and the fact that the corruption case threatened the reputations of men more prominent than he, probably made his offence more easily tolerated. His parliamentary career was brief. In July 1870 he left the colony for Fiji, as a trustee of the Polynesia Co., in which many of his friends invested. Controversial as ever, he took a leading part in the island's government, society and economic wranglings before British annexation in 1874.

Back in Melbourne he threw himself into various enterprises. He opened the Victoria Club in 1876, and gave close attention to the search for gold in North Borneo and later in the Kimberley. Though insolvent in the early 1890s he was still engaged in developing pastoral and mineral resources in northern Australia in the first years of the new century. J. S. Butters & Co., stock and share brokers, were in the Melbourne directory in 1911. He was also prominent in society. An early member of the Victorian cavalry, he was in the volunteer guard that took charge of the Treasury when the imperial troops were in New Zealand. He laid the foundation stone of the Welsh (Presbyterian) church in La Trobe Street and was a leading Mason, a vice-president of the Caledonian Society and an active participant in a wide variety of sports. After his second wife died, he married Agnes Hattermann in 1882; she died on 15 September 1885 aged 26.

In 1888 Butters represented the North-Eastern Province in the Legislative Council. His election was soon declared void on the grounds that he had misstated his property qualification. Soon re-elected, he remained a member until 1892 when he resigned for 'private reasons'. In parliament Butters advocated the economic development of his adopted country. In 1870 he had called for greater immigration, and both then and later in his council days he emphasized the need to advertise Victoria's investment possibilities abroad. Optimistic about the colony's future, in 1888 he advocated that Victorians should cultivate a national feeling, 'a desire to create a great Australian nation'. Certainly his own interests had been Australia wide even to the extent of joining a syndicate which hoped to build a transcontinental railway. He had little sympathy for organized labour and believed that Australia offered good opportunity for the individual to better himself. He also argued that the government had to be economical, yet he willingly gave private assistance to distressed colonists and was active in many public charities.

In that field as in business, politics and sport this tall, powerful Scotsman displayed immense energy and a bold sense of adventure. The strands of his character were evident in his mountain climbing in Scotland as a boy, investing in the colonies, sailing alone in a Fiji hurricane and tampering with the proper workings of parliament. But an element of recklessness is easily detected, though a hearty and genial personality saved him from much condemnation during his life. He died on 1 September 1912 at the Red Bluff Hotel, Sandringham, survived by his fourth wife Florence Dela Fontaine, née Forward, and his only daughter Irene.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men, 2nd ed (Melb, 1887)
  • J. Smith (ed), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • A. B. Brewster, King of the Cannibal Isles (Lond, 1937)
  • The House of Were 1839-1954 (Melb, 1954)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1868-69, 1888-92
  • Table Talk, 4 Mar 1892
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1912
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1912
  • G. D. Meudell (typescript, Royal Historical Society of Victoria).

Citation details

A. C. Milner, 'Butters, James Stewart (1832–1912)', 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

James Stewart Butters (1832-1912), by unknown photographer

James Stewart Butters (1832-1912), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H5672

Life Summary [details]


19 February, 1832
Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Scotland


1 September, 1912 (aged 80)
Sandringham, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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