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Sir John Henry Butters (1885–1969)

by G. J. R. Linge

This article was published:

John Henry Butters (1885-1969), by William James (Jack) Mildenhall

John Henry Butters (1885-1969), by William James (Jack) Mildenhall

National Archives of Australia, A3560:3218

Sir John Henry Butters (1885-1969), engineer, was born on 23 December 1885 at Alverstoke, Hampshire, England, eldest of six children of Richard John Butters, master mariner, and his wife Fanny, née Dunkinson. He attended Taunton's Trade School at Southampton in 1898-1901, then studied at Hartley University College, Southampton, for three years on a county borough scholarship. In 1904 he received a University of London intermediate bachelor of science (engineering) degree and a first-class certificate for electrical engineering from Hartley College.

Butters then joined John I. Thornycroft & Co. Ltd, shipbuilders and engineers of Southampton, as an apprentice and improver. In 1905 he moved to the technical department of Siemens Brothers Dynamo Works Ltd at Stafford and gained experience designing dynamos and motors. In 1908 he became assistant engineer at the head office in London where he was responsible for designing and costing power-station projects. Next year the firm transferred him, as chief engineer, to their Australasian branch based in Melbourne. Butters advised the Waihi Gold Mining Co. on the design and layout of its hydro-electric station at Horahora on the Waikato River in New Zealand and the Municipal Tramways Trust, Adelaide, which was electrifying its system.

In 1910, still employed by Siemens Brothers, he was consulted by Complex Ores Co. Ltd of Melbourne and its subsidiary, the Hydro-Electric Power and Metallurgical Co. Ltd, about their proposals to produce electricity in Tasmania to facilitate the processing of zinc ore. Thus, almost from its inception, Butters was involved in the Great Lake hydro-electric scheme, the first major attempt to harness the water-power of Tasmania in this way. The hydro-electric company started active operations in August 1911 and Butters resigned from Siemens Brothers to become its engineer-in-chief and manager on 1 September. He was responsible for the design, layout and construction of a masonry dam at the Great Lake, intake works on the Shannon River, a power-station and transmission line, and an electricity distribution and sub-station complex for Hobart. In 1914 the company ran into financial difficulties; the hydro-electric undertaking was acquired by the State and became the responsibility of a newly established Hydro-Electric Department, of which Butters was appointed chief engineer and general manager at a salary of £1000 a year. A man of strong mental and physical qualities, he pushed ahead vigorously with the work so that, despite the rigorous winter conditions at high altitudes, the first two turbines (each of 4900 horsepower) of the Waddamana power-station were brought into operation in May 1916. During the next seven years, in spite of financial stringencies and shortages of labour and materials, the capacity of the installation was raised to 63,000 horsepower and the reticulation system greatly extended. In 1923, on the completion of the scheme which had cost over £3 million, Butters was appointed C.M.G.; he had already been made M.B.E. in 1920. Although he set and demanded high standards, he was warmly regarded both by the project's large work-force whom he treated justly and sympathetically, and by the Tasmanian government which delegated considerable responsibility and authority to him.

Butters had been appointed second lieutenant in the Australian Engineers on 20 September 1909, and was promoted lieutenant on 7 March 1911 and captain on 1 March 1914. Repeatedly during World War I he sought unsuccessfully for permission to go on active service, but had to be satisfied with the post of staff officer Engineers at headquarters 6th Military District, Hobart, which he held in 1915-21; he was promoted major on 1 January 1919.

The Great Lake scheme and these military duties would have taxed the energy of most men, but Butters still found time for other activities. In 1916, as chairman of the Tasmanian State committee, he became an ex officio member of the executive committee of the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry. The Commonwealth government in 1917 appointed him a member of a royal commission that reported on the handling, storage and transport of wheat. Next year he became president of the newly formed Tasmanian Institution of Engineers, and in 1920 was elected chairman of the Tasmanian division of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. Butters was also a member of the board, set up by the Tasmanian minister for education in September 1919, to investigate the possible co-ordination of engineering courses at Hobart Technical College and at the University of Tasmania, which recommended that a degree in engineering should be established at the university. At its first meeting in September 1921, the university's faculty of engineering elected him as its chairman and later as its representative on the university board of studies; he was appointed by the State parliament to the university council for two years from January 1922. In 1920 the Tasmanian government had appointed him as chairman of a committee to report on the water-supply of Hobart, and in 1922 as its representative on the main committee of the Australian Commonwealth Engineering Standards Association.

In 1922 Butters visited New Zealand to advise the Auckland Electric-Power Board on the system it should adopt for the supply of electricity in its area; next year he prepared a report on water-power in Tasmania on behalf of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, for presentation to the World Power Conference in London in 1924.

Butters successfully applied for the position of full-time chairman of the Federal Capital Commission, a body created under the Seat of Government (Administration) Act, 1924, to expedite the development of Canberra; he was appointed for five years from 3 November 1924 at a salary of £3000. The commission was a statutory corporation in which were vested the whole of the land and other public assets in the Federal Capital Territory: for the first time a single authority had responsibility for the administration, design and construction of Canberra as well as the development of municipal activities and the control of private enterprise. Initially the commission was charged with the job of completing Parliament House at the earliest possible date—January 1927 was suggested—by which time office and residential accommodation was also to be ready for parliamentary staff and a small secretariat. Although some construction work had been undertaken, the task was formidable. The government then decided in November 1925 that the entire central office of the public service, rather than a small secretariat, should be moved to the capital. Some idea of the flurry of activity can be gained from the fact that the commission spent £4,680,000 during the thirty months before the opening of Parliament House on 9 May 1927 and at its peak employed 4000 tradesmen and labourers. Butters, described as 'big, bronzed and direct of speech', was the driving force; he was determined that Canberra would 'have none of the terrible eyesores which mar so many of our cities'. His achievement was recognized when, during the visit of the Duke of York for the opening, he was knighted.

Throughout this period, however, Butters had borne the brunt of criticism from Australians who disagreed with the concept of a 'bush capital' and from people whose homes and jobs had been transferred there. He himself argued that the municipal side 'formed a small part of [the commission's] everyday work, and obviously its general activities could not be made subsidiary to the smaller, but, troublesome, points associated with local government'. The fact that the commission exercised almost complete control over the life and work of the populace, who lacked any voice in the decision-making process until 1929, led to considerable resentment. In July 1929 the government, which had been unable to reach any long-term solution to the administration of the Federal Capital Territory, proposed to Butters that the life of the commission — due to terminate on 2 November — be extended by one year. He was reluctant to continue on a full-time basis because he had borne 'a very great deal of opprobium which I have not earned', because an extension for a mere twelve months would lead to more abuse but little security for himself or his family, and because the financial restraints being imposed on Canberra's development might reduce the scope of his job from that of designer and constructor to that of administrator. When in August the government indicated that the plan to transfer the rest of the public service had been abandoned for some years, he resigned from 14 October and left Canberra the following day. The naming of Butters Drive in the suburb of Phillip is the only official commemoration of his association with the city.

Depressed conditions in Australia had ended large-scale public works projects that would have satisfied a man of Butters' experience, proven ability and forceful personality. His departure from Canberra, after a hectic five years during which £7,741,000 was spent, seems to have been a turning-point in his career. Not yet 45, he moved to Wahroonga, Sydney, set up as a consulting engineer and continued in private practice until about 1954. But much of his time was spent in other ways: in 1932 he was vice-president of the board of commissioners of the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales; in 1935-36 he was chairman of the Macquarie Street Replanning Committee and in 1937-38 of the Circular Quay Planning Committee. He was a director of a diverse range of companies, becoming chairman of Associated Newspapers Ltd, Radio 2UE Sydney Ltd, The North Shore Gas Co. Ltd, Hadfields Steel Works Ltd and Hetton Bellbird Collieries Ltd.

Butters had been appointed honorary consulting military engineer at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, with the rank of honorary lieutenant-colonel in 1927. He served on a part-time basis during World War II and was transferred to the reserve of officers (Engineers) with the same honorary rank on 1 October 1952. Interested in advancing the status of engineers, he became councillor in 1920 and president in 1927-28 of the Institution of Engineers, Australia; because of his efforts, in February 1928 it became the first national body to hold its annual conference in Canberra. He was a member of several other professional organizations, including the American Society of Civil Engineers. Another of his continuing interests was the development of motoring: in 1931, when General Motors absorbed (H. J.) Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd, Adelaide, he joined the first Australian board of General Motors-Holden's Ltd and continued as a director until his death. A member of the Royal Automobile Club of Australia from 1928, he was president in 1937-49 and then vice-patron until 1969.

A self-disciplined, reserved and modest man, Butters continued an active and many-sided career until about 1967 when ill health led him to retire progressively from public life. He died at Turramurra on 29 July 1969 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He had married Lilian Gordon Keele at Waverley on 10 February 1912; she and their three daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Tasmania Hydro-Electric Department, Souvenir Programme of the Ceremonies on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Power Scheme ... 4th-8th May, 1916 (Hob, 1916)
  • Government Gazette (Commonwealth), 21 June 1917, 30 Oct 1924
  • information from Auckland Electric-Power Board, J. W. W. Butters (Sydney), Canberra National Memorials Committee, Department of Defence (Canberra), General Motors-Holden's Ltd (Melbourne), The Hydro-Electric Commission (Tasmania), Radio 2UE Sydney Pty Ltd, Richard Taunton College (Southampton), Royal Automobile Club of Australia (Sydney), University of Southampton, University of Tasmania, and National Archives of Australia.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

G. J. R. Linge, 'Butters, Sir John Henry (1885–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 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

John Henry Butters (1885-1969), by William James (Jack) Mildenhall

John Henry Butters (1885-1969), by William James (Jack) Mildenhall

National Archives of Australia, A3560:3218

Life Summary [details]


23 December, 1885
Alverstoke, Hampshire, England


29 July, 1969 (aged 83)
Turramurra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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