Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Butters (1810–1887)

by Renate Howe

This article was published:

View Previous Version

William Butters (1810-1887), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

William Butters (1810-1887), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9406199

William Butters (1810-1887), Wesleyan clergyman, was born in January 1810, probably the son of Verlot Butters of Hibaldstow, Lincolnshire, England, and his wife Ann who had suffered much persecution for her devoted adherence to the Methodists. He entered the Wesleyan ministry in 1833 and was immediately sent as an agent of the British Conference Missionary Society to Van Diemen's Land. In November 1834 he began work as a chaplain to convicts on secondary punishments at Port Arthur. Because of the difficult and discouraging conditions he remained less than two years before asking for transfer to Hobart Town. There he took charge of a small Wesleyan society and commenced regular worship services at the court-house. On 22 March 1842 at the Melville Street Wesleyan Church in Hobart he married Jane Middleton, eldest daughter of John Waterhouse, who had been appointed superintendent of Wesleyan missions in Australia and Polynesia by the British Conference and who had arrived in Hobart in 1839.

Butters moved to Campbell Town in 1839, to Ross in 1841 and three years later to Launceston; in each appointment he increased the Wesleyan membership and encouraged the building of chapels. After sixteen years as a pioneer preacher in Tasmania, he was appointed chairman of the newly-formed district of Victoria in 1850. Gold was discovered in the colony in 1851 and for the next four years Butters supervised the denomination's development in a period of increasing population and chaotic conditions. Freed from circuit appointment by the district meeting of 1852, he immediately visited the goldfields and became known as 'the travelling bishop'. With the support of Walter Powell, a Wesleyan layman, an Immigrants' Home was built in Melbourne to provide shelter for the new arrivals. In order to provide church accommodation Butters negotiated with the government for grants of land, and chapels were quickly built in Melbourne and on the goldfields. He was chairman of a meeting which raised money for the fares of six British ministers to come to the colony. He was also an effective and forcible leader in educational affairs. Taking advantage of government grants the Wesleyans established the largest number of day schools of any Victorian denomination. Butters opposed the government's proposal of 1854 to alter the basis on which grants to denominations were made, threatening to transfer the Wesleyan schools from the Denominational to the National Schools Board. Supported by Powell, Butters formed a committee to investigate the possibility of establishing a Wesleyan Grammar School. Butters's effective guidance of the Wesleyan denomination in Victoria was acknowledged by Rev. Robert Young, the British delegate who visited Australia in 1853 to arrange for the establishment of an Australasian Conference.

The first of these conferences met in 1855, appointed Butters as chairman of the South Australian District and transferred Rev. Daniel Draper to Victoria. The change was not popular in Victoria where Butters had earned wide respect by his able administration and pleasant personality. While in South Australia he was invited to return for the opening in 1857 of Wesley Church, Melbourne, since he had originally suggested its erection. He was responsible for extending church accommodation in South Australia and was president of the Conference in 1858. He returned to Victoria as superintendent of the Melbourne East circuit in 1861 and two years later was given permission to visit England for twelve months. In 1863 at Sheffield he attended his first British Conference. Because of poor health he became a supernumerary minister of the Australasian Conference. He did not return and lived in retirement at Brixton near London, where he died on 10 October 1887. Butters described himself as a 'plain, affectionate, earnest man'; he was also an untiring worker and able administrator.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Symons, Life of the Rev. Daniel James Draper (Lond, 1870)
  • Southern Cross (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1887
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 28 Oct 1887.

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Butters, William (1810–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 July 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

William Butters (1810-1887), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

William Butters (1810-1887), by J. (John) Cochran, 1870s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9406199

Life Summary [details]


January, 1810


10 October, 1887 (aged 77)
Brixton, Surrey, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.