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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bottrill, David Hughes (1866–1941)

by Margaret Barbalet

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

David Hughes Bottrill (1866-1941), philanthropist and journalist, was born on 11 February 1866 in North Adelaide, son of William Bottrill, bootmaker, and his wife Mary Ann, née Evans. Bottrill went to England for four years when his mother died in 1872 and attended a private school in Lancashire. In 1882 he entered the South Australian Public Service as a clerk in the postal branch. His position was made permanent in 1890 and on 9 April that year he married Sophie Annie Degenhardt at Norwood.

Bottrill was active in the Norwood and Kent Town literary societies; he wrote poetry and in 1891, when secretary of the University Shakespeare Society, won a prize for a novelette, 'Her Husband'. On 14 July 1894 he published a letter in the Observer which originated the Sunbeam Society of South Australia, a children's club to teach 'the blessedness of helping others … loving kindness and self-denial'. They were encouraged to form 'Sunbeam circles', each consisting of about six children and taking its name from an eminent public or historical figure, which met monthly for social activities or fund-raising. By 1903 there were 285 circles. The club was run through 'Uncle Harry's' sentimental, doting letters in the children's column of the weekly Observer and Saturday's issue of the Evening Journal. Bottrill was wont to discourse on his emotions as he read the 'much-treasured missives' from his young correspondents. He often signed himself as their 'friend and playfellow'. The society grew rapidly to a membership of over twelve thousand and, to organize it, in 1896 Bottrill became a full-time journalist with the Register. A column by a rival, 'Aunt Dorothy', appeared in the South Australian Chronicle. 'Sunbeams' raised large sums to assist the Adelaide Children's Hospital and other local and overseas children's charities. Bottrill's wife and children were incorporated into the society as 'aunt' and 'cousins'. Congratulations arrived from Queen Alexandra and Florence Nightingale.

Bottrill was appointed a justice of the peace in 1905. He became an active member of the committees of several of the charities to which, by 1906, his society had contributed the published total of £4756. In 1898 he had been made a life governor of the Adelaide Children's Hospital, and he was a lay preacher and superintendent of the Knightsbridge Baptist Church Sunday school. He also gave literary lectures to municipal institutes and was a founder of the State branch of the Dickens Fellowship. In August 1909 Bottrill left the Observer and formed a company to publish his own children's paper, the Sunbeam. Over the next two years he managed to produce numerous issues but in 1911 announced his financial failure. Next year he found a temporary 'home' for his column with the Saturday Daily Herald.

On 24 March his youngest son, Robert Harry Sunbeam Bottrill aged 9, died from shock following severe burns. Two days later the Herald dismissed Bottrill, who then attempted unsuccessfully to maintain the flagging society from his home. He returned to the public service as a clerk in the Hydraulic Engineer's Department and in 1920 was again made permanent. Survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons, he died on 22 December 1941 in the Royal Adelaide Hospital after surgery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909)
  • South Australian Literary Societies' Union Year Book, 1891
  • Children's Sunbeam Society (Adelaide), Sunbeam, 28 Aug 1909, 22 Oct, 15 Dec 1910, Mar, Nov 1911
  • Observer (Adelaide), 14 July, 18 Aug, 17 Nov 1894, 13 July, 14 Dec 1907, 14 Aug 1909
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 Mar 1912, 23 Dec 1941
  • Daily Herald (Adelaide), 6 Apr 1912
  • Board of Management minutes (Adelaide Children's Hospital): private information.

Citation details

Margaret Barbalet, 'Bottrill, David Hughes (1866–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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