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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Butler, Robert John Cuthbert (1889–1950)

by D. B. Waterson

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

Robert John Cuthbert Butler (1889-1950), politician, lay preacher and reformer, was born probably on 20 April 1889 at Pembury, Kent, England, son of John Albert Butler, farmer, and his wife Emma, née Batchelor. Educated at Canterbury, Butler became a tailor, married Rosa May Beaven at Stoke Newington, Middlesex, in 1910 and next year migrated to New South Wales. Active in Labor politics and the Presbyterian Church, he took part in a strike at the Catherine Hill coal-mine, then moved to Brisbane in 1914 as a temperance worker and lay preacher. He unsuccessfully contested the suburban seat of Toombul for Labor in May 1915 and in September was appointed librarian at the Queensland Museum.

Butler was a confidant of E. G. Theodore, and his political dedication soon worried the museum authorities. He was prominent in 1916 as an advocate of radical views on peace, conscription and civil liberties; in September he joined the Queensland Anti-conscription Campaign Committee and organized the women's section. He unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Moreton in May 1917. He resigned from the museum in November and became a paid organizer for the anti-conscription movement. With T. J. Ryan, Lewis McDonald and Theodore he was summonsed for conspiracy to incorporate Ryan's speeches and writings against conscription in Hansard. In March 1918 Butler won the State seat of Lockyer. He became a thorn in Ryan's side as leader of a group urging public support for peace but attended the House for only 51 days of 77 in 1918 and 26 days of 77 in 1919-20. He was soundly defeated by a Country Party candidate late in 1920.

Disillusioned with politics, Butler moved to Perth in 1925 to work with the local temperance organization. Though not ordained, he became minister of the Augustine Congregational Church at Bunbury late in 1931 and was a most successful preacher. Active in relieving distress caused by the Depression, he was secretary of the Unemployed Workers' Movement and late in 1933 became a vice-president of the Relief and Sustenance Worker's Union.

In November Butler became one of two country vice-presidents of the new Douglas Social Credit Movement and by February 1934 was its paid secretary. His skill as an orator enabled him successfully to defend the complex monetary theories of Douglas in debate against both Labor and Nationalist partisans, but he failed to secure election to the Legislative Council in May 1934. In a subsequent series of lecture tours through depressed country areas, his populist fervour attracted many in economic distress.

Butler disagreed finally with the Western Australian Douglas Credit Movement in 1936, resigned, drove across Australia and settled in Sydney. He revived his association there with the movement and with Protestant churches. During World War II he broadcast occasionally for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, then withdrew into retirement. Survived by his wife and four sons, he died of cancer at Hornsby on 8 November 1950 and was cremated.

Butler's beliefs and career ran a full course from Christian unorthodoxy to Labor radicalism and monetary reform. (Sir) Walter Murdoch spoke of his 'eloquence that came from perfect sincerity and an intense eagerness to serve his fellow men', but Patrick Troy, who encountered him in debate, saw him as no more than an astute and unscrupulous demagogue.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1918, 1140, 1166, 1685, 1919-20, 2218
  • New Economics: Advocating the Douglas Credit Proposals, 1933-34
  • Daily Standard (Brisane), 10 May 1915, 21 Sept, 21 Oct 1916, 30 Apr 1917
  • Worker (Brisbane), 30 May 1915, 21 Sept 1916
  • B. B. Berzins, The Social Credit Movement in Australia to 1940 (M.A. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1967).

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Butler, Robert John Cuthbert (1889–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 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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