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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Butler, Thomas John (1857–1937)

by A. J. Dunston

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

Thomas John Butler (1857-1937), professor of Latin, was born on 4 June 1857 at Windsor, New South Wales, second son of Patrick Butler, draper, and his wife Honorah, née Ryan. He was educated at the local Roman Catholic school and at Lyndhurst College in 1869-73 under Rev. Norbert Quirk; in 1873 he won a scholarship to the University of Sydney. At St John's College in 1874-75, he won the Lithgow, (Daniel) Cooper and Deas Thomson scholarships and graduated B.A. in 1876 with first-class honours and prizes in classics and natural science. In 1876-77 he taught with his elder brother Edmund at St Patrick's College, Goulburn. Resigning because of ill health, he became a private tutor in Sydney. On 21 May 1881 at Christ Church St Laurence, he married Lilian Eliza Trayte (d.1893) with Anglican rites.

In 1880 Butler had been appointed assistant lecturer in classics at the university, under Professor Charles Badham. He gave ten lectures in 1886 on the literature of the reign of Queen Anne, one of the first courses offered by the University Extension Board, and edited Badham's Speeches and Lectures Delivered in Australia (1890). Professor Walter Scott suggested dividing the department of classics in October 1890, and became professor of Greek; in March next year Butler was appointed to the chair of Latin, without the usual overseas consultations. He was the first graduate of the University of Sydney to hold a chair therein. In 1888-1913 he was a fellow of the senate, elected by convocation.

Widely read in ancient and modern European literature, Butler when young had no opportunity to travel overseas, and thereby lacked access to fundamental material, which may account for his entire lack of published contributions to classical scholarship. On the other hand he was an able teacher: his students included his successor Frederick Todd and the poet Christopher Brennan. He was also active in university life: president of the union and of the dramatic society, and vice-president of the sports union and of the boat club. He was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales from 1899.

Butler was a prominent member of the Athenaeum Club, Sydney; A. B. Piddington found his 'conversation excelled' anything he had ever known 'for richness, variety, wit and warm good-nature'. He retired because of ill health on 31 December 1920 and died at his home at Greenwich on 19 February 1937; he was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by his second wife Annie, née Bugman, whom he had married at St Patrick's, Sydney, on 6 January 1894, and by two sons and two daughters by his first wife.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters (Syd, 1929)
  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • Hermes (Sydney), 21 Oct 1899
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 30 Sept 1893.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. Dunston, 'Butler, Thomas John (1857–1937)', 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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