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HomeIssue 15Brian Butler, mentor to the Stolen Generations

Brian Butler, mentor to the Stolen Generations

1947 – St Francis’ House Boys – Back: Charlie Kunoth, Bill Espie, Peter Tilmouth, John Palmer – Middle: Laurie Bray, Charlie Perkins, Ernie Perkins, Malcolm Cooper, David Woodford – Front: Brian Butler, Gordon Briscoe.


A book just published titled Sorry and Beyond: Healing the Stolen Generations written by Brain Butler and John Bond tells of Butler’s life and the disturbing tragedy of the stolen children.

Brian Butler was born in 1938 being the first son of Jimmy and Emily Butler.  Emily was an Aboriginal woman. 

During the past 40 years Brian has immersed himself in various Aboriginal campaigns with perhaps the primary one being the ongoing cause of the stolen children. 

1980: St Francis’ House Reunion. Former boys David Woodford and Brian Butler.

Brian’s grandmother Eliza had a daughter called Mavis, whose father was the owner of Mount Riddock Station, a man named Webb. 

Eliza had her two daughters, Emily and Mavis who were living at Mount Riddock when they were taken and placed at Jay Creek, which was a government institution for stolen children. 

In 1932 the two girls were transferred to the Bungalow in Alice Springs when Jay Creek was closed.  From there Emily was sent to Bagot Reserve Detention Centre in Darwin to train as a domestic.

After the bombing of Darwin Brian’s family settled in Alice Springs.  “My father was cruel”, Brain says, but Jimmy Butler wanted his children to have an education. 

While in Alice Springs Jimmy Butler came to know Father Percy Smith, who was the first resident Anglican priest in Alice Springs in 1933. 

When Father Smith established St Francis’ House in Adelaide in 1945 for Aboriginal boys from the Northern Territory Jimmy Butler was keen for Brian to go there and further his education. 

After spending some time at St John’s Hostel in Alice Springs Father Smith agreed to let Brian go to Adelaide where he lived for about 18 months at St Francis’ House.  Brian fitted in well with the other boys. 

One morning when Mrs Smith was checking the boys before they were ready to go to Ethelton Primary School she came to Brian.

“Brian!” she gasped.  “You’ve got your boots on the wrong feet!” 

“No Mrs Smith the other boys told me to change them around.”  All the boys except Brian burst into laughter with Brian suddenly realising what had happened.

From St Francis’ House Jimmy Butler sent Brian to Sacred Heart College at Somerton Park where he excelled at sport. 

He loved going home to Alice Springs during the holidays and being with his family while interacting with other Aboriginal people.  They would tell him about their children who disappeared.

Some would be sent to Adelaide for medical treatment or to go to school and never return. 

Aboriginal people had no idea how to deal with government officials.  It was from this beginning that Brian developed his interest in what was happening to Aboriginal children. 

He applied for the position of liaison officer in the Department of Public Health in Port Augusta, South Australia. Thus began Brian Butler’s 40 years of service to a host of Indigenous causes.

In 1968 Brain moved to Port Augusta with his wife Doreen and their six children. 

He worked with another Aboriginal liaison officer, Daphne Hampton.  One thing they did was track down removed children and help them to rehabilitate. 

Along with others Brain helped establish the Aboriginal Social Club of Port Augusta.  From there the Pika Wiya Medical Service was created. 

Then a preschool, Tji Tji Wiltja, was started with grandparents teaching the very young Aboriginal culture.  More was to come with the creating of the Port Augusta Aboriginal Housing Society.

Personal tragedy struck the Butler family in 1974 when their son Matthew was killed at the matinee film show in the town hall. 

The musicians’ stage had fallen on Matthew killing him instantly.  It had been pulled down on top of him. 

The police did not investigate Matthew’s death.  Less than a year later another son, Andrew, was killed in a car accident at Port Augusta.  One can hardly imagine the grief and devastation.

Tragically this trauma brought Brian’s marriage to Doreen to an end and he went to Adelaide.

Once again Brian immersed himself in Aboriginal projects.  He managed to get the South Australian Government to establish an Aboriginal Housing Board. He organised the inaugural conference and was elected chair.  This position he held for the next 12 years.

Given his ongoing concern for the stolen children in 1977 Brian helped establish the South Australian Aboriginal Child Care Agency.  In 1981 the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care came into being with Brian Butler being elected chair.

In 1992 Paul Keating became the first Prime Minister to acknowledge publicly the culpability of white Australia’s policies of removing Aboriginal children.  Everywhere Brian Butler turned or worked the stolen children were there.

Then came the Mabo decision which recognised Indigenous peoples’ rights to land occupied before white settlement. 

When Alec Kruger and others went to the High Court to challenge the legality of forced removal of Aboriginal children Brian Butler was there supporting them.

About the same time the findings of The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were handed down.  43 of those deaths were people who had been removed from their families as children. 

This generated further research into the circumstances surrounding forcibly removed children.  A national report into Indigenous mental health found that separation of Indigenous children from their families was a major source of mental illness. 

Brain Butler forged ahead giving a detailed submission to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children. 

When the Howard Government prevaricated about implementing many of the findings of the Bringing Them Home Report yet again Brian was there putting the case for full justice for the Stolen Children. He spoke out against Prime Minister Howard’s refusal to make a national apology.

After his removal from the South Australia’s Aboriginal child care agency, which greatly distressed Brain, he was elected in 1999 as an ATSIC Commissioner for South Australia. 

He was assigned the portfolio of Family and Youth.  Along with this he supported the Sorry Day campaign.  Brian became involved in the Journey of Healing travelling to many Indigenous communities throughout Australia.

As an ATSIC Commissioner Brian visited the United Nations in New York as well as visiting the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva where he met Indigenous peoples from around the world.  There was considerable interest in the injustices meted out to Aboriginal people.

Brian went on to serve on the advisory council of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission where he focussed on the rights of the child.  In 2012 he was campaigning against “lateral violence” in Aboriginal communities.

Speaking about the findings of The National Inquiry the Chair, Sir Ronald Wilson said: “Children were removed because the Aboriginal race was seen as an embarrassment to white Australia.

2018: Launch of The Boys From St Francis by Ashely Mallett at Glanville Hall (St Francis’ House). From left to right. John P McD Smith, Brian Butler, Jim Foster, Vincent Copley, Gordon Briscoe, Mark J Smith.

The aim was to strip the children of their Aboriginality and accustom them to live in a white Australia. 

“The tragedy was compounded when the children … encountered racism which shaped the policy, and found themselves rejected by the very society for which they were being prepared.”

Such is the significance of Brian’s work that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has penned the foreword for the book. Speaking in 2012 at a conference in Switzerland Kevin Rudd emphasised the importance of factual information. 

He said: “You need case histories and stories well researched by people who are sensitive and disciplined in the preparation of historical material, so that the case is unassailable.” 

Nothing could be closer to the truth when examining the circumstances surrounding the Stolen Generations.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and the NT Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Selena Uibo, would both do well to carefully read Brian Butler’s and John Bond’s book. 

Identifying with past suffering and trauma experienced by the Stolen Children is vitally important in the healing process, which is ongoing. 

A big part of that process is the researching in detail of the history of institutions such as The Bungalow, Alice Springs. 

Knowing all the nuances of the past is an objective and definitive way of building understanding, which can help bring closure.

Brian Butler’s service to Indigenous Australians is nothing less than outstanding. A few years ago, Brian was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in recognition of his sterling service to Aboriginal causes. 

Speaking to him recently about being the seventh of the St Francis’ House boys to be awarded an Order of Australia honour, and the eighth to be publicly honoured if you include Bill Espie’s Queen’s Medal For Bravery, he said having the letters OAM after name could also stand for “Old Aboriginal Man.”

After all Brian has endured, he is still able to maintain a sense of humour. Now at the age of 83 he is still working for his people.

John P McD Smith is the chair of the St Francis’ House Project.

ABOVE: 1984 reunion at St Francis’ House. Back row: John Moriarty, Richie Bray, Wally McArthur, Charlie Perkins, Fe Smith, Brian Butler, John Smith, Vincent Copley. Front row: Max Wilson, Mrs Isabel Smith.


  1. Brian Butler has led a remarkable life. I recall reading that the shift from Alice Springs to Pembroke Street in Kensington Gardens in Adelaide, while difficult, opened up a new world of opportunities.
    Playing cricket in the nets after school in Kensington Gardens the boys from St Francis encountered Don Bradman, who lived in nearby Holden Street, Kensington Park.
    Bowling a ball to Bradman seems a long way from the Todd River.
    Gordon Briscoe recalled in his book Racial Folly: “While at Pembroke Street we would often go via the back streets past the Kensington Oval to where Don Bradman lived while he played cricket for Norwood.
    “We had to pass Bradman’s house and Father Smith would tell us about how Bradman played for Australia and he himself played cricket in Brisbane for his church school.
    “Father Smith’s keenness on cricket spilled over into teaching, and it was he who coached us on the finer points of batting and bowling.
    “These skills meant that as we got older we were always picked to play for the school as well as making up our own teams.”

  2. Missing name in that photo, is the man on the extreme right my cousin, Desmond Price, next to Vince Copley

  3. Congratulations to Brian Butler for all he has done to support Aboriginal people.
    Also it is just incredible what Father Smith did to give real educational chances to Aboriginal boys at St Francis’ House all those years ago now.
    What is not so good is the apparent indifference being shown by Minister Wyatt and Minister Uibo to the proper writing up of the history of The Bungalow, Alice Springs.

  4. Congratulations Uncle Brian, Brings tears of happiness and sadness.
    All these elders in this photo have left a legacy in Australia’s defining history, past and present.
    Thank you all for fighting the good fight.
    Indigenous rights and freedom. So proud. Honoured. Without ethical voices, strong hearts and minds.
    Love, light, healing and strength. Always in your debt.
    Deborah Frederick


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