Harry Butler was a charismatic young daredevil whose barnstorming style was the first introduction for thousands of South Australians to the wonders of aviation. He was born on 9th November 1889 at Yorketown, South Australia, the son of wheat farmer John James Butler and his wife Sarah Ann (née Cook). His childhood was spent on his parents’ small farm at Koolywurtie near Minlaton. He was educated at the local one-teacher school and showed an early interest in mechanics and flying. He built model aircraft and is reputed to have caught his mother’s hens to measure their wing span and study their flight.
He became a keen motor cycle enthusiast, building his own bike on which he was able to travel regularly to Smithfield, on the outskirts of Adelaide, to work with C.W. Wittber, who was building his own aircraft. But it was World War I which catapulted Butler to prominence in the fledgling world of aviation. He passed the entrance exam for the Australian Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria, in February 1915 but, anxious to get to the action, went to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps as an air mechanic early in 1916. Within months he was an officer and flying in France. He was soon employed to teach other young airmen and by 1918 was chief fighting instructor at No. 2 Yorkshire School of Aerial Fighting. He was wounded on active service and received the Air Force Cross in 1918.
Butler was demobilized with the rank of captain and returned to South Australia in July 1919. From England he imported a Bristol Monoplane (soon popularly known as the ‘Red Devil’), an Avro Biplane and three Le Rhone engines. He then teamed up with his friend Samuel Crawford, mechanic Jack Lucas and Lieutenant H.A. Kauper to promote aviation in South Australia. Within days of the arrival of the planes, Butler was making exhibition flights and raising money by taking passengers on joy-rides.
In August 1919 the Harry J. Butler and Kauper Aviation Co. Ltd. was formed. On 6th August 1919, in the ‘Red Devil’, Butler made the first Australian mail service flight over water, flying from Adelaide to Minlaton, where he was greeted by a rapturous crowd estimated at 6,000. Most had never seen an aeroplane before. On 23rd August at Unley Oval he performed his stunt flying before a crowd of 20,000. In the next few years Butler employed his skills to promote aviation and raise funds for patriotic purposes. This promotion even extended to taking the Governor, Sir Henry Galway, into the air. In 1920 he won Australia’s first Aerial Derby, flown between points at Northfield, Henley Beach, Port Adelaide and the tower of the Adelaide G.P.O. Flying in his now famous ‘Red Devil’, he led the Smith brothers into Adelaide on the completion of their epic flight from England. As well as promoting air mail, Butler was a keen exponent of aerial photography and took the very first aerial shots of Adelaide from his Avro biplane. His company was not a financial success and was disbanded in 1921, but Butler carried on with two of the planes and much of the equipment.
On 21st July 1920 Butler married Elsa Gibson. Early in 1922 he was seriously injured in a crash near Minlaton. Despite a series of operations, he was left badly disfigured and made only one more flight. Nevertheless, he continued to promote the value of flying and established the Harry Butler Aviation and Motor Engineering Garage at Minlaton. He died suddenly on 30th July 1924 of a cerebral abscess, probably related to his earlier crash. He was buried at North Road Cemetery, his funeral being a huge public spectacle. A fine, classical revival monument, with his bronze air wings and a bronze model of his monoplane, was erected over his grave. The plane itself continued in use until 1945 and was ultimately housed in the Captain Harry Butler Memorial, opened at Minlaton in 1958.
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Some information about S. C. Crawford collated by Graham Churchett. July 2012
I first met Don Crawford in 1958 and we have been good friends since. In the 60s Don and his wife, Nevione, moved to Canada and in 2008 Don came back for a visit with his grand son. We took him camping out in the bush and after tea one evening, we were talking and Don stunned me when he spoke about his father’s service in WW1 and the part he played in placing the body of Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, in his coffin and was in charge of the Baron’s burial. During all these years Don had never talked about his father and the Red Baron.
Don asked me what he should do with his father’s uniform, medals and records. I said the last thing that should happen is to split them up and it would be better to give them to the Canberra War Museum. In 2009, Don paid us a visit and was also going to the re-inactment of the first airmail delivery by Harry Butler from Adelaide to Minlaton in 1919. Harry and Don’s father were lifelong friends.
Don asked if I could copy some documents/photos of his fathers’ as he wanted to give copies to his brother. Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes, there were photos of the Boer War, Western Front WW1, aerial photos, personal records etc. and after going through these, making copies, I somehow came to know Don’s father. When Don called to pick up the copies I made and bound into a book, he was stunned at what he saw. You see, I have troopers leather leggings from the Boer War and I placed these on the book.
Dons father’s amazing story
S.C. Crawford was a trooper in the Boer War where he was seriously wounded and would have probably died if not for the help of Trooper John Cameron who found better food and nursed him back to health.
After the Boer War, S.C. Crawford joined the 3rd Australian Flying Corps, went to France, rose to the rank of Master Sergeant Major, and when Manfred von Richtofen was shot down and killed, he laid the Baron’s body in the coffin and was the officer in charge of the burial. This has been captured on film. ref British Imperial War Museum. He was also responsible for one of the Red Barons outer flying boots being placed in the Australian War Museum in Canberra. On parade, after the Baron’s burial, he noticed an officer wearing the Baron’s outer flying boots and it was related by Don Crawford, that his father went up to the officer and said, “You know where they came from and you know what to do”.
During his training in Britain and France he became friends with Captain Harry Butler and after the war, set up a garage business in Minlaton. It was to Minlaton that Harry butler flew the first direct mail from Adelaide and there is a post card to S. C. Crawford in the files on disk. Harry Butler suffered a serious crash and later died from injuries sustained. His plane, the Red Devil, is housed at Minlaton and the wheel chocks carry a plaque that states, “made by S.C.Crawford. Cecil was Harry’s Best Man at his wedding.
S. C. Crawford later moved to Strathalbyn and set up two farming properties, Sandergrove and Fordvale in 1939. It was when checking boundary fencing that he met is neighbour for the first time.
Who would have believed that it turned out to be Trooper John Cameron, the soldier who nursed him during the Boer War.
In August 2009 the re-inactment of Harry Butler’s Mail run to Minlaton took place and the amazing Crawford story continued when Alistair Crawford, a Quantas Captain and co pilot, Dick Hunt, flew the mail delivery in their Tiger Moth.
This information was given to me by S. C. Crawford's son,
Donald Frederick Crawford.
What a fantastic History Graham, thank you for sharing it with us.
I'm surprised there's no reference to Butler's involvement at Hendon
Thanks for the link! We're required to stick to the original text when reproducing the 'SA Greats' articles here, but when we're able to research and write more ourselves, or find another historian who's keen to write on Butler for us, we'll make sure we include information on his Hendon involvement.
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Hi, we have written a book on him - Les Parsons and myself (Samantha Battams) - this will be launched soon (3rd August 2019). We have a chapter on the Hendon aerodrome, land sales and street naming (done by Harry Butler himself!)
Wonderful Samantha, I look forward to reading it.