Philosopher and author.
A new biography of Butler, Samuel appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Butler was the son of the Rev. Thomas Butler, Rector of Langar, and grandson of Dr Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury school and later Bishop of Lichfield. His mother was a Worsley of Bristol. Butler was born at Langar Rectory, Nottinghamshire, on 4 December 1835. He went to school at Allesley, near Coventry, and then to Shrewsbury. In 1854 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, and was bracketed twelfth in the classical tripos in 1858. He then began to prepare for ordination, becoming lay reader to the curate of St. James's, London. But his inability to take the church's teaching seriously led to a resolve to study art. This, however, did not meet with the approval of his father who held the purse strings and, after some stormy exchanges of opinion, funds were made available for his passage to New Zealand.
Butler arrived at Lyttelton aboard the Roman Emperor on 27 January 1860 having fortunately cancelled his berth in the Burmah which was lost at sea with all hands. He came with the intention of increasing his capital by sheep farming, but by the time he reached Lyttelton all the known sheep country in Canterbury had been taken up. In effect, he could either buy the goodwill of a sheep station at the current rate of £100 per 1,000 acres, or try to find unoccupied land which could be taken up at a cost of £1 per 1,000 acres. As he was uncertain of the extent to which his father was prepared to finance him, he decided to explore for land up the main river valleys – this at a time when they were very little known. He purchased a good horse and travelled to the headwaters of the Rakaia and the Waimakariri without success. He then explored Forest Creek, a tributary of the Rangitata River above its gorge, and on climbing a mountain at its head he was rewarded with a view of the extensive tussocked watershed of Bush Stream. Here were some 5,000 acres of unclaimed country and this – run 353 – he applied for on 16 April 1860. In May he added another 5,000 acres of unoccupied land on the southern slopes of the Sinclair Range, and in September he purchased Run 242 from E. Owen and J. Carter. He now owned the nucleus of his Mesopotamia Station, so called because it lay between Forest Creek, the Rangitata, and Bush Stream. Since the end of April he had been living with two or three companions in a primitive “V” hut up Forest Creek. But in October 1860 he moved to the present Mesopotamia homestead site where J. H. Caton's hut stood. Having bought the freehold of this site after an exciting race against Caton to the Christchurch Land Office, he built a sod and a cob cottage and lived there for the next three and a half years. He carted up a piano in a bullock dray, and with his books and pictures he created a small oasis of comfort and civilisation in this remote corner of Canterbury.
Besides farming, Butler, with J. H. Baker, explored the headwater tributaries of the Rangitata and Rakaia rivers. Together they discovered the Whitcombe Pass and were the first to cross it, though they did not descend on the western side. As a result of this trip Butler took over more land up the Rakaia above the Lake Stream. In March 1862 Butler took Brabazon into partnership and later the same year they were joined by Hoel Pattisson, first as a cadet and then as manager of the station. Butler was able to pay many and some prolonged visits to Christchurch, staying first at the Christchurch Club and, later, at the Carlton Hotel. During these visits he entered into the life of the young city, exhibiting at the Art Society's exhibition, presenting prizes at the Grammar School, speaking officially at the opening of the Lyttelton Tunnel, playing at a public concert, and writing for The Press. Butler's letters home and articles he wrote for the St. John's College Eagle were edited by his family and published in 1863 under the title A First Year in Canterbury Settlement. Butler himself disliked the book thinking it priggish, but it remains one of the best accounts of life in the colony at the time. The comments on all that met his eye show what a shrewd observer he was. Some of the articles he wrote for The Press, such as “Darwin Among the Machines”, (13 June 1863) contained the germ of Erewhon. Other essays he wrote first at Mesopotamia were expanded later into The Fair Haven.
By 1864 Butler was growing restive. He was spending more and more time in Christchurch. Urged on by Charles Pauli, whom he had met the previous year and with whom he was now on intimate terms, he decided to sell his sheep station and return to England. His financial capital had doubled, his health had greatly improved and his colonial experiences had stimulated fresh lines of thought which were to influence considerably his later literary works. In May 1864 he sold Mesopotamia Station to William Parkerson and in June left with Pauli in an American barque bound for Callao. Thence to London where they took rooms at Clifford's Inn. Here Butler devoted himself to the study of art, and during the next 10 years he exhibited 11 pictures at the Royal Academy. Six years after his return he was persuaded to piece together the articles he had already written, which with additions resulted in Erewhon, completed in 1871 and published anonymously the following year. The book at once produced great interest. The Fair Haven followed in 1873. With the exhibition of his most successful picture “Mr Heatherley's Holiday”, depicting his drawing master repairing the studio skeleton, and now in the Tate Gallery, he came to the parting of the ways. After the publication of Life and Habit in 1878, he painted no more except during his holidays and gave his whole time to writing and music.
Butler had left most of his money in New Zealand at 10 per cent interest but later invested in several new companies in Canada. In 1874–75 he spent some 18 months in Canada looking after the affairs of the Tanning Extract Co. of which he was a director. Between these investments, which proved disastrous, and Pauli, who was a continuing drain on his finances, Butler had managed to lose nearly all his capital by 1876. But he was now beginning to write prolificly and books appeared at regular intervals until his death. Evolution, Old and New, published in 1879, led to a prolonged and bitter controversy with Charles Darwin, in which Butler had the academic and scientific world united against him. He was a frequent visitor to Northern Italy and his Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino shows an intimate knowledge of the countryside and its history. The autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh was published posthumously in 1903. Butler never married. Painting, music, writing, and the company of his friends absorbed him until his death in a nursing home in London on 18 June 1902.
Physically Butler was a small man, dark with bushy eyebrows and a brick-dust complexion. Initiative, shrewdness, and courage were his in full measure, but he could not tolerate self-ridicule. In New Zealand he was quickly recognised as a man of remarkable talent. He remains probably the best-known author who has lived in this country. He has been described as the most versatile of iconoclasts and one of the most challenging figures of the Victorian scene. Intensely concerned with religion, yet completely unconventional, he subscribed to no orthodox doctrine and waged a lifelong battle with the conventional morality of his age. In much of his thinking he was ahead of his times and, as a result, his literary stature has continued to grow as the years pass.
by Peter Bromley Maling, G.M., M.SC.(N.Z.), M.B., B.S. (LOND.), M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., Medical Practitioner and Author, Christchurch.
- Samuel Butler, A Memoir, Jones, Festing (1919)
- The Cradle of Erewhon, Jones, Joseph (1959)
- Samuel Butler at Mesopotamia, Maling, P. B. (1960)
- The Family Letters of Samuel Butler 1841–86, ed. Silver, A. (1962)
- A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, ed. Brassington, A. C., and Maling, P. B. (1964).