The Story of Harry Butler Conservationist and naturalist

Dr Kate explores the astonishing life of Harry Butler. William Henry "Harry" Butler AO CBE  (1930-2015) was an Australian naturalist, environmental consultant, and a populariser of science and natural history for both child and adult audiences. As a conservation consultant to the Barrow Island oilfield and many other projects, he played a major role in environmental conservation and restoration in Australia. 

He brought the wild into people's homes via TV and his iconic series 'In the Wild' from 1976 to 81.

Harry Butler's life had many twists and turns. The State Library has a wealth of collections relating to Harry Butler, including his oral histories, private archives, photographs, artworks, film and videos, and publications.

Recorded live on ABC Radio Perth on 12 August 2022.


Hilary: Well before Steve Irwin, the man who brought wild life to our TV screens, was Harry Butler. He was a conservationist, a natural history communicator, an educator and he hosted the series called In the Wild which ran between 1976 and 1981. I wonder if you remember watching it on TV.

The State Library has a wealth of material on Harry Butler. He passed away in 2015 and a series of Facebook posts by the library in July about his life generated heaps of attention and Battye Historian Dr Kate Gregory joins us now to give you a bit more of an insight into his life and work. Kate, good afternoon. Can you tell us firstly a little bit about Harry Butler’s early life and I understand why because he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder as well. Why was that?

Dr Kate Gregory: Hi Hilary. It’s lovely to talk to you again. Yes, Harry Butler. Look I think he did grow up in very impoverished circumstances I suppose. He was born in 1930 in Subiaco and early in his life his mother died during childbirth. I believe that was with his younger sister and so his father really brought Harry up and his father worked as…on the railway gangs. Various kind of railway camps around the place: Pindan, Meelup, Mullewa, Spencers Brook, Wongan Hills, Katanning, Clackline. So he described his early life as rudimentary; very little money, few books but he described two main resources that were available to him: the bush and also Aboriginal kids that he played with. So early on he had this exposure and experience which enabled him to learn to read the bush, a sort of proficiency in reading the landscape, reading the bush, knowing the animals, learning the animals and he clearly had a real knack for it and so although he was sort of living in these fairly impoverished circumstances…things like when World War II broke out, his father went away to war so he had to go to the Werribee Boys’ Home during World War II at age 10 but it’s funny the sort of twists and turns in Harry Butler’s life that’s really quite a colourful life because at that point in time, which you would think is fairly pretty unfortunate circumstances to be in the Werribee Boys’ Home, he met Cyril Palmer who was an agronomist and Harry Butler described him as a true ecologist and it was really Cyril Palmer who recognised Harry Butler’s abilities and interest in the bush and field ability and started to mentor him and encourage him in natural history and taught him about Darwinism and theories of evolution and so…that was pretty fortunate to have that early influence, yes. I think he went on…he went on I suppose and was at Northam High School and but I guess…at that period, he described feeling…he was always in second hand clothes. He described it as feeling socially inadequate and then this was all compounded by a false IQ test so they were introducing these IQ tests that is apparently an American system that they were introducing, and at Northam High School they did this IQ testing and Harry Butler’s IQ test came back as really quite low and this was actually a mistake. It was an error that…

Hilary: Oh my gosh!

Dr KG: Harry Butler later found out but it meant that he was kind of put into the sort of…class of ‘no hopers’ if you like [laughs]. His teachers who didn’t care and it was interesting because there were other kind of early mentors. One of whom was Vincent Serventy who I’ve actually discussed with you guys before on ABC and he was also, the Serventys were also passionate environmentalists, conservationists, naturalists and Vin Serventy who was a generation older than Harry Butler and was a teacher in science at Northam High School at that time, did mentor Harry Butler and encouraged him his continued interest, even though he didn’t really have the support of the education system [laughs].

Hilary: Isn’t that incredible. So he had this incorrect IQ score and was just sent on this different pathway.

Dr KG: Absolutely and it was just kind of years later that they discovered that in actual fact he had a perfectly high IQ [laughs] and that this was all due to an error. He went back and had a look at the files and...

Hilary: Oh my gosh

Dr KG: It’s terrible. It meant though that it sent him on this different pathway I suppose and for instance, he was a bit wild I suppose and he hatched a plan during one Christmas holiday to hitch up to Port Hedland with a drover and in fact he lived for seven weeks in an army camp with a uniform and a false number and he was part of the army until they found out who he was and then they took him home.

Hilary: [Loud] Oh my gosh!

Dr KG: In disgrace!

Hilary: What a thing to do.

Dr KG: Yes, I know. Those sort of experiences though, I think…they had a really big kind of influence and it meant…it got him out into these incredible environments too.

Hilary: He’s got a little bit of…

Dr KG:: And these places that you know…So he later on revisited as a naturalist.

Hilary: Yes, what confidence to do something like that as well.

Stay with me. I’ve got Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian. We’re talking about Harry Butler.

Dot is on the line from Scarborough, because Dot, you have a wonderful connection to Harry. Tell me, what’s your story?

Dot: Oh, just a normal Aussie girl growing up. I was born on 1928 so my early years were the Depression and my teenage years were war. My father was 50 when I was born so I was dragged kicking and screaming out of school at 15 because he had to retire and I had to get a job and pay board. I got 10 shillings a week and I think I paid 80 cents…

Hilary: You were paid…yes, yes.

And you…I understand Dot, it’s wonderful to hear you this afternoon on the radio. I understand you actually went to school with Harry Butler at Northam High School. What are your memories of him at that time and the teachers that you had?

Dot: Well, ‘nerd’ wasn’t an expression in those days, but that was the type of person that we thought of him. He was sort of, a bit of a one out and we didn’t think he was as bright as he obviously was and

Hilary: Wow! [Laughs]

Dot: He was a boy from Clackline which was sort of nowhere and he obviously boarded in Northam to go to high school. We lost touch…we weren’t close friends or anything. We were just both there under the influence of Vincent Serventy and his exotic lifestyle. I say exotic because he did all sorts of things and but he instilled his love of nature into Harry and eventually I lost touch with Harry but we weren’t really close, but his first job as I knew it was an apprentice electrician in the East Perth power station. My husband was a control officer there and he told us all these stories about Harry Butler, how they used to nail his boots to the floor and send him off for a left-handed screwdriver and all the things that they do.

Hilary: [Laughs] All the jokes.

Dot: [0:08:45.5 – inaudible] apprentices and Harry sort of took it all in his stride but he was a little bit I think confused by the whole issue but that obviously didn’t eventuate so he got onto bigger and better things and we’re all so proud of him.

Hilary:: It’s wonderful to hear you this afternoon Dot and thank you so much for calling through.

Dot in Scarborough who went to high school at Northam with Harry Butler and remembers also the biology teacher who you were just talking about there Kate. Vincent…what’s his surname?

Dr KG: Serventy

Hilary: Thank you, yes.

Dr KG: Serventy. Yes, absolutely.

Hilary: Lots of characters in these times it sounds like.

Dr KG: That was fantastic to hear from Dot, wasn’t it?

Hilary: It was.

Dr KG: It’s just brilliant. I think that’s really interesting because yes, he ended up working his apprentice at the Midland workshops and then as Dot said he was kind of working as a fitter and turner and…but it was actually during this time…it was that connection with Vincent Serventy. He became really active in the WA Naturalists’ Club at this time which Vin Serventy, well actually Vin’s oldest brother Dom, Dominic Serventy, had actually started the Naturalists’ Club and he attended their meetings and he describes these as being held in the dungeon of the museum (the Naturalists’ Club) and he just said he spent any time he had, any free time at the museum. So he was clearly pursuing this kind of informal naturalist sort of education and it was through those contacts, through people who worked at the museum, curators at the museum, through people involved with the WA Naturalists’ Club that his career really began to grow and grow.

Hilary: Now Kate, he’s probably best remembered for his TV series In the Wild. I’ve got a little bit of it to share this afternoon from his trip to Lake Argyle where he has just picked up a brown tree snake.

He tried to bite me when I got him. He couldn’t reach me though. His fang’s in the back of his mouth. So he lives in those rock crevices because there’s bats and mice, lizards, insects, frogs, all those sort of things are there feeding and he feeds on them so he needn’t move… one small area. He can survive on an island or single rock crevasse for a whole lifetime and rely on the food that moves in. If he really gets stuck then there’s spiders or he’d just go without. I know these fellows can go for up to 18 months without a meal. Well, I think we’re ready to swing for it. It’s not far to go. There you go little man.”

Hilary: Oh wow, so wonderful to hear part of that. So Harry Butler from his series In the Wild and taking us there to Lake Argyle. Kate Gregory, there is a bit of controversy around Harry Butler as well. I understand he tried to walk a bit of a path between conservation and development and was in support of the Franklin River Dam which was a big controversy at the time. Can you tell us a bit more about that and yes, I suppose what legacy it means for his life?

Dr KG: Yes, look that’s absolutely right. He believed that conservation was really about the management of the human use of the environment, right. So he was very much about working with development and ensuring that the environmental management started at the beginning of that work instead of at the end and this kind of idea of sustainability. He was one of the pioneers of that sustainability; what does sustainable development look like and mean. So it’s true that he came under fire and criticism from elements of the green movement who I think would have probably admired Harry Butler’s work for many years through all of that incredible public profile within the wild and the other public outreach and education and TV films and everything that he made. But yes, instead I think they saw that Harry Butler was actually perhaps working a bit too closely with the development so it came to a real crunch point I think for him with the Franklin River dam proposal and when Harry Butler was actually employed by the Tasmanian government and engaged as an environmental consultant on that and he believed that that could go ahead and sort of advocated for that to go ahead but then of course, he came under such criticism and he ended up I think the sort of negative press got a bit too much and he ended up after a couple of months resigning from that position and then of course that dam didn’t go ahead because of the opposition and then there were other alternative viewpoints that were brought in; environmental consultants that sort of advocated that instead the Franklin River be preserved and conserved.

But I mean his work…he was wide ranging in his work so I mean Barrow Island - he became completely and totally engrossed with Barrow Island so of course now, he had an extraordinarily difficult task I suppose of trying to balance the development of a commercial oil and gas field with what he described as the richest assemblage of natural sauna in any one place in Australia so he…it was all about balance I think for Harry Butler and he was of that generation born in 1930. His childhood background and everything…rudimentary making do…needing to recognise the realities of life and everything. I think, I don’t know, he kind of always tried to balance it. But I think despite the controversies around his legacy towards the end of his life, I think his work in raising awareness and all of the…for instance the WA Naturalists’ Club. He was very involved in the wildlife shows that started at the Perth Town Hall. He was really responsible for expanding the reach and the audiences and the work that he did at the museum, you know the impact that he had on so many children for making them aware of the beauty and the richness of the West Australian environment and the importance of protecting it. That public awareness and it continued with this TV series In the Wild. That had a really lasting legacy I think over a whole generation.

Hilary: Well you can see it now. Yes and Kate, you can see it now just with the number of calls and texts we’re getting as well of people’s memories.

So do stay with me. We haven’t got much longer left but I do want to bring in Ron who’s called through. Ron thank you for your patience. I understand you’ve got a funny story about Harry Butler on Barrow Island. What happened?

Ron: I…look just before I tell you the story though, I can say this to you. That I’m actually working in environmental and risk management capacity and when I started on Barrow Island in late seventies…78 to 80, I was a medic on the island. That’s how I got to meet Harry and we sort of did environmental stuff as well, you know and I can say to you now that the…that was when WAPET were on Barrow Island (West Australian Petroleum). Now you have Chevron and they’ve got this huge oil and gas operation, the Gorgon Project. That wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for the efforts of Harry turning an A-class nature reserve into something that could be compatible with the oil and gas industry. I can say that for a fact because I’ve not only worked up there in the late seventies but I went back and I was working on the Gorgon Project and the environmental constraints that are in place there to manage the wildlife on that island are just incredible. But getting back to the story, I remember back in the seventies, Harry used to give environmental talks to the boys on the island. There was only about 100 of us and one day he turned around and said, “Look, you shouldn’t be afraid of anything in Australia.”
He said, “We don’t have things that bite you. It’s not like these other countries.”
And he said, “So don’t be afraid of things when you go out and mix with the environment and the creatures.”
Anyway, he came back to the island about a week later and he had a bandage on his hand and I said, “Harry, what happened?
He said, “I put my hand up a log and I got bitten by a goanna.”


Hilary: [Laughs]

And just like that, that’s how casual he was about it.

Ron: Oh yes, yes. But he used to…In those days, we had a camp and Harry had his own little shack overlooking the bay and he was…he used to collect all sorts of things and he had whale bones and all of those sorts of things. It was like a little museum that he had just sitting on the side of the camp. But, great bloke and as I said if it wasn’t for him, you probably wouldn’t be seeing today the oil and gas developments up around Barrow Island because A-class nature reserve; no one wanted it.

Hilary: Well Ron, thanks so much for calling in, sharing your own perspective on that and your memory of meeting and encountering Harry Butler. Just before we head to news headlines, Dr Kate Gregory, you have quite a collection of material on Harry Butler in the State Library. Just take us through what you can find there.

Dr KG: Look, well that’s right. We’ve got a wealth of material and we’ve got his private archive for instance, his archive of material relating to all of his environmental consultation work. So that’s fascinating. Research reports, speeches, letters, correspondence, environmental evaluations, photographs. We’ve got several oral histories with him, we’ve got lots of wonderful photographs and we’ve also got the records of the WA Naturalists’ Club that he was President of at one point as well and we’ve also got a really unusual, really wonderful artwork - 1950 by Joy Lyon, who is an artist who was involved with the WA Naturalists’ Club, and it shows Harry at that time leading a tour of school children on a nature walk out in the bush somewhere and it’s kind of done in a caricature style. It’s a gouache on paper. It’s large format. It’s just such an unexpected kind of treasure within our collection and it does show Harry Butler and his commitment to passing on that knowledge and information to the next generation which is I think what he was just so capable at, his style of communication was so easy. He carried us along…audiences along and I think any children that had the privilege of meeting Harry Butler I think would have felt that as well. He really shared his love of nature, love of animals in particular.

Hilary: It’s been so great to hear about his impact here in Western Australia and some of people’s memories as well this afternoon.

Dr Kate Gregory, thanks so much for your time as well.

Dr KG: Thanks Hilary. It’s a pleasure to talk.

Head to our Facebook page to read 'The Astonishing Life of Harry Butler', a three-part story based on Harry Butler's oral history.
The Astonishing Life of Harry Butler - Part One
The Astonishing Life of Harry Butler - Part Two
The Astonishing Life of Harry Butler - Part Three

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