Henry Butt, born 1861 son of a Langport coal and timber merchant, was educated at Queen’s College Taunton. Though no scholar a clear aptitude for business propelled him at the tender age of 18 into a managerial role at the Somerset Trading Company’s depot in Weston-super-Mare. Thereafter Weston became his home and passion.
Working for others didn’t satisfy young Butt and by 1890 he’d taken ownership of a Weston haulier and coal merchant business. Ever able to spot a trend he noticed how formerly wealthy families were leaving Weston unable to afford the upkeep of large hillside properties with their domestic staffing requirements. Henry bought up houses at knock-down prices and by the early 1930s had 250 in his portfolio making him one of the town’s wealthiest inhabitants. Tapping into a growing fashion for apartments Butt converted numerous hillside properties into ‘Mansions’. These well-proportioned flats often required side extensions and staircases which he always built in matching local limestone. Period style doors, stained glass and ornate plasterwork were lavished on these conversions leading many of today’s residents to understandably claim such quality affectations as original Victorian. His style certainly puts many a modern botch-converter to shame!
The era between the two World Wars was arguably Weston’s heyday and Henry was well placed to take full advantage of public and municipal self-confidence. As a major property developer he needed stone so moved adroitly into the supply business by acquiring Milton Quarry. Election to Somerset County and Weston Urban District Councils gave him access to the decision making process through which he worked tirelessly for the town’s benefit.
Butt was an ego-centric rough diamond and frequently irritated the more staid local establishment though, continuing the mineral metaphor, his heart and pocket contained gold … and he was one for getting things done.
Controversy arose when the quarry’s heavy Foden steam lorries churned up local roads. The council prosecuted. Butt defended himself right up to the Court of Appeal and on losing not only settled with grace but, to show no hard feelings, helped finance acquisition of Rogers’ Field between High Street and the seafront for development of the Italian Gardens and Winter Gardens.
When local Rotarians wanted to open a home in South Road for underprivileged boys it was Butt who kicked off the appeal with a £1,200 donation. He then acquired Monks’ Steps, presented them to the National Trust and was instrumental in founding nearby Worlebury Golf Club.
By far his greatest gift to Weston was as self-appointed fund raiser for a new hospital in the Boulevard. He cajoled businessmen and friends, spoke tirelessly at public meetings and even buttonholed passengers whilst on a world cruise. He personally raised £60,000 (about £2m today) for the project. Opened by the Duke and Duchess of York in July 1928 this Queen Alexandra Memorial Hospital served Weston until replaced by a new facility at Uphill in 1986. How fitting that on conversion into residential occupation it became Henry Butt House, to which the 2017 blue plaque has been affixed.
When the King granted borough status to Weston-super-Mare in 1937 Henry Butt became Charter Mayor - the first of eighty to hold the resort’s mayoral office, and it was he who paid for the chain and much of the municipal plate. In what should have been a year of momentous personal achievement his wife took ill and died. Henry kept ‘the show going’ with his daughter stepping in as replacement Mayoress.
He survived a further seven years, dying peacefully in November 1944 at Langport House his Eastfield Park home. He’d been self-opinionated, argumentative and controversial but there’s no doubting he served Weston well and deserves to be remembered.
by John Crockford-Hawley