by Frances McMichael and Shona Young


Countless people left Culfeightrin in the last few centuries. This is just one story of many. John Butler was born around 1843 in the townland of Cross (on the iconic headland of Fair Head), in the shadow of the fort, Dun Mór. He was the son of John Butler and Sally McDonnell and the grandson of John Butler and Nancy McCormick. He was born at the time of the Famine (or Great Hunger) and life was very tough. Food and money were scarce and there was much pressure to leave. Many from Cross, including a large family of McBride’s, went to New Zealand. 

Fair Head, Culfeightrin from Carrickmore Road, with Kintyre in the background 

John married Mary McHenry in St. Patrick’s Church, Culfeightrin on 17th June 1863 and they left soon after. Within a few years they arrived in New Zealand, having spent time in Glasgow working in a sugar boiling factory, (possibly South Africa) and Australia. Several close members of his family also emigrated to New Zealand, including two brothers, Frank and Patrick, and the family of his aunt Catherine, who married Alexander McBride of Cross.  

John and Mary


John arrived in New Zealand during the Otago gold rush on the south island.  

“The Otago Gold rush occurred during the 1860s in Central Otago. This was the country’s biggest gold strike, and led to a rapid influx of foreign miners to the area… The rush started at Gabriel’s Gully but spread throughout much of Central Otago, leading to the rapid expansion and commercialisation of the new colonial settlement of Dunedin, which quickly grew to be New Zealand’s largest city.” 1 

We don’t whether the gold rush led him there or he may have heard about it on the journey. The following is from his obituary. 

“News of the Otago gold rushes soon flashed among the passengers, and seized with the gold fever the deceased set about preparing himself for the onslaught of some diggings. He made his way to the Dunstan, together with his better half, and fortune favoured him, for he was not long ere he was possessed of a rich claim. The Nevis, Conroys and Butchers Gully rushes were his next field of operations and at these places he was again successful in winning a large quantity of gold from his respective claims. He then took up a section at Bald Hill Flat at the time when the land was first offered to the miners for settlement purposes, which ultimately eventuated purchasing 500 acres of land now held by the family.”2  

(The Dunstan is a gold field area in Otago, now a lake after a dam was completed in the 1990s.) 

Gabriel’s Gully where the gold rush started 



This was certainly true of John Butler. He would have been at Gabriel’s Gully at the beginning. He lived for several years in a modest house that he built further up the Obelisk Creek Valley4 but in 1878 he bought the farm and building on Bald Hill Flat that became known as “Butler’s Farm”, a name it still holds to this day. 

This map shows some of the land John owned. He would eventually own several thousand acres. 

From: “A Fruitful Land. The Story of Fruit Growing and Irrigation in The Alexandria – Clyde Districts”, John McCraw, 2005, Square One Press 
John, Mary and Family at Butler’s Farm, 1885 (Courtesy Shona Young) 

From “Early Days on the Dunstan” by John McCraw, Square One Press, 2007: 

“John Butler’s farm and outbuildings are the most striking and easily visible landmark. A two storied stone house and cluster of matching outbuildings was the second home of Mr John Butler, large landowner, farmer, local body politician and a person held in high regard by everyone. “John was an Irish miner who bought up a large block of freehold land and became one of the most successful farmers in the district… He came to Dunstan early in the gold rush … found gold almost wherever he went, so when he decided to settle in Bald Hill Flat he was already reasonably well off.… He built a small stone house and lived there for 10 or 12 years…. In May 1878 he bought the 533 acres of freehold properties from Robert Leslie, John White and John McDonough… “an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman” who were probably the first  settlers on Bald Hill Flat…It was in this house that John Butler lived until his death in 1910, and from it he oversaw the running of his large farm that gradually expanded to 668 acres. He began sheep farming in 1882 with 100 sheep and gradually increased his flock until at the time of his death he was running 2800.With this greatly increased acreage, Butler expanded his cereal growing, and he purchased a recently introduced reaper and binder. He is reported as saying that although the cost of twine was expensive he hoped to clear the cost of the machine in the saving of wages.” 


John and Mary had nine children, all born in New Zealand: Patrick, Mary, Sarah, Catherine, John, James, Annie, Alexander, Daniel and Margaret. 

The Butler Family (A copy is framed in the Alexandra Museum) (Courtesy Shona Young) 

John suffered terrible losses in his lifetime. He lost his son James in infancy in 1875, he lost his brother Frank to a drowning accident in 1880, his wife, Mary died  in 1895 and in 1899 he lost his daughter Catherine (aged 30) after  an accident, his mother died in Lisnakilly, Upper Ballyreagh, Culfeightrin and his brother Patrick of a sudden death.  His son, John Jr. died in the Boer War in 1900, aged 29. His 16 year old daughter Margaret died in 1902 of illness.  Frank and Patrick are buried together In Queenstown, Otago.

Catherine’s death as reported in NEW ZEALAND HERALD, 25 APRIL 1899 


Three sons and three daughters survived him: 

Mary 1864 – 1935, married Charles Dougherty of Donegal in 1892. 

Sarah, 1867 – 1942, married William John Spillane in 1911. 

Annie, 1877 – 1960, married James McCambridge of Slipin, Ballyvennaght (1869 – 1947), son of John and Rose O’Mullan, in 1914. 

Alexander Henry, 1881 – 1928, married Mary Frances Beaufort in 1911. 

Patrick, 1879 – 1965, married Amy Elizabeth Hayes in 1915. 

Daniel John 1884 – 1918 married Eunice May Spencer (died in France, World War 1) 

The Butler Family at the farmhouse (unknown date)  


Mary, taken in the mid-1890s (Mary was the first child born in Bald Hill Flat) 
Mary and  her husband  Charles Dougherty 
Charles Dougherty taken around  1930 – he was from the Letterkenny area of Donegal 
“Mr John Butler received a wire from the Premier on Tuesday evening to the effect that his son John was killed in action at Winberg, on the 27th August. He was one of the 3rd Contingent of Rough Elders that left Canterbury on the Knight Templar under Major Jowsey. Mr Butler and family have the sympathy of the entire district in their sad bereavement”5. John, the eldest son, who died in the Boer War, South Africa. He was 29. 

Daniel John, the youngest son died in France, on 31st Oct 1918. He was 34. 


John had obvious leadership qualities. He would have had limited formal education, but clearly learned from the “school of life” and valued children’s education. 

Vincent Council 1890, (John, seated in the middle)    

In 1885, aged around 40, he was elected unopposed as Councillor for Earnscleugh Riding on the Vincent County Council and was soon elected its treasurer. He represented the area for 23 years until 1908, when failing health compelled him to resign. “He always related with much gusto how successful he was in securing grants as the council did not like to refuse his numerous requests.” He helped improve a road and “was untiring in his efforts to improve the stability as well as the social condition of the people.”  6
He was also Justice of the Peace.  

John was a gifted communicator and we can see his eloquence in the following letter, written when he was a councilman:  

“When I noticed in your account of the proceedings of the Council meeting that you reported me as saying in reference to Mr Brummy’s application “that the Council had enough to do without fencing in barracks for squatters,” I paid no attention to it, as it was so evidently a mistake on your part in substituting the word barrack for padlock. I regret that the clerical error of yours should have roused Mr Brummy’s wrath against me as a little reflection must have convinced him that I had not used the word at all. In the first place the said remark would have been quite meaningless and inapplicable; and secondly, I am about the last person to sneer at any man s dwelling. I think this explanation is due both to Mr Brummy and myself.—l am, etc., John Butler, Bald Hill Flat, February 8th, 1888.”7 


According to the Otago Witness, Issue 2253, 6 May 1897, Page 25, John was elected to the Board of the school at Bald Hill Flat in 1897 and appointed chairman in 1903. (He had given up some land for the building of the school and insisted on a thatched roof so that the children would be comfortable.) “Education had his entire sympathy” 8 

Butler of Bald Hill 

A record of service to a school committee that would be hard to beat is that of John Butler, who is reputed to have served the Bald Hill School committee for 40 years. As a matter of historic interest, John Butler arrived at Fruitlands after prospecting his way up Butcher’s Creek from the Molyneux. He and his cronies arrived in the Dunstan farm, Victoria at the height of the gold rush and when the gold petered out around Muttontown, Butler decided to go further afield. 

He turned down a wagoner offer to shift his sluice box and swag to Frenchman’s Point for £1 and is said to have plugged up the ends of his sluice box (used for panning for gold) and paddled down the river as if it were a canoe. It sounds a tall story but there were some resourceful types a broad in those days.9 

Bald Hill School 1901 photo from Hocken Collections, University of Otago Library10 


In 1909 after leasing his property to his sons he sought appointment to the Otago Land Board. He was considered a prime candidate.  

“Mr Butler’s long service in the interest of the public as the representative of Earnscleugh Riding in the Vincent County Council for 25 years and on other local bodies for fairly lengthy terms should stand him in good stead in the office to which he is now seeking election. Furthermore, there are probably few men who have the intimate knowledge of the different localities of Otago that Mr Butler has, or his practical experience as a pioneer settler of this district, Mr Butler should make a very capable representative and one in which the interests of settlement would have a staunch supporter. Mr Butler having leased his property at Bald Hill Flat will have ample time to devote to the duties of the office.” 
Dunstan Times, Issue 2490, 19 July 1909 

He gave a lot of energy and commitment to his local area for many years but ill health was taking its toll and he decided to retire. He had had a bad accident a few years prior, almost losing a foot. After 23 years of public service and ill health he decided to retire and leased his farm to his sons. He had accumulated over 2000 acres of land and had a most interesting career as a businessman, farmer and local representative.  

The Leaving Do: 

“An eloquent testimony to the popularity of Mr John Butler was afforded on Wednesday last by the large crowd which assembled in the Bald Hill Flat Schoolhouse to do him honour and to recognise his 25 years of faithful and able service as the representative of Earnscleugh Riding on the Vincent County Council. He (Mr Horn) could say without fear of contradiction that the Vincent County Council would never have a better councillor than Mr Butler had been. He had been most attentive to the wants and requirements of his riding … He expressed the pleasure it gave him to see their guest looking so well, and he hoped that he would be spared for many, many years to have good health… He then asked Mr Butler to accept a purse of sovereigns as a token of the esteem in which he was held by the residents of the district. The hall was then cleared for dancing, and a most enjoyable evening was spent.11 


Sadly John was not to get the “many many years of good health” wished for when he left his council position. His death in February 1910 seemed sudden although he had some health problems, including the almost severing of his foot in a farm machine accident which had slowed him down. 

“Yet another of the diminishing band of sterling, sturdy and courageous pioneers of Central Otago has crossed the bar in the person of Mr John Butler, of Bald Hill Flat. His death closes a wondrously-useful career, into which has been crowded a much larger volume of volume of intelligently directed human effort that crowns the life work of most men. Sudden … as it was his death came as a terrible shock to his many friends who saw him apparently in his usual health on Saturday last, for he then appeared in his customary cherry mood.   Upright in his business relations, seized with limitless energy and enterprise…by his demise the district is bereft of one of its clean handed pioneers. A man of engaging personality and unusual charm of manner… his loving and charitable disposition always prompted him to help the weak and distressed…”12 

John Butler funeral 1910, https://hocken.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/33356 


“Old John Butler, one of the pioneer farmers of Bald Hill Flat had decided to retire into town and had approached Park, Reynolds Ltd, the well-known land agents at Dunedin, about selling his farm, which was in the hands of his sons”13 Here was an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Why not arrange for the fertile land Butler’s Farm… “to be cut up into sections for fruit growing and sell them off to budding orchardists?” 

A scheme was drawn up. “The whole tenor was close to misrepresentation”. It all fell apart and in 1928 the company running it was liquidated in 1928. Only a few trees remain. 14 

 “Butler’s Farm was then purchased by James McCambridge (1928), a son-in-law of John Butler’s and a local run-owner. The next occupant of the house appears to have been James McCambridge’s son John who lived there in the 1950s. Electricity was installed in the late 1940s or early 1950s but no plumbing appears ever to have been installed in the house. The land was still owned by the McCambridge family up until 1991, at which date it was sold outside the family…” 15 

This beautiful property is of high architectural and archaeological significance and is now used as a wedding and events venue.  



It is with extreme regret that I chronicle the departure from the Flat of that widely known and highly respected family—the Butlers. For a great many years, the Butler family resided on the Flat, and the late Mr John Butler was a Justice of the Peace and for many years represented the Earnscleugh Riding in the Vincent County Council. The reputation for hospitality enjoyed by the late Mr Butler has been worthily upheld by his sons, and it is no flight of the imagination to say that it was impossible to be more hospitable than they were. Many a weary drover drew a sigh of relief when he pulled in to Butler’s. He was made welcome and to feel at ease and a degree of comfort provided that seldom falls to the lot of the ever-shifting drover. The waggoner, too, often wet and cold found a cheery welcome and: a warm meal. Everything that could be done for him was done. Drovers,’ waggoners and others will feel keenly the absence of these good Samaritans. The population of the Flat is dwindling away, and we can ill afford to lose men of the stamp of the Butler brothers”16 



“In 1840 Britain formally annexed the islands and established New Zealand’s first permanent European settlement at Wellington. That year, the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi, by which they recognized British sovereignty in exchange for guaranteed possession of their land. However, armed territorial conflict between the Maori and white settlers continued until 1870, when there were few Maori left to resist the European encroachment. Originally part of the Australian colony of New South Wales, New Zealand became a separate colony in 1841 and was made self-governing in 1852. Dominion status was attained in 1907, and full independence was granted in 1931 and ratified by New Zealand in 1947.”17 

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