The legacy of John Butters

02 January 2019

Granddaughter's 'very emotional' tour


It’s not every day that a power station evokes tears of sentimental joy, but that is precisely the effect the John Butters Power Station had on one special visitor recently. 

John Butters Power Station on Tasmania's west coast


Sir John Butters is one of Australia’s best known engineers. In fact he’s sometimes known as the “founder of Canberra”. But it was in Tasmania where he first made his mark on the country’s history.


His granddaughter, Penelope Herold, was recently treated to a private tour of the station that bears his name by Electrical Technical Operator Andrew Elkin and was left in awe of her grandfather’s legacy.


Ms Herold grew up with John Butters in Sydney after he had retired. She describes her relationship with Sir John as “very special”.


As Ms Herold learned about her grandfather’s achievements with Hydro Tasmania she became more and more curious to see the legacy he had left behind. But for decades she was unable to follow her curiosity. She moved to South Africa and started a busy career as a nurse. It wasn’t until late last year, after her retirement, that she finally got a chance to visit the power station named in her grandfather’s honour.


Penny Herold stands below a portrait of her grandfather at John Butter Power Station

“As we drove into the power station my friend Isabel said to me ‘This is not a public tour. I’ve organised it through Hydro Tasmania. They’re giving you a special private tour’ I couldn’t help but get very emotional,” she said.


“When I first saw the sign saying ‘John Butters Power Station’ I started crying. I was very emotional. I realised it’s real, this is for real.


“It wasn’t until I got inside that I actually realised the extent of this power station. And then seeing my grandfather’s photograph and other certificates hanging on the wall, I realised how significant his work was.”


Ms Herold said it was an amazing, touching experience that she will never forget.


The lasting legacy of John Butters in Tasmania


A official photo of engineer John Butters take while he was working for the Hydro Electric Corporation

John Butters moved to Australia from England in 1909 and became the first general manager of Hydro Tasmania, which was then known as the Hydro Electric Department after the State Government took it over in 1914.


He was at the helm of 'The Hydro' for ten years, during which time he oversaw the development of the first large scale hydroelectric power scheme in the Southern Hemisphere. He also became a major in the Australia Engineers and repeatedly asked to be sent on active service but his requests were rejected because of the importance of the work he was doing in Tasmania.


While he was running the Hydro Electric Department, John Butters also held lots of roles of state and national importance including heading up a Royal Commission into the handling, storage and transportation of wheat. He served as president of the Tasmanian Institution of Engineers and chairman of the Institution of Engineers, Tasmania division. 


In 1924 he left Tasmania to take on the full time job of chairman of the Federal Capital Commission; the body tasked with transforming Canberra from a small rural town into the nation’s capital. It was a formidable task and John Butters was its driving force. He vowed Canberra would “have none of the terrible eyesores which mar so many of our cities”. His achievement was recognised when the Duke of York, who visited to open the city, knighted him.


A street in Canberra bears his name to this day. In 1992 a key power station on Tasmania’s west coast was also named in his honour. The John Butters Power Station is part of the King River Scheme and is fed by Lake Burbury, east of Queenstown.


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