Captain William Butler was a retired whaling ship captain who became a successful merchant in northern New Zealand. In 1838 Butler purchased land that formed the nucleus of what is today Butler Point. In 1847 Butler constructed a homestead, the front portion of which he transported by sea from property he owned on the opposite shore of Mangonui Harbour. This homestead has come to be called Butler House.
Captain Butler became wealthy by provisioning visiting whaling ships, out of a store he had constructed on the Point, and by exporting flax and kauri timber and gum to Australia. Reminders of these whaling days are exhibited in Butler Point Whaling Museum. Butler also became influential in politics, representing the Far North when Auckland was the Capital of New Zealand. His house is modest but large for its day and was constructed to accommodate his family - wife Eliza and 13 children. It has four bedrooms, a study, parlour, dining room, and kitchen. Butler's expanding family meant he had to expand the house by adding a rear section to the original front portion, which in 1847 he had barged across Mangonui Harbour to its new site on Butler Point.
The following description of the architecture of the house is given by Janice Mogford in The Butler House, Mangonui 1847-1990 (Lindo Ferguson, 1992):
The construction of the house followed the simple basic design of the box cottage modified and expanded in the manner common to many early colonial homes in New Zealand. The front part of the house, facing the inner harbour, is the popular two-rooms-up and two-rooms-down plan. It is gable-ended with windows in the gable ends and a veranda across the front decorated with an unusual scalloped valance, but there is evidence that this deeply recessed veranda was once completely enclosed...The double-pitched roofs were designed to shed the rain water as quickly as possible and reduce the thrust on the exterior walls. The construction consists of timber rafters, ridge-boards and spaced battens over the rafters to which the shingles, split from blocks of kauri, were fixed in overlapping layers. The veranda and kitchen roofs are of a much shallower pitch than the gabled roofs over the upstair rooms but form a continuous line with them. The exterior walls of the house were clad in pit-sawn kauri weatherboards.
Captain and Eliza Butler also created extensive gardens around Butler House, which included exotics such as olive. Some of these remain today as a component of the Gardens of Butler Point.
Captain Butler died in 1875 and was buried in the cemetery on Butler Point, which is also the resting place of a number of his sons. The year after Butler's death his family left to settle in Auckland. The house was occupied by various people until 1895 when James Holmes purchased the dilapidated dwelling. Not long after 1900 the Holmes family left New Zealand and Butler House was once again rented by various tenants. In 1912 it was occupied by Hubert Dacre who made renovations and additions. Although a dentist by profession Dacre was an excellent craftsman and made items of furniture, some of which remain in Butler House today. Dacre finally purchased the house and property from Butler's estate in 1921. In 1940 Robert Marchant contracted to purchase the house, which he and his family had lived in since 1937, from the executors of Dacre's estate. Over the next decades Butler House was only minimally maintained. In 1970 the present owners, Lindo and Laetitia Ferguson, purchased the homestead and property from Marchant. Butler House has since been restored.
Today Butler House is open to the public. It has been refurbished with early Colonial and Victorian furniture and fittings. Although, with a few notable exceptions, these are not historically associated with Butler or other early owners of the property, they do present visitors with a snapshot of the interior of a New Zealand colonial house of the mid to late 19th century.
Butler House is open for public viewing but it remains an occupied dwelling. Visits must therefore be arranged by appointment.
Text and images © L. Ferguson, 2002.