Belconnen forgets its first war-hero landowner

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“I would like to think that those of us who now enjoy the benefits of the land that Robert Butt, an Australian hero, never had the chance to enjoy, could between us restore his grave,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

Jon Stanhope.

AS a consequence of coronavirus lock-down fatigue (and the fact that the gym was closed) my wife Robyn and I have lately walked rather more than usual. 

On one walk we stumbled on a heritage sign erected on Gossan Hill that recorded the land on the hill and adjacent areas was granted in the immediate aftermath of World War I, as a soldier-settler block, to Robert John Butt.

I confess that despite having lived in Belconnen for the last 46 years and having a keen interest in history and our local heritage that I had not heard of Robert Butt. 

As Robyn and I strolled down from the hill to our home in Bruce I mused that it was quite possible that Robert had, at some point, stood on the very spot that we live. I decided I would try and get to know him.

A Google search was very productive. Robert was born at “Kirkdale” near Murrumbateman in 1892. He was working as a farmer at Yass when he enlisted in the AIF in March, 1916, and joined the 56th Battalion at Etaples in France. He first saw action in February, 1917.

Robert Butt… enlisted in the AIF in March, 1916.

On September 26, 1917, he was wounded in the Battle of Polygon Wood at Ypres in Belgium. His medical report states he was rendered deaf by an exploding shell and also suffered an injury to his neck. He returned to Australia in August, 1918.

In February, 1923, Robert applied for a Soldier Settlement Block and was granted 262 hectares in Belconnen. The plan attached to the grant contains a hand-drawn amendment that appears to extend the block to Gossan Hill. He named his farm Emu Bank. A house was ultimately built on the block on land adjacent to the present-day Belconnen library. 

Tragically, just under three years after taking up the land Robert was killed. Ironically, having survived two years at the front, he accidentally blew himself up. “The Queanbeyan Age”, of February 2, 1926, provided a graphic report of the accident, Robert’s injuries and his death. 

The formal finding of the inquest into his death was: “Died from injuries accidentally received through the premature explosion of gelignite, which he was preparing to use for an unlawful purpose, to wit, the destruction of fish in the Molonglo River.”

“The Queanbeyan Age” noted: “The sensation produced by the spread of the news was intense, and an expression of unfeigned sorrow generally. Deceased was a returned soldier, 31 years old and about to be married. Owing to the mutilated state of the body, it was expedient that the internment should take place as soon as possible and the coffin containing the remains was taken to Murrumbateman – the remains being interred in the Methodist portion of the Murrumbateman cemetery.”

I visited Robert’s grave last week. The cemetery at Murrumbateman is very nice. I would be happy to be buried there. However, Robert’s grave is unsurprisingly showing its age. It has been in place for 94 years. 

After 94 years Robert Butt’s grave is showing its age. Photo: Jon Stanhope

I regularly visit cemeteries, particularly in rural areas. I find them interesting for the story they tell and the emotions they affect.

It’s not unusual in cemeteries across Australia to come across the grave of a soldier who returned from World War I and died in the first 10 to 15 years of his return. I find these graves have a special poignancy because of what they signify, namely that a young Australian who answered the call, bravely faced the fury and horror of action and survived, at least physically, to return to Australia and who for a myriad of reasons and causes died, still young, within a decade or so of his homecoming. 

Before he died, Robert Butt owned and occupied all of the land on which the Belconnen Town Centre is now located and half of the land under Lake Ginninderra. 

He also owned John Knight Park, all of Emu Ridge and much of Bruce. I would like to think that, with the approval and consent of Robert Butt’s proud descendants (I am assuming that there are descendants still living in the region and am hoping to make contact with them), that those of us who now enjoy the benefits of the land that Robert, an Australian hero, never had the chance to enjoy, could between us restore his grave.

Alternatively, the Australian War Memorial might consider converting the $500 million earmarked for its expansion to the maintenance of the graves of returned diggers across the whole of Australia which, if not attended to, will continue to deteriorate and risk being lost and forgotten. 

 

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this interesting and timely article.The 56th Battalion fought at Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916 – the worst day in Australia’s military history. Readers may also be interested in The Headstone Project, the Families and Friends of the First AIF (FFFAIF), the Western Front Association and the Fromelles Association. They are all online.

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