HR Butters – first Labour Officer and author of the 1939 Report on Labour and Labour Conditions in Hong Kong

The Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography contains an article about Henry Robert Butters written by Norman J Miners.  Permission to use the article here has been granted by HK University Press.

Butters was born on 11th April 1898 in Glasgow, Scotland and died on 1st March 1985 in Stirling, Scotland.

Neither David Bellis of nor Hugh Farmer of this site have been able to find an image of HR Butters. We would be delighted if someone can produce one.

“The son of a schoolmaster, Henry Butters was educated at Glasgow High School. He won a scholarship to Glasgow University in 1916. In 1922 he took the competitive examination for Eastern cadetship and was appointed to Hong Kong. In 1926 he married Jean Towers [David Attwood, the gradson of Butters says this is incorrect – he married Jean Bain] by whom he had two daughters and a son.

Butters advanced steadily though the ranks of the administration, serving as District Officer North, Assistant Secretary for Chinese Affairs, Deputy Clerk of Councils and Assistant Colonial Secretary. He was appointed police magistrate on five occasions in the New Territories, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. While on leave he took the law examinations and was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn. In 1934 the Governor, Sir William Peel, most unusually singled him out for praise in the Legislative Council for his work on the budget.

Labour +Labour Conditions in HK 1939 HR Butters report snipped title

In November 1938 Sir Geoffrey Northcote selected him to be Labour Officer, a newly created post reflecting growing official concern about working and living conditions in the colony following mass immigration and rapid industrialistion. Six months later he produced a comprehensive and thoughtful report on the social and economic conditions of the colony and the law relating to labour, factories, health and housing. He carried out surveys of mines and industrial establishments and personally interviewed 20 workers, men and women selected at random in the street and factories, all but one of them immigrants from China: their stories reveal much about the lives and aspirations of humble people struggling to make ends meet, yet convinced that prospects in Hong Kong were better than in their troubled native places.

Butters drafted two bills: a Trade Union Ordinance giving recognition to unions for the first time, and a Trade Boards Ordinance to replace the existing Minimum Wage Ordinance, which had never been used. The Trade Boards Ordinance was passed by the Legislative Council in 1940, but his Trade Union bill was never enacted.

Butters was appointed Financial Secretary in December 1939 when Sydney Caine, Hong Kong’s first Financial Secretary, was recalled to the Colonial Office. He went on leave in 1941, travelling to America to avoid Europe, which was at war, and returned to duty in November, five weeks before the Japanese invasion.

During the occupation he was interned in Stanley. When Hong Kong was liberated he was sent home to recuperate and Charles Follows arrived as financial advisor to the military administration. When civil government was restored in 1946 Follows was appointed Financial Secretary and Butters was seconded to Nyasaland. In 1947 he was seconded to the Colonial Office as assistant secretary to head the Finance Department.

In 1949 he resigned on pension at the age of 50. He then enjoyed 36 years of retirement and died in Scotland at the age of 86.”

Source: Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, ed M Holdsworth & C Munn, HKU Press, 2012. This wonderful book collects in one volume more than 500 specially commissioned entries on men and women from Hong Kong history.
More information, and online ordering is available at the Hong Kong University Press website.


  2. Pay workers a ‘living wage’ of HK$54.70, Hong Kong employers urged SCMP 9th December 2018

This article was first posted on 12th May 2016.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. 1939 Report on Labour and Labour Conditions in Hong Kong


  • Fascinating post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Alan Attwood

    HR Butters was my grandfather.
    I may be able to share a photograph with you, though those I have probably date from the post-War period.
    Please let me know if I can help.

    Thank you.

    • Hello Alan

      Good to hear from you.

      A photo or two of your grandfather would be of great interest.

      Would you be kind enough to send anything you have to me via the email address shown in Contact.

      Many thanks in advance.

      Best wishes
      Hugh Farmer

  • David Attwood

    HR Butters was my grandfather.
    He married Jean Bain not Jean Towers. His mother was Isabella Towers. I have just corrected the Wikipedia entry to reflect this.

    Kind regards.

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