Magnate who ended up in workhouse

Union House workhouse 1906

Walter William Butler was in 1919 a 73-year-old inmate of Union House, Luton's workhouse (pictured above in 1906). But, as the Luton News had discovered his story was stranger than fiction – he had once been a Liverpool city magnate who had dropped to the bottom of life's ladder through ill fortune. In its August 7th, 1919, edition the newspaper reported:

The story is a sad one in the last degree and we are convinced as to its bona fides. The subject of the drama in no way sought publicity, but the matter came to our notice casually at a meeting of the Luton Guardians, and caused us to make further enquiries.

Sitting in a quiet arbour of the Union garden, Mr Walter William Butler readily related the amazing circumstances of his rise and downfall. He is 73 years of age, but still very alert, and his manner and speech afford indications of refinement. Unfortunately his hearing is affected, and his present position is due to ill health.

His father was Mr Walter Butler, a wine merchant, of London, and his grandfather was founder of Butler's Wharf on the Thames. The family was distantly related to the Marquis of Bute, who at the time owned practically the whole of Luton.

Mr Walter Butler Snr came to Luton on duties in connection with that estate and brought his son with him, placing him at the age of 13 years in a boarding school in the town. This was how Mr Butler came to have a liking for Luton.

As he remarked: “The school was kept in New Bedford Road by a Mr Wright, who afterwards became Mayor of the town [1883-84]. I was sent there to board, and spent some of my happiest days there. I determined later in my life to settle in Luton and build a house. I never thought then that it would mean the Union House for me.”

When he was 17 years of age his father died, and owing to certain domestic details which we are not at liberty to publish he did not receive his father's estate, but was taken care of by his grandmother.

“My dear old grandmother looked after me,” Mr Butler told the writer, “and I studied organ building with Mr William Hedgeland, of London. I played at a great many churches as organist, and that was really my profession. Owing to bodily affliction I have had to give up the one art which I loved, and that has been my great sorrow. I was in higher musical circles, and they wished to confer on me from Toronto College the degree of Doctor of Music. I did not accept it because it would not have been much use to me in England. I do not believe in empty titles.

“Afterwards I had a curious career. Unable to follow my profession, and having a little money saved, I decided to go into business, although I really knew little about it. I have a horror of gambling, but on that occasion I really did toss up as to whether to go to Liverpool or Portsmouth. The former city won, and well do I regret it now.

“I went to Liverpool probably over 30 years ago, and I started in a small way. I had studied at a school of music and knew something about minerals. I started as a mineral broker in South John Street, Liverpool, although I did not know at the time that that district had something of a bad name.

“I began to make headway, and I then discovered a distant cousin in Liverpool. We entered into partnership, but I found I had made a mistake in him. We dissolved, and I met on the Exchange Mr John Banner, who then had offices near Tithebarn and who, after parting from his brother, still traded as Banner Bros. We amalgamated, he became a general produce broker. The firm became Banner Bros and Butler, and was known as the three Bs.

“We got on very well indeed, and eventually we bought the South Garston docks in conjunction with Mr Valance, of Valance & Valance solicitors, of London, and a friend of my father. The property had been in Chancery for a long time, and the entrance was exactly opposite the new entrance to the ship canal. There was only a wall between the North-Western docks and ours, and the company eventually bought it.

“At that time they were under the jurisdiction of the Harbour Board, whereas we were not, so that we were able to store more hazardous goods. Before our scheme got properly into working order we had some very heavy losses through a well-known man in London, who went bankrupt. We had trusted too well, and it was really a joint bank swindle. Things got so bad that I left the firm altogether but, unlike John Banner, I was not adjudged a bankrupt.

“I returned to London, and since then I have had an up and down life. I had no capital and my health gave way. I was on a sick bed at Brighton some years ago and got up from it and walked the whole of the way to Liverpool. I had lent money to people when they were down and who afterwards did well, but I failed to get it back.

“Then I walked all the way back, and later I walked to Plymouth to get a position there, but the air there made me ill and I had to leave. Ultimately I returned to Luton and during the war I worked at a local foundry under a good friend who was a Liverpool man and who took a pride in my business methods gained in that city. The fumes at the works were, however, too much for me, and so I have gone from bad to worse since the war, at times almost starving.”

Mr Butler added that he a member of the Liverpool Exchange, but all his old friends are dead. All he found on his return some years ago was that “poor Butler had left a jolly good name”.

He wants nothing in the way of charity, but only asks for light employment and is not ashamed to take any kind of work – short of carrying a sandwich board.

He told the writer that he is a cousin of a gentleman who occupied a position at the Local Government Board, and he is related to other well-known families. He is naturally proud of his stock and feels his present position most acutely, but with tears in his eyes he spoke in warmest terms of gratitude of the kindness of the Guardians, and especially Mr and Mrs Richmond, the Master and Matron, who are taking the deepest interest in the welfare of Mr Butler and whose sad position they are making as happy as possible.

Mr Butler is a highly intellectual and sensitive man, and if his pathetic history should come to the notice of any who remember him, perhaps it may achieve its object. The writer is convinced of his honesty, especially as he received corroboration of his early life in Luton from another source.


The case of Walter Butler was raised at a meeting of the Luton Board of Guardians on September 1st, 1919, as the following day's Tuesday Telegraph reported:

The Clerk read a letter from an Association formed in Liverpool to assist former ship owners associated with the city who had fallen upon evil times, with a view to rendering assistance to Walter William Butler, an inmate of the Union, whose case had been given wide publicity.

The Clerk mentioned that he had interviewed the man and obtained statements from him. These statements were forwarded to the Association, who had decided that the case was not one in which they could render assistance, as the man had not been connected with the shipping business of the city, but had been a mineral produce broker in Liverpool.

The Master had also received a similar letter.