William Waters Butler
Sir William Waters Butler 1866-1939 by Kevin Hawkins
William Waters Butler was born at the London Works tavern, Smethwick, near Birmingham on 14 December 1866, the eldest son of William Butler, licensed victualler, of Birmingham, and his wife Mary Jane nee Ewing. He was educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, and at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. He qualified as a chemist and then joined his father's business, known then as Butler's Crown Brewery Ltd. By the time of the merger with Henry Mitchell & Co. Ltd. of Smethwick in 1897, Butler was a director of his family firm; he became deputy chairman of the new firm in 1907 and chairman in 1914, on the death of Henry Mitchell. He combined the posts of chairman and managing director, a fairly common practice in the brewing industry in this era.
Under his control, Mitchell & Butlers Ltd continued the steady progress which his predecessor, Henry Mitchell, initiated. Between 1900 and 1914 the company doubled its annual output to 600,000 barrels of beer which placed it in sixth position in the brewing industry, by output. Between 1918 and 1939 the company consolidated its reputation as one of the safest investments in the industry. Its financial strategy was consistently and severely conservative.
Butler's most important role, however, was that of "Trade Statesman". He was elected chairman of the Brewers' Society in 1907 and held office during the great and successful struggle against the Asquith Government's Licensing Bill in 1908. From then on he played a prominent part in the politics of the liquor trade. He was the first representative of the brewing industry to be appointed to the Liquor Control Board (1916) and was closely involved in the scheme to nationalise the trade in the Carlisle and Gretna districts. It was partly as a result of his experience as a member of the State Management Authority that he became a leading advocate of "rationalisation". He correctly diagnosed that most of the pre-war problems of the brewing industry were attributable to excess competition, which arose in turn from the existence of too many licensed houses and too many brewers. At his company's annual general meeting in 1917 he said:-
Healthy competition is good for all industries but under existing conditions in the retail licensed trade, competition is excessive and the results arising therefore damage the whole trade in the estimation of the public.
The crux of his argument was that an excessive number of licensed houses encouraged drunkenness and discouraged the improvement of amenities. This in turn prevented the liquor trade from regaining the social respectability which it had once had, but from the 1850s onward had largely forfeited in the face of attacks by the temperance movement.
Butler's belief that only the state could take the necessary steps to rationalise the trade, however, was neither shared by his fellow brewers nor was it acted upon by subsequent Governments. Indeed, Butler himself showed that in those areas where licensed outlets were concentrated in relatively few hands and, equally important, where the local licensing magistrates were prepared to support the brewers' attempts to improve their public houses, much could be done to restore the respectability as well as the profitability of the trade. The Birmingham brewers' maxim of "fewer and better" proved to be the forerunner of a progressive approach to licensed reform which was ultimately adopted by practically every licensing bench in England and Wales. Although his enthusiasm for the Carlisle experiment later cooled, he remained, along with other prominent brewers, a leading advocate of rationalisation and social responsibility.
Unlike many other brewers, however, he took an active interest in brewing science. President of the Institute of Brewing in 1906, he made a substantial financial contribution both to the foundation of the Birmingham University School of Brewing and Malting in 1899 and to the establishment of a chair of brewing. He was also active in philanthropic causes and it was partly in recognition of this involvement that he was made a baronet in 1926. Although he never held any political office, he was a lifelong friend of the Chamberlain family and, like most other brewers, actively supported the Conservative Party.
He married Emily Mary Brown in 1893. They had two daughters and a son, William Owen, who died in 1935. The family interest in Mitchells & Butlers Ltd. was preserved up to the early 1960s through Butler's brothers, nephews and other relatives. Sir William Butler died on 5 April 1939 leaving and estate of £552,615 gross.