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The strange story of Launceston’s first mayor

The election of William Button as Launceston’s first mayor in 1853 capped a remarkable change of fortune for a former English brewer who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land under an assumed name.

Launceston's first mayor William Button with the Court House in the background.

William Button and his brother Thomas used their wives’ maiden names when they fled their failed grain milling and tannery businesses in Suffolk in 1833 and emigrated.

William Button was known as William Williams for the first six years of his residency and initially helped established a brewery at Longford and later the Port Dalrymple Brewery in Paterson St.

Thomas Button was known as Thomas Lloyd when he established a tannery in Margaret Street.

They revealed their true identities in 1839 when they learned that the Reverend John West, who was known to them, was coming to Van Diemen’s Land.

They had, they said, repaid all the debts they had left in England and their deception and subsequent revelations didn't seem to hinder their business success or social activities.

In 1842 with other members of their family and Reverend West they were involved in the founding of the Launceston Examiner.

The Button brothers were candidates at Launceston’s first municipal election held on January 1, 1853.

A committee of eminent northerners had been formed in early 1852 to report on the best model for Launceston’s first municipal council. Their recommendations were presented at a public meeting by businessman William Henty and published in The Examiner on June 16, 1852.

The committee said the various forms of municipal government in England and in the other Australian colonies had been considered and they thought the English model would best serves the residents of Launceston.

The committee recommended using the same voting qualification as used for elections for the Legislative Council, which only allowed property-owning males over the age of 21 to vote.

The Examiner reported that shortly before nine o'clock on election day the townspeople assembled in front of Launceston’s Court House, then on the north-west corner of Paterson and Wellington streets, where the under-sheriff William Sams read the list of ten candidates.

The Cornwall Chronicle reported that “ten or a dozen writers, who received alphabetically, and entered in lists prepared for the purpose, the votes of the electors from the voting papers.”

About 500 men had voted when the poll closed at 4pm with Mr Sams announcing the members of Launceston’s first council at 5pm.

They were Thomas Button (364 votes), Charles James Weedon (335), William Stammers Button (312), Adye Douglas (300), Henry Dowling (294), John Crookes (289), and Francis Evans (285).

The aldermen then retired to the Court House for the first meeting of the first Launceston Municipal Council where William Button was elected the town’s first mayor, a position he held until 1856.

Thomas Button’s son Henry Button, who joined the staff of The Examiner in 1844 and became part-owner its 1857, was also elected to the Launceston Municipal Council in 1879 and served as mayor in 1885.

Brisbane St Launceston c1856 by Frederick Strange, QVMAG collection.

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, on 8 September 2023.

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