Thomas Elder Barr Smith (1863-1941)

Thomas Elder Barr Smith

Thomas Elder Barr Smith

Tom Elder Barr Smith was born on 8 December 1863 at Woodville, in the St Clair mansion rented by his parents Robert Barr Smith and Joanna Lang (née Elder), and spent his formative years at the grand family houses of ‘Torrens Park’ at Mitcham and ‘Auchendarroch’ at Mount Barker.

He was educated at St Peter’s College and the University of Cambridge, gaining an M.A. from Trinity Hall, before returning in 1885 to work for Elder, Smith & Co. He remained in the family company for his entire working life, joining the board in 1916 and, in 1921, succeeded Peter Waite as Chairman. Tom Barr Smith also served as a Director of the Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd. and the South Australian Co., and was Chairman of the Board of various pastoral companies, including Beltana, Mutooroo, Ned's Corner, and Milo and Welford Downs.

Tom also shared his father’s interest in horse sports, especially hunting and polo, and raced several winning horses. He was President of the Adelaide Hunt Club, and a committee member of the S.A. Jockey Club. He was also a skilled competitor in car rallies, and served as President of the Automobile Club of South Australia and the Adelaide Club.

A handsome, robust man, Tom was in character much like his father: business minded, honest and compassionate. He was devoted to his family and inherited his mother’s sympathy for the downtrodden and distaste for ostentation. He also inherited great wealth from his father and his uncle, Sir Thomas Elder, and like them became one of South Australia’s great philanthropists, giving liberally to many charities and institutions. He declined the offer of a knighthood, as did his father before him.

His greatest legacy was granted to the University of Adelaide, whose library had been greatly enlarged through his father’s many gifts of money to purchase books. By 1927 the collection had outgrown the limited accommodation in the Mitchell Building, and Tom donated a total of nearly £35,000 to erect a splendid new library building to be named in his father’s honour. The completed building, designed by Walter Bagot and proudly incorporating local stone and timber fittings, was officially opened in March 1932.

A terrazzo frieze around the magnificent reading room bears Latin inscriptions commemorating the benefactions of Robert and Tom Barr Smith. He also donated £1,000 to establish St. Mark’s, the first University residential college, and was a council-member of the University of Adelaide from 1924.

While at University, Tom became engaged to Mary (Molly) Isobel Mitchell from Ayrshire in Scotland and they were married on 5th May 1886, soon after her arrival in Adelaide. On Sir Thomas Elder’s death in 1897, Tom inherited his magnificent ‘Birksgate’ estate at Glen Osmond where he raised his four daughters and two sons.  He also spent time at the family's summer residence, ‘Wairoa’, at Aldgate in the Adelaide hills (now Marbury School) and their property ‘The Hummocks’ near Snowtown, both of which were gifts from his father.

Molly Barr Smith also actively engaged in charity work and was appointed C.B.E. in 1918 for her war services. She died in 1941, leaving her husband desolate; he died on 26 November and was buried in Mitcham cemetery.


Australian Dictionary of Biography. ‘Smith, Tom Elder Barr (1863–1941)’ by R. W. Linn

‘Tom Elder Barr Smith’ by Pamela Oborn. SA History Hub.