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For the Greater Good: the Generous Life of Sir Thomas Elder (1818-1897)

An exhibition compiled from the resources of Rare Books & Special Collections and University Archives

The Barr Smith Library Reading Room, The University of Adelaide, 1 May - 15 June 2018

I don’t think much credit is due to either of us for a simple act of duty. Seeing that we have made our money in the colony, I consider we are bound in common gratitude to devote a portion of it to objects of public utility and public benefit in this our adopted county. I feel a warm interest in subjects such as education, and in all measures for the material improvement of the colony, as well as the moral and social advancement of the people upon which the future progress and happiness of the community so largely depend.

Thomas Elder on the Walter Watson Hughes and Elder gifts towards the founding of the University of Adelaide. From his speech on accepting the illuminated address presented in thanks for his donation of £20,000, 8th December 1874
(South Australian Register, Wednesday 9 December 1874, page 5)

Sir Thomas Elder (1818-1897)

This exhibition celebrates the life and generous donations of Sir Thomas Elder in the 200th year since his birth.

In 1854 Thomas Elder sailed to South Australia to join his brother George in managing the family business. On the same voyage was his future brother-in-law, Robert Barr Smith, whom Elder persuaded to join him in business in Adelaide. Thomas and Robert together established a vast mining and mercantile enterprise and established a pastoral empire larger than their native Scotland.

Elder was an enterprising young man with an adventurous spirit. Two years after arriving in the Colony he set off on a long voyage up the Murray River which fired his enthusiasm for pastoral enterprise, although his first land purchase proved to be less than profitable.

The discovery of copper in 1860, however, saw a rise in the fortunes of Elder Smith & Co which owned a large portion of the Wallaroo and Moonta mines. Their combined wealth enabled Elder and Barr Smith to progress the prosperity of South Australia and support many philanthropic enterprises.

Elder’s main residence was the Birksgate mansion at Glen Osmond which he developed to include a vast conservatory of exotic fruits and plants, his own vineyard for wine, a gas plant for lighting and heating, a private zoo and a stone tower from which he could observe shipping and his own yachts in the Gulf. He was a generous and considerate host, staging many large banquets and entertaining the author Anthony Trollope and the Duke of Edinburgh during their visits to Australia.

Elder’s own travels abroad led him to appreciate new experiences and the benefits of expanding the boundaries of knowledge. Elder actively explored beyond known lands and sponsored many expeditions of exploration, both with funds and with the supply of camels which he imported and bred on his outback stations.

A great supporter of education, Elder’s gift of £20,000 to match that of William Watson Hughes enabled the establishment of the University of Adelaide through the funding of two professorships in mathematics and science, with further Elder grants founding the Medical School and the Elder Conservatorium, and music scholarships for studies in Australia and the Royal College of Music in London.

Paratoo Station

Elder’s many other interests included yachting and he was Commodore of the Glenelg Sailing Club for many years. To support the racing industry in South Australia, he established a racing stud at Morphettville and imported Arab stallions, and later leased land at a peppercorn rent to establish a racecourse nearby.

He served as a member of the Legislative Council for several terms and supported the Waste Lands Bill of 1866 although as a squatter he stood to make financial loss by its passing. To the public benefit, Elder donated the Elder Park rotunda and a rotunda and animals to the Zoological Gardens.

Upon his death in 1897, among many other bequests, he left £25,000 to the South Australian Art Gallery to found a collection, £25,000 to provide housing and other facilities to promote the health and moral welfare of working men and working women, £16,000 to hospitals, £10,000 to Presbyterians, £4,000 to Anglicans for their cathedral and £4,000 to Methodists for their Prince Alfred College. These bequests alone represent more than ten and a half million dollars in current currency.

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Barr Smith Library
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