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Sir Thomas Elder (1818-1897)
Papers and realia 1857-1892

MSS 0252

Biographical note

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 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.

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.

Series 1. Writings

In 1891 the 24-year old William Kinmont left his native Scotland to try his luck in the dominions. In October 1893 started working as Private Secretary to Sir Thomas Elder. In December 1893 Kinmont was thrown from his horse while riding on Glen Osmond Road near Birksgate and died some weeks later from his injuries. Sir Thomas obviously thought a great deal of him, the funeral leaving from Elder’s house, the Pinnacles, before William being buried at Stirling Cemetery. William’s possessions must have been returned to his family after his death, including the two items in this series. . Among these were a transcript of “Notes from a Pocket Journal: A Trip to Lake Hope in 1861 by Sir Thomas Elder G.C.M.S.” in William’s handwriting, and a journal in Thomas Elder’s hand containing an unrecorded lecture delivered to a working men’s organisation during a trip to England in 18??

Jennifer Kinmont, on behalf of the Kinmont family, generously donated these to the University of Adelaide Library in 2016.

1.1. “Notes from a Pocket Journal: A Trip to Lake Hope in 1861 by Sir Thomas Elder G.C.M.S.” Transcription in William Kinmont’s handwriting (Elder’s original presumably was lost)

Unfinished transcription of a Elder’s diary of his expedition to Lake Hope from 31 August to 29 September 1861.

In 1861 Thomas Elder travelled to Lake Hope and Blanchewater, travelling first by ship to Pt Lincoln and Port Augusta, visiting Poonindie Native Institution. He then travelled by horse to Blanchwater station where he met up with McKinley’s expedition in search of Burke and Wills. Supported by camels, Elder with Giles and Stuckey travelled to Lake Hope where they were surrounded by natives. While in camp Elder collected wildflower seed with the aid of two Aborigines. Elder urged McKinley to send an advance party to check an Aboriginal sighting of Burke and Wills.

In 1862 Elder took up the lease of Lake Hope Station and acquired the Beltana run.

Available online

1.2. “South Australia” (Lecture, 1879)

A journal in Thomas Elder’s hand containing an unrecorded lecture.

In 1878 Sir Thomas Elder departed the Colony of South Australia and sailed to England to be knighted with the Order of St Michael and St George. Before his return to Adelaide in May 1879, he gave a lecture on South Australia “chiefly addressed to working men” in which he expounded on the rise and progress of the Colony and his personal observations. He urged the working men to consider the benefits of immigration to South Australia where, through opportunity and industry they could achieve “what might have appeared a wild dream in his native land stands boldly here as a reality.”

The lecture is available online with a transcript

Series 2. Photograph albums

By 1857, Thomas Elder left Adelaide on an extended visit back to England. Travelling by “the overland Route”, Elder left the ship at Suez to explore Cairo where he agreed to join a party of three Englishmen on a tour of Palestine and spent the next three months camping in tents and riding camels across the Arabian desert from Cairo to Jerusalem where he visited the holy sites. He then travelled to London and stayed there and in Scotland for three years. (Fayette Gosse ‘Joanna and Robert’ 1996, p. xix). Elder published his account of these travels in his 1894 pamphlet “Narrative of a Tour in Palestine in 1857.” During his time in England, Elder also travelled through Spain and Algeria, the later described in his pamphlet “Travels in Algeria in 1860” (published in 1894)

In 1869 Elder sought leave from the Legislative Council and again travelled to England and Scotland for a three year stay, during which he travelled to Italy.

Large photograph album

See index

Small photograph album

Red morocco bound photograph album 36x29 cm, with initials T.E. in gilt on front cover [46 leaves]

Contains photographs of his travels in Europe in 1870 (many of statues and paintings from Florence and Rome), along with views of Aden, Ceylon, Egypt and groups of Algerian and Arab peoples, interspersed with photographs of:

  • Scotland including residences Carlile House at Hampstead, St Margaret’s Hope, and Elder family and friends(?) (Joe Alexander, Miss Elder, Mrs W. Elder, Mr W. Elder Sr, Capt W. Elder, Miss Smillie, Mrs R. Patrick)
  • Photograph at front of Elder with Annie Hogg and Annie Elder, Florence March 1870
  • Expedition in search of Burke
  • Manuro al Kaninna (Aboriginal people)
  • Wallaroo Bay
  • Hunter River copper works
  • Port Augusta with camels
  • Paratoo head station
  • Lake Hope head station
  • Regatta at Largs [Scotland] 1860 and 1870
  • ‘F.C. Session’
  • photos of Thomas Elder 1857 and 1870
  • Also loose album sheets (38x28 cm) of photographs of:
  • Sir Thomas Elder
  • Original business premises of Elder & Co
  • Group of E.W. Hawker, Lady Baker, Geo. Dean, Mrs Jervois, Miss Price, Capt Haggard, Mabel Barr Smith, E. Colley in Scottish costume for ‘Lochinvar’
  • Unidentified scene
  • Paratoo
  • Jetty of Hunter River Company’s smelting works 1874
  • Morphettville Lodge with J. Elworthy
  • Birksgate house
  • Devonport (ship) at Mauritius 1871
  • -Paratoo (from painting)
  • Mining camp?
  • River scene ‘Milo’
  • Morphettville yearlings
  • Original watercolour of Rangihaeta, Rasiaraha’s fighting general and chief actor in the Wairau Massacre (NZ 1843)
  • Duplicate of original business premises of Elder & Co [purchased 1946 and used for nearly 40 years, demolished 1885]
  • Town of Algiers
  • Adelaide vs Mt Crawford polo match (A. Bastian, T.E. Barr Smith, T.H. Downer, G.H. Bagot, T.L. Stirling, G. Warren, A.J. Murray, F. Barrett, C.H. Angas)
  • Farm steam engine?
  • Steel plough
  • Algerian woman x 4

Series 3. Other

3.1. Stud book of Sir Thomas Elder

Elder began to breed and race horses in 1873 and for ten years competed with varying success. When his head trainer died he sold his racers and concentrated on his stud farm at Morphettville which became one of the best in Australia.

Tan suede covered lined notebook (39 x 26 cm) with paper label on front cover bearing Elder arms and signature. Notebook contains:

  • Ms list of Guesswork’s, Baronton Mueller’s and Bassonio’s performances 1882-1883
  • Ms alphabetic index to names of horses
  • Listings of stock, stud lineages and matings in ms and letterpress 1856-1892, most with photographs. Also certificates of pedigree for horses bought
  • Pedigree of Elder’s most successful racer ‘Gang Forward’
  • Some newspaper clippings and ms notes inserted
  • Graphic of Melbourne Cup 1883 from ‘The Australian Graphic’ inside front cover

3.2. Painting of Morphettville Racing Stud

3.3. Personal seal

Sir Thomas Elder's personal copy of The Encyclopædia Britannica ; or, Dictionary of arts, sciences, and general literature; 8th edition; 1860 is part of the Rare Books collection and can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room. 

Sir Thomas Elder’s Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (GCMG) regalia and his ceremonial clothing including sword is held by University Collections.

University Library

Barr Smith Library
South Australia 5005


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