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Robert Barr Smith: Family

Early Life

The house in which Robert Barr Smith was born

Robert Barr Smith was born on 4th February 1824 in the village of Lochwinnoch in Scotland, the eldest boy of Reverend Dr Robert Smith, a Church of Scotland minister, and his wife Marjory Barr. The Reverend Smith was a popular preacher and a man of high principles and determination. After the split with the Established Church in 1843 he resigned his post to establish a new Free Church and forfeited a comfortable living. The family, parents and 11 children, were reduced almost to destitution. Robert never gave up the habits of frugality and accounting for all expenses which were forced upon him at an early age. A studious and high-minded scholar, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow at the age of 14 and in 1842 found work in as clerk in Glasgow, then started his own commission business as R.B. Smith & Co., before migrating to Melbourne and then on to Adelaide to join the firm of Elder & Co., later changed to Elder, Smith & Co. It was not until 1870 that Robert and Joanna began to use both of his names as their surname (p. 29)

Joanna Barr Smith

Mrs Robert Barr Smith, 1860

Robert had known the Elder family in Scotland, and he wrote from Melbourne to Joanna asking for her hand in marriage. She did not consent at that time as she was very young, but two years later at the age of 21 she travelled in the care of the ship’s captain to Melbourne where they were married in 1856 before transferring to Adelaide. Robert and his business partner Thomas Elder thus became brothers-in-law.

They enjoyed a long and happy marriage and partnership. It was Robert’s custom when he was at home to pick a posy for Joanna from the garden and present it to her at breakfast (p. xxvi). Joanna greatly missed Robert on his frequent journeys and would become anxious about his health and the well-being of the family. They wrote to each other every day if possible and Robert would often gently tease Joanna about her devotion. In 1895 Joanna responded:

“Dear, dear, dearest and best of Bobs, you do not, you cannot believe that I can think of "others as better or purer men, kinder or more generous husbands.’ Why do you write that to me Bob? To your wife who adores you and believes in no-one in this world saving yourself? You do not deserve that I should mourn for you & long for you as I do if you can think of me as doing anything so base as that. Darling, darling, dearest love of my heart. I adore you. I esteem you. I am so much wrapped up in you that my heart is sore with so much love.’ (p. 14)

Robert was just as devoted to his wife, writing to his son in later life “but the truth is I am getting so old I do not like to be separated from your mother at our time of life.” (p. 92)

Joanna was by all accounts an intelligent and witty woman who took a deep interest in political, social and industrial events. Her friends and her husband relied on her judgement in important matters, and in social matters she was an energetic and thoughtful hostess. She was friendly with people from all levels, even with Hallam Lord Tennyson and his wife Lady Audrey despite her reservations about royalty (she described herself as having ‘socialist leanings’). She was also very kind and would dispense gifts and money to the poor and distressed. While she and her daughters attended Church of England services, Joanna also assisted her Catholic friend Mary MacKillop financially with the establishment of the Josephite Convent at Mitcham and in her home for unwed mothers and women in distress.

She loved Scotland and the country life and appreciated simple pleasures, and yet was prepared to make the difficult journey back to England with Robert and the children six times. She was adored by her children (except perhaps for the difficult Erlistoun) and her grandchildren.

The Children

Robert and Ursula Barr Smith

Robert and Joanna had 13 children over 22 years from 1857 to 1879, but tragically not all lived to adulthood. Six died as children: Robert aged 6; Neil at the age of three weeks, Hugh just before he turned two, Ida at four years of age, Ursula at two from croup, and Dorothea who was born in Edinburgh but died in Australia at two years of age.

Robert and Joanna’s grief at the deaths of their children was profound. Robert writing variously of their sadness:
“I am sorry to tell you my mind & attentions have been distracted by the loss of our very dear little daughter [Ida] of 4 years. She died 26th November … It is strange how one shrivels into one's own concerns - strange & pitiable” (p. 38)
and “The event of the month for us was a sad one. Our little daughter Ursula died of croup on the 13th after a few hours illness. The pet of all she was & the amount of love we all lavished on her it is impossible to describe.” (p. 43)

Joanna often becoming ill with grief, suffering from headaches and fretting and despondency. She never forgot her lost children, and when in Adelaide she and Robert would place flowers on their graves every Sunday. Molly Legoe relates how one day she crept up to her grandmother’s bedroom in Auchendarroch to discover photographs on the bedroom wall of the six dead children, covered with white curtains. (A Family Affair p. 20)


George's Seaford house at Victor, ca 1880s

Of their surviving children George, born in 1858, was an epileptic and mentally retarded. When at 18 his fits and rages became too difficult for his parents to manage, Robert arranged for him to be first boarded in Victoria with a retired Scots clergyman named John Gardner and his wife and a personal servant, before buying him a house in Victor Harbor and setting him up in his own comfortable household with dogs and horses, a keeper and three servants. Robert and Joanna regularly wrote and visited, often on his birthday, and in 1894 they celebrated his birthday at Victor with a ball for 100 people (p. 181). George lived to be 56 and enjoyed an energetic and full life before dying in 1914, a year before Robert.

Tom Elder

Tom Elder Barr Smith was in character much like his father – honest, compassionate and business minded. Robert concerned himself greatly with Tom’s education to ensure he gained admission to Cambridge. Tom studied law and ultimately gained an M.A. from Trinity College. He returned to Adelaide in 1885, married Mary (Molly) Isobel Mitchell, from Ayrshire, Scotland, and raised four daughters and two sons. He devoted the rest of his life to the family firm and in turn became one of South Australia’s great philanthropists.

Robert however never felt a real closeness with Tom. In 1906 he wrote to Mabel "I never had such a relationship with my sons - I have myself to blame but I got on better with my daughters" (p. 188)

Robert Barr (called Bertie or Barr)

Their third son was a matter of some anxiety to Robert and Joanna. Although adored by both, he was good at sports but not a good student. Despite Robert’s fear of private schools and their influence, they agreed that he should accompany their friend Frank Adams to England for schooling. Robert wrote to his sister Jessie:

“I have parted with my boy with great sorrow, not knowing if I shall ever see him again. He is a most lovable boy, bright & pleasant in all his ways - a little too easily led & quite capable of going wrong if he falls into bad hands. I hope there is no danger of this. I have sent him away because I thought it gave him the best chance of growing up a worthy young fellow, whatever the consequence, I have acted not from choice but from principle - God knows.” (p. 91)

Bertie returned to Adelaide but lived in the family home, working at various stations at his father’s bidding and escaping to Africa to go game hunting. He was an excellent rider and enthusiastic about motor racing and record-breaking, but did not marry. He died on the last day of 1909 after falling down the stairs at Auchendarroch (or according to A Family Affair ‘drank himself to an early grave’)


Erlistoun as Autumn

Of the daughters, Erlistoun proved the most problematic. Joanna especially found her moody, wilful and argumentative. She loved music but was troubled by increasing deafness. Joanna took her daughter to Germany when she was 21 hoping to encourage her to study music and German, only to discover that nothing could be done about her hearing and that she would soon become deaf. On their return to England, Erlistoun appears to have suffered a breakdown followed by some mysterious ‘dishonourable behaviour’ which both enraged and shamed her parents (p. 130, 137). She returned to Australia and in 1898 at the age of 30 married the Adelaide University Professor of Philosophy and English Literature, William Mitchell, bore two children and sadly died in her mid-forties from tuberculosis.

Mabel, Jean and Joanna (Joe)

Miss Mabel Barr Smith

The other Barr Smith daughters inherited their parents’ high principles, common sense, a dislike of pretension and a high sense of fun. They were brought up in privileged houses and indulged with drama lessons and a private theatre at Torrens Park where they could stage pageants and plays. All lived to a ripe old age, Mabel to eighty-five and Jean and Joanna both to ninety-seven.

Mabel and her sister Joe were sunny and vivacious. Mabel was a skilled horsewoman and the keenest at theatricals. In 1896 Mabel married her fellow hunter and actor, Fred Braund of George Wills & Co. Fred was relocated to the London office so the couple spent the rest of their lives in England.

Joanna as Winter

Joe was a dear, kind and loving daughter. She married George Hawker of Bungaree Station who tragically died from septicaemia following a yachting accident at Port Elliot, leaving Joe with a two year old daughter and a four week old boy. Later on a voyage to England to visit Mabel, Joe met George Acres, an Irishman working as an official of the Indian railways, who had boarded the ship in India. Joanna and Robert were unimpressed, calling him ‘a pleasant Anglo-Indian pauper’ (p. 161), but Joe returned to London to marry and then went with him to India. Their marriage was not successful and they divorced in 1915. Joe changed her name back to Hawker but stayed in England with her children.

Jean as Summer

Jean was shy, a tad sentimental and often awkward, but a devoted and unselfish daughter. For a time she was courted by Charles Edward Todd, the son of astronomer and postmaster Sir Charles Todd, but Robert and Joanna were not in favour of the match. Eventually, after some strong talking from Joanna, she happily married Tom O'Halloran Giles, an Adelaide lawyer and grandson of the pioneer Thomas Giles. In later days it was Jean, “who had at times puzzled and frustrated her mother by her silences and her moods, who became Joanna’s greatest companion.” (p. 255)

Robert was devoted to all of his children. Joanna wrote to him:

“You give your offspring a terrible slanging in your today's letter. I could not help laughing as I read your letter for there's not a softer, kinder-hearted old Daddy-Long-Legs in this world than you are, & you were just playing at calling your children by bad names! Certainly they have occasionally given us sad trouble with their waywardness & their donkeyishness, but take them by & bye, dear Bob, they are a very good lot & you & I would feel pretty lost without them.” (p. 161)


Robert and Joanna were indulgent and loving grandparents; Joanna entertaining them with parties and dress-ups in the theatre at Torrens Park.

Robert’s granddaughter Molly recounts in A Family Affair that she was very fond of her grandfather and would visit Robert each morning in his study, and then walk through the garden to see Thybell the Swedish gardener (A Family Affair p. 22). He would also compose verses and plays for his grandsons on his typewriter (p. 249). In his old age, Robert had leisure to indulge himself with the children and give the attention for which he had not had time when his own sons were young.


Page numbers cited are from Joanna and Robert: the Barr Smiths’ life in letters 1853-1919. Adelaide: The Barr Smith Press, 1996. Available online.

Elixabeth Riddell. ‘The Barr Smiths: four generations of landed gentry. The Bulletin (March 6, 1979) p. 51-60.

M.I. Legoe. A Family Affair. Adelaide, 1982.

Fayette Gosse. The Gosses: an Anglo-Australian family. Canberra: Brian Clouston, 1981.

‘Robert Barr Smith’ Australian Dictionary of Biography

[Picture – The house in which I was born] Robert Barr Smith. ‘Commonplace Book’ I. Barr Smith Library

[Picture - 1860 Mrs Robert Barr Smith Courtesy of the State Library of SA B 7776]

[Picture - RB and Ursula Barr Smith] Sir Thomas Elder photo album. Barr Smith Library

[Picture - Seaforth house 1880s Courtesy of the State Library of SA BRG 216/12/4]

[Picture - Miss Mabel Barr Smith] Sir Thomas Elder photo album. Barr Smith Library

[Erlistoun as Autumn, Joanna as Winter, Jean as Summer. An Australian birthday book / compiled by M.F. [Mabel} and J.B.S. [Jean Barr Smith] Adelaide: George Robertson, 1883. Barr Smith Library. Note: Pictures are given different season names in Joanna and Robert.

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