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Robert Barr Smith: Interests and Character

Glasses imported from Venice.

Robert Barr Smith was a man formed by his birth and his background, and many of his traits can be traced to his Scottish origins. Fayette Goss praised him as belonging to “those seriously educated, thrifty, hard-working Scots who left their misty homeland of saints and castles and legends stamped their mark on the new lands of the south.” (p. xxv)

The rich but frugal Robert bemoaned the cost of telegrams while spending the equivalent of millions on Morris and Co. textiles, rolls of wallpaper and dados, embroidery design kits and furnishings. Crates of drinking glasses imported from Venice were meticulously recorded in his Commonplace Book.

All letters were carefully copied and bound into voluminous volumes, while the Commonplace Books were used to record details on a multitude of subjects, ranging from detailed accounts for building the theatre, to wine bottling and liquors kept in the cellars, plans for drains and hot water supplies, servant names and wages, insurance costs, an Egyptian train timetable, the Smith family tree (‘My people’), rainfall statistics for his properties, wool clips and rams sold, horses bred, luggage sent to England in 1885 and fencing plans.

The list of guests at one Hunt Club meet was divided into: those who accepted and came; those who accepted and did not come but apologised; those who accepted and did not come but did not apologise; those who declined, and hunting men and others who came without invitation.

Game Hunting

Killiechassie Shooting. From Commonplace Book I

Born and raised in country Scotland, Robert had an ingrained appreciation for tramping the country and shooting a good bag of game. In 1884 he wrote to Peter Waite from Scotland:

“I took a shooting here for the mere purpose of forcing myself to take violent exercise. In London I do nothing but sleep, eat & drink wine & a walk in the city exhausts me. I walked yesterday shooting 7 hours without feeling done & walked about 3 miles afterwards to where my trap was. I brought in 9 brace of partridges & pheasant & I have 3 hares. Each of these birds if you count the expense will cost me 30/- or £2. But what of that? There is an American snob here who pays £10,000 yearly for his pheasant party.” (p. 66)

And on a later trip to Aberfeldy Robert recorded a typically methodical list: "The following is the bag to date. 867 grouse, 53 partridges, 23 pheasants, 235 hares and 204 rabbits. 1384 head of game so far."

Horse Sports

Robert Barr Smith, President of the Mt Barker Agricultural Society, 1904

Robert loved horse sport and horse breeding in all forms. In the early days he loved to hunt and play polo and several of the children were addicted horsemen and women. He also entered the show jumping at the local show at the age of 63: “I mean too to jump Buttercup at the Mt. Barker show. I am also telling Norman Goyder to bring down the 'Ghosts' for as two of my horses are out of order & I have six down at the Park, it wants a lot of quiet horses.” (p. 107)


Dogs as well were always a constant part of their family, some living to a companionable old age. In a letter written while living at Thomas Elder’s house Birksgate, Robert shows his indulgence with his pets: [He] “is handsome in the eyes of a sportsman or dog fancier ... he is very gentle and even follows me to town every day and plays with the children. He is rather given in the drawing room to lifting up one of his hind legs against your gilt console & one day, at dinner-time, he pissed on the cake basket. But these are things he can be easily be broken of dear Tom." (p. 28).


Contemporary painting of Morphettville Stud

He was also a keen patron of the race meetings and bred and raced his own horses in South Australia and Victoria. His imported racer Mostyn won the Goodwood Handicap in 1894 and 1895, and the City Handicap in 1896. He was also part proprietor of Sir Thomas Elder’s Morphettville Stud.

In 1892 he went to his first Melbourne Cup, accompanied by his horse-loving daughter Mabel, also to “do some country sightseeing, which he loved, on the way” (p. 153)

Joanna, always keen to encourage Robert’s pleasurable pursuits, wrote in 1894:
“Do you know what I think you ought to do? Instead of buying Elder Park or Cleggets? let Morphettville [Tom Elder’s former racing stables] go to Auction and buy it. You will then lay up for yourself an occupation for the rest of your life. Profit there won't be I daresay but you have come to the point in your life and financial condition to do without that. You have plenty of money at present lying unused. Buy the stables mon ami and secure for yourself and your sons a legitimate means of enjoying the pleasures of the Turf. (p. 172)

He had a remarkable memory for horse stock and wins, but was not above having some fun at his horses’ failure: “I have seen my horses lose often for want of trying and nothing else. Pincio[?J was a case in point. He liked to keep company with the bulk of the field and amuse himself looking at one or two in front of him fighting for the finish.” (p. 210)

Adelaide Hunt Club

Hunt Club at Torrens Park, 1898

Robert and his children, especially Tom, Mabel and Bertie, were all keen riders, and the Adelaide Hunt Club met regularly at Torrens Park until 1903. No foxes were involved – the course was laid down with a kerosene and fox urine bait! The host was expected to provide lunch and stabling – at times for up to 500 guests (including lady spectators) followed by afternoon tea. One luncheon in 1885 included “Saddle of Mutton, Boned Turkeys, Roast Fowl, Spiced Beef, Aspics, Chicken pie, Pigeon pie, Ham, Tongue, Trifles, Creams, Jellies, Meringues, Fruit Pies and Tarts.” (p. 71)

Thomas Elder and Robert were among the Adelaide Hunt Club’s most ardent supporters, and both were variously President between 1879 and 1893. By 1900 Robert was in his 70s and no longer rode to hounds.


Greyhound coursing was also a great attraction, and Robert often attended meets at Buckland Park, at one time being President of the South Australian Coursing Club. “Many adventures he took part in as a follower of the leash, including spills from his horse; but misadventures he always accepted with good humour.” (A Notable Citizen)


Robert was always up for a jaunt and often travelled to examine his interstate properties or visit interesting scenes. In 1892 he had journeyed with Professor Archibald Watson and William Mitchell to the Upper Murray River and had climbed Mt Kosciusko at the age of 67. He wrote an account for The South Australian Register of his ascent up barren slopes and through treacherous boggy marshes:
“It is not a tough job for youth. When I succeeded in reaching the top I found Professor Watson comfortably seated upon the cairn which in 1867, when a lad, he had assisted to build. I, too, climbed the cairn, and for a few brief moments enjoyed the consciousness of occupying the highest position of any man in Australia— an experience which was as novel to me as it was delightful.
About halfway down I was told to dismount. I did so, and sent my horse down the precipice thenceforward on his own account. But as I had no nails in my shoes I was soon in difficulties, and reached the bottom, travelling largely up on various parts of my body, which I feel sure Nature never intended to be used by me as a means of progression. I heard somebody laugh —may his conscience prick him when he reads this.
I am sixty-eight on February 4, and in the mean time I believe I hold the record as the oldest man who has yet ascended Kosciusko.”

Joanna was always anxious about his health and safety while he was away, but urged him not to hurry back and miss out on his “enjoyment in new scenes” (p. 80). In 1894 at the age of 70 he embarked on a strenuous inspection of his drought-stricken properties in inland Queensland. Joanna wrote from Torrens Park:

“This is my last line to you at Sydney - written chiefly to express my shuddering sympathy as I read of your perils in the Oak Swamp. I got your Milo letter yesterday and felt quite upset to realize all you have been passing through. My dear old Seventy Years, you will be immensely proud of yourself for having done it. It is a wonderful journey for a rich old man to make. There’s no goad of necessity to urge you on. I fear there is a little goad of self-conceit about it. You want to know and say you've done it! A little bit of bravado just as climbing Kosciusko was!” (p. 181)

The Barr Smiths also made the arduous voyage to Britain six times to visit their own families, to be with their sons studying overseas, or to start up the London office – each time with a large entourage of children (and one time with a cow to supply milk) and luggage. They would stay for months at a time in rented homes and hotels, the last trip lasting two years. Joanna loved the Scottish countryside and weather but was not a good traveller, whereas Robert revelled in in new experiences and places. He was however after the last trip homesick and longing to return to South Australia.


The lake at Torrens Park, ca. 1872

The Barr Smith houses, and especially Torrens Park, had extensive and very pretty gardens designed for strolling and entertainment. Torrens Park even had a lake with a small boat, an orchard, and an orangery.

When overseas, Robert would constantly write to his gardeners issuing instructions for the running of his estates, and despatch cuttings and bulbs chosen from the latest nursery catalogues. In 1890 he wrote to Evans, his head gardener at Torrens Park, that he was sending out heaps more chrysanthemums, including eighty-seven new varieties, plus twelve bulbs of Euclrnris Amazonia, adding, "I think we shall be out in February 1891. I hope to see a good display then.” (p. 139)

As in all his affairs, he concerned himself with details. His Commonplace books contain lists of begonias ordered, types of daffodils and their costs, oaks planted at Mt Barker and instructions for grafting oaks, and a French cure for dodder. He also did not like to have his plans challenged: “I do not consent to the cutting down of the mulberry trees until I see them - and I am annoyed at any trimming of the Bidwellia at the Billiard Room window because Evans spoke to me about it - and I refused to allow it to be done - saying the character of the tree and the beauty of it was that it should sweep the ground. Evans will have to pay more attention to what I say- and act less upon his own judgement in opposition to me or he and I will not be long together. I have been very near suggesting separation several times. I see all his merits but hang me if he doesn't often seem determined to do exactly the opposite of what he knows I want. He has propounded to me the theory that ‘a gardener ought to have a very free hand and be allowed to work on his own system’. If he carries this theory too much into practise - I shall have to ask him to extend his theory and pay himself his own wages.” (p. 227)

In his later years at Auchendarroch he would visit Thybell, his Norwegian gardener, daily – and walk through the large and beautiful oaks, elms and magnolias. Thybell had a talent for topiary and had cut a stag complete with antlers from a hawthorn.

Torrens Park orange harvest

The orangery at Torrens Park was watered by a horse-powered well, and every year the local people were employed to pack the oranges in tissue paper before being placed in wooden storage drawers. Much of the crop was exported to England or given away to friends and relations. Robert kept detailed records of the orange account in his books.

Cows were kept at Torrens Park to keep the grass down and prevent fires. Robert could not help but apply his business principles to the house herd: “I see I am the possessor of 10 cows and Crispe promises to make money-You were right to refuse bullocks for they did more mischief to the young trees and grounds than they were all worth. Bertie gives a poor account of the cows - but he doesn't understand the breed. Let him keep an eye upon these - see how their coats begin to shine – and the beef upon them to wobble about as they walk. Let him follow them into the sale ring and when he sees the butchers tumbling over one another in their anxiety to buy them at from 8 to 10 pounds a head - he will begin to know something about it.” (Robert to his son Tom. April 1899, p. 226-7)

Politics, Royalty and Religion

Robert took a deep interest in the politics of the state (there are plenty of cuttings in his Commonplace books regarding SA Parliament and political events). He was greatly respected by the business community and was often called on for advice, but, unlike many other pastoral barons and prominent businessmen, he could not be persuaded into active politics himself. He was a supporter of free trade during the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia, and a great friend and supporter of Catherine Helen Spence’s electoral reform campaigns. He looked into the aims of the socialists, and went to one of their meetings, but could not see how their ideas would work out well. (p. 147)

The feminist Spence had at one stage offered to visit the Barr Smiths twice a week to educate the daughters, but they decided that it was not fair to interrupt her writing and preaching to coach their children (p. 49-50). Robert also tried to get Spence’s book An Agnostics Progress from the Known to the Unknown published by Trübner & Co. in London, but in the end the Barr Smiths had it printed and published at their own expense – which Spence had specifically said they were not to do. (Spence. An Autobiography, p. 41)

Despite their position in South Australian society, Robert’s upbringing had fitted him with a healthy contempt for grandeur. Joanna confirmed in a letter to Robert: “you and I are not Royalists. There are always plenty of toadies ready to do all these polite things, so independent minded people can afford to let it all alone.” (p. 171)

Sir Thomas Elder in regalia, 1887

When his brother-in-law was knighted, Robert gently teased him: “I congratulate you on having got safely through the difficulties of Court presentation and on having received your letters patent. Your arms. I do not mean those with which your mother furnished you at birth, but your "coat of arms" supposed to come down to you from remoter ancestors.” In 1900 Lord Tennyson, then Governor of South Australia, asked Robert if he would accept a baronetcy. Robert politely declined, explaining: "I know I have done nothing to earn this distinction and the acceptance of it would be inconsistent with the spirit of my whole life" (p. 37). Robert’s attitude to pomp made his close friendship with Lord Tennyson all the more remarkable.

Letters from London demonstrated more of his disdain: "an entire day being wasted in celebrating the birthday of that shady young man the Duke of Edinburgh" (p. 41) and “This place is today in a high state of glorification and bunting. The Prince of Wales is here … attending the agricultural show. To show my contempt for Royalty I am sitting writing in a back bedroom, and shall not go out until I am sure he is out of the way. “(p. 215)

Even food did not escape his censure: “The cookery at the Savoy has a world-wide reputation but I cannot stand their d - d fine sauces. I have no objection to live upon cabbage but it must be an honest one” (Robert to son Tom” (p. 205)

Religious denominations did not fare any better. He did not attend church and did not want any clergy to visit him when he was dying. Robert generously financed the completion of the St Peter’s cathedral but declined a request from the “pack of snivels” Congregationalists and their “canting bounder” of a minister (p. 174)

Despite Joanna’s close friendship with and financial support of Mary MacKillop, Robert declined an offer of mass by Father Julian Tenison: “I have been thinking over your proposal to perform mass at Mt Lofty and have come to the conclusion that it will be more proper to decline it. My wife has been the subject of much remark lately in connection with your church·& there are now many people who will not believe when told she is not a Catholic. I do not think it is wise for a lady to provide such remark unnecessarily. You will agree with me ...” (p. 28)

Public Events and Amusements

Despite his business and social status, Robert shunned many public occasions. He wrote to Peter Waite “We opened our Exhibition this week with a flourish of trumpets & everybody said the ceremony went off well. I did not see it. I don't like Exhibitions so I pretended I was ill” (p 93). He also admitted he had been shamming illness too to get out of dinners & banquets. And to his son Barr (Bertie) in 1887 he admitted that there was town full of people and there is no end to so-called "amusements" going on but I have not been to any of them.” (p. 94)

He was however quite partial to theatre, taking a box for the six nights of Sarah Bernhardt’s tour "the theatrical and social event of the decade" (p. 146) and another time “enjoyed a hearty laugh at … preposterous farces which I have never been able to resist” (p. 205)

Then of course there were the recitations, tableau, pageants and theatricals put on by the Barr Smith children and friends in the Theatre at Torrens Park. While Joanna was keener on social entertaining than Robert, he indulged and supported his family in their amusements.


In the 1880s with the completion of the Torrens Park and Auchendarroch houses, Joanna came into her own as hostess to local society and distinguished visitors: “Joanna gave lavish and innovative entertainments. As well as the balls and dinners and garden parties in both houses, they developed the custom in the quieter Mount Barker of entertaining all the locals at garden parties and teas. At Christmas presents were distributed to everyone they knew in the village” (p. xiii-iii).

Grand balls celebrated occasions like Bertie’s 21st birthdays and their daughter Joanna’s wedding. Robert was less enthusiastic than Joanna, confiding to Bertie that: “We had a large lot of people yesterday to [Hunt Club] luncheon. I am getting very sick of my Sundays & tried to bolt down to Morphettville but the mother would not let me” (p. 98), and following Joe’s ball in 1885: “We had a big ball 2 nights ago. My wife and I hate such things but sometimes they must be done" (p. 71).

It is hard to believe that Joanna put on such lavish entertainments unwillingly. The family also played hosts to an important gathering of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1893 with an evening reception accompanied by songs and tableaux in the Theatre and recitations from Mabel. Robert described it much less grandly: “There is to be a great meeting of doctors from all parts of the world & they come to us on the 31st August. We are thinking of getting up a play for the doctors.” (p. 134)

Fun and Frivolity

The Unspeakable Scot

Fayett Gosse in The Gosses relates how “The Barr Smiths were hospitable but in a private, almost secret way. They liked fun rather than formality. One guest remembered on arrival at the house everyone was given a pair of stilts and how hilarious it was as everyone teetered round the lawns and surrounding paddocks with them.” (p. 157)

On another occasion they hosted a luncheon for 18 grandmothers on Lady Tennyson’s birthday – “We all enthusiastically drank your health & wished you every good and perfect gift. I think if you had been present you would have been both gratified and amused. I had a big wedding cake in the middle of the table & standing on it a doll dressed as a modern grandmother for which my old ladies were expected to toss! … then they were all weighed before they left and I am really afraid to tell you how many stones of grandmothers there were! (p. 235-36).

Grandmothers at the party

Robert recorded both the names and the weights of the grandmothers in his Commonplace Book.

Robert’s Commonplace books also contain clippings of jokes, cartoons, amusing incidents and trivia. He also enjoyed sharing gossipy confidences in his letters.


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

Mount Kosciusko / By R. Barr Smith. South Australian Register Monday 18 January 1892 p. 6. Available via Trove

A Notable Citizen: the Late Mr. R. Barr Smith. The Register Monday 22 November 1915 p. 5

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

Ken Preiss & Pamela Oborn. The Torrens Park Estate: a social and architectural history. Stonyfell S. Aust., 1991.

Catherine Helen Spence. An Autobiography. Adelaide, S. Aust.: W.K. Thomas, 1910.

Picture - List of glasses imported from Venice. Robert Barr Smith Commonplace Book I, Barr Smith Library

Picture - [Killiechassie shooting] Robert Barr Smith. Commonplace Book I, Barr Smith Library

Picture - Robert Barr Smith as the President of the Mt Barker Agricultural Society at the Society’s annual show 1904. Courtesy of the State Library of SA PRG 280/1/13/153

Picture - Contemporary painting of Morphettville Stud. Barr Smith & Elder Families Papers, Barr Smith Library

Picture - 1898 Hunt Club at Torrens Park. Courtesy of the State Library of SA [Hunt Club Meeting B 36429]

Picture - The lake, Torrens Park Mitcham ca 1872. Courtesy of the State Library of SA [B 9155]

Picture - Torrens Park orange harvest. Commonplace Book I, Barr Smith Library

Picture - Sir Thomas Elder in regalia. Courtesy of the State Library of SA [Sir Thomas Elder B 11292]

Picture - The Unspeakable Scot Robert Barr Smith. Commonplace Book I, Barr Smith Library

Pictures - Grandmothers at the party August 1904

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