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A Life of Public Benefit

Sir Thomas Elder was a generous man. He believed in utilising his enormous wealth for the good of the public and for the progress of the Colony of South Australia.

In his 1879 speech to a working man’s organisation in Great Britain he advised that:

Wealth is a great gift, but it is not a blessing in itself. Its potency for evil is quite equal to that of the good it may bring. Wealth all powerful as it is cannot of itself make a gentleman, and frequently serves but to bring out in high relief faults in a person’s nature which might have remained unsuspected but for the glare of his ostentation. This class is a natural growth of young colonies, where in the eagerness of the race after riches, the means of enjoying them when attained are overlooked, and their power for good is missed. But time throws the light of experience on the fallacies of the past, and men find that the grand edifice their wealth has built up for them lacks its chief good – the substantial foundation of culture and education.

From manuscript lecture by Sir Thomas Elder, 1879. Rare Books & Special Collections

His sister Joanna and his brother-in-law and business partner was also sympathetic to the 19th century practice of generous philanthropy. The ‘Commonplace Book’ no. I compiled by Robert Barr Smith contains a newspaper clipping titled ‘Millionaires and their money’. Among others, Russell Sage advised that

Any man who has a level head, who treats his fellow-men in a civil and courteous manner, and spends his money for laudable purposes, cannot have too much money. As for me, I am constantly turning over my wealth in a way that will help others. If a man does not do that he will not be a good citizen.

Elder gave generously during his lifetime, ranging from supporting exploration and the foundation of the University of Adelaide, to sponsoring the excavation and removing the fossil remains discovered at Lake Mulligan to the South Australian Museum.

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 accepting the thanks of the University of Adelaide for his donation of £20,000

The Sir Thomas Elder Bequests

The will of Sir Thomas Elder left the astounding sum of £155,000 for public services.

By far the larger portion went to The University of Adelaide and its Medical and Music Schools (£65,000 in total) with the next largest sums left to the Art Gallery of South Australia (£25,000) and The Adelaide Workmen’s Homes (£25,000)

The remaining bequests were made to:

  • Way College   £2,000
  • The Royal Geographical Society, Adelaide   £2,000
  • The Zoological & Acclimatization Society   £2,000
  • The Glenelg Institute   £1,000
  • The Adelaide Hospital   £3,000
  • The Port Augusta Hospital   £1,000
  • St. Margaret's Convalescent Hospital, Semaphore   £1,000
  • The Adelaide Children's Hospital   £1,000
  • Prince Alfred’s Sailors’ Home, Port Adelaide   £2,000
  • SA Institution for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb   £2,000
  • Dr. Barnardo's London Homes   £1,000
  • The Home for Incurables, Adelaide   £1,000
  • The Strangers' Friend and Charity Organisation, Adelaide   £1,000
  • The Adelaide City Mission   £2,000
  • The Young Men’s Christian Association   £2,000
  • The Anglican Cathedral   £4,000
  • The Presbyterian Church of South Australia   £6,000
  • Chalmers Presbyterian Church, Adelaide   £2,000

The Art Gallery of South Australia

The original building of the Art Gallery, opened in 1900, is now known as the Elder Wing after the Gallery’s first benefactor.

In 1880 the South Australian Parliament gave £2,000 to the South Australian Institute to start acquiring a collection, and the National Gallery of South Australia opened in rooms in the present Mortlock Wing (now part of the State Library) in June 1881.

Seventeen years before his bequest, Elder had been one of the Gallery’s original benefactors, donating the fine Victorian sculpture, Daphne Marshall Wood (c. 1859)

The Elder bequest, stipulated to be spent only on the purchase of pictures, greatly enhanced the Gallery’s collections for many years and helped to attract other donors. It was the first and largest 19th century bequest to an art museum in Australia and made the National Gallery of South Australia the richest.

The National Gallery was in dire straits at this time: the Government grant for acquisitions had ceased, and the Institute buildings were overcrowded and inadequate. It was the Elder bequest which persuaded the Government to build a permanent home for the expanding collection.

The first purchases by the Curator of the Art Gallery, Harry P. Gill, included some of the Gallery’s most important and prized Australian works, including Tom Robert’s The Break Away! (1891), Frederick McCubbin’s A Ti-tree Glade (1897), Walter Walter’s Early Morning, Heidelberg (1898), Sydney Long’s The Valley (1898) and Hans Heysen’s Mystic Morn (1904).

Elder’s bequest also enabled Gill to buy some of the best contemporary European art during his trip to London in 1899 to buy works for the new Art Gallery building, including works by Frederick Leighton and George Frederick Watts. Gill spent £10,000 from the Elder fund, the equivalent of well over a Million dollars today. When the new Art Gallery opened in 1900 it contained the most up-to-date collection of European and Australian art in the nation.

In 1997, 100 years after the original bequest, the Gallery decided to spend the remaining capital as inflation had eroded it’s value. The final purchases were two significant Australian works, Landscape, Bay Road by Roland Wakelin (c.1929) and Jeffrey Smart’s The Jostlers (1957) to remain on permanent display.

The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Sir Thomas Elder collaborated with the Royal Geographical Society on several expeditions, and its support for exploration would have greatly resonated with his aims of expanding the boundaries of knowledge in the Colony.

Elder’s £2,000 bequest enabled the Society to purchase the York Gate Library from the London merchant Stephen William Silver (1819-1905), also on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society in London. Silver gathered his collection over 60 years and it includes many volumes related to the British colonies with which his company traded.

Edward A, Petherick, the Colonial publisher, bookseller and bibliophile, advised Silver on the compilation of his collection. Petherick’s own collection formed the basis of the National Library of Australia’s Australiana collection. The University of Adelaide Library holds the Way/Larkin Collection bequeathed by Sir Samuel Way, the only other collection put together by Petherick.

Silver’s collection included many rare and valuable manuscripts and books and now forms the nucleus of the Royal Geographical Library. The most special treasure is the original manuscript diary kept by Joseph Banks on his voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766.

St Peter’s Cathedral

In 1890 work began to complete the work on the cathedral begun by Bishop Kennion. The corner stone of the nave and the towers was laid by the Earl of Kintore, but the work stopped after the completion of the lower nave walls due to lack of funds.

The £4,000 bequest of Sir Thomas Elder allowed for the completion of the nave which was completed in July 1901.

A donation of £10,000 was received from Robert Barr Smith in 1901 to complete the towers and spires and incorporate an apse at the chancel end

Adelaide Workmen’s Homes

Elder’s bequest of £25 000 was to establish a trust to be called 'Adelaide Workmen's Homes' in order "to benefit workmen by providing them with suitable dwellings at a reasonable rental" in or near Adelaide. Many workers at the time lived in sub-standard housing owned by unscrupulous landlords. Elder wanted the scheme to be modelled on the Peabody Donation Fund, which Merchant banker George Peabody had established in 1862 to provide housing for the poor in London.

Unusually for the time, the will also stipulated bequeathed that “the term ‘workmen’ wherever mentioned shall include ‘workwomen.’

In 1898 a gathering of ministers of religion, parliamentarians, businessmen and a representative of the United Trades and Labor Council met to consider the best means of employing the bequest. Robert Barr Smith advocated the building of ‘cottage homes’ ‘of such a kind as would build a national character.’

The homes would be targeted at ‘industrious and deserving workmen’ providing them 'suitable dwellings at a reasonable rental' and within 10 miles (16km) of Adelaide’s GPO’ rather than the ‘dependent poor,’ despite there being no pensions or benefits at the time to support people with disability, sickness or injury.

The organisation’s first homes were built on a site bordered by Wakefield and Angas Streets and a newly created Elder Street in Adelaide and completed in 1899. By 1972 only 13 of the original cottages remained along Frome and Angas Streets and are now privately owned.

Other homes were built in Mile End, the first row of eight semi-detached cottages being built on the northern side of Rose Street in 1901-2. The 48 cottages at Mile End provided a range of five, four and three rooms and contained a bathroom, pantry, cellar, washing copper and an outside privy under the main roof.

Now called Adelaide Worker's Homes Inc., they currently own more than 200 homes and real estate in Richmond, Mile End, Norwood and Woodville Gardens which it continues to rent.

Elder Park Rotunda

The 3 acres of land which now make up Elder Park was originally part of the Governor’s garden and was transferred to the Council in 1881 after the opening of the Torrens Lake. The Mayor had requested that Elder, while on a visit to the Home Country, should try and obtain subscriptions from wealthy South Australian colonists in England towards building a rotunda. Elder replied expressing his inability to do so, but in its stead, had already ordered one to be supplied from the catalogue of McFarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow.

The land of the Park was raised up some five and a half metres to the level of King William Road, and sculpted to gently slope down to the River Torrens, at the cost of £15,000. The octagonal Rotunda, measuring more than 7 metres in diameter, cost £800 to erect, towards which Elder donated £100.

A gala opening on the 28 November 1882 was attended by some 3,000 spectators who were entertained by the Adelaide Liedertafel singers ferried in a procession of boats illuminated with lanterns. The Military Band played the ‘Rotunda March’, composed for the occasion by its Leader, Mr Worsley, and dedicated to Elder. Sir Thomas was not present for the occasion, as “such was the natural modesty of his character that he shrunk from receiving the grateful acknowledgements of the citizens …”

For many years, the rotunda was the venue for open air concerts. Originally named Rotunda Park, the area was renamed Elder Park in 1907.

Morphettville Racecourse

Elder granted a lease for 999 years, at a peppercorn rent, of 160 acres along the Glenelg railway line to be used as a racecourse, and also contributed towards the fencing of the land. A Jockey Club company was formed to manage the gift which was subsequently amalgamated with the South Australian Jockey Club.

Elder owned a substantial amount of land in Morphettville, and made plans for a township in the area, to be known as Campden. It was reported he ordered a large number of wooden pre-fabricated houses, and a church, from Canada to be erected on land along the ‘Bay Road’ in front of the racecourse. In fact only three of the wooden houses arrived by ship on 11 June 1879 and were sold to Elder who erected them at Camden with the idea of them being the nucleus of a village of wooden houses, offering economical dwellings for settlers.

Other contributions during his lifetime

As a Member of the Legislative Council Elder was appointed to the management of the Adelaide Hospital

  • Donated money towards the construction and was a trustee of the Prince Alfred Sailors Home, Port Adelaide (opened 1875)
  • Glenelg Cricket and Football Clubs – gave land to extend the oval plus £10 towards the cost of fencing
  • Gave an acre of land to build a Bushman’s Home or Club
  • 'City of Adelaide' Port Adelaide steam lifeboat, built 1894 by R&H Green. Blackwall, London. Paid for by Sir Thomas Elder, she was stationed at Beachport for many years before being converted into a fishing boat
  • Donated the Chalmers (now (Scots) Church Bell in 1858 when the spire was completed. The bell was cast by J Barnard & Sons Crescent Foundry London, 1857 and weighs 130 kg. It rings in F#

Prince Alfred Sailor's Home, Port Adelaide is an imposing three storey building designed by architect Robert G. Thomas. It was built on intertidal ground and suffered severe subsidence with the foundation sinking 19 inches into the sediment.

Politician and Commissioner

Despite Elder’s lack of interest in achieving public prominence, he sat for many years as a member of the Legislative Council (1863-69 and 1871-78). He attended regularly and his few speeches were conservative, educated, sensible and to the point.

In 1866 a Waste Lands Bill was proposed as: “An Act to authorize the granting of Leases, with right of purchase, of certain Waste Lands of the Crown in South Australia.”

Elder voted for the Act to be passed in 1867, although as a squatter it was counter to his pastoral interests. After 1871 he continually opposed what he considered to be extravagant government spending.

He resigned his seat in 1878 and travelled to Europe, where he continued to work for the good of the Colony as Honorary Commissioner for South Australia at the Paris International Exhibition.

The Adelaide Zoo

Sir Thomas Elder served as Vice-President from 1880 to 1883, and then as President to 1888 of the South Australian Zoological and Acclimatisation Society, when he resigned due to ill health. The original aim of the Society was “the introduction, acclimatization and domestication of all innoxious animals, birds, fishes and insects, whether useful or ornamental; the perfection, propagation, and hybridisation of races newly introduced or already domesticated; the spread of indigenous animals &c from parts of the colony where they are already known to other localities where they are unknown …”

Members paid generous annual subscriptions to the Society, and Elder’s was by far the most generous -  £125,00.00 in 1882, and then £530,00.00 from 1883 to 1887.

As well as funds, Elder presented 5 Ceylon elk, 2 camels, 3 Arabian goats and 4 Persian goats, 4 axis deer, and a boa constrictor.

His most impressive live donation was ‘Miss Siam’, an elephant imported from Siam [Thailand]. By 1883 the Society had begun to construct buildings for “a place of recreation and education” for the public good, or in Elder’s words Adelaide’s ‘Pleasure Garden.’ The buildings included Miss Siam’s Indian-styled temple house. The Board reported: “The elephant continues to receive great attention and has contributed to her keep by earning the sum of £52 10s for carrying 3,150 juvenile visitors during the last six months.” – all at 4d. a ride!

Miss Siam lived at the Zoo for 20 years and entertained thousands of children. She died on May 7th, 1904. Her body was preserved and can still be seen in the South Australian Museum.

In 1884 Elder also presented the Zoo with funds to construct a central rotunda on the main lawn, which is believed to be the largest in Australia.


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