Thomas Elder’s first home was Myrtle Bank, an eight-room bluestone house built by William Sanders which had been previously rented by his brothers, William and George, and which in turn became the first residence of the newly married Robert and Joanna Barr Smith.
The Barr Smiths then moved next door to William Elder’s property Ridge Park after he returned to Scotland, but they had to move out when the house was sold to William Ferguson. Ridge Park subsequently became an intermediary for the importation of Elder and Barr Smith horses, including the imported Arab stallion and mare.
The Myrtle Bank homestead later merged with Ridge Park to become Ridge Park Health Care Centre for Aged Care at 32 Cross Rd Myrtle Bank, with part of the land forming the War Veterans Home in Ferguson Ave.
The Ridge Park property is currently under development, with a single remaining bluestone wall facing Cross Road.
In 1864 Thomas Elder bought Birksgate, situated at the corner of Cross and Glen Osmond Roads, from the pastoralist and barrister Arthur Hardy. The house, described as ”a modern Italian villa, especially constructed to fit the South Australian climate” was designed by architect Edmund Wright in 1850
Elder extensively enlarged the house, adding another story, verandas and iron-railed balconies, a servants’ room and a billiard room.
A gas plant was constructed for heating and lighting, and a massive glass and iron conservatory, which contained a pool and a fountain and in which he grew bananas and orchids, was shipped out from Scotland.
The grounds also included an artificial lake, paddocks for racehorses, a private zoo and a tower from which he could signal his yachts in the gulf and watch for overseas ships. On their arrival he would discharge his cannon and run up the Union Jack.
An 11-acre vineyard provided grapes to make his own wine. Elder was a member of the South Australian United Vineyard Association formed in 1876 along with Edmund Wright, J Crozier and Mrs Penfold.
In 1869 Elder embarked on an extended trip to England and Scotland and offered his home to his sister Joanna Barr Smith and her family. They remained there for two years until Thomas’ return.
Thomas Elder bequeathed Birksgate to Tom Elder Barr Smith, who continued the alterations, and it remained in the family until rezoning from a rural to an urban zone forced its sale. The house was demolished to make way for a housing estate in 1972. The conservatory was relocated to Beechwood, the next home of the current Tom Barr Smith, in 1969.
“In addition to his Morphettville establishment Sir Thomas Elder has extensive grounds at Birksgate … adjoining the property of his partner Mr Peter Waite. Here shelter sheds have been erected in the paddocks, and there are several loose boxes, to which comfortable quarters the youngsters are drafted after they have been weaned … The Birksgate paddocks, situated on a gentle slope at the foot of the hills, and being well timbered, are admirably suited for young stock to enjoy the breezes off the sea, while obtaining sufficient shelter to protect them from any extremes of the weather. …”
South Australian Weekly Chronicle Saturday 26 January 1884
Letter from William Kinmont, Private Secretary to Thomas Elder, written to his brother Eddie 8th January 1893.
“The excitement of the day here yesterday was the turning of the ostriches and other foreign animals from the enclosure near the house to a larger paddock behind. They were too near the drive and frightened the horses. It took a staff of twelve men to effect the change. Sir T. and I directed the proceedings at a respectful distance. A rare lot of kangaroos has been put in the small enclosure – one white fellow, one yellow, one silvery and other ordinary ones. They are very tame and playful.”
Kinmont family scrapbook. Private Collection.
In 1885 Thomas Elder built “The Pinnacles”, his summer house on Mt Lofty. Designed by the architects Black and Hughes, it was built in the Scottish baronial style, of massive proportions with stained glass windows, crenulations and a 100-foot tower constructed from local white sandstone from the Aldgate quarry.
It featured a huge drawing room and dining room, a grand blackwood and cedar staircase, a billiard room and eight bedrooms (five of them in the tower), with the comforts of gas lighting, showers and inside flushing toilets. The kitchen, servants’ quarters and stables were in a separate building. Water was raised from a spring by means of a two-horsepower hot-air engine.
Built on the steep slope of the hill, he could overlook Piccadilly Valley and use his telescope to watch his ships at Port Adelaide.
It was a gentleman’s retreat and Elder maintained a quiet household. Sir Thomas Elder died there on 6 March 1897. Elder bequeathed The Pinnacles to his favourite niece, Mabel Barr Smith, who by that time was living in England, and having no use for the property, sold it.
It was later bought by Langdon Bonython in 1903 who renamed it “Carminow” and made additions to the East. It was badly gutted in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 but has since been renovated.
Letter from William Kinmont, Private Secretary to Thomas Elder, written to Lenore Smith of Hynam
“You will see from my new address that Sir Thomas and I have left Birksgate and have come up to “The Pinnacle” for the summer months. The change is a most delightful one, for this is the coolest place I know of in the Colony, and the house is right on top of the hill. We have magnificent views in all directions – especially grand from the top of the tower which is fully 110 feet in height.
Kinmont family scrapbook. Private Collection.
Seafield Tower, Glenelg
Seafield Tower was built in 1876 for Sir Henry Ayers and Sir Thomas Elder. It was designed as two self-contained 15 room summer residences – Elder inhabiting the southern side – with a communal landing but separate staircases to the tower. Elder’s front garden featured a marble fountain.
Designed by Thomas English, the Tower was named after the landmark on the Fifeshire coast in Scotland.
Ayers and Elder entertained many friends at their seaside home, often hosted by Lady Anne Ayers.
The building had been considerably modified over the years, including walling in the front balcony and entry portico, and for a time was used for short-term accommodation by Australian National Institute members.
The site is now under development as part of The Glenelg Esplanade Project, which has pledged money from the sales of apartments towards its restoration.