Skip to content

Elder's Life and Character

Thomas Elder was born in Kirkaldy in Scotland, one of seven children and four brothers of a merchant family. He was one of a community of successful Scottish immigrants who achieved great success, but whose legacy for South Australia counts among the greatest.

For a prominent man he left little documentary evidence. There are no diaries or journals - except one in the State Library of SA written when he was ten – and no letterbooks. The only autobiographical publications are four little pamphlets published in 1893 recounting his travels of some 30 years past.

Although he still considered Britain ‘home’, he came to love the Australian country and its freedom. In an unpublished lecture delivered in England in 1879 he proclaimed his allegiance:

The climate of our adopted land, with its bright skies and clear atmosphere has, when it is at its best, a charm which infuses itself into human life with the exhilarating air one breathes; and which lingers long & yearningly in the memory of those who have fully enjoyed it when they have returned to the gloom & austerity of their native land. I consider myself one of that happy number.

By many accounts he was enterprising, dynamic and generous. He was a man of great stamina who could outlast most of his station people during a long day in the saddle. Robert Barr Smith in one of his commonplace books recorded that Tom walked 54 miles from London to Brighton, and returned home for luncheon in 16 ½ hours.

He was an astute and shrewd businessman, a respected and conservative member of Parliament, and in the world of racing was upheld as honest.

He has been described as energetic, inquisitive and dynamic, with a thirst for knowledge. His desire to expand the borders of knowledge (and the desire to exploit) led to the sponsorship of many exploring expeditions. He also delighted in seeking out exotic animals and plants and improving his household with innovations.

Even at the age of 70 he showed no sign of slowing down, but an accident in 1887 which led to blood poisoning led to the winding down of his business affairs and a trip to England with Robert and Joanna, recommended by his doctors for a change of climate.

He was close to his family, and particularly to his youngest sister, Joanna, and brother-in-law, Robert Barr Smith, both personally and in business. When Thomas lived at Birksgate there was much visiting between there and the Barr Smiths at Torrens Park. When he died he left Birksgate to his nephew Tom Elder Barr Smith and his castle at Mt Lofty to his favourite niece, Mabel.

Elder never married despite his alleged charm and the surfeit of women in the colony, but the bachelor life seemed to suit him and he enjoyed the pleasure of giving away his magnificent wealth to worthy causes. He was knighted in 1878 (KCMG) and created Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1887 for his philanthropy.

… no one in the colony so hospitable

Thomas Elder never emulated the lavish and innovative entertainments that were hosted by his sister Joanna. He was held to be a private man, but there are many reports of his hospitality and his delight of being in entertaining company.

His early travels in Europe and the Middle East, as reported in his published pamphlets, describe Tom (as he was familiarly known) enjoying jaunts with his companions on the Murry River paddle boat, joining parties of travellers for daring adventures, and meeting fellow Scotsmen in foreign climes.

He entertained the travel writer, Lady Brassy, to lunch, and accommodated the novelist Anthony Trollope at Birksgate, and accompanied him on a tour of his far northern properties and the Wallaroo copper mines where, according to Trollope, the coach and passengers got lost in the bush. Trollope in his book Australia and New Zealand (1873) rather puzzlingly refers to Elder only as ‘The Squatter.’

As Commodore of the Glenelg Yacht Club he would host regular banquets at the start of the season and other occasions (although not at his home).

On one occasion he hosted “a grand spread, varying from oyster patties to champagne jellies, with wines of the choicest vintage from Mr Elder’s private cellars. The tables were beautifully adorned by plants and flowers from the host’s conservatories.” (Kapunda Herald and Northern Intelligencer, 14 Dec 1875)

On his death Peter Waite remarked to the press: ‘Sir Thomas Elder …was socially a man all loved who came in contact with him. A most charming man as a host, for several years there was no one in the colony so hospitable as Sir Thomas. To him it mattered not to what class people belonged, when he met them he entertained all in a truly hospitable manner.” (Express & Telegraph, 8 March 1897)

An Overrepresentation of Scotsmen

Elder was one of many Scottish men of mark in the early days of South Australia. Men Such as Elder, Robert Barr Smith and Peter Waite typified the Protestant work ethic often associated with the success of Scottish immigrants.

Sir Charles Dilke, on visiting Adelaide in 1867: “Whether it can be that the Scotch emigrants are for the most part men of better education than those of other nations … or whether the Scotchman owes his uniform success in every climate to his perseverance or his shrewdness, you invariably find him prosperous and respected.

The Scots are said to have been overrepresented in Australian commerce and industry, particularly regarding finance, mining, shipping and pastoral interests. There also existed a thriving philanthropy tradition among the Scots who made their home in Australia.

Elder and Religion

Elder regularly attended and liberally supported Chalmers Church (now called Scots Church) on the corner of Pulteney Street and North Terrace, fittingly facing the Elder statue and the Elder Hall of the University of Adelaide.

Elder was instrumental in bringing out from Scotland the Rev. John Davidson to be the Minister of the Presbyterian Chalmers Church, and who later became the first Hughes Professor of English, despite his lack of formal education.

The original Chalmers Free Church was named after the Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers who established the Free Church of Scotland. It was built by a group of prominent Adelaide citizens, early immigrants to South Australia, who supported the Free Church of Scotland movement.

The church building was officially opened for worship on July 6th 1851 with the tower added in 1858. In 1865 the three branches of Presbyterianism established in South Australia, the Free Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the Church of Scotland, united to form one Presbyterian Church in South Australia, and Chalmers Free Church became Chalmers Presbyterian Church. In 1929 the Flinders Street Presbyterian Church and Chalmers Church amalgamated under the new name of “Scots Church”.

Elder bequeathed £2,000 to the Church in his will, but he was also generous to other religions with bequests left to St Peter’s Cathedral and Prince Alfred College. He is buried in the Mitcham Anglican Cemetery.

The window on the eastern side of Scots Church, the “Ascension of Christ” is dedicated to the memory of Sir Thomas Elder. The window cost £50 and was purchased by congregational subscription in 1898. It was executed by Montgomery & Grimbly, Adelaide & Melbourne.

University Library

Barr Smith Library
South Australia 5005


Phone: +61 8 8313 5224