Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Elder, David (1849–1923)

by Alan Barnard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

David Elder (1849-1923), businessman and grazier, was born on 19 June 1849 at Dundee, Scotland, son of Douglas Elder and his wife Euphemia, née Adam. In 1854 the family migrated to Melbourne where his father, a shipwright and marine surveyor, later became superintendent of the government dockyard.

Elder was educated at Scotch College. In 1865 he obtained a position with a prominent Melbourne accountant, Andrew Lyell, later Lyell & Gowan, and was admitted to the partnership nine years later. In this unusually dynamic firm, which in the 1880s had branches in Sydney and London, he acquired close familiarity with a variety of business attitudes and practices and a wide circle of influential commercial acquaintances. His reputation gained him in 1880 the Melbourne management of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co. Ltd, a rapidly growing pastoral consignment house active in Australia since 1874. As manager and in 1889-1903 as general manager for Australia, Elder led the N.Z.L.&M.A. Co. in an abrasively competitive expansion. 'They desire to absorb everything', lamented one rival manager, 'What other reputable business … requires such an adjunct to its sale room as a grog room?' In the 1880s competition between wool-brokers became increasingly concentrated on the liberality of their lending policies. Most lenders ignored the deteriorating prospects of increased pastoral production as easily as the company's directors ignored their chairman's warning that Elder's 'grasping at business is ruinous'. Basic principles of financial management were neglected by many. Unable to meet prospective debenture repayments, its funds locked in overvalued loans, its business riddled with the effects of what The Times called the 'gigantic system of continued and complicated dishonesty' devised in New Zealand by some directors, the N.Z.L.&M.A. Co. failed in 1893. Elder's contribution was not negligible: loose control of lending and accounting; interception of a company official's report to the directors specifying very large contingent capital losses on the Australian business. For his role in the Pastoralists' Federal Council in 1891-92 the Bulletin described him as the 'Napoleon of the capitalist party'; he was undoubtedly one of the strongest personalities among Australian pastoral financiers and wool-brokers at that time. He secured his way even with his more scrupulous London directors and their successors in the reconstructed company as readily as he created apprehension among his competitors. He retained his position in the Australian management until his retirement at 53 on exceptionally generous terms.

Among other roles outside the industry, Elder was a justice of the peace in Victoria and New South Wales and a commissioner of the Victorian Savings Bank. After his retirement he served as director of a number of Queensland pastoral companies, some of which he helped to promote, of a meat company and of several commercial companies. Elder died at Essendon on 25 August 1923. He was survived by four sons and a daughter and by his wife Emma Ann, daughter of Samuel and Mary Turner of Sandridge, whom he had married on 22 May 1873.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Cairn, ‘Capital structure … Pastoral companies in Australia 1880-1893’, Australian Economic Papers, June 1963
  • N. Cain, ‘Pastoral expansion and crisis in New South Wales 1880-1893: the lending view’, Australian Economic Papers, Dec 1963
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 9 Mar 1880, 16 July 1889, 20 Mar 1903
  • ‘Mr David Elder’, Australasian Pastoralists' Review, vol 2, no 4, June 1892, p 665
  • Argus (Melbourne), Apr, May 1894
  • Times (London), 8 May 1894.

Citation details

Alan Barnard, 'Elder, David (1849–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elder-david-3474/text5317, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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