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Elder, Sir Thomas (1818–1897)

by Fayette Gosse

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

This is a shared entry with:

Thomas Elder (1818-1897), by unknown photographer

Thomas Elder (1818-1897), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 34518

ELDER BROTHERS: William (1813-1882), Alexander Lang (1815-1885), George (1816-1897), businessmen, and Sir Thomas (1818-1897), businessman, pastoralist and public benefactor, were born on 25 March 1813, 18 April 1815, 17 November 1816 and 5 August 1818 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, sons of George Elder, merchant and shipowner, and his wife Joanna Haddow, née Lang. In 1839 the family decided to extend its business to the new province of South Australia and accordingly Alexander sailed as sole passenger in his father's schooner Minerva, 89 tons, with a cargo of rum, whisky, brandy, tar, fish, biscuits, tinware, gunpowder, agricultural machinery and seed, with which to establish himself. He advertised as a general and commission agent and dispatched the Minerva for regular trading between Adelaide and Launceston. He survived the depression in 1841-43 and expanded his activities; he bought pasture lands, established a gasworks and acted as agent for shipping companies and men on the land. When copper was discovered at Kapunda in 1842 he set up as a metal-broker.

William, a sea captain, visited Adelaide in 1840 when he brought out 183 Scottish and Irish migrants. The passengers acclaimed his 'gentlemanly deportment … perfect self command and good temper under the most trying circumstances'. He returned to Adelaide in 1844 with his wife, née Malcolm, to join the family business. By 1849, when George joined them in Adelaide after some years in Canada, business was thriving. Alexander was a justice of the peace, director of the Savings Bank and the Adelaide Auction Co., and trustee and treasurer of the Church of Scotland. In July 1851 he was elected for West Adelaide to the Legislative Council where he battled against state aid for religion and against a nominated rather than an elected upper house for parliament. In Adelaide on 8 April 1847 he had married Mary Eliza, the daughter of Rev. John Baptist Austin, a Congregational minister. On 30 March 1853 he resigned from the council and with his wife and children left South Australia. He settled in London in 1855. There he acted as agent for the Adelaide firm until 1884 when with two sons he established A. L. Elder & Co. Much of his trade was with New Zealand where he owned land at Langdale near Masterton and where three sons migrated. Alexander died in London on 5 September 1885 survived by seven sons and five daughters. He left an estate in South Australia worth £317,000 and was well remembered in the colony for his integrity, drive and common sense.

William left South Australia soon after Alexander and retired in Scotland. He died at Cannes in April 1882, survived by his wife. George, 'handsome, with charming manners and the cleverest of the brothers', was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in 1852 and 1855. A popular speaker, he was urged to enter parliament but refused. He took a great interest in Chalmers Church and laid its foundation stone. He left South Australia in 1855 to live in Scotland, where he was chairman of the North Ayrshire Liberal Association, a deputy-lieutenant of Ayrshire and director of many companies. He died at Knock Castle, Largs, Ayrshire, in July 1897, aged 81.

Thomas migrated to Adelaide in 1854 and worked for a year with George. He then formed a partnership with Edward Stirling, Robert Barr Smith and John Taylor: Elder, Stirling & Co. In 1856 Barr Smith married Thomas's sister Joanna. She became Adelaide's most renowned hostess but Thomas always lived quietly and never married. Elder, Stirling & Co. financed in 1859 the Wallaroo and Moonta Copper Mines which, after initial risks, brought them great wealth. Stirling and Taylor retired and the two remaining partners formed Elder Smith & Co. which became one of the world's largest wool-selling firms. While still active as agents they built up a huge pastoral territory, spreading further and further from the civilized fringe and moving into the untouched wastes of South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia. They tackled the outback problems by spending many thousands of pounds in fencing and sinking bores though their properties constituted a land mass finally much larger than the whole of their native Scotland. Thomas's holdings included Paratoo (3000 square miles [7770 km²]), Umberatana, Mount Lyndhurst and Blanchewater (3000 square miles [7770 km²]) and Beltana (900 square miles [2331 km²]).

Thomas was an enthusiastic and practical supporter of exploration and saw the camel as the answer to the transport problems of the outback. His first imported batch of breeding camels included three types for speed, stamina and strength; he also brought out Afghans to manage the beasts. From the original 124 camels he bred a sturdy stock at Beltana. A hundred were used in building the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin in 1872 and they were established as indispensable in Peter Egerton Warburton's 4000-mile (6437 km) journey from the centre of Australia to the western coast in 1872-73. Ernest Giles's exploration in 1875 also succeeded with camels. Thomas financed both these expeditions as well as those of John Ross in 1874, Lewis in 1875 and the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia in 1891. He also lent camels and drivers to genuine expeditions of discovery and much land was opened up as a result of his ardent interest in exploration. In 1890 he wrote to Baron von Mueller offering to finance a trip to the Antarctic.

Thomas published in Adelaide for private circulation four pamphlets describing early travels of his own. Notes From a Pocket Journal of a Trip Up the River Murray in 1856 (1893) reports his two-month journey in Captain Francis Cadell's steamer and attests to his immediate enjoyment of his new home. Narrative of a Tour in Palestine in 1857 (1894) describes a spontaneous jaunt from Cairo to Mount Sinai and Jerusalem which Thomas made with a party of Englishmen, his first experience of camel riding. His Travels in Algeria in 1860 (1894) convinced him that the French experiment in colonization was unlikely to succeed, while in Notes From a Pocket Journal of Rambles in Spain in 1860 (1894) he confessed after visiting the art galleries that 'picture seeing is more fatiguing than people think'; but he later gave £25,000 to the art gallery in Adelaide.

Thomas was a member of the Legislative Council in 1863-69 and 1871-78. He attended regularly and his few speeches suggest him as unemotional, conservative, educated, sensible, and, in discussion, short and to the point. His opinion was listened to with respect. He was particularly interested in the waste lands bill of 1866 for which he voted although as a squatter he stood to lose by it, and after 1871 he continually opposed what he considered extravagant government spending.

Thomas bought Birksgate, Glen Osmond, where he built his own gas plant for lighting, grew bananas in his conservatory, made wine from his own garden grapes, created a zoo and built a tower in the grounds from which he could signal to his yachts as they raced in the gulf. When an overseas ship was sighted he fired a cannon and hoisted the Union Jack as his own shipping advisory service. He began to race horses in 1873 and for ten years competed with varying success. When his head trainer died he sold his racers and concentrated on his stud farm at Morphettville which became one of the best in Australia. In 1878 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and in 1887 G.C.M.G. In 1885 he built a house (later Carminow) on Mount Lofty in Scottish baronial style. He died there on 6 March 1897. His estate was sworn at £615,573 and outside South Australia it probably amounted to some £200,000.

His philanthropy is everywhere evident in South Australia, not least at the University of Adelaide. In 1874 he gave £20,000 to endow chairs in mathematics and general science; in 1883-97 he gave £31,000 to the Medical School, £21,000 to the School of Music and £26,000 for general university purposes. His will also included bequests of £10,000 to Presbyterians, £4000 to Anglicans for their cathedral and £4000 to Methodists for their Prince Alfred College. He left £25,000 for the foundation of Working Men's Homes and £16,000 to hospitals. A statue is in Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • Elder Smith & Co. Limited: The First Hundred Years (Adel, 1940)
  • F. Gosse, ‘Sir Thomas Elder, G.C.M.G.’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, vol 63, 1962, pp 34-50
  • Observer (Adelaide), 13 Mar 1897.

Citation details

Fayette Gosse, 'Elder, Sir Thomas (1818–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elder-sir-thomas-347/text5319, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 28 July 2014.

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

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