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Robert Barr Smith (1824–1915)

by Dirk Van Dissel

This article was published:

Robert Barr Smith (1824-1915), by Townsend Duryea

Robert Barr Smith (1824-1915), by Townsend Duryea

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11296

Robert Barr Smith (1824-1915), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 4 February 1824 at Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, Scotland, son of Rev. Dr Robert Smith, Church of Scotland minister, and his wife Marjory, née Barr. Educated at the University of Glasgow, he worked in commerce before migrating to Melbourne in 1854 as partner in Hamilton, Smith & Co. Next year he went to Adelaide, and replaced George Elder in the mercantile and pastoral firm of Elder & Co. In 1856 he married Elder's sister Joanna, and in 1863 he and Thomas Elder became sole partners in Elder Smith & Co.

The firm pioneered the opening of outback South Australia, including the fencing of properties and sinking of bores. It also held pastoral leases in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. In 1859 it financed the Wallaroo and Moonta Copper mines which, after initial loss, brought large returns. Elder Smith & Co. also had interests in the Adelaide Steamtug and Adelaide Steamship companies. It was incorporated in 1882 with a nominal capital of £200,000, Elder and Barr Smith between them holding two-thirds of the shares, and next year they established a London office. Barr Smith was a major shareholder in Elder's Trustee and Executor Co., founded in 1910. He was also director of the Beltana, Mutooroo, and Momba Pastoral companies, the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co., the Adelaide Steamship Co., the South Australian Gas Co., the Mercantile Marine and Fire Insurance Co. of South Australia, the Australian Mutual Provident Society, the English Scottish and Australian Bank, the Mortgage Company of South Australia and the South Australian Co. He also helped to found the Bank of Adelaide.

Smith's philanthropic activity became a legend. A member of the Council of the University of Adelaide for nineteen years, his donations to it totalled £21,400, including £9000 to the library which subsequently bore his name. In 1900 he contributed £10,000 to the completion of the spires of St Peter's Cathedral. He gave £2000 towards the establishment of the diocese of Willochra, and £2300 to pay off the debt on the Trades Hall in 1908. He gave a number of pictures to the Art Gallery, defrayed the cost of an observatory at the summit of Mount Kosciusko for Clement Wragge, and donated a steam lifeboat to the South Australian government. During World War I, he gave two ambulances for the front and offered his home, Torrens Park, Mitcham, for a military hospital.

Modest and unassuming by nature, Smith could not be persuaded into active politics, although he supported the free-trade advocates at the time of the founding of the Commonwealth. Greatly respected, both by the business world and his friends, he was said to have refused a knighthood. A keen patron of the turf, he often attended race meetings and bred and raced his own horses. He died of senile decay at his residence in Angas Street on 20 November 1915. His estate was sworn for probate at £1,799,500, the largest in South Australia until then; of this, more than £40,000 was left to charities. His funeral, though a private one, was attended by the premier, representatives of the university, prominent citizens, and leaders of Adelaide society. He was survived by his wife, three of his seven daughters and one of his six sons.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • Wallaroo and Moonta Mines and Smelters, Yorke's Peninsula, South Australia: History, Nature and Methods (Adel, 1920)
  • Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1927)
  • Elder Smith & Co. Limited: The First Hundred Years (Adel, 1940)
  • K. Sharp, A History of Milo and Ambathala (Adel 1963)
  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Nov 1915, 27 Nov 1941
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 27 Nov 1915
  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 Nov 1915.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Barr Smith, Robert (1824–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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