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Sir James Alexander Elder (1869–1946)

by E. A. Beever

This article was published:

James Alexander Mackenzie Elder (1869-1946), by Tom Glover

James Alexander Mackenzie Elder (1869-1946), by Tom Glover

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6479888

Sir James Alexander Mackenzie Elder (1869-1946), businessman, was born on 10 November 1869 at Elgin, Scotland, son of James Elder, parish clerk, and his wife Isabella, née Allan. He was educated at the Elgin Academy and completed his law articles in a local law firm. In 1891 he migrated to Melbourne and began work with the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co., later moving to the Australian Mortgage (Mercantile), Land, and Finance Co. There he met John Cooke, then Australian manager of the firm. In 1895, when Cooke started business as a frozen meat exporter in his own right, Elder left the firm to work for him. On 10 August 1898, with Presbyterian forms, he married Margaret Blyth Nicoll; they had a son and a daughter.

Elder's business fortunes prospered with those of Cooke. After a business trip to Britain in 1906 he was made a junior partner in what by then was one of the largest meat exporting businesses in Australia, operating in several States. In 1913, when the business was perhaps at a peak of its fortunes, Cooke finally established a company to run it. Elder was the largest shareholder after Cooke himself, holding 20 per cent of the shares, and was now managing director. As Cooke's health deteriorated, he played an increasingly dominant role in the company, becoming undisputed head when Cooke died in 1917.

Elder was unlucky to become managing director at the time when the fortunes of the meat export trade were about to decline. After World War I in particular, all exporters battled to survive and John Cooke and Co. Pty Ltd was only one of the ventures, if the largest, to wind up its affairs in the troubled 1920s. Notice of the company's intention to retire from the meat trade was given by Elder in February 1924. While labour problems, higher wages, and fuel and transport costs were cited as some of the reasons why a firm 'so well established and with such wide ramifications' should voluntarily resign its business activities, it is evident that Elder lacked the entrepreneurial and organizational flair of the firm's founder, which alone perhaps could have held together its many far-flung interests. Privately, indeed, Elder was criticized by his competitors for lack of business judgment. Furthermore, from his other activities it would seem that he did not devote his attention single-mindedly to the affairs of a difficult business.

From the outbreak of war Elder began in effect a second career, as trade adviser to the Federal government. In 1914 he became the representative of the Associated Chambers of Commerce on the Commonwealth Board of Trade, holding that position for the next decade. In 1919 he accepted an invitation to investigate trade and investment problems between Australia and Britain. On this unpaid mission, he visited nearly one hundred British firms and subsequently several new enterprises were established by British firms in Australia. Elder was a commissioner of the British Empire Exhibition held in London in 1924 and 1925 and was for a time deputy chairman of its Australian section. In September 1924 he took up a two-year appointment as commissioner for Australia in the United States of America. There, he energetically promoted Australian trade interests, travelling widely, delivering lectures and making extensive use of the new wireless medium. In June 1925, while in the United States, in recognition of his services to Australian trade, he was knighted. He served as a member of the royal commission on wireless services in 1927, his last major activity for the Federal government.

Perhaps symbolic of his lifelong interest in Australian pastoral exports Elder was from 1916 a director of Goldsbrough Mort & Co. Ltd; when resident in Australia he rarely missed a meeting. He was also a director of the Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd until 1942, and a director, in 1932-43 chairman, of the National Bank of Australasia. In 1932 he was described as being tall and well built, with silver-grey hair, the 'glow of health in his cheeks' and a ready smile. He was a Presbyterian, a member of the Melbourne and Australian clubs, and described his recreations as motoring, fishing, golf and shooting. Elder had diabetes for some years before his death of coronary-vascular disease in hospital at East Melbourne on 30 May 1946. He was survived by his wife and son, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £41,427.

Select Bibliography

  • Pastoral Review, 15 Mar 1924, June 1946
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1924, 3 June 1925, 31 May 1946
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 May 1946
  • E. A. Beever, A History of the Australian Meat Export Trade, 1865-1939 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968).

Citation details

E. A. Beever, 'Elder, Sir James Alexander (1869–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Alexander Mackenzie Elder (1869-1946), by Tom Glover

James Alexander Mackenzie Elder (1869-1946), by Tom Glover

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6479888

Life Summary [details]


10 November, 1869
Elgin, Moray, Scotland


30 May, 1946 (aged 76)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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