Thomas Elder

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Thomas Elder
Elder, c. 1887
Member of the South Australian Legislative Council
In office
7 August 1863 – 18 March 1869
In office
4 October 1871 – 1 August 1878[1]
Personal details
Born5 August 1818
Kirkcaldy, Scotland
Died6 March 1897(1897-03-06) (aged 78)
Mount Lofty, South Australia
RelationsWilliam Elder (brother)
Alexander Lang Elder (brother)
George Elder (brother)
Robert Barr Smith (brother-in-law)
Occupationpastoralist, businessman, politician
Known forimporting camels to Australia

Sir Thomas Elder GCMG (5 August 1818 – 6 March 1897) was a Scottish-Australian pastoralist, highly successful businessman, philanthropist, politician, race-horse owner and breeder, and public figure. Amongst many other things, he is notable for introducing camels to Australia.

Early years[edit]

Elder was born at Kirkcaldy, Scotland, the fourth son of George Elder, merchant, and his wife Joanna Haddow, née Lang.[2]

Thomas' second eldest brother, Alexander Lang Elder (1815–1885),[3] went to South Australia in 1839 and founded the firm of Elder and Company in Adelaide. He was joined by his brothers William (1813–1882)[4] and George (1816–1897).[5] In 1846 George and Alex went into partnership with experienced pastoralist W.S. Peter to establish a sheep run they named Warrow Station, located at Coulta near Port Lincoln. In August 1851 Alex was elected a member of the Legislative Council for West Adelaide. He resigned his seat in March 1853,[6] and left South Australia. He settled in London in 1855, and acted as agent for the Adelaide company until 1884, when he and his sons established A. L. Elder & Company. William left Adelaide soon after Alexander, and George left in 1855.

South Australia[edit]

"Birksgate", Elder's house in Glen Osmond, purchased in 1864.
"The Pinnacle", Elder's summer house at Mount Lofty, built in 1885.
Thomas Elder in 1864

Thomas Elder[7] migrated to Adelaide in 1854 and worked with George for a year. After George departed, Thomas formed Elder, Stirling & Co, a partnership with Edward Stirling,[8] Robert Barr Smith[9] and John Taylor. In 1856 Barr Smith married Thomas Elder's sister Joanna, and on Stirling and Taylor's retirement in 1863, Barr Smith and Thomas Elder formed Elder Smith and Co. In 1875, with Andrew Tennant,[10] they formed the Adelaide Steamship Company.

In 1864 he persuaded Arthur Hardy to sell him his Glen Osmond home "Birksgate", which he developed considerably.[4] In 1897 it passed to his nephew T. E. Barr Smith.[11]

In 1885 he built a summer house in Scottish baronial style, "The Pinnacle", near Mount Lofty. After his death it was sold to John Lavington Bonython, who renamed the property "Carminow".[4][12]


Elder also had other important interests. In partnership with Robert Barr Smith, they acquired Nilpena Station in 1859.[13] He became associated with Peter Waite in the Paratoo run in 1862, in the same year he bought Beltana station, and eventually became the owner of an enormous tract of country. Other properties Elder acquired during this time included Ketchowla Station, Oulnina, Anabama, Tualkilky, Grampus, Ouratan and Netley.[14] He was said to have held at one time a pastoral area greater in extent than the whole of Scotland. Much of this was land with a very low rainfall, and Elder spent a great deal of money sinking artesian wells, making dams and fencing. In January 1866[15] he imported 120 camels from India with "Afghan" attendants, which were of much use in the dry areas and in conveying supplies from Port Augusta. In 1868 he chartered Henry Simpson's Kohinoor to return the "Afghans" and bring out another 60 camels and a fresh contingent of attendants.[16] They became an important factor in the development of the northern area of South Australia. He also established a horse-breeding centre at Blanchetown to supply stock to the Indian market.[17]

Investor, politician, race horses, vigneron[edit]

Elder was very fortunate in his mining ventures. Early in the sixties he had large interests in the Moonta and Wallaroo copper-mines which brought him in a huge fortune. He entered political life as a member of the South Australian Legislative Council in 1863 but retired in 1869. He was again elected in 1871, but resigned in 1878 and took no further part in politics.[1][4]

He attended the Paris Exhibition of 1878 as honorary commissioner for South Australia, and during this time he received his knighthood (KCMG).[17]

Elder was much interested in horses and made the breeding of blood stock a hobby at his stud in Morphettville.[17] He was a leading racing man between 1875 and 1884 and had the highest reputation. It was well known that any horse bearing his colours was in the race to win. He sold his race-horses in 1884 but continued his stud.

He was an enthusiastic yachtsman and for many years commodore of the Glenelg Sailing Club.[17]

Elder also had interests in the wine industry and was quite successful in exhibitions in Adelaide and London.[18] He was also a founder of the Tintara Vineyard company in 1862.


Elder encouraged exploration, contributed largely to Warburton's 1873 expedition and Giles's in 1875, supplying camels in each case, which proved to be of the greatest value. He also contributed liberally to the cost of other explorations such as those by John Ross and the 1891 Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition led by David Lindsay,[19] and in no case sought or obtained any return for himself. On one occasion he offered £5,000 on condition that a like sum was subscribed by the public to finance an expedition to the Antarctic,[4] but the condition was not fulfilled.

He supported every kind of manly sport and his benefactions both private and public were widespread and almost without limit.

The Art Gallery of South Australia received a bequest of £25,000, and many of the finest pictures of the gallery were purchased from this fund. He contributed substantially to the Library's acquisition program. He himself published a small booklet in 1893: Notes from a Pocket Journal of a Trip up the River Murray in 1856, recounting a voyage in the steamer Gundagai.[4][20]

The University of Adelaide[edit]

In 1874 he gave £20,000 towards an endowment fund for the newly established University of Adelaide, and on his death in 1897 bequeathed a further £65,000 to the university, £20,000 of which was for a School of Music.[21] The Elder Conservatorium of Music perpetuates his name. Elder's combined gifts and bequests to the university amount to nearly £100,000.

Elder Professor of Mathematics[edit]

One of Elder's bequests established and funded the first professorships at the fledgling University; the Elder Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy; and the Elder Professor of Natural Sciences. The first incumbent, Sir Horace Lamb, an applied mathematician, lectured in pure and applied mathematics as well as giving instruction in practical physics. After Lamb's resignation in 1885 to take up a post at Owens College, Manchester, separate Chairs in Mathematics and Physics were established. The Elder Chair of Mathematics at the University of Adelaide has been held by many eminent mathematicians, including Nobel Prize winner Sir William Henry Bragg.

1. Sir Horace Lamb M.A. Sc.D. 1875–1885[22] (Elder Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy)
2. Sir William Henry Bragg M.A. OM KBE PRS 1886–1908[23]
3. Sir Robert William Chapman M.A. B.E. CMG Kt 1909–1919[24]
4. John Raymond Wilton B.Sc. M.A. D.Sc. 1920–1944[25][26][27]
5. Harold William Sanders B.A. M.A. 1944–1958[26][28]
6. Eric Stephen Barnes B.A.Hons. M.A. Ph.D. 1959–1974[26][29]
7. Ren Potts B.Sc.Hons. D.Phil. D.Sc. AO 1976–1990[26]
8. Ernie Tuck B.Sc.Hons. Ph.D. 1991-2002[26][30]
9. Charles E. M. Pearce B.Sc. M.Sc. Ph.D. 2005-2012[31]
10. Mathai Varghese B.A. Ph.D. 2013- [32]

Elder Professor of Physics[edit]

1. Sir William Henry Bragg M.A. OM KBE PRS 1886–1908
2. Sir Kerr Grant B.Sc.(Hons.) M.Sc. KCB 1911–1948
3. Sir Leonard George Holden Huxley M.A. D.Phil. KBE 1949–1959
4. John Henry Carver M.Sc. Ph.D. Sc.D. 1961–1978[33][34]
5. John Russell Prescott B.Sc.(Hons.) Ph.D. D.Phil. 1982–1990[35]
6. Anthony William (Tony) Thomas B.Sc.(Hons.) Ph.D. D.Sc.1990- [36][37]

Elder Professor of Music[edit]

Statue of Elder in front of the Elder Conservatorium

As well as later funding the Elder Conservatorium, Sir Thomas helped to establish the Elder Professorship of Music in 1883, with the first incumbent taking up the post in 1884. At the same time, Sir Thomas established endowment funds in parallel for the Royal College of Music in London and the Music Board of the University of Adelaide to support the Elder Overseas Scholarship (in Music).

All of the Elder Professors of Music have also served as Director/Dean of the Elder Conservatorium, providing artistic and academic leadership both in the Conservatorium and in the Faculties/Schools of Music/Performing Arts of which it has been part.

1. Joshua Ives Mus.Bac.(Cantab.) 1884–1901[38]
2. J. Matthew Ennis D.Mus.(Adel.) 1902–1918
3. E. Harold Davies Mus.Bac. D.Mus.(Adel.)1918–1948[39]
4. John Bishop OBE 1946–1966, pianist and arts administrator[40]
5. David Galliver M.A.(Oxon.) AM 1966–1983, tenor
6. Heribert Esser M.Mus. 1986–1993, conductor
7. Charles Bodman Rae M.A.(Cantab.), DMus(Adel.), Ph.D. D.Mus.(Leeds) since 2001-, composer[41]

Elder Professor of Anatomy and Histology[edit]

The first two incumbents of this position were known as the Elder Professor of Anatomy. It became the Elder Professor of Anatomy and Histology on the appointment of Professor Herbert Woollard in 1928.

In 1996 the Wood Jones Professor of Biological Anthropological and Comparative Anatomy, named for the second Elder Professor of Anatomy, was established from an endowment by Professor Ray Last (1903–1993), who studied under Wood Jones in the 1920s before embarking on a successful career as a surgeon and teacher in Australia and the United Kingdom. The foundation Wood Jones Chair (1996-) is Professor Maciej Henneberg Ph.D. D.Sc.

Other chairs[edit]

Other philanthropy and bequests[edit]

Elder Park Rotunda
Rose Street cottages built in 1901-2 by Adelaide Workmen's Homes Inc.,
with Elder's bequest

In 1882, Elder donated the rotunda to Elder Park, which was renamed in his honour in 1907.[46]

In 1884, as president of the South Australian Zoological and Acclimatisation Society, Elder donated the Sir Thomas Elder Rotunda to the society's zoological garden, now the Adelaide Zoo.[47][48]

On his death in 1897, Elder left a bequest of £25,000[21] for the construction of affordable homes for 'industrious and deserving' workmen, which led to the foundation of the not-for-profit Adelaide Workers’ Homes Inc.[49] Of the original 48 homes built from 1899 on a site in the Adelaide city centre bounded by Wakefield, Angas and Elder Streets, 13 still remain.[50] Another set of semi-detached cottages in Arts and Crafts style were built in 1901–2, at 36-50A & 39-45A Rose Street, Mile End,[51] and are now state heritage-listed.

During his lifetime and in his bequests, Elder contributed over £170,000 to the Adelaide Benevolent and Strangers’ Friend Society, the oldest secular philanthropic society in South Australia. In 1898 funds from the bequest were used to buy land and construct the society's office at 17 Morialta Street, Adelaide, which was named "Elder Hall" in his honour,[52][53][54] and is state heritage-listed.[55]

Later years[edit]

He had a severe illness in 1887 and shortly afterwards retired. Elder Smith and Company was formed into a public company, and Elder afterwards lived chiefly in the country. He never married. Elder was knighted in 1878 (KCMG) and created Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1887. He died at his home, "The Pinnacle", near Mount Lofty, on 6 March 1897,[17] and was buried in the Mitcham cemetery.[56]


The Elder Range, adjacent to Wilpena Pound, and its highest point, Mt Aleck, were named after Thomas Elder's brother, Alexander Elder, in 1851.[57]

Lake Elder, a small salt lake east of Lake Frome, is named after Thomas Elder.[58]

Elder is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of Australian gecko, Strophurus elderi.[59]

The South Australian electoral district of Elder is named in his honour.[60]

Elder is mentioned in Jules Verne's 1891 adventure novel, Mistress Branican.[61][62]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sir Thomas Elder GCMG Parliament of South Australia. Retrieved 3 May 2023.
  2. ^ Mennell, Philip (1892). "Elder, Sir Thomas" . The Dictionary of Australasian Biography. London: Hutchinson & Co – via Wikisource.
  3. ^ Gosse, Fayette (1972). "Elder, Alexander Lang (1815–1885)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 4. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 133–134. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Gosse, Fayette (1972). "Elder, William (1813–1882)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 4. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 133–134. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  5. ^ Gosse, Fayette (1972). "Elder, George (1816–1897)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 4. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 133–134. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  6. ^ "Sir Thomas Elder GCMG". Former members of the Parliament of South Australia. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  7. ^ Gosse, Fayette (1972). "Elder, Sir Thomas (1818–1897)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 4. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 133–134. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  8. ^ Mincham, Hans (1976). "Stirling, Edward (1804–1873)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 6. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 200–201. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  9. ^ van Dissel, Dirk (1976). "Smith, Robert Barr (1824–1915)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 6. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 153–154. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  10. ^ Combe, Gordon D. (1976). "Tennant, Andrew (1835–1913)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 6. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 255–256. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  11. ^ Gunton, Eric Gracious Homes of Colonial Adelaide published by the author 1983 ISBN 0 959 2094 0 9
  12. ^ The Prime Minister The Advertiser, 31 March 1906. Retrieved 3 May 2023.
  13. ^ "The Early South Australian Pastoral Industry". Flinders Range Research. 2014. Retrieved 2 August 2014.
  14. ^ "The man on the land". The Register. 25 May 1926. p. 14. Retrieved 14 September 2013 – via Trove.
  15. ^ "Camels for the North". The South Australian Advertiser. 9 January 1866. p. 2. Retrieved 29 April 2015 – via Trove.
  16. ^ "Novel Overland Carriage". The South Australian Advertiser. 13 November 1868. p. 2. Retrieved 29 April 2015 – via Trove.
  17. ^ a b c d e "Lessons we can learn from our notable pioneers No.1 - Sir Thomas Elder". The Mail. 15 August 1936. p. 4. Retrieved 2 May 2023 – via Trove.
  18. ^ "The winding vine of time". 18 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2015.
  19. ^ "Australian exploration. The Elder Expedition". South Australian Register. Adelaide. 26 March 1891. p. 6. Retrieved 4 May 2023 – via Trove.
  20. ^ "The Early Navigation of the Murray". The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express. 25 July 1919. p. 40. Retrieved 31 May 2014 – via Trove.
  21. ^ a b "The Elder bequests". The Chronicle. 12 March 1898. p. 24. Retrieved 30 April 2023 – via Trove.
  22. ^ "The selection of Physics as a foundation discipline at the University of Queensland" (PDF). Crossroads. V (2: UQ Centenary): 45–55. 2011. ISSN 1833-878X.
  23. ^ Tomlin, S. G. (1979). "Bragg, Sir William Henry (1862–1942)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 7 October 2008.
  24. ^ Graeme Cohen (March 2006). "The appointment of the first four professors of mathematics in the University of Melbourne" (PDF). Australian Mathematical Society Gazette: 14–21.
  25. ^ Potts, R. B. (1990). "Wilton, John Raymond (1884–1944)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 12. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  26. ^ a b c d e Former Officers of the University of Adelaide, Archives,
  27. ^ R. B. Potts (1977). "Mathematics at the University of Adelaide". Australian Mathematical Society Gazette (4): 37.
  28. ^ Potts, R. B. (1985). "Mathematics at the University of Adelaide, Part 3: 1944–1958". Australian Mathematical Society Gazette. 12 (2): 25–30.
  29. ^ Wall, G.E., Pitman, Jane and Potts, R.B. (2004). "Eric Stephen Barnes, 1924–2000". Historical Records of Australian Science. 15 (1): 21–45. doi:10.1071/hr03013.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) Also available at "AAS-Biographical memoirs-Barnes". Archived from the original on 29 September 2009. Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  30. ^ Ernie Tuck honoured,
  31. ^ Charles Pearce,
  32. ^ Mathai Varghese,
  33. ^ Obituary – John Henry Carver (1926-2004) Archived 13 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine,
  34. ^ Papers of Professor J.H. Carver,
  35. ^ John Russell Prescott,
  36. ^ Keys to the Universe Archived 2 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine,
  37. ^ Prof. Anthony W. Thomas,
  38. ^ Elder Conservatorium Archived 3 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine,
  39. ^ Professor Dr. E. Harold Davies,
  40. ^ Professor John Bishop,
  41. ^ Professor Dr. Charles Bodman Rae,
  42. ^ "People Talked About". The Mail. 27 December 1913. p. 8. Retrieved 25 June 2012 – via Trove.
  43. ^ The Lasts,
  44. ^ The Papers of Professor Andrew Arthur Abbie, 1905-1976,
  45. ^ Art & Heritage Collections: Tate Museum,
  46. ^ "Elder Park". SA History Hub. Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  47. ^ History Zoos SA. Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  48. ^ This rotunda is located at the centre of the zoo - see: Map of the Adelaide Zoo Zoos SA. Retrieved 2 May 2023.
  49. ^ Why AWH Exists Adelaide Workers’ Homes Inc. Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  50. ^ Elton, Jude. Adelaide Workmen's Homes, SA History Hub, History Trust of South Australia. Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  51. ^ McDougall & Vines,West Torrens Heritage Survey (1998) pp. 196-7. Enviro Data SA > Heritage Surveys, Department for Environment and Water. Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  52. ^ Marsden, Susan; Stark, Paul; Sumerling, Patricia (eds), Heritage of the City of Adelaide, Corporation of the City of Adelaide, 1990, p. 173.
  53. ^ Manning, Catherine History Trust of South Australia, Elder Hall, SA History Hub, History Trust of South Australia. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  54. ^ Painter, Alison 2 February 1849 Adelaide Benevolent and Strangers' Friend Society Professional Historians Association (SA). Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  55. ^ 17 Morialta Street, Adelaide SA Heritage Places Database. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  56. ^ "The late Sir T. Elder". The Advertiser. 9 March 1897. p. 6. Retrieved 3 May 2023 – via Trove.
  57. ^ Elder Range The Manning Index of South Australian History, State Library of South Australia. Retrieved 2 May 2023.
  58. ^ Lake Elder The Manning Index of South Australian History, State Library of South Australia. Retrieved 2 May 2023.
  59. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Elder", p. 82).
  60. ^ Elder Electoral Commission of South Australia. Retrieved 2 May 2023.
  61. ^ Tarrieu, Alexandre. Dictionnaire des personnes citées par Jules Verne, vol. 1 : A-E, éditions Paganel, 2019, p. 293-294
  62. ^ Jules Verne Mistress Branican (Chapitre IV-VI) available at Jules Verne Collection (in French). Retrieved 4 May 2023.