Thomas Elder

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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.[1]

Thomas' second eldest brother, Alexander Lang Elder (1815–1885),[2] 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)[3] and George (1816–1897).[4] 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, 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. George left in 1855.

South Australia[edit]

Thomas Elder[5] 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,[6] Robert Barr Smith[7] 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,[8] they formed the Adelaide Steamship Company.

In 1864 he persuaded Arthur Hardy to sell him his Glen Osmond home "Birksgate", which he developed considerably. In 1897 it passed to his nephew T. E. Barr Smith.[9]


Elder also had other important interests. In partnership with Robert Barr Smith, they acquired Nilpena Station in 1859.[10] He became associated with Peter Waite in the Paratoo run in 1862, in the same year bought Beltana station, and eventually became the owner of an enormous tract of country. Other properties Thomas acquired during this time included Ketchowla Station, Oulnina, Anabama, Tualkilky, Grampus, Ouratan and Netley.[11] 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[12] 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.[13] They became an important factor in the development of the northern area of South Australia.

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.

Elder was much interested in horses and made the breeding of blood stock a hobby. 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.

Elder also had interests in the wine industry and was quite successful in exhibitions in Adelaide and London.[14] 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, 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 Southern Ocean, 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.[15]

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. 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 fledgeling 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[16] (Elder Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy)
2. Sir William Henry Bragg M.A. OM KBE PRS 1886–1908[17]
3. Sir Robert William Chapman M.A. B.E. CMG Kt 1909–1919[18]
4. John Raymond Wilton B.Sc. M.A. D.Sc. 1920–1944[19][20][21]
5. Harold William Sanders B.A. M.A. 1944–1958[20][22]
6. Eric Stephen Barnes B.A.Hons. M.A. Ph.D. 1959–1974[20][23]
7. Ren Potts B.Sc.Hons. D.Phil. D.Sc. AO 1976–1990[20]
8. Ernie Tuck B.Sc.Hons. Ph.D. 1991-2002[20][24]
9. Charles E. M. Pearce B.Sc. M.Sc. Ph.D. 2005-2012[25]
10. Mathai Varghese B.A. Ph.D. 2013- [26]

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[27][28]
5. John Russell Prescott B.Sc.(Hons.) Ph.D. D.Phil. 1982–1990[29]
6. Anthony William (Tony) Thomas B.Sc.(Hons.) Ph.D. D.Sc.1990- [30][31]

Elder Professor of Music[edit]

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[32]
2. J. Matthew Ennis D.Mus.(Adel.) 1902–1918
3. E. Harold Davies Mus.Bac. D.Mus.(Adel.)1918–1948[33]
4. John Bishop OBE 1946–1966, pianist and arts administrator[34]
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[35]

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.

  • Archibald Watson M.D. F.R.C.S. 1885–1919[36]
  • Frederic Wood Jones B.Sc. M.B.B.S. M.D. 1920–1927[37]
  • Herbert Henry Woollard M.B.B.S. M.D. 1928–1929
  • Herbert John Wilkinson B.A. M.B.Ch.B. M.D. 1930–1936
  • Frank Goldby M.B.Ch.B. 1937-1944–* Andrew Arthur Abbie B.S. M.D. D.Sc. 1945-1970[38]
  • Janis Priedkalns B.V.Sc. M.A. Ph.D. 1972–1996

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.


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 Mount Lofty on 6 March 1897.


Elder is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of Australian gecko, Strophurus elderi.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mennell, Philip (1892). "Elder, Sir Thomas" . The Dictionary of Australasian Biography. London: Hutchinson & Co – via Wikisource.
  2. ^ Gosse, Fayette, 'Elder, Alexander Lang (1815–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp. 133–134. Retrieved on 15 December 2013.
  3. ^ Gosse, Fayette, 'Elder, William (1813–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp. 133–134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
  4. ^ Gosse, Fayette, 'Elder, George (1816–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp. 133–134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
  5. ^ Gosse, Fayette, 'Elder, Sir Thomas (1818–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp. 133–134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
  6. ^ Hans Mincham, 'Stirling, Edward (1804–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp. 200–201.
  7. ^ Dirk van Dissel, 'Smith, Robert Barr (1824–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp. 153–154.
  8. ^ Combe, Gordon D., 'Tennant, Andrew (1835–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp. 255–256.
  9. ^ Gunton, Eric Gracious Homes of Colonial Adelaide published by the author 1983 ISBN 0 959 2094 0 9
  10. ^ "The Early South Australian Pastoral Industry". Flinders Range Research. 2014. Retrieved 2 August 2014.
  11. ^ "The man on the land". The Register. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 25 May 1926. p. 14. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
  12. ^ "Camels for the North". The South Australian Advertiser. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 9 January 1866. p. 2. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  13. ^ "Novel Overland Carriage". The South Australian Advertiser. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 13 November 1868. p. 2. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  14. ^ "The winding vine of time". 18 July 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2015.
  15. ^ "The Early Navigation of the Murray". The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express. NSW: National Library of Australia. 25 July 1919. p. 40. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
  16. ^ "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.
  17. ^ Tomlin, S. G. (1979). "Bragg, Sir William Henry (1862–1942)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 7 October 2008 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Potts, R. B. (1990). "Wilton, John Raymond (1884–1944)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 12 June 2012.
  20. ^ a b c d e Former Officers of the University of Adelaide, Archives,
  21. ^ R. B. Potts (1977). "Mathematics at the University of Adelaide". Australian Mathematical Society Gazette (4): 37.
  22. ^ Potts, R. B. (1985). "Mathematics at the University of Adelaide, Part 3: 1944–1958". Australian Mathematical Society Gazette. 12 (2): 25–30.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Ernie Tuck honoured,
  25. ^ Charles Pearce,
  26. ^ Mathai Varghese,
  27. ^ Obituary – John Henry Carver (1926-2004) Archived 13 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine,
  28. ^ Papers of Professor J.H. Carver,
  29. ^ John Russell Prescott,
  30. ^ Keys to the Universe Archived 2 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine,
  31. ^ Prof. Anthony W. Thomas,
  32. ^ Elder Conservatorium Archived 3 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine,
  33. ^ Professor Dr. E. Harold Davies,
  34. ^ Professor John Bishop,
  35. ^ Professor Dr. Charles Bodman Rae,
  36. ^ "People Talked About". The Mail. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 27 December 1913. p. 8. Retrieved 25 June 2012.
  37. ^ The Lasts,
  38. ^ The Papers of Professor Andrew Arthur Abbie, 1905-1976,
  39. ^ Art & Heritage Collections: Tate Museum,
  40. ^ 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).