ELDER, Sir Thomas (1818-1897)


ELDER, Sir Thomas (1818-1897)
pastoralist and public benefactor
fourth son of George Elder, merchant, was born at Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1818. His elder brother, Alexander Lang Elder (1815-85), went to South Australia in 1839 and founded the firm of Elder and Company at Adelaide. In August 1851 he was elected a member of the legislative council for West Adelaide but resigned his seat in March 1853, and returned to England to become the London representative of Elder and Company. He died there on 5 September 1885. Thomas Elder came to Adelaide in June 1854 and was given a share in the business of which later on he became the chief partner, In 1863 R. Barr Smith became a partner, and the business, now known as Elder Smith and Company, developed into one of the largest and most prosperous in Australia. Elder, however, had other important interests. He became associated with Peter Waite (q.v.) in the Paratoo run in 1862, in the same year bought Beltana station, and eventually became the owner of an enormous tract of country. 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 1862 he introduced camels from India with Afghan attendants, which were of much use in the dry areas and in conveying supplies from Port Augusta. They became an important factor in the development of the northern area of South Australia. Elder encouraged exploration, contributed largely to Warburton's (q.v.) 1873 expedition and Giles's (q.v.) 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 £5000 on condition that a like sum was subscribed by the public to finance an expedition to the Antarctic Ocean, but the condition was not fulfilled. Elder was also fortunate in his mining ventures. Early in the sixties he had large interests in the Moonta and Wallaroo copper-mines which brought hint in a fortune. He entered political life as a member of the 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. He had a severe illness in 1887 and shortly afterwards retired. Elder Smith and Company was formed into a public company, and Elder henceforth lived chiefly in the country. He died at Mount Lofty on 6 March 1897. He never married. He was knighted in 1878 and created G.C.M.G. in 1887.
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. He supported every kind of manly sport and his benefactions both private and public were widespread and almost without limit. In 1874 he gave £20,000 towards an endowment fund for the university of Adelaide, and with later gifts and bequests the total amount received by this institution from him was just short of £100,000. The Elder conservatorium of music perpetuates his name. The art gallery at Adelaide received a bequest of £25,000, and many of the finest pictures of the gallery were purchased from this fund.
The South Australian Register and The Advertiser, Adelaide, 8 March 1897; Calendar of the University of Adelaide, 1940; Catalogue of the Art Gallery of South Australia; Burke's Peerage, etc., 1896.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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