SMITH, Robert Barr (1824-1915)


SMITH, Robert Barr (1824-1915)
business man and philanthropist
son of the Rev. Dr Smith of the Free Church of Scotland, was born at Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, Scotland, on 4 February 1824. After leaving school he studied for a time at the university of Glasgow, but went into business and afterwards emigrated to Melbourne, where he was a member of the firm of Hamilton Smith and Company in 1853. In 1854 he joined Elder and Company at Adelaide and became a partner in the business which from 1863 was known as Elder Smith and Company. This firm became one of the largest in Australia, connected directly or indirectly with every branch of commerce; mercantile, pastoral, mining, shipping and financial. Smith also took up land and became a large owner in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. When the Wallaroo and Moonta Copper mines got into difficulties, Elder Smith and Company made large advances to them until more profitable times came. Smith made a reputation as a financial authority, and though he refused to enter political or municipal life, his advice was frequently sought by politicians and members of the business community of Adelaide. It has been stated that at the time of the bank crisis in 1893 he was besieged by crowds of people seeking guidance. He was on the boards of the public library and of the botanic gardens and was a director of several companies. He was a keen judge and lover of horses, his colours were frequently seen at race meetings in South Australia and Victoria, and he was president for a time of the South Australian Coursing Club. His private charities were very great, few men have had so large a begging letter mail. These letters were dealt with systematically and all deserving cases were helped. Among the larger sums distributed were £9000 to buy books for the university of Adelaide library, £10,000 to complete the Anglican cathedral, £3500 for a life-boat and £2300 for the Trades Hall building. He contributed largely to exploration funds, the observatory established on Mount Kosciusko was paid for by him, and he was mainly responsible for the expenses of the first South Australian rifle team sent to Bisley. These are only examples of his liberality; he disliked being thanked and it would be impossible to estimate the amount of his benefactions. He kept his mind and faculties to the end of his life, and died in his ninety-second year on 20 November 1915. He married Miss Elder, sister of Sir Thomas Elder, who survived him with a son and three daughters. Smith was an upright and modest man with intellectual sympathies. He shrank from publicity and more than once refused the offer of a knighthood. In business he was shrewd, enterprising and perfectly honest. In 1920 his family gave £11,000 for the endowment of the library of the university of Adelaide and in 1928 his son, Tom Elder Barr Smith, born in 1863 gave £30,000 for the Barr Smith library building.
The Register and The Advertiser, Adelaide, 22 November 1915.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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