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Robert Barr Smith

Robert Barr Smith (1824–1915), the son of a Scottish clergyman and his wife Marjory, née Barr, migrated to Melbourne in 1854. Moving to Adelaide just as Thomas Elder’s brothers were leaving South Australia, he threw in his lot with Elder. He married Elder’s sister Joanna in 1856 and, after profitably financing the developing copper mines at Wallaroo and Moonta on Yorke Peninsula, in 1863 he and Elder became sole partners in Elder, Smith & Co. Wealthy enough to engage in the capital-intensive fencing and bore-drilling required for successful dry-land pasturing, the company established vast pastoral holdings in central Australia and became one of the world’s largest wool-sellers. Barr Smith was also a director of the Adelaide Steamship Company and several insurance and utility companies, besides helping to found the Bank of Adelaide. These ventures brought great wealth, much of which Barr Smith used to support Adelaide’s religious, cultural and educational institutions, notably the University of Adelaide on whose council he served for 19 years, and the Anglican church, where his £10,000 donation helped put the spires on St Peter’s Cathedral and another £2000 sponsored the establishment of the diocese of Willochra. At his death, his fortune was the largest South Australia had seen and a further £40,000 was bequeathed to various charities.

Thomas Elder Barr Smith

Barr Smith was survived by only one of his six sons, Thomas Elder Barr Smith (1863–1941). Educated at St Peter’s College and Cambridge University, Barr Smith returned to the family firm and became its chairman in 1921. Like his father, he was a director of many pastoral companies, a council member of the University of Adelaide, and interested in horseracing and breeding. He also played polo. Continuing his family’s connection with the university and Anglican Church, Barr Smith helped found St Mark’s College and gave more than £40,000 to the university library, endowing its collection and enabling construction of the Barr Smith Library, originally a Georgian-style east-facing building on the university’s riverside campus, named after his father. Barr Smith’s wife, Molly, was awarded a CBE for her war service and his son, Thomas Elder Barr Smith (1904–1968) continued the family interests.  

By Carol Fort

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian History, edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 8 September 2015.

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Robert Barr Smith

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Image: A photographic head-and-shoulders portrait of a middle-aged man wearing a suit and wire-rimmed spectacles

Thomas Elder Barr Smith

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Image: A photographic head-and-shoulders portrait of a young Caucasian man wearing a light-coloured, late-Victorian era suit and sporting a very large handlebar moustache
Image: A long, well-lit room containing several shelves of books on one side and six reading tables on the other
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