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Pioneers of Snowtown, S.A.

Pastoral pioneers - 4

Robert Barr Smith
Robert Barr Smith at his desk at Auchend
Plaque, Robert Barr Smith - SA.jpg

Industry -- Agribusiness -- trading and commission agents

Founded -- 1839-1840; 180 years ago in Adelaide, South Australia

Founder -- Alexander Lang Elder

Robert Barr Smith, Pioneer Pastoralist

"One of South Australia's greatest pioneers"


Probably also the wealthiest man in South Australia, Robert Barr Smith was a Grand Old Man of Australia who was largely interested in pastoral properties.

  • Barr Smith was identified with many public, patriotic, and philanthropic movements, to which he gave most liberally,

  • including notable gifts to the State, University, the church, and to many institutions.


For many decades Elder and Smith were pioneers of the pastoral settlements and were stock and station agents in the state of South Australia.

  • Smith was an upright and modest man with intellectual sympathies.

  • Smith shrank from publicity and he was said to have refused the offer of a knighthood.

  • Had he played his business acumen on a bigger financial stage, such as the United States, his possessions might have rivalled those of his (Scottish) countryman Andrew Carnegie.


in 1863, Robert Barr Smith and Thomas Elder formed Elder Smith and Co.


In 1888 Elder Smith and Co. was amalgamated with its subsidiary Elder's Wool & Produce Co. Ltd,

Occupation Licences
Occupation Licences

In 1842, to speed up the occupation of grazing lands, the Legislative Council passed the Waste Lands Act

  • which by-passed the old Special Surveys

  • and created Occupation Licences giving pastoralists annual renewable tenure to an area of land which could be identified by a system of landmarks rather than a formal survey.


This led to a very rapid occupation of the better-watered areas of the Upper North in the next four years.

- Heritage of the Upper North: Department for Environment and Heritage 2000




Robert Barr Smith (1824-1915), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 4 February 1824 at Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, Scotland,

  • the son of Rev. Dr Robert Smith, Church of Scotland minister,

  • and his wife Marjory, née Barr.


Having studied commerce at Glasgow University, he set up business there as a commission agent and trader in corn,

  • before migrating to Melbourne in 1854

  • as partner in Hamilton, Smith & Co.

  • a firm established by the four sons of a prosperous ship owner, Capt. George Elder of Kirkcaldy, Scotland.


Robert Barr Smith was courting their sister Joanna Elder but by the time she arrived to marry him in 1856 all except Thomas Elder had left the colony.

  • Next year he went to Adelaide, only 18 years after the State's foundation, and replaced George Elder in the mercantile and pastoral firm of Elder & Co.


In 1856 he married Thomas Elder's sister Joanna and
"her kindness, her sympathetic nature, and goodness of heart have been of noble assistance to her husband in making the greatest use of his wealth."

  • They enjoyed a long and happy marriage and partnership.

  • It was Robert’s custom when he was at home to pick a posy for Joanna from the garden and present it to her at breakfast

  • Joanna was by all accounts an intelligent and witty woman who took a deep interest in political, social and industrial events. Her friends and her husband relied on her judgement in important matters, and in social matters she was an energetic and thoughtful hostess.

  • They owned the grand family houses of ‘Torrens Park’ at Mitcham (now Scotch College). and ‘Auchendarroch’ at Mount Barker.

Below: Torrens Park House at Mitcham, now Scotch College:  Mitcham - History

Robert Barr Smith (1824-1915), by Townse

Above; Robert Barr Smith

Below; Joanna Barr Smith

1824 Birth in Scotland
1854 Moved to Adelaide
1856 Marriage
Adelaide's Scotch College.jpg
1863 Elder Smith & Co.


From a firmly established mercantile and shipping base the company expanded into pastoral and mining exploration.

  • The risks taken in 1860-61 in undertaking a liability of £80,000 to develop the Wallaroo and Moonta copper mines brought the partners enormous wealth.

  • They opened up vast tracts of agricultural land

  • and set up a trading network of stock and station agencies supplying goods and services to developing communities, implements and equipment for pastoralists and miners, wool stores, shipping facilities and, when needed, financial assistance.


In 1863 Robert Barr Smith and Thomas Elder became sole partners in Elder Smith & Co, now Elders Limited.

  • The firm was restructured several times and in 1863 took the now famous name of Elder Smith & Co.,

  • with Thomas Elder (the visionary) and Robert Barr Smith (the business genius) as partners.


1869 Hummocks Purchased
Lease 124 of 'The Hummocks'

South Australian Weekly Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) Sat 18 Mar 1865 Page 1

Parliamentary Paper 98 contains a list of all the leases expiring June 30, 1865. Hummocks Run is lease 124. Its area is 251 square miles.

The rent is £125 10a. a year. Since 1858 a double money column is ruled ; one for rent, the other for assessment, both being kept distinct and separate.

The rent is still entered at £125 10s. a year, which is 10s. a square mile.

The assessment for the first year after the Act came into force was £418 6s. 8d. ; for the next three years it was £361. Then it was raised to £366 0s. l0d.

The return is brought down to 1854, and we presume £366 Os. l0d. will be paid for the year to end June 30th next.

The whole amount of assessment paid on the Hummocks Run (in addition to the 10s. a mile rent) will therefore amount to £2,599 9s. 2d

In 1869 the pastoral leases of Moorhouse, Hope and Co. (who bought the leases from John Ellis) were resumed by the Government.

  • Much of the leasehold lands of his Hummocks and Barunga were sold freehold by the Government of SA over 1870-1871

1865 Lease 124 of 'The Hummocks'


Govt Land Sale Jan 6 1870.jpg

Above and Right: Government land sale to R B Smith in 1870

The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA)

Govt Land Sale Jan 6 1870 p2.jpg
Gpvt Land Sale THursday January 19 1871
Gpvt Land Sale THursday January 19 1871



1899 Hummocks gifted
1886 The Hummocks

Mr. Maslin became associated with Mr. R. Barr Smith in the purchase of Koolunga, Hummocks and Warrakimbo runs.

  • This partnership subsequently acquired the Bundaleer country for a quarter of a million sterling.

  • Koolunga run had an area of 95 square miles on the Broughton and Rocky Rivers with a rental and assessment of £197 18/4.

  • The Hummocks, which is now subdivided for soldier settlement, had an area of 251 square miles and a grazing capacity of 51,500 sheep.

  • The old rental and assessment of £491 10/-, and Goyder’s valuation was £4,055 per annum, deducting improvements valued at £4,843.

  • Koolunga and the Hummocks were purchased in 1870 from the estate of the late Mr. John Hope, father of Mr. R.E.H. Hope, of Wolta Wolta.’

  • ‘The active management of The Hummocks was undertaken by Mr. Maslin’.
     Found in ‘Pastoral pioneers of South Australia’ by Rodney Cockburn (Adelaide: Publishers Limited, 1925-1927) Article on John Maslin, Vol. 1, page 57

The Hummocks was a well-established station carrying about 25,000 sheep when it was resumed and sold as freehold. (See Sales to R B Smith, 1870)

  • John Maslin was the resident manager for a period and lived in the Barunga homestead.

  • At this time the partnership also operated the Bundaleer and Warrakimbo stations.

  • This homestead became the central point of the Hummocks Station and then was known as the Hummocks Station homestead.


In 1886 Mr Barr Smith alone took over the Hummocks Station run from John Maslin.

  • When they dissolved their partnership in 1886, Mr. Barr Smith employed a manager. George Murray, believed to be the first manager employed by Mr. Barr Smith.

  • George Murray was in poor health, and in 1900 Mr. George Matheson (of Buckland Park) was appointed overseer to assist him.


The Hummocks Station carried up to 34,500 sheep and the largest clip taken from it was 712 bales in 1895 (In January 2017 that clip would have returned $1,174,800).


He gave the property to his son Tom Elder Barr Smith in 1899.

J Maslin.jpg
Letter to editor Farms on the Hummocks.j


Barunga Gap. The back door of the Hummocks
Hummocks Station Purchase


The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA)
Fri 1 Feb 1918
Page 3

In 1918 the South Australian Government purchased a total of 29,728 acres from Tom Elder Barr Smith for soldier settlement.

  • Tom sold it for £151,000 on a walk-in walk-out basis.

  • It comprised nearly 30,000 acres, and at the time carried 22,000 sheep, horses, and cattle, including a valuable stud flock.

  • It was proposed to subdivide the property into small farm and grazing holdings.

  • In 1921 returned soldiers were invited to apply for blocks on a 12 month trial.

  • The formal agreement allowed 65 years for payment, with a final payment allowed after 10 years.

  • Read more on the Michaels' page.

Businessman Robert Barr Smith

Robert Barr Smith 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 name for himself as a financial authority, and though he declined 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 in the 1893 bank crisis he was besieged by crowds of people seeking guidance.

  • Smith was on the boards of the public library and of the botanic gardens and was a director of several companies.

  • In the world of sport he was associated with the late Sir Thomas Elder in the formation of the Morphettville Stud, which has had such a far-reaching influence on the improvement of the thoroughbred (horses) in South Australia.

  • Though he did not keep many racehorses, his colors were sometimes seen, and he owned such celebrities as Mostyn and Banter.

Businessman Robert Barr Smith
'The Hummocks Sale'

Observer (Adelaide, SA) Sat 16 Feb 1918 Page 6

"Arrangements in connection with the large and important dispersal sale of sheep, cattle, horses, station plant, farm implements, &c., at the Hummocks Station on February 21 and 22 have been completed."

  • "A special train will leave Adelaide on February 21 at .6:10 a.m. arriving at the Hummocks at 11.23 a.m.

  • Another special will leave Gladstone the same day at 8.50 a,m.

  • Tickets will be issued at railway stations en route at excursion rates. Luncheon will be provided."

  • "Sheep only will be sold on the first day.

  • The live stock comprises 21,650 sheep, 86 cattle, 42 horses, and 24 pigs.

  • In addition to a varied list of station plant and farming implements set out in detail in press advertisements,
    and in the catalogue which can be obtained from the auctioneers, nine stacks of hay containing about 800 tons.will be sold."

  • 'The sale generally offers a rare opportunity for stud and flock breeders, pastoralists and farmers."

The Hummocks Sale
Love of Books
Barr Smith Family
Thomas Elder Barr Smith
Philanthropic Activity
Death 1915


The Barr Smiths' Love of Books


"What a house Torrens Park was for books."

  • There was no other customer equal to the Torrens Park family.

  • Rich men and women often buy books for themselves, and for rare old books they will give big prices;

  • but the Barr Smiths bought books in sixes and in dozens for the joy of giving them where they would be appreciated.

  • Robert had also been from 1869 a member of the Adelaide Book Society, a private circulating library founded in 1844, limited to twenty four members.

  • In 1888 the library was described as ‘a rich repast suited to every taste’, and there was keen competition for vacancies.

Philanthropic Activity


Robert Barr Smith's philanthropic activity became a legend.

  • A member of the Council of the University of Adelaide for nineteen years, his donations to it totalled £21,400, including £9000 to the library which subsequently bore his name.

  • In 1900 he contributed £10,000 to the completion of the spires of St Peter's Cathedral.

  • He gave £2000 towards the establishment of the diocese of Willochra,

  • and £2300 to pay off the debt on the Trades Hall in 1908.

  • He gave a number of pictures to the Art Gallery,

  • defrayed the cost of an observatory at the summit of Mount Kosciusko for Clement Wragge, and

  • donated a steam lifeboat to the South Australian government.


During World War I, he gave two ambulances for the front and offered his home, Torrens Park, Mitcham, for a military hospital.

  • Modest and unassuming by nature, Smith could not be persuaded into active politics, although he supported the free-trade advocates at the time of the founding of the Commonwealth.

  • Greatly respected, both by the business world and his friends, he was said to have refused a knighthood.

  • A keen patron of the turf, he often attended race meetings and bred and raced his own horses.



Joanna declared she hated the Torrens Park house at Mitcham and in 1901 they rented a house ‘Eothen’ in East Terrace in the city.

  • Joanna had a fear of earthquakes and following two earthquakes in 1902 which caused cracks in Torrens Park, she refused to remain there.

  • In 1905 they moved into a ‘cottage’ in Angas St in Adelaide, which consisted of several reception rooms, three main bedrooms, four servants’ rooms and a servants’ hall, plus cellars and stables The grand entertainments ceased and Robert and Joanna lived quietly, although they still spent the hot summers at Mt Barker.

  • Robert turned 91 in 1915 and died a few months later. Joanna lived four more years and died suddenly in 1919 at the age of 84. Angas Street subsequently became a convent and was later demolished.


Robert Barr Smith died of senile decay at his residence in Angas Street on 20 November 1915.

  • His estate was sworn for probate at £1,799,500, the largest in South Australia until then;

  • of this, more than £40,000 was left to charities.

  • His funeral, though a private one, was attended by the premier, representatives of the university, prominent citizens, and leaders of Adelaide society. He was cremated.

  • He was survived by his wife, three of his seven daughters and one of his six sons.

The Barr Smith Family

Joanna Barr Smith.jpg
Tom Elder Barr Smith


Tom Elder Barr Smith was in character much like his father – honest, compassionate and business minded.

  • Robert concerned himself greatly with Tom’s education to ensure he gained admission to Cambridge.

  • Tom studied law and ultimately gained an M.A. from Trinity College.

  • He returned to Adelaide in 1885, married Mary (Molly) Isobel Mitchell, from Ayrshire, Scotland, and raised four daughters and two sons.

  • He devoted the rest of his life to the Elder Smith family firm and in turn became one of South Australia’s great philanthropists.


Robert however never felt a real closeness with Tom. In 1906 he wrote to Mabel "I never had such a relationship with my sons - I have myself to blame but I got on better with my daughters"


Read more: Tom Elder Barr Smith - Wikipedia

Cover - Robert and Joanna Barr Smith - B
Tom Elder Barr Smith Library.jpg
Barr Smith: Businessman
Mining Profits

Above: Exterior and interior of the Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide


Stories from Archives & Special Collections of the Adelaide University Library

Robert Barr Smith: The Businessman


Robert Barr Smith and his partner and brother-in-law Thomas Elder instigated one of the most extensive and successful companies in Australia.

  • Elders, Smith & Co. was directly or indirectly concerned with every branch of commerce – mercantile, shipping, mining, pastoral, and financial.

  • Elder Smith & Co. also had interests in the Adelaide Steam-tug and Adelaide Steamship companies. 


Following Taylor’s retirement the firm became Elder, Smith, and Co., and Robert and Thomas became sole partners in the company.

  • In 1887 Thomas Elder became ill and Robert wished to sell the company and retire,

  • but instead the company was floated with Barr Smith as Managing Director and Peter Waite as Chairman.

  • In 1882 Elder Smith & Co. was incorporated, with a nominal capital of £200,000 and Elder and Barr-Smith holding two-thirds of the shares, between them. 

  • In 1889 Robert Barr Smith resigning the managing directorship, but remained on the Board for a considerable time, before being succeeded by Walter Reynell.


Mining Profits


In 1859 Elder Smith & Co. financed the Wallaroo and Moonta Copper mines of W.W. Hughes

  • which, after some initial losses, brought large returns to the partners of the company

  • as well as attracting settlers to Yorke Peninsula

  • and providing a great economic boost to the colony of South Australia.

    • Years later Robert described the early years in a letter to George Elder:
      "So far as Tom Elder & I were concerned whilst the Wallaroo & Moonta brought us profit it also added to the burden of our finances. In fact we could not have carried on these mines but for the large credits in the sheep farmers' accounts ..." (p. 20)

Robert Barr Smith - Adelaidia.jpg
Pastoral Interests
Elder, Smith & Co Limited premises.jpg
Elder, Smith & Co. Limited, wool stores,

Pastoral Interests


Elder Smith & Co. pioneered the opening of outback South Australia.

  • Their property empire survived the drought and depression of the 1880s with the backing of their profits from mining

  • and, under the astute management of Peter Waite, (illustrated at left) they set to drought-proofing their holdings through fencing and establishing bores and wells

  • which allowed free ranging of sheep as opposed to expensive shepherding.


The company also held pastoral leases in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria,

  • paved the way for trade and settlement in much of the interior,

  • and found profitable markets for Australian produce at home and abroad.


Robert Barr Smith had vast pastoral leases of his own, and in partnerships with Sir Thomas Elder and others.

  • His first property, Yalata station, was established at Fowlers Bay in the 1860s in partnership with William Swan.

  • Its boundaries eventually stretched from the Head of the Great Australian Bight to Streaky Bay.

  • Other South Australian stations included the Hummocks, Bundaleer and Warrakimbo stations.

  • Ned’s Corner run covered 1,300 square miles in NW Victoria and 100 miles in adjoining South Australia.

    • Neds Corner is the largest freehold property in Victoria and also the biggest private conservation reserve in the state

  • The SW Queensland runs of Gooyea, Tintinchilla, Welford Downs and Sedan were amalgamated to form the company Milo and Welford Downs.

  • Milo’s largest clip was taken in 1891 when 507,774 sheep were shorn for 6,232 bales of wool.


In the early 1880s Elders, Smith & Co were shearing at least 1.5 million sheep across their properties, yielding conservatively 30,000 bales.

  • The land owned in partnership between Elder and Barr Smith was larger than the mass of their native Scotland.



The Partnership

The brothers-in-law remained loyal and true friends throughout their association.

  • Elder’s main residence was the Birksgate mansion at Glen Osmond.

    • He was a generous and considerate host, staging many large banquets and entertaining the author Anthony Trollope and the Duke of Edinburgh during their visits to Australia.

    • Elder actively explored beyond known lands and sponsored many expeditions of exploration, both with funds and with the supply of camels which he imported and bred on his outback stations.

  • A great supporter of education, Elder’s gift of £20,000 to match that of William Watson Hughes enabled the establishment of the University of Adelaide through the funding of two professorships in mathematics and science,

    • with further Elder grants founding the Medical School and the Elder Conservatorium, and music scholarships for studies in Australia and the Royal College of Music in London.

  • Fayette Gosse in her family biography The Gosses commented:

“Elder and Barr Smith complemented each other:

Elder had imagination and Barr Smith had the analytical brain

and they both had plenty of drive, courage and commonsense. Between them they built up a huge industry.” (p. 148)


Robert’s drive and energy was certainly astounding.

  • His had a fervent need for knowledge and recorded a wealth of information in his ‘Commonplace Books’

  • – regarding wool clips, estates, wills, fencing, sales of rams, other property syndicates, lists of shares and so on.

  • He was also a fervent letter writer, sending letters of up to 14 pages long to his business associates, personal retainers and family.

  • While in London in 1884 he sent some 500 pages of messages in a single seven month period. (p. 65).


It is however interesting that, considering his extensive private and public philanthropy,

  • Robert Barr Smith was unsympathetic with the conditions and wages of those that worked in the mines and on the properties,

  • and with whom he was at times in dispute.

  • As a businessman of his time, he aimed to improve profits and amass wealth which he could then distribute to improve the fortunes of the state and its population.


Barr Smith was also a major shareholder in Elder's Trustee and Executor Co., founded in 1910, and a director of

The Partnership
Elder Smith and Co Ltd.jpeg
Read More:
  1. The Hummocks Station - History

  2. Robert Barr Smith - Wikipedia

  3. Biography of Barr Smith, Robert (1824–1915) by Dirk Van Dissel

  4. Obituary of Barr Smith, Robert (1824–1915) from The Advertiser (Adelaide)

  5. ADELAIDIA - Robert Barr Smith

  6. The University of Adelaide Library: Robert Barr Smith and Joanna Barr Smith

  7. MR. ROBERT BARR SMITH. PIONEER, MERCHANT PRINCE, PUBLIC BENEFACTOR. By Fred. Johns, in the. 'Sydney Mail' - The Mail (Adelaide, SA) Sat 31 Jan 1914 p.9

  8. A Great Philanthropist - Death of Mr. Robert Barr-Smith.

    Port Adelaide News (SA) Fri 26 Nov 1915 Page 4

  9. GRAND PIONEER, News (Adelaide, SA) Fri 1 Feb 1924 Page 7

  10. The University of Adelaide Library: The Barr Smith Homes

  11. Adelaide Hills - Robert Barr-Smith (1824-1915)

Read More

Next Pioneer: the Michael Family

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