Thomas Elder, born in 1817 was the youngest of four sons of George Elder, merchant and shipowner of Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His brother Alexander sailed for South Australia and arrived in January 1839 in the schooner Minerva, owned by his father George. The ship carried a mixed cargo of goods which he hoped to sell in South Australia.
Alexander stayed with Matthew Smillies, an old family friend, in Nairne. Within a few months Alexander had started his own business as a general trader in Rundle Street and later bought land in Hindley Street. In 1844 his brother William arrived in South Australia with his ship. Alexander became also interested in the pastoral industry and with F.H. Dutton obtained a Special Survey at Mount Remarkable.
In 1853 brother George joined Alexander followed a year later by Thomas. It was Thomas who really made South Australia his home. The other brothers all returned to Scotland. It was also Thomas who took care of the firm Elder & Co. This firm was made up of the four Elder brothers, brother-in-law Robert Barr Smith and Edward Stirling, and eventually became Elder Smith & Co.
Although they were also involved in the mining industry, they were for decades at the head of pastoral development. In 1862 they sent Samuel Stuckey to India to look for camels, which they wanted to import. That same year Thomas went up north inspecting Lake Hope and Blanchewater. He took up a lease of Lake Hope a few months later. Two years later they owned Umberatana. On 2 April 1862 Thomas Elder also acquired the Beltana run and established Lake Hope Station.
1864 proved a busy year for Thomas Elder. On 1 January he took up three pastoral leases at Lake Hope totalling 62 square miles and bought Birksgate at Glen Osmond, previously built and owned by Arthur Hardy. Here he grew bananas and made wine from his own grapes. He also raced yachts and bred horses. That same year Thomas joined the Northern Territory Company to buy land there and overland stock.
Together with Peter Waite he took up Paratoo and Pandappa stations and later extended their holdings even further. Manuwalkaninna station was one of them where Mr Hack was in charge. On 1 July 1866 Thomas gained the mail contract between Blanchewater and Lake Hope for £150 per annum. That same year Stuckey had bought 124 camels in India and brought them out to Port Augusta with 31 Afghan cameleers.
At first the camels were taken to Umberatana but later moved to Beltana where he started a breeding programme. When this proved successful the camels were exported to Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Western Australia. At first the camels were used on local stations but within a short time they were also used as pack and wagon animals. Camels were often used by explorers who used Beltana as a starting point. The Afghan camel drivers lived in separate parts of towns such as Beltana, Farina and Marree.
In 1867 Thomas and his company expanded even further and took out additional leases in the Beltana area as well as others in the far north, including Mount Partridge, Mount Rose and Winnowie. As if not busy enough Thomas also had entered parliament, 1863-1869 and 1871-1878, and on 13 March 1867, as a Member of the Legislative Council was appointed to the management of the Adelaide Hospital. In 1868 he took up still more leases including the Lake Arthur run of 342 square miles. He now appointed John Ross as manager at Umberatana. Mount Lyndhurst was taken up in 1869. During these years Thomas Elder opened up vast tracks of the interior.
Regardless of his involvement in the pastoral industry and shipping, he became one of the owners of the Moonta copper mine and invested heavily in the mine to the tune of £80,000. He contributed to the exploration of unknown territory in both South Australia and the Northern Territory. With Walter Watson Hughes he assisted with the equipping of the Warburton and other expeditions and made the establishment of Adelaide University possible with large gifts. During his ‘spare time’ he raced horses and built stables at Morphettville.
Good weather and plenty of rain during the winter of 1870 meant an abundance of feed for stock and more country was taken up, including Finniss Springs. Three years later he leased Wallerberdina. Meanwhile, John Ross who had previously worked on the Overland Telegraph Line, went exploring with his son Alec for further pastoral possibilities for Elder & Co.
During 1873 Elder’s station Blanchewater supplied light horses for repeater stations along the OTL. In 1874 Thomas Elder gave £20,000 to the Adelaide University. With other donations made before and after this amounted to some £100.000. No wonder his statue is in front of the Elder Hall which he funded. He also donated £25,000 to the South Australian Art Gallery.
In 1878 Thomas Elder was Knighted and in 1883 retired from the firm. While on a holiday to Scotland Sir Thomas bought a rotunda from MacFarlane's Saracen Foundry in Glasgow, had it shipped to Adelaide and rebuild at Rotunda Park on the banks of the Torrens. It was officially opened on 28 November 1882. Rotunda Park was renamed Elder Park in 1907.
Sir Thomas died in 1897, aged 78. He had done more than any other individual to advance the progress and culture of South Australia. Elder Smith & Co had become one of the best known and largest wool selling businesses in the world with interests in the Adelaide Steamship Company, real estate and mining. His will provided for more than £25.000 for the Presbyterians, St Peter’s Cathedral, St Alfred College, Hospitals and the Workings Men’s Home. Elder Park in Adelaide and the Elder Range in the Flinders Ranges have been named after him as well as many streets.