Sir Thomas Elder GCMG (5 August 1818 - March 6, 1897) was a Scottish-Australian pastoralist, highly successful businessman, philanthropist, politician, race-horse owner and breeder and public figure. Amongst many other things, he is notable for introducing camels to Australia.
Elder was born at Kirkcaldy, Scotland, the fourth son of George Elder, merchant, and his wife Joanna Haddow, née Lang.
His eldest brother, Alexander Lang Elder (1815-1885), went to South Australia in 1839 and founded the firm of Elder and Company in Adelaide. He was joined by his brothers William (1813-1882)) and George (1816-1897). In August 1851 he was elected a member of the Legislative Council for West Adelaide. He resigned his seat in March 1853, and left South Australia. He settled in London in 1855, and acted as agent for the Adelaide company until 1884, when he and his sons established A. L. Elder & Company. William left Adelaide soon after Alexander. George left in 1855.
Thomas Elder migrated to Adelaide in 1854 and worked with George for a year. After George departed, Thomas formed Elder, Stirling & Co, a partnership with Edward Stirling, Robert Barr Smith and John Taylor. In 1856 Barr Smith married Thomas Elder's sister Joanna, and on Stirling and Taylor's retirement in 1863, Barr Smith and Thomas Elder formed Elder Smith and Co. In 1875, with Andrew Tennant, they formed the Adelaide Steamship Company.
Elder also had other important interests. He became associated with Peter Waite 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 January 1866 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 was very fortunate in his mining ventures. Early in the sixties he had large interests in the Moonta and Wallaroo copper-mines which brought him in a huge fortune. He entered political life as a member of the South Australian 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.
Elder encouraged exploration, contributed largely to Warburton's 1873 expedition and Giles's 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 Southern Ocean, but the condition was not fulfilled.
He had a severe illness in 1887 and shortly afterwards retired. Elder Smith and Company was formed into a public company, and Elder afterwards lived chiefly in the country. He never married. Elder was knighted in 1878 (KCMG) and created Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1887. He died at Mount Lofty on 6 March 1897.
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 Adelaide art gallery received a bequest of £25,000, and many of the finest pictures of the gallery were purchased from this fund.
- Fayette Gosse, 'Elder, Alexander Lang (1815 - 1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp 133-134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
- Fayette Gosse, 'Elder, William (1813 - 1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp 133-134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
- Fayette Gosse, 'Elder, George (1816 - 1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp 133-134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
- Fayette Gosse, 'Elder, Sir Thomas (1818 - 1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, pp 133-134. Retrieved on 11 July 2009.
- Hans Mincham, 'Stirling, Edward (1804 - 1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 200-201.
- Dirk van Dissel, 'Smith, Robert Barr (1824 - 1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 153-154.
- Gordon D. Combe, 'Tennant, Andrew (1835 - 1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 255-256.
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Elder, Thomas". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
- Gosse, Fayette (1972). "Elder, Sir Thomas (1818 - 1897)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2008-10-09.