A gentle man and a gentleman, Tom Barr Smith is often described as ‘a chip off the old block’ --- referring to his scrupulous honesty, astute business acumen and compassion for those in need, attributes which he derived from his father, Robert Barr Smith, and his mother, Joanna. She was the sister of Robert’s business partner, Sir Thomas Elder, a bachelor, after whom Tom was named. He had great wealth bestowed upon him by both his father and uncle, and, like them, became one of South Australia’s great philanthropists.
He was born at Woodville, South Australia, on 8th December 1863 and his formative years were spent at the family mansions, ‘Torrens Park’ at Mitcham and ‘Auchendarroch’ at Mount Barker. Educated at St. Peter’s College, he later studied law and gained an M.A. from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He returned to Adelaide in 1885 and devoted his entire working life to the family firm, Elder Smith & Co. He joined the board in 1916 and in January 1921 succeeded Peter Waite as Chairman.
While overseas he had become engaged to Mary (Molly) Isobel Mitchell, a Scottish lass from Ayrshire, and they were married at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Walkerville, on 5th May 1886, soon after her arrival in Adelaide. Following Elder’s death in 1897, Tom inherited his magnificent ‘Birksgate’ estate at Glen Osmond. He was a devoted family man, much loved by his four daughters and two sons. The family’s summer residence, ‘Wairoa’, a stately home at Aldgate in the Adelaide hills (now Marbury School), was a gift from his father, as was ‘The Hummocks’ station near Snowtown.
Tom Barr Smith shared many of his father’s interests, becoming a Director of the Adelaide Steamship Company, a member of the Board of Advice of the South Australian Company and Chairman of the boards of various pastoral companies. He was President of the Adelaide Club and a keen participant in, and patron of, many sports. In his youth he ‘rode to hounds enthusiastically’ and was one of the state’s leading polo players. He was President of the Adelaide Hunt Club, the Automobile Club of South Australia, and a committee member of the S.A. Jockey Club.
But his greatest legacies were in the field of education, particularly to the University of Adelaide, whose initial small library of books had been greatly enlarged through his father’s many gifts of money. In 1920 the Barr Smith family gave a further £11,000 to establish a permanent endowment for the library. By 1927 the collection had outgrown the space available in the main building (now the Mitchell Building) and Tom Barr Smith wrote to the Chancellor offering to pay for the erection of a separate structure to house the books. Molly Barr Smith laid the foundation stone of the Barr Smith Library on 29th September 1930 and the completed building (which cost nearly £35,000) was officially opened in March 1932. A deep terrazzo frieze around the magnificent reading room bears Latin inscriptions commemorating the benefactions of Robert and Tom Barr Smith. The son, like his father, refused a knighthood.
Tom Barr Smith gave liberally to many charities and institutions. He was one of four benefactors who donated £1,000 to establish the first University residential college, St. Mark’s, at North Adelaide, and he was also a benefactor of the short-lived Presbyterian residential college, St. Andrew’s, at Mitcham (now Mercedes College). In 1919 he and his mother Joanna each donated £1,000 to an appeal to found Scotch College in their old family home, ‘Torrens Park’.
Tom Barr Smith died on 26th November 1941, five months after his beloved Molly; they were born six days apart, married when they were 22, and were buried together in the Mitcham Anglican Cemetery.
Preiss, K.A. and P.M. Oborn, Torrens Park Estate: A social and architectural history (Stonyfell: Preiss and Oborn, 1991).
Price, A.G., Elder Smith & Co. Limited: The first hundred years (Adelaide: Elder Smith & Co., 1940).