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Robert Barr Smith (1824–1915)

from Advertiser

The news of the death of Mr. Robert Barr Smith, which occurred at his residence, Angas Street, on Saturday morning, will come as a shock and as a source of grief to the whole community. Although he had reached a patriarchal age, he had always been so hale and hearty that there was a general hope that he would continue his useful life for many years and that he would attain to the dignity of a centenarian. There are few residents of the city who can remember the time when in the realms of high finance the name of Mr. Barr Smith was not one to conjure with. He was born a dozen years before the first settlers of this State landed on Kangaroo Island, and when the mainland was a trackless and an unknown forest. He came to South Australia only 18 years after Sir John Hindmarsh had planted the British flag on the shores of Holdfast Bay and proclaimed the rule of King William IV over this country. He had lived through almost the entire reigns of four sovereigns, one of whom sat on the throne longer than any preceding monarch of Great Britain. The Battle of Waterloo was but a recent memory when he was a lad, and he lived to see the hundredth anniversary of that great 'world earthquake' celebrated amidst the noise of the biggest conflict that has ever shaken the foundations of nations. Constitutional government had not been established in South Australia when he became associated with the Adelaide firm that still bears his name and the reputation of which, largely through his energy and business acumen, is now known and respected wherever the English language is spoken. There is not an industry in the State that does not owe much to him, either directly or indirectly. He was a clear-sighted pioneer both of the agricultural and pastoral prosperity of South Australia. He did more than anyone else to build up the mining interest. In commerce he was a veritable king and the shipping community owes more to him than it can ever fully appreciate. He was a shrewd and an enterprising man of affairs, and his guidance was always a guarantee of success. He not only filled his own pockets, but he also helped to fill those of other people, for he was as considerate and generous as he was wise, and far-seeing. In many forgotten difficulties that assailed the youthful life of the state he was a shield and a buckler. Obstacles did not daunt him. Troubles intercepted his path only to be overcome. As a young man he displayed the attributes that were the characteristics of his career, when ripened experience came to mellow and strengthen the acumen with which he was originally equipped. He always had a high sense of his duty and his responsibilities, and he bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman. No whisper of a dishonorable transaction was ever associated with his name. In the days when he was fighting hardest to achieve success his reputation was as high with those who knew him best as it was when long years afterwards he had retired from the turmoil of the arena and had entered upon a well-earned leisure.

He retained his wonderful faculties to the last, and his advice was eagerly sought when he was in all but mental strength an old man. His heart was as big as his brain, and out of the stores of his wealth he was always more than ready to help institutions, and individuals and causes which were in need. No one ever went to him with a genuine story of distress who came away empty-handed, and often his gifts were as spontaneous as they were unexpected. Little went on in the city or the State of an important character with which he was not acquainted, and his benefactions were the response to the results of his judgment. His munificence was as well directed as his other acts and he was never too busy to make enquiries concerning the recipients of his bounty. Every moment of his time was put to good account, but he was never too busy to be courteous, never too absorbed in his work to be kind. The name of Mr. Barr Smith will always be an inspiration and an incentive to noble endeavor and to a pure ideal of citizenship. He has fought a good fight, he has finished his course, and his reputation and his example will be a precious possession to the people of South Australia. The admiration his long career of enlightened thought and labor has evoked will deepen the sympathy felt for his bereaved widow. She linked together the families of Elder and Barr Smith, for she is the sister of the late Sir Thomas Elder, whose generosity is commemorated in so many of Adelaide's educational and philanthropic institutions.

The names of Sir Thomas Elder and Mr. Barr Smith have been mentioned in happy conjunction since the earliest days of South Australia's commercial history, and the company they established is likely to continue in existence for generations to come, but no monument of this kind was needed to keep their memories forever green among the people of this State. Their goodness of heart, their public spirit, their broad-minded philanthropy and their munificence will be among our most cherished traditions to the last syllable of recorded time. It is natural to speak of the two benefactors in one breath, because they were so closely associated with one another in so many ways. Not only were they business partners but they were united by domestic ties as well as by their tastes and disposition. Not only is Mrs. Barr Smith, whose liberality is a household word throughout all districts in which she has resided, a sister of the late Sir Thomas Elder, but her eldest son bears the name of that open-handed philanthropist. It is well known also that during the closing years of his life, when Sir Thomas was too feeble to make the necessary enquiries, his actions were governed to a large extent by Mr. Barr Smith, whose influence was ever in the direction of that generosity which has made the reputation of the two men such a sweet and honorable possession.

Mr. Barr Smith was a son of the manse, and a Scotsman to the backbone and spinal marrow. His father, the Rev. Dr. Smith, was the minister of the Free Church of Scotland at Lochwinnoch, in Renfrewshire, and he took pains to see that the religious and secular training of his son was of the most thorough character. Born in 1824, Mr. Barr Smith, after passing through the preparatory schools, entered Glasgow University at an early age, and there equipped himself for the pursuits which he was destined to follow. His characteristics in youth, as in after life, were thoroughness and enthusiasm. He had got by heart the apostolic injunction, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might,’ and no opportunity of acquiring knowledge was wasted. Right through his career it was his determination to make the best of his surroundings and to this fact is due the success which always crowned his efforts. Although not born with the proverbial ‘silver spoon’ in his mouth, he possessed advantages denied to many of his companions, and he always made the most of them. Few of the pioneers of settlement in this state came to the task as he did with a liberal education and a reasonable supply of money in his purse, but on the other hand, none of them turned to better purpose than he did the openings that presented themselves. It was through the influence of his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Elder, that Mr. Barr Smith turned his back on the old home, and resolved to unite his fortunes with those of South Australia. He had already entered commercial life in Glasgow and had shown much aptitude for business. Mr. George Elder, being about to relinquish his connection with the firm of Elder & Co, an invitation was sent to Mr. Barr Smith to take his place, and so, as a young man of 30, he came to Adelaide, passing through Melbourne on his way hither. That was in 1854. Two years later the name of the business was altered on the admission of Mr. Edward Stirling (father of Sir Lancelot Stirling and Dr. E. C. Stirling) and Mr. John Taylor, as partners, and until ??? the title was Elder, Stirling & Co. In that year, however, the two gentlemen named retired, and for the first time in its history the concern became known by the name which it still bears Elder, Smith, and Co. It was sold to a company in 1888, but the change was made in its appellation, which had won so high a reputation throughout Australia that it was accepted everywhere as a guarantee of stability and fair dealing.

Mr. Barr Smith, like his senior partner, and his predecessors in the business, manifested a deep interest in the welfare of the state, and in the process of securing promising investments for their capital he did much to assist in the development of its resources. Particularly was this the case in respect to the pastoral and mineral interests of South Australia, although in many other directions the influence of his money and of his energetic personality has been felt. It would be hard to name any other enterprise on a large scale which has been established by combined effort in which Mr. Barr Smith had not had a hand. The number of companies in which he held shares is immense, and he acted as director in respect to many of the most successful financial institutions of the metropolis. He was largely instrumental in the foundation of the Bank of Adelaide, and he was one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the Adelaide Steamship Company. When the Wallaroo mine was discovered, it was the firm of Elder, Stirling, and Co. which gave most help in the opening up of the property, and a similar course of enterprising action enabled the most to be made of the discovery of copper at Moonta, in which they once held a controlling interest. They backed their confidence in the stability of the mines by liberal monetary advances. Many a struggling pastoralist has also been helped by the judicious advice and the substantial backing of Mr. Barr Smith and, indeed, the kindly acts he did both in the way of business and in his private capacity were endless. He had an immense estate of his own to manage, in addition to the far reaching interests associated with the operations of the firm, of which during the closing years of his partner's life, and before it was transferred to a board of directors, he was the sole manager. He had a very large amount of property in this State, and also owned sheep and cattle runs in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. Like Sir Thomas Elder, he early evinced a great love for good horseflesh, and he had both bred and raced animals with irreproachable pedigrees. They were always straight goers when they started, and the public backed them with the utmost confidence that they would get a good run for their money.

The private liberality of Mr. Barr Smith was of a munificent character, His ordinary subscriptions every year must have amounted to quite a princely sum, but in addition to these he gave largely to special objects. The begging letters he received every morning were practically numberless, but he dealt with them all in a wise and systematic way. His spontaneous gifts were large, and many will never be known. His public donations reach big figures. The Adelaide University Library was subsidised by him to the extent of £3,000 at various times, in addition to the £10,000 recently given towards the scheme for the erection of residential colleges. He made valuable gifts of pictures to the Art Gallery, and it was through his open-handedness that Mr. Clement Wragge was able to erect an observatory at the summit of Mount Kosciusko. He purchased the steam lifeboat City of Adelaide at a cost of £3,500, and presented it to the Government for service on the south-eastern coast. He donated several sums to the prize fund of the School of Mines, and in 1899 he sent £200 towards the erection of a home for deaf mutes at Parafield. A year afterwards he subscribed liberally towards the purchase of horses for the First Contingent sent to South Africa, and in 1901 he surprised and gratified the Bishop of Adelaide by forwarding him a cheque for £10,000 towards the cost of completing St. Peter's Cathedral, which had previously been the object of many thoughtful gifts from the same source. He was also the founder of the Cremation Society, to whose funds he subscribed most liberally. He was a strong advocate of cremation as a method of disposing of the bodies of the dead, and he long ago expressed his desire to be cremated when he passed away. Of more recent date one may recall many acts of public generosity on the part of the deceased philanthropist. For instance, it was he, when the first appeal was made for a motor ambulance for the front, who came forward with characteristic spontaneity, and offered two ambulances. Again, it was he who, when the authorities were seeking suitable buildings for military hospitals, immediately offered his beautiful property at Torrens Park. Another monument to his liberality is the new road at Mitcham, which he gave to obviate the danger of crossing the busy railway line which the using of the old road always involved. When the project for the establishment of the diocese of Willochra was mooted he gave £2,000 to its fund.

Mr. Barr Smith, whose liberality knew no distinctions of creed or politics, some years ago gave a cheque for £2,300 to the trustees of the Trades Hall, Grote Street, to pay the debt of that institution. Mrs. Barr Smith, too, has been most generous to every good cause which has come under her notice, and no one who has lived in the vicinity of her city home, at Torrens Park, Mitcham, or of the handsome country mansion at Auchendarroch, Mount Barker, can have failed to appreciate the loving tenderness with which her name is mentioned by those who have either been the recipients of her bounty or who have knowledge of her considerate kindness. She is looked upon, more particularly by the young folk, as the Good Fairy of the district and, indeed, it is questionable whether that designation was ever more richly deserved. Husband and wife have striven to make those around them happy, and they have achieved a large amount of success in that very laudable endeavour.

Mr. Barr Smith, always manifested a patriotic concern in the public institutions of the State, and he identified himself at times with political parties as a private member, but he never attempted to enter either the Parliament or a municipal body. At times his name had been mentioned in connection with an election, but it never was with his sanction. Noone could ever doubt Mr. Barr Smith’s patriotism or public spirit, but he always asserted that he could do more good for his fellow citizens outside the legislature than within it, and even the election of his partner, Sir Thomas Elder, to a seat in the Upper House had no influence in altering his decision. He was a free-trader, and at the time of the Commonwealth contest he gave substantial help to the advocates of free-trade. Not only did he not seek to enter active politics himself, however, but he seldom appeared on a public platform, and scarcely ever presided at a meeting larger than one of the many directorates of when he was chairman. He disliked ostentation of all kinds, and neither indulged in flattery nor put himself in the way of receiving it. Still his influence on the trend of legislation was considerable, for his advice was frequently sought on matters of high importance, and in commercial affairs particularly his judgment was generally deferred to. Transparently honest, conscientously upright, and anxious always to help those in genuine need, Mr. Barr Smith was just the sort of man who was needed in Parliament, more particularly as with these virtues he combined power of initiative, an independent firmness, and an energetic industry, which enabled him to meet any difficulty which confronted him and to surmount it. His motives were never questioned, and seldom has there lived in any community a man who kept himself so consistently aloof from public affairs and who, yet, was so universally, and so highly, trusted and respected. He stood for the type of all that was desirable in good citizen. More than once he was approached with the offer of titular distinction, but he always declined to be nominated for the honour.

It would be impossible to give a complete summary of the kind and generous deeds Mr. Barr Smith performed. Few were ever heard of save by the little circle which they immediately affected. Public institutions of a philanthropic or educative character were constant recipients of his generosity. So also were churches and other departments of religious work, while his subscriptions to clubs and societies in what were recognised as his own districts were innumerable. He gave to everything of proved value which was brought under his notice. He took a large interest in tree planting, and it was due to his efforts that the road through Hahndorf and the main road nearer Mount Barker were turned into umbrageous avenues. He also assisted liberally in the project for planting trees in Mount Barker itself, and there was not any of the activities of that pretty town, from the churches to the agricultural society, the tennis club, or the bowling green, that did not benefit from his kindness. Had he been the veritable lord of the manors of Mount Barker and Mitcham he could not have taken a more enlightened view of his responsibility towards the residents near his stately homes in those towns, and his kindly greeting, and his open purse, will be greatly missed. Several times during the last decade or two Mr. Barr Smith made journeys to Great Britain, but he always looked on Adelaide as his home, and he made no secret of his belief that it was the prettiest and most cosy city in the Empire.

Mr. Barr Smith and his charming wife were the soul of considerate hospitality that was lavished with a bounteous, but a discriminative hand. When their three sons and four daughters were all at home, Torrens Park, in which stood Mr. Barr Smith's stately mansion, was a centre of merriment and gladness. The house is equipped with a dainty theatre, and it is environed by lawns, orchards, and gardens. It is an ideal place for pleasure making, and many were the happy gatherings held there in the spacious days of the youth of the family. Christmas was a time of special joy and gifts flowed freely to everyone. At Auchendarroch, Mount Barker, the same warm-hearted hospitality was in vogue during the summer. Not only the townspeople but friends from a distance, elders and juniors, participated in the garden parties and at homes, and there was scarcely a person in the locality who did not share in the entertainment. Few were missed in the season when St. Nicholas presides over the distribution of tokens of remembrance. No one can compute the number of hearts—young and old—that have been made glad by Mr. Barr Smith and his wife in the vicinity of Mitcham and Mount Barker, and their neighbours in Angas Street, where they had lived in comparative retirement for a good many years, have the same story to tell. The sisters of the Convent of Mercy have special reason to be grateful for the generous interest displayed in the excellent work done by that institution, and the many prizes provided for the children. Countless were the acts of social kindness performed by Mr. and Mrs. Barr Smith during their long lives, and they will remain sweet memories to those who were their recipients.

For a time Mr. Barr Smith was a member of the Botanical Gardens Board, and he interested himself in the beautiful reserve. The fountain that stands near the palm-house was erected by him at a cost of £170.

Mr. Barr Smith was well known to followers of the turf. In the seventies he raced several horses. He was one of the best sportsmen South Australia has known, for though he took an interest in the running of his horses the betting side of racing did not appeal much to him. He did not object to the speculation associated with the sport, but, it has been stated, he always limited his investments to £2 and to his own horses. One of his notable successes was the capture of the Adelaide Cup of 1879 with Banter, a gelding by Conrad out of Badinage. Another good horse he owned was Mostyn, who came out from England with his mother, Miss Mostyn, Mr. Barr Smith's partner, the late Sir Thomas Elder, being the importer. Mostyn twice won the Goodwood Handicap and then, in 1896, came home victorious in the City Handicap, the Birthday Cup being won the same year by Mr. T. E. Barr Smith with a Morphettville Stud-bred horse, Destiny.

Mr. Barr Smith's health failed some three weeks ago, and on account of his great age his death was not unexpected. He passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning. He leaves one son—Mr. T. E. Barr Smith—and three daughters—Mrs. F. W. Braund (England), Mrs. G. C. Hawker, jun., and Mrs. T. O'Halloran Giles. He lost five sons and four daughters, some of the children dying in infancy and others later in life.

Mr. Barr Smith's remains were removed from the residence at Angas Street about 8 o'clock on Saturday evening, for cremation at West Terrace. The obsequies were of a private nature, and the mourners were confined to the relations, as no public intimation of the funeral had been given. The cortege consequently was not a long one, but because of the unusual hour its passage created considerable interest, and there were many onlookers at the residence. Before the body was removed Archdeacon Clampett pronounced part of the burial office. On Sunday the ashes were conveyed to Birksgate, Glen Osmond, the residence of Mr. T. E. Barr Smith. From there the cortege set out for the Mitcham Cemetery at 5.30 p.m. The ceremony was a private one, but a large number of representative citizens attended. The solemn procession, headed by Archdeacon Clampett, who conducted the service, made its way through the picturesque little burial ground on the foothills. Mr. T. E. Barr Smith carried the urn containing the ashes of his father to the family vault, and here beneath the eyes of many sorrowing spectators the funeral vessel was placed beside the urns containing the ashes of two of the deceased's children. Floral tributes in large number were placed upon the little square of ground, bordered by railings entwined, with a green creeper and shaded by the drooping foliage of a spreading tree. The relations present were Professor W. Mitchell, Mr. T. O'Halloran Giles, and Mr. R. Giles. His Excellency the Governor (Sir Henry Galway) was represented by Dr. Gerald Hayward. The Premier (Hon. C. Vaughan) and the Chief Secretary (Hon. A. W. Styles) were present. On behalf of the University, which was frequently the object of Mr. Barr Smith's beneficence, the Vice-Chancellor (his Honor Mr. Justice Murray), the Warden of the Senate (Mr. F. Chapple, C.M.G.), the Rev. Canon Girdlestone, Dr. B. Poulton. Mr. G. Brookman, the Director of Education (Mr. M. M. Maughan), and Professor Rennie (members of the Council), and Sir Douglas Mawson, Professors Osborn, Henderson, Darnley Naylor, Chapman, Kerr Grant, and Jethro Brown, Mr. W. Howchin F.G.S., the Registrar (Mr. C. R. Hodge, the Assistant Registrar (Mr. F. W. Eardley), and the Librarian (Mr. R. J. M. Clucas) attended. Other prominent citizens present included Sir Richard Butler, M.P., Sir Edwin Smith, his Honor Mr. Commissioner Russell, the, Hon. F. S. Wallis, M.L.C. (as chairman of the Trades Hall Management Committee), Lieutenant Colonel R. S. Rogers, Captain C. P. Butler (representing the Military Commandant, Colonel Sandford), Dr. H. Swift, Messrs. T. Gill, I.S.O., Peter Waite, Herbert Phillips, Gavin Gardner, E. W. Van Senden. J. R. Baker. F. Downer, J. A. Hele, and Alex. Martin, and members of the staff of Messrs. Elder, Smith & Co.

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'Barr Smith, Robert (1824–1915)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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