The origins of Elder, Smith & Co Ltd were in 1839 when Alexander Lang Elder, a merchant of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, arrived at Port Adelaide in his father’s schooner and set up business in Adelaide as a general and commissioner'’ agent.
In 1840, William Elder joined the Adelaide business, followed by his father, George Elder, shortly afterwards. During A.L. Elder’s period as a metal broker copper was discovered at Kapunda and he did much to establish the company’s financial base. With the financial security this venture enabled, the company became involved in a several interests. These included a project for establishing gasworks in Adelaide; exploiting guano deposits in Spencer Gulf; attempting to build an iron-smelting furnace; acting as agent for Lloyds of London, tendering for contracts to deport convicts to Van Diemen’s Land; acting on behalf of landed proprietors; and most importantly, pastoral pursuits.
In the 1850s Robert Barr Smith joined the company. (He had married Joanna, daughter of George Elder.) Edward Stirling and John Taylor also joined the business and in 1855 the company became known as Elder, Stirling & Company. John Taylor and Edward Stirling had both left the company by 1863 and it became Elder, Smith & Co.
Elders was involved in the development of the Wallaroo and Moonta copper mine and its success allowed its to extend its interests into the outback regions of South Australia and beyond. The period of 1860-80 was one of great expansion. The company took up huge tracts of land in Queensland, Western Australia and the far north of South Australia. Its financial strength buffered it from the effects of the droughts of the mid-1860s and mid-1880s and drastic market fluctuations. Although these pastoral properties were said to have been as large as a “European Kingdom”, the company could afford to introduce fencing. This was practically unknown on pastoral properties before 1865 yet was universal by the 1870s.
In 1888 Elder Smith and Co. and Elders Wool and Produce merged. Subsidiary companies, such as Elders Wool and Produce Co., Elder Trustees, Executor Co. Ltd., Elder Metal and Mercantile Proprietary, were subsequently absorbed into the massive Elders organisation, and by 1914 Elders had operations in all states.
In 1963 Elder Smith & Co. merged with Goldsbrough and Mort. From the 1970s a further series of company mergers and acquisitions took place, along with further expansion of the group’s interests in finance, metals, real estate, insurance, travel, shipping and overseas trading. This culminated in the 1980s in mergers with Henry Jones (IXL) Ltd. and the Wood Hall Trust Pty Ltd. The Currie Street building is now the head office for Elders Pastoral, a division of Elders IXL Ltd.
As its activities expanded, Elders occupied several office buildings in Adelaide in succession. Construction of Elder House, The company’s last Adelaide headquarters was started in 1937 and cost £119,207. A leading South Australian architect, Walter Hervey Bagot, was engaged and the builders were J. Grove and Son.
Architecturally, the Elders building demonstrates the importance Bagot placed on stylistic derivation. The facade recalls a Renaissance palazzo, while the proportioning system has Georgian precedents.