Peter Waite: Action and Optimism for Australian Agriculture

Peter Waite - circa 1908

Peter Waite - circa 1908

Imagine it’s 1865. Six years ago, when you were 25, you followed your older brothers to South Australia from Scotland. Your eldest brother has since died and now you are responsible for managing over 2,000 square kilometres of property running 40,000 head of sheep at Paratoo in the semi-arid north of South Australia. There is no railway anywhere nearby and horses and bullock teams are the only means of transportation to and from the town of Adelaide 260 km away. A year ago your Scottish fiancée, now wife, came to join you, bringing her heavy British clothing and a harmonium. And there’s a drought: one of the worst in the colony’s history. After losing 8,000 sheep, even more lambs and 50 bullocks, and with your wife begging you to give up and take her back to Scotland, you decide to send 12,000 sheep south to better grazing country near Penola over 600km away in South Australia’s south-east. It would take 12 months, but ultimately your action and optimism would save your enterprise when the drought broke a year later and an even larger flock returned.

Peter Waite was a remarkable man. His tenacity and resourcefulness are seen in his ability to not only survive, but thrive in the harsh conditions faced by early Australian pastoralists. He made many improvements to the properties he managed to reduce the impact of climate variability such as fencing, providing permanent water sources and spelling the land. His ability to implement new ideas with drive and intelligence meant that his career and social standing progressed rapidly. By 1877, when his family took possession of ‘Urrbrae’ in Adelaide he was a partner in Thomas Elder’s Beltana Pastoral Company and could afford to return to Scotland to purchase high-quality furnishings for his new home. Amongst the beautiful furniture was an oak sideboard inscribed with Waite’s motto Fac et Spera or ‘Action and Optimism’. His business interests continued to thrive and both his family and his social position grew. He was a keen supporter of sports, in particular hunting. Urrbrae appeared regularly on the social calendar for hunt breakfasts, dinners and balls. Waite also had keen interest in art and was a patron of Sir Arthur Streeton, acquiring 31 of his works. He was an ‘early adopter’ of technology: electricity, refrigeration and automobiles. By 1909, at 75 years of age, Peter Waite was not only the Chairman of Elder Smith & Co Ltd. but Managing Director of three pastoral companies, a director of three commercial companies including British Broken Hill Mining Co. and a member of the Council of the Pastoralists’ Association of South Australia and West Darling.

In 1913, Peter and Matilda Waite’s son David died tragically and none of their remaining children were interested in remaining at Urrbrae after their parents’ deaths. Later that year, Peter Waite wrote to the Chancellor of the University of Adelaide and the Premier of South Australia expressing his wish to present, on his and Matilda’s deaths, Urrbrae House and property of 54 hectares to the University. The eastern half of the land was for research and training in agricultural and related studies, and the western half for a public park under the University’s control (now the Waite Arboretum). The 45 hectares adjoining Urrbrae was to be presented to the Government for the purpose of establishing an agricultural high school (now Urrbrae Agricultural High School). Waite’s surviving children were adequately provided for and actively supported their father’s decision, making several contributions of their own to the University after their father’s death. Interestingly, in 1917, Peter Waite was offered a knighthood but refused it on the basis of his age, then 83. Before his death at 88 in 1922, and Matilda’s later the same year, Waite purchased more property adjacent to Urrbrae (Claremont and Netherby) and transferred ownership of these to the University. He also set aside shares in Elder Smith and Co. Ltd for the purpose of devoting the income to the University for the advancement of agricultural education. It was one of the largest public benefactions ever made by a South Australian colonist and today would be equivalent to several million dollars.

Waite’s legacy is more than just land and money. The spirit of action and optimism continued from the establishment of the original Waite Agricultural Research Institute in 1924, through research-driven innovations in soil science, plant breeding and wine research, and through collocation of the University of Adelaide with research organisations such as CSIRO, the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) and SARDI. Now “The Waite” (as it is known) has over 1,000 researchers across the collocated organisations and hosts major national research centres and facilities such as the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, the Plant Accelerator (part of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility) and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls. There is a rich network of research collaborations between all of the Waite partners, for example The Wine Innovation Cluster involves four partners and undertakes the majority of Australia’s wine-related research.

Agriculture, both in Australia and globally, faces the huge challenge of feeding a growing population sustainably and resourcing the research needed to support innovation and discovery is increasingly difficult. In Peter Waite’s own words, written in 1913: “We have now reached a point when it behoves us to call science to our aid to a greater extent than hitherto has been done, otherwise we cannot hope to keep in the forefront.” Peter Waite’s generous gift, made nearly 100 years ago, ensures that the Waite name will continue to deliver action and optimism for Australian agriculture into the future.

Written by Heather Bray

For more information on Peter Waite go to http://www.waite.adelaide.edu.au/urrbraehouse/pwaite/

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