Page 1: Biography
Ross, Forrestina Elizabeth
Teacher, mountaineer, journalist, writer
Journalist, mountaineer, writer
This biography, written by Janet McCallum, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 2, 1993
Forrestina Elizabeth Grant (known as Forrest) was born at Brixton, Surrey, England, on 23 June 1860, and arrived in New Zealand with her family in December 1870. She was one of seven children of George Grant, who had been a company secretary in England, and his wife, Forrestina Hay. They kept a large home, Inglewood, in Dunedin.
Forrest Grant became an assistant teacher at the Tokomairiro High School in May 1878, and trained at the Normal School, Dunedin, for 12 months. Later she attended the University of Otago. In 1881 she was appointed mistress at Forbury School, and then taught English for several years at Otago Girls' High School, where she had been educated. In 1890 she resigned to marry Malcolm Ross.
Born on 13 July 1862 at Saddle Hill, Otago, Malcolm was the eldest of six children of Mary McDonald and her husband, Alexander Ross, a labourer; they had emigrated from Scotland in the 1850s. Malcolm attended Palmerston School and the University of Otago. He distinguished himself in several sports: running, rowing, tennis, golf, rugby, and the new sport of cycling.
Malcolm Ross's career in journalism began with the Otago Daily Times in 1882. An assignment in 1888 to accompany a search party for Professor J. M. Brown of Otago university led to the discovery of a pass between Lake Manapouri and the Fiordland sounds and awakened his interest in the lakes area of west Otago. He was one of the pioneers of this hinterland and of the Tasman valley and West Coast areas, and became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London. In 1889 he was engaged as private secretary by James Mills, the managing director of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand.
Malcolm and Forrest were married at Dunedin on 7 March 1890, and honeymooned in the Tasman valley. The birth of their son, Noel, at the end of that year did not prevent Forrest from further mountaineering, and she became the first woman member of the newly formed New Zealand Alpine Club. A glacier in the Tasman valley, the Forrest Ross Glacier, was named after her.
Both Forrest and Malcolm Ross helped to popularise mountaineering through lively descriptions of their expeditions in newspaper articles. Malcolm also wrote illustrated booklets, some commissioned by the government to cater for the infant tourist trade, and in 1914 collected his articles, and extracts from Forrest's, to compile A climber in New Zealand. In 1907, through Austro-Hungarian connections, he organised the introduction of chamois into the Southern Alps in exchange for live native birds.
Forrest Ross achieved more in mountaineering than most women of her time, but she did not participate in the most difficult climbs. Described in the early 1900s as 'the eternally youthful pressman', Malcolm, with his brother Kenneth, took part in an 1894 attempt to scale Mt Cook, but they were not in the group which succeeded shortly afterwards. Malcolm was, however, part of the first traverse (and fourth ascent) of the mountain in 1906. He was also a founding member and vice president of the New Zealand Alpine Club in 1891 and editor of the New Zealand Alpine Journal in 1893–94, a task which Forrest also briefly carried out. In 1929 Malcolm was made an honorary member of the club. His excellence in climbing was also recognised by election to the Alpine Club of London in 1909.
The Ross family moved to Wellington in 1897. Malcolm became the Wellington and parliamentary correspondent for the Otago Daily Times and the Christchurch Press, and later the New Zealand correspondent for the Melbourne Age and The Times of London. Forrest became a parliamentary reporter for several papers and was appointed the first lady editor of the Evening Post. Her column of 'Political news and notes' was lively and widely read. She later recorded that on one occasion, when debate in the House became controversial, the premier, R. J. Seddon, declared that the galleries be cleared, but the speaker ignored the ladies' gallery where Forrest was required to sit. She was thus the only journalist able to report the 18-hour debate which followed.
In 1910 Forrest Ross travelled alone to Europe, and wrote Round the world with a fountain pen (1913). Her political attitudes are revealed in an article on a suffrage demonstration in London: she would welcome limited women's franchise if it would 'solve the problem of the London poor', but was opposed to universal suffrage. Contrasting the situation with that in New Zealand, she wrote: 'In New Zealand we have no surplus women, nor have we, for which one offers heartfelt thanks, the submerged population that is to be found in England, in whose hands a vote would be most dangerous'. Back in New Zealand she returned to parliamentary reporting until 1915. She also wrote short stories, and was a photographer and a keen painter.
In 1913 Malcolm Ross acted as secretary to the Dominions Royal Commission when it visited New Zealand. With the outbreak of war in 1914 his journalistic talents were turned to different use. His first taste of work as a reporter under fire had been in Samoa in 1899, and he accompanied New Zealand forces there at the beginning of the First World War when New Zealand took possession of Samoa. This experience no doubt helped in his selection as official war correspondent.
The Ross's son, Noel, already a promising journalist, sailed with the troops to Gallipoli before Malcolm and Forrest left New Zealand together in 1915. Noel was wounded at Gallipoli, and after his discharge lived with Forrest in England, where he worked for The Times. Malcolm reached the Dardanelles in June 1915. Despite a decree that war correspondents be allowed only occasional visits to the front, he and the Australian correspondent C. E. W. Bean managed to spend most of their time with the troops on the battlefield. Heavy censorship was imposed, and Ross was at first not allowed to cable news because of the expense to the New Zealand government.
Criticism arose in Parliament in September 1915 over the cost and low interest of the material that did reach New Zealand. The prime minister, W. F. Massey, defended Ross, denying that he had been chosen because of his political associations. (Ross had been associated with the growth of the Reform Party and was a great friend of Massey's.) In 1918, at Malcolm Ross's request, Massey authorised a military publicity department at the New Zealand Expeditionary Force headquarters in London to make full use of his dispatches. These war dispatches are regarded as the highlight of Ross's journalistic career. Among the men, however, especially at Gallipoli, he suffered the resentment accorded to all journalists because of the privileges they enjoyed and the requirement to produce a positive version of events.
Evacuated to Egypt in late 1915, he was made an honorary captain in April 1916 and remained in Egypt until July when he joined the New Zealand Division in France. That year he published Light and shade in war, a collection of his and Noel's writings. The proofs 'were corrected on the battlefield of the Somme'. From there Malcolm was able to visit Forrest and Noel in London. He was in London in December 1917 when tragedy struck this close-knit family; Noel died suddenly from a fever a few days before his wedding. As a memorial, Malcolm and Forrest compiled a book of their son's writings, Noel Ross and his work (1919).
Malcolm and Forrest returned to New Zealand in September 1919. Malcolm received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, in addition to the 1914–15 Star awarded him after the Samoan expedition. He completed his war writing with the New Zealand chapter of The empire at war, edited by Sir Charles Lucas.
Once home Malcolm returned to his position as correspondent for the Press and the Otago Daily Times, and was a leading member of the parliamentary press gallery. He was described as being 'of a kindly yet rather retiring disposition,…always the friend and helper of the beginner in Parliamentary journalism.'
Malcolm Ross was a prominent representative of a new professionalism in journalism. As a free-lance journalist he broke new ground; for example, acting as agent for the pianist Paderewski during his New Zealand tour in 1903, and publishing of his own accord booklets on public events illustrated with his photographs. Such work is seen as a forerunner of photojournalism. He belonged to photographic societies in Dunedin and Wellington and from 1925 until his death was president of the Wellington Camera Club. His photographs of Samoa, the war, local events and early mountaineering provide a valuable record.
Forrest and Malcolm Ross had many friends among politicians and other public figures, and their home in Hill Street, Wellington, was 'the frequent rendezvous for keen Parliamentary debates and intelligent discussions.' They both continued to write after Malcolm retired from the press gallery in 1926. He died at their home on 15 April 1930. In 1934 Forrest Ross published Mixed grill, containing writing by herself and Noel. She died at Wellington on 29 March 1936.