Page 1: Biography
Ross, Robert Samuel
Compositor, socialist, newspaper and journal editor
This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Robert Samuel Ross was born on 5 January 1873 in Sydney, Australia, son of a Scottish compositor, Robert Mitchell Ross, and his English wife, Anne Matilda Bonham. In 1885 he accompanied his parents to Queensland, where his father was to edit a paper. He left school to work as a messenger in a drapery store and at 17 was apprenticed as a compositor. In the early 1890s he was converted to socialism by the writings of William Lane. Ross helped to found the Queensland Socialist League in 1894 and the Socialist Democratic Vanguard in 1900.
Bob Ross married Ethel Slaughter at Brisbane on 14 March 1900; they were to have two sons. They left Brisbane in 1903 when Ross became editor of the Barrier Truth, the voice of the union movement in Broken Hill, New South Wales. His faith in education as the key to mobilisation of the workers already marked him out, but his militant rationalism led to his forced resignation in 1905. He founded another paper, the Flame, and worked as municipal librarian before accepting an offer from the Victorian Socialist Party to edit its new weekly, the Socialist. He strongly opposed ideological sectarianism, arguing for permeation and 'boring from within', and played an influential role in the Socialist Federation of Australasia from its foundation in 1907.
When the leaders of the New Zealand Federation of Labour acquired the Maoriland Worker in 1911 they invited Ross to take over as editor. Having taken Tom Mann's advice, he accepted. He arrived in New Zealand in April and promptly put his stamp on the staid monthly, at its new base in Wellington. Short paragraphs of witty comment, wide-ranging sports coverage, and trenchant editorial comment began to attract more readers. Ross preached rationalism, republicanism, industrial unionism, revolutionary socialism and, increasingly, opposition to conscription and war. He featured pithy analyses of major historical events; articles on terrorism, nihilism, anarchism, Marxism and syndicalism; excerpts from such writers as Henry Lawson, Robert Burns, and William Morris; and the book reviews kept readers up to date with the latest works of importance.
Ross also allowed others to express their views. Regular columns by Ted Howard ('The Vag') and Ted Hunter ('Billy Banjo'), reports from the main centres of working-class activity, and a good eye for the colourful story and the clever phrase allowed him to transform 'a mediocre journal…into a vitalising first class Socialist journal'. 'Put a "Worker" into the hands of your mate,' Ross cried, ‘and swing him into the army of the Revolution.' Increasing numbers heeded his advice. Sales grew. In May 1911 the Worker became a weekly; in August 1912 a newspaper format replaced the magazine format. By July 1911 Ross boasted that sales were increasing by 1,000 a month and by 1913 they were 10,000 a week.
Ross had learned to deal graciously with a wide variety of different people and views. His modest and good-natured generosity matched the broad eclecticism of his philosophy, and he and his Worker helped to mediate between the different factions. In 1911 he tried to smooth over the differences between W. T. Mills and leading Red Feds. Where some Red Feds viewed the men of the trades and labour councils with more hatred than they expressed towards the capitalists, Ross regarded each advance for labour as a step towards the emancipation of workers 'from the intolerable and unjust cruelties of a system where they toiled for profit' and towards the creation of 'a new order guaranteeing food, shelter, clothing to all'.
In 1912, as northern unionists became critical of the federation and gave increasing support to the militantly syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, Ross reached the limits of his tolerance. He opposed moves to recast the FOL as a single, all-embracing industrial union, and disputed the notion that 'the Federation must be always victorious, and indeed invincible'. He lost this battle, but remained loyal to the organisation and its larger aims. During the Waihi miners' strike in 1912 the Worker played an invaluable role in mobilising support and presenting the strikers' views, and Ross was among the first (and most influential) to rally the defeated legions to the need for political action. He attended the January unity conference in 1913 but said little; as a member of the committee that drafted the constitutions of the United Federation of Labour and the Social Democratic Party, he played an important part in identifying the basis for a new consensus based on the exclusion of the right- and left-wing factions. Ross later co-authored The tragic story of the Waihi strike, which brilliantly transformed defeat into a summons to all workers to co-operate in seeking a new and more just social order.
Ross left New Zealand in April 1913, and in 1917, giving poor health as his reason, declined Harry Holland's invitation to return from Victoria to take over the now sadly enfeebled Maoriland Worker; as a result Holland, who had hoped to return to Australia, stayed on in New Zealand. Ross was opposed to the First World War and conscription and doubtless thought the critical battles were being fought in Australia. From 1915 to 1924 he published his own monthly paper in Melbourne; he ran Ross's Book Service, and received public recognition as a council member of the University of Melbourne and a trustee of the public library, museums and the national gallery.
Bob Ross was frail and slightly built, with fair hair and a sandy moustache. His gentle disposition tended to conceal his passion and persistence. He spoke almost apologetically but could also be persuasive. Ross had a passion for cricket and football and a great love of music, drama and literature, Shelley being a personal favourite; in later life he was considered an authority on D. H. Lawrence. Ross died at Richmond, Victoria, on 24 September 1931 and was cremated after a rationalist service. He was survived by his wife and sons.