Ruth Miriam Guscott was born in Wanganui on 1 January 1920, the second child of Aida Doris Mildred Clayton and her husband, Alfred James Guscott, a stock buyer. Although they lived in town, Ruth and her elder brother spent most of their free time in the country with their father. She later recalled how they hung round the yards while he drafted sheep, and how they slid down hills on cabbage-tree tops, and swung over bush creeks on supplejack. Belonging to the land, being close to the soil, she reflected, made her a New Zealander; on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Britain at the age of 11 she felt like a stranger in a foreign land. Certainly she never felt torn between two worlds.
Ruth started school at Clifton House, then went to Wanganui Girls’ College, where she became head prefect. From 1939 to 1941 she was a student at Victoria University College, Wellington, taking courses on European and colonial history and English literature. Although New Zealand history was not then taught, F. L. W. Wood and J. C. Beaglehole, her teachers and mentors, wakened her interest in New Zealand arts and literature and current affairs. For Ruth these were golden years. A tall, striking blonde, she was friendly and outgoing, an eager, hard-working student and readily provoked into forthright argument. However, as the Second World War worsened she felt increasingly restless in the rarefied university atmosphere, and in January 1942 she joined the Centennial (later Historical) Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs as a research assistant. She was initiated into research on pre-1840 trade and settlement maps for a centennial atlas by staff about to leave on war service or more essential work. Thereafter she became the mainstay of the project.
A brilliant individual and passionately devoted researcher, Guscott obtained access to hitherto untapped sources, such as the Old Land Claims files and Native Land Court minute books, which led to a particular interest in F. E. Maning, an early judge of the court. As a break from the routine of mapping work she researched and wrote the monograph New Zealand’s first capital. Published in 1946, this work was based on archives then lying neglected in the General Assembly Library attic and in departmental cellars.
In 1943 Guscott went on a paper-chasing visit to Gisborne and in 1944 to Auckland, the Bay of Islands and Hokianga. There, as well as learning the value of collating historical facts with the lie of the land, she established contact with local historians. To facilitate her research she also corresponded with people throughout the country and beyond. Aware of the mutual benefit of such contacts, she suggested that the Historical Branch assume an advisory role for students of history requiring help with source material. During these years she accumulated folders of notes and correspondence that were to be ‘the core of her scholarly armoury for the next forty years’.
Meanwhile, in Wellington on 15 October 1943, Ruth married Rex Whittington Burnard, a solicitor, known as George. He had Hodgkin’s disease and died in August 1944. In her grief Ruth found work and friends cold comfort. The following year the department embarked on a war history programme, and when hopes of completing the atlas dimmed she transferred there.
On 21 December 1945, in Wellington, she married Ian Munson Ross, a journalist and returned soldier, who was working in army archives. Before their first son was born Ruth resigned from the public service. Later the family moved to Auckland, where Ian trained as a teacher. After the birth of their second son, they lived in Takapuna.
The couple shared a common interest in New Zealand books. Ruth wrote three school bulletins on early New Zealand history and undertook to edit a reprint of the facsimiles of the Treaty of Waitangi by the Government Printing Office. In researching the latter, she delved into the meaning and implications of the Maori text, seeking help from Maori scholars.
In 1955 the family moved north, where Ian taught at Motukiore Maori School, on the Hokianga Harbour. ‘You could hardly be closer to the original, autochthonous New Zealand soil’, John Beaglehole wrote; ‘you ought to be very happy’. Despite the mud in winter and never having a doctor up the creek in two years, they were. Ruth appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Maori history and to bring up her boys with Maori children.
A casualty of their Motukiore years was her editorial work on the treaty, which she felt she could not do on hit-and-run raids to Wellington and she was reluctant to leave her family for longer periods. Instead she wrote Te Tiriti o Waitangi , an imaginative story about the treaty signing at Mangungu, Hokianga, on 12 February 1840. Published in 1958, the work encapsulated her research and familiarity with the place. She went on thinking about the texts and translations of the treaty and in February 1972 read a paper analysing them to a Victoria University of Wellington seminar. Her revised version, published in the New Zealand Journal of History in October that year, became a launching pad for subsequent revisionist treaty history and jurisprudence combining Maori and Pakeha perspectives.
In the early 1960s the Ross family lived at Poutu and briefly at Oakura. In 1964 they returned to Auckland and built a home at Weymouth on the Manukau Harbour. There Ruth and Ian continued to enjoy walking, gardening and the visits of family and friends. Dedicated as she was to research and writing, Ruth always put her family, home and garden first. In 1959 she had reluctantly agreed to serve on the Northland regional committee of the National (later New Zealand) Historic Places Trust, and she was co-opted to the trust’s board between 1963 and 1969. Later, as a member of the buildings classification committee (1972–80), she travelled around the country four or five times a year helping record and classify nineteenth century buildings and objects.
Meetings and committee work were not her forte, but her knowledge of early Northland history was encyclopaedic and her meticulous intensive research invaluable. Furthermore, she expected others to live up to the high standards she demanded of herself. She was particularly involved in the restoration of the Waimate North mission house, Pompallier House in Russell, and Clendon House in Rawene, and she researched and wrote guides for each. For research on Pompallier House she obtained access to documents in the archives of the Auckland Catholic diocese and established contact with Father E. R. Simmons, editor of Zealandia. This led to an arrangement for Ruth to clean, sort and list the diocesan records, a voluntary, once-a-week task that was largely completed in the early 1970s.
In 1976 Ruth Ross took up a three-year senior research fellowship in arts at the University of Auckland. During her tenure she wrote a short history of the Melanesian mission in Auckland, already partly researched for the trust, and contributed five chapters for the North Island volume of the Trust’s Historic buildings of New Zealand. To her regret there was no time left for her projected social history of Pompallier’s Auckland.
Ross’s Melanesian mission research led to part-time work for the Auckland church property trustees, and to taking part in the commemorative Selwyn lectures and in a further series of lectures on church history at St John’s College. Battling cancer lent urgency to these activities and some of her failing energy was expended in the fight to preserve St Mary’s Cathedral, Parnell, on its original site.
Ruth Ross died on 30 August 1982 at her home in Weymouth, survived by her husband and their two sons. Her final contribution to New Zealand archives and history was the Ruth Ross manuscript collections held by the Auckland Institute and Museum.