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Ross, Robert Samuel (1873–1931)

by Joy Damousi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Robert Samuel Ross (1873-1931), socialist journalist and trade-union organizer, was born on 5 January 1873 in Sydney, son of Robert Mitchell Ross, compositor from Scotland, and his English wife Anne Matilda, née Bonham. Aged 12, Bob Ross moved with his parents to Queensland where his father was to edit a paper. Educated at state schools in Sydney and Brisbane, he began his working life as a messenger boy in a Brisbane drapery establishment, and at 17 was apprenticed as a compositor. A sporting enthusiast, Ross was editor of the Queensland Cricketer & Footballer when 20, and subsequently of the Queensland Sportsman.

Inspired by the writings of William Lane, who believed that a co-operative society could be constructed through trade-union organizations, Ross attempted to disseminate his principles among the unions. He worked energetically as a journalist, speaker and agitator and was a founder of the Queensland Socialist League in 1894 and Socialist Democratic Vanguard in 1900. On 14 March 1900 in Brisbane he married Ethel Slaughter, who remained a constant support during his political career. They had two sons, Lloyd (1901-87) and Edgar (b.1904), both of whom became influential writers and prominent trade-union activists.

From Brisbane, Ross went to Broken Hill in January 1903 to become editor of the Barrier Truth, the 'voice' of the Broken Hill union movement. When he expressed disillusionment with attempts made to ameliorate workers' conditions through arbitration and encouraged militant industrial action, he was accused of undermining the local branch of the Australian Labor Party. His vehement anti-clerical comments created further animosity. A vote of no confidence was eventually passed in his editorship and he resigned in November 1905. Next May Ross launched the Flame, published by the Barrier Social Democratic Club of which he was chairman, writer and public speaker. One of his lifelong convictions, apparent in his association with the labour press, was that only through education and dissemination of propaganda would workers mobilize. As municipal librarian at Broken Hill in 1906-08, he introduced radical literature.

In August 1908 Ross accepted an offer by the Victorian Socialist Party to become secretary and editor of its magazine, the Socialist. A formidable debater, persuasive speaker and effective organizer, Ross was the driving force behind the V.S.P. during its halcyon days and was largely responsible for building it into an influential propagandist organization. A delegate to all annual Socialist Federation of Australia conferences in 1907-12, Ross moved toward the adoption of permeation tactics following the failure of socialists against the Labor Party candidates. Under his guidance, the more radical elements in the V.S.P. were emasculated. In 1911-13 he edited the Maoriland Worker in Wellington.

Although Ross celebrated the success of the Russian revolution in 1917 he continued to believe that socialism would be achieved in Australia by parliamentary means, with industrial unionism—organized along the lines of the One Big Union—supporting a Labor government which would socialize industry. He was prominent in combating members of a communist group trying to take over the V.S.P., who were eventually expelled. Ross remained with the party—the 'old show'—through its declining fortunes but was also active in the left wing of the Labor Party. In 1919 and 1921 he unsuccessfully sought Senate pre-selection. He was one of the main architects of the A.L.P.'s socialist objective, adopted in 1921, and was vice-president of the Victorian branch in 1930-31. For urging socialists to retain the policy of 'boring from within' Ross was scorned by those who advocated revolutionary action and in some circles was derisively called 'Fighting Bob Ross'.

Ross assisted in forming the Queensland Typographical Association, the Broken Hill branch of the Amalgamated Miners' Association and the Tailoresses' Union; he was a member of the Australian Workers' Union and the Melbourne Trades Hall Council delegate for the Federated Clerks' Union. He also edited several union publications. During the 1920s he was appointed publicity officer of Labor Papers Ltd and travelled extensively to gather funds to establish a labour daily newspaper.

An ardent pacifist, Ross was one of the few who outspokenly criticized Australia's involvement in World War I and attempted to mobilize support for the Hardie-Vaillant resolution of 1914 calling for a general strike against the war. He was a founder of the No-Conscription Fellowship and active in other anti-conscription organizations in 1916-17. Defending free speech and civil liberties, Ross was arrested several times for his defiance of war-time and post-war censorship regulations. A member of the Victorian Rationalist Association, he preached the growth of 'rational' individuals through education.

Self-educated himself and an omnivorous reader of socialist and rationalist literature, Ross contributed prolifically to labour journals. He was a socialist with strong literary leanings; Joseph Furphy's Rigby's Romance was first published as a serial in the Barrier Truth in 1905-06. Two of his own pamphlets—Eureka—Freedom Fight of '54 (1914) and Revolution in Russia and Australia (1920)—won widespread acclaim. But his most notable literary achievement was the launching in 1915 of his own magazine, Ross's Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress—an iconoclastic polemical journal which discussed cultural issues. It survived until 1924 when it was incorporated into Union Voice with Ross as editor. He was also a member of the Y-Club and ran Ross's Book Service which offered a wide variety of literature.

Ross became council-member (1925) of the University of Melbourne and trustee (1928) of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery. In November 1930 he was appointed a commissioner of the State Savings Bank.

Slightly built, thin-faced and softly spoken, Ross was remembered by contemporaries as quiet, modest and good-natured, with a generous spirit. Respected for his integrity and capacity for work, he inspired affection even from those who disagreed with him.

Ross died of uraemia on 24 September 1931 at Richmond. His funeral was attended by a few intimate friends, including Tom Tunnecliffe, J. P. Jones, Don Cameron and Harry Scott Bennett. He was cremated after a rationalist service.

During a lifelong involvement in the labour movement, Ross travelled the path from 'red ragger' to respectable labourite. A genuine altruist, he summed up his life's endeavours in 1916 as the fight to 'emancipate men … from the intolerable and unjust cruelties of a system where they toiled for profit', and to 'set up a new order guaranteeing food, shelter, clothing to all'.

Select Bibliography

  • Street (Brisbane), 15 Jan 1898
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 29 Apr 1925
  • Bulletin, 4 June 1930, 30 Sept 1931
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1931
  • Westralian Worker, 2 Oct 1931
  • J. Damousi, Against the Current: Ross's Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress 1915-1922 (B.A. Hons thesis, La Trobe University, 1983), and for bibliography
  • L. and R. S. Ross papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Joy Damousi, 'Ross, Robert Samuel (1873–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-robert-samuel-8274/text14497, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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