This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Blanche Muriel Eugénie Ross-Watt (1861-1956), shire president and charity worker, was born on 14 January 1861 at Gisborne, Victoria, seventh of eleven children of Thomas Ferrier Hamilton, a squatter who came from Scotland, and his English-born wife Elizabeth Mary Milner, née Stephen, grand-daughter of John Stephen. Educated privately at Elderslie, the family property at New Gisborne, Blanche recalled presenting the Duke of Edinburgh with a posy when the royal train stopped at Gisborne in 1867. She was sent to finishing school at Hanover, Germany, in 1882, the first of her seventeen journeys abroad. Travel enabled her, like others of her background, and generation, to establish a wide and enduring circle of acquaintances overseas.
At St Paul's Anglican Church, Gisborne, on 8 December 1897 Miss Hamilton married her neighbour and second cousin Thomas Riddell Ross-Watt (d.1919), a 47-year-old pastoralist. They lived at his property, Rosslynne. Prominent in nearly every charitable activity in the district, Mrs Ross-Watt helped to organize a Wattle Day drive in Melbourne on 2 September 1912, raising £3000 to build a hall for the children of New Gisborne. On the outbreak of World War I, she established a local branch of the British (Australian) Red Cross Society, of which she remained an active member until her death. She led a campaign to have a cottage hospital built at Gisborne and served for many years on the committee of the Kyneton (District) Hospital.
Following the death of her husband, she established and ran—with her daughter Betty—a small farm, Cathlaw, at New Gisborne; they planned the house and planted a garden which became renowned for its beauty. In 1925 Mrs Ross-Watt was elected to the Gisborne Shire Council. Two years later she was one of the initial group of fourteen women to be appointed justices of the peace in Victoria. When she was elected shire president in 1931, newspaper reports referred to her as the first woman to hold this office in the State; she again served as president in 1939. Appointed O.B.E. in 1949, she retired from the council in 1950.
Although Ross-Watt was a hard-working and supportive member of the Gisborne community, she was by no means uncritical of it. She delighted in debate and controversy, and challenged the patronizing and self-satisfied attitudes of the local male establishment. In an article in the Melbourne Herald on 19 March 1927 she had expressed her views on women entering public life: 'The mingled politeness and hostility with which my election and first appearance [on the council] were treated have given place to a liking and tolerance exactly the same as would be accorded to me if I were a man . . . I don't want to be treated as a woman, if that involves the hypocrisy that very often accompanies formal deference'.
Widely known for her feminist views, Ross-Watt was a woman of charm and vision who was admired for her energy and leadership. She died on 18 May 1956 at Cathlaw and was buried in Gisborne cemetery. Her daughter survived her.
N. R. G. Robertson, 'Ross-Watt, Blanche Muriel Eugénie (1861–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-watt-blanche-muriel-eugenie-11568/text20647, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002