Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Ross (1833–1920)

by Suzanne G. Mellor

This article was published:

John Ross (1833-1920), co-operative and radical, was born on 25 April 1833 at Kingussie, Inverness-shire, Scotland, eldest son of John Ross, farmer, and his wife Christina, née McPherson. His strict Calvinist upbringing caused him in his youth the 'greatest mental agony'. His brother James (1837-1892) became an eminent physician in England. Ross arrived in Victoria in 1862 and in 1866 set up in Melbourne as a wine merchant selling colonial wine.

In the late 1860s Ross associated with Melbourne's leading radicals. An early member of the Eclectic Association he was its vice-president in 1871-72 and president the next year. He was president of the Sunday Free Discussion Society in 1872. A member of the Unitarian Church, in the late 1860s he became interested in the harmonial philosophy of spiritualism, in 1875 he was president of the Melbourne Spiritualist and Freethought Association and in 1880 president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists.

In 1872 Ross became the first president of the radical Democratic Association of Victoria and in July at one of its public meetings spoke on free trade and protection in relation to labour. He first became acquainted with the principles of co-operation when friends in the Democratic Association introduced him to G. J. Holyoake's writings. He chaired public meetings promoting the co-operative movement and when the Victorian Co-operative Association was set up he became its first president in June. A co-operative store initiated by him operated in 1872-74.

In August 1873 Ross may have taken up farming in the Warrandyte district but about 1876 he joined the Singer Sewing Machine Co., probably through his friend T. W. Stanford. He was also interested in land reform and in 1873 corresponded with J. S. Mill. His debate with A. Sutherland on the unearned value of land was published in the Melbourne Review in 1885. In 1887 he founded the Economic Permanent Building Society. A well-known advocate of currency reform, he gave evidence in July 1895 to the royal commission on state banking, and a copy of his articles to the Age on 17, 18 and 19 June, reprinted as The Currency Question and the Demands for a State Bank, was used as an appendix to the report. Another article to the Age on 23 March 1901 was reprinted in pamphlet form as Federal and State Banks and Currency Reform. Ross remained a proponent of co-operation and his article on its benefits to the working classes in the January 1881 issue of the Melbourne Review won editorial favour in the Australasian. He became adviser and later director of the Civil Service Co-operative Society, remained active in its affairs from 1903 to 1913 and wrote for its newspaper, the Federal Co-operative News. In 1906 he was a director of a proposed Labor daily, Progress. That year he published in Melbourne From competition to co-operation; or, socialism in the making. He maintained an interest in the language and literature of the Scottish Highlands and in 1900 was president of the United Council for Women's Suffrage.

Ross died at his home in Beaconsfield Road, Auburn, on 1 February 1920 and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. He had married first Isabella Kennedy and second Ann Stevenson, who survived him together with a daughter of the first marriage and two sons and three daughters of the second.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Mayer, Marx, Engels and Australia (Syd, 1964)
  • Harbinger of Light, Nov 1875, Dec 1904, Mar 1920
  • Federal Co-operative News, 27 June 1905
  • D. H. McKay, History of Co-Operation in South Eastern Australia, 1860-1940 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1946).

Citation details

Suzanne G. Mellor, 'Ross, John (1833–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 April, 1833
Kingussie, Inverness-shire, Scotland


1 February, 1920 (aged 86)
Auburn, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.