Ross, John (1834-1927), softgood importer and manufacturer, was born on 24 November 1834 at Gerston near Halkirk, Caithness, the son of John Ross, a tenant-miller, and Janet (nee Sutherland). After education at parish schools, John was apprenticed to a general merchant in Lybster, subsequently working for merchants in Thurso and the Golspie, where he became softgoods manager for the brothers William and Robert Begg, travelling to Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. Offered a partnership in the brothers’ recently established Dunedin business, Ross sailed for Otago in 1861 on the Volore with 3000 worth of goods. The partnership did not eventuate and he disposed of the goods profitably and joined Begg (Robert), Christie and Co, general drapers in Princes St. Within a year he had bought out the other partners and taken into partnership *Robert Glendining. Ross’s capital contribution was almost 2000 and Glendinings’s 1500. Their initial prosperity may have owed something to Ross’s heroism in rescuing survivors from The Pride of the Yarra, which sank in Otago Harbour on 4 July 1863.
In 1866 the retail side of the business was sold to three of their salesmen, becoming *Brown, Ewing and Co. The wholesale business was established in Stafford St, importing and distributing softgoods.
On 1 July 1870, John Ross married Margaret Watson Cassels, a tailor’s daughter who had emigrated with her family in 1857. They immediately left for London, where Ross opened a permanent office, remaining there until 1902 with frequent returns, leaving Glendining as the local managing partner. They had six children, – John (later Sir John) Sutherland, Thomas and Walter, and three daughters – Jessie, Mary and Zealandia. The sons all entered the family business.
In 1879, with the construction of the Roslyn Mills in the Kairkorai Valley, the firm began manufacturing hosiery, and then worsted and woollen goods. In 1877, the first of five sheep stations, Romarua, was taken up, followed by Lauder, Home Hill, Barewood and Blackstone Hill, to ensure a supply of merino wool. In 1900 the partnership became a limited liability company, Ross & Glendining Ltd, with a capital of 500,000, but remained essentially a family firm.
After Glendining died in 1917, the company reconstructed with a capital of 1,250,000. At the time of Sir John’s death in 1927, five years after he was knighted for his services to industry and the community, the firm employed over 1500 with branches in all the main centres and was one of the largest concerns in New Zealand. His estate was valued at 280,000.
Sir John and Lady Ross exemplified the notion that great wealth carries commensurate social responsibilities. The workers at the Roslyn Mills were paid union rates, they benefited from profit-sharing schemes, and a cafeteria was provided. Devout church people – John Ross read the Bible daily – the Rosses were notable benefactors of the Presbyterian Church, including gifts of well over 20,000 to Knox College, and 5,000 towards the home of the aged which now bears their name. The YMCA and YWCA also benefited substantially. John Ross served on the Councils of both Otago University and Knox College, and on the Otago High Schools’ Board. In his own home town of Halkirk he endowed the Ross Institute to support local education. His wife Margaret contributed similarly to the community, serving on the national committee of the Plunket Society 1907-34 (vice-president 1913-34). With Mrs R W Gibbs, she raised the greater proportion of the money to build St Margaret’s College. Sir John and Lady Ross are jointly celebrated by the Ross Fellowship at Knox College, which was endowed by members of their family for their 50th wedding anniversary in 1920.
S.R. Strachan: Southern People. A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography