Who Was Andrew Ross?

Andrew Ross was a key figure in the development of the European settlement of Kangaroo Ground. Among his achievements he was its first schoolteacher, lay preacher, inaugural postmaster, opened its first hotel, launched a successful newspaper and established a school which was so highly regarded its students numbered boarders from out of the area. His legacy is present today all around the area, from the cemetery which he helped to create to the local shire council which grew from the roads board he was instrumental in developing. Perhaps his most lasting achievement is the historical record he made of Kangaroo Ground and the area through the keen observations written in the diary he kept throughout his adult life.

Andrew Ross was born in Edinburgh in 1814 into a family with strong roots in Wigtownshire in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland. His immediate family however had a zest for travel and adventure with Andrew’s father and three uncles all venturing abroad through work with journeys taking them to countries including America and the West Indies. One uncle and a cousin became polar explorers. During a privately funded four year Canadian Arctic expedition from 1829-33 cousin James discovered the Magnetic North Pole and his exploration of the Antarctic region is commemorated with the Ross name being given to an island, sea and ice shelf, all part of the Ross Dependency.

No surprise then that Andrew Ross should also follow the urge to travel and seek his fortune overseas.

In 1836, at the age of 22, Andrew married Mary Ann Brimmer, and less than two years later, in early 1838, they boarded a ship and set sail for Australia. They arrived at Hobart in July and Sydney in September.

By this time Andrew had been keeping a diary for nine years and he would continue writing in his journal for the rest of his life, the final entry being on December 31 1885, just a few months before his death in August 1896.

Andrew’s first attempts at business failed, but in 1847 he finally secured a good position and regular income as teacher at the Scots School, run by the Presbyterian ministry in Melbourne.

The move to Kangaroo Ground came four years later when Andrew took up the role of first teacher at the planned Presbyterian school there. The initial building, made of timber slab and shingle and measuring just 9 x 5.5m also doubled as a church, where Andrew also acted as lay preacher when the minister was unavailable. The building would serve this purpose for the next 25 years and for the first of those years it was also home to Andrew and Mary, until the community built a small cottage for them alongside.
Andrew could see the benefits of the healthier environment and the possibility of expanding the new school with boarders. Within a few years he had a couple of staff, extra accommodation and 20 boarders. Seeing further potential he leased 20 acres of land for a school farm and in the process created what was probably Victoria’s first technical school and first agricultural college, the Evelyn Commercial, Agricultural and Industrial School. Later he leased 100 acres of better soil for the farm and at its peak the school had about 60 students.

Andrew remained involved with the school for the next 25 years, but it was far from his only business venture. He became Kangaroo Ground’s first postmaster, was appointed an electoral official for the county of Evelyn, deputy registrar of births and deaths and was, for many years, secretary of the board of trustees of the new Kangaroo Ground cemetery.

In 1853, just a few years after arriving in Kangaroo Ground, Andrew organised a petition in a bid to improve the state of the roads and bridges in the area through government funding and local subscriptions. This local concern was harnessed to create the Eltham Roads Board with Andrew as secretary. Later this became the Shire of Eltham council, now the Shire of Nillumbik.

Always with a keen eye for opportunity, in 1864 Andrew took advantage of gold rush traffic passing through by establishing Kangaroo Ground’s first hotel. This also served as its first general store and home to the local post office.

Throughout this time Andrew maintained his diary, making Kangaroo Ground the best documented district in the Yarra Valley.
In 1867 Andrew returned to Britain to visit family, leasing out the school farm and cottages. Mary remained behind in Kangaroo Ground. On his return in early 1869 Andrew found the hotel failing, the post office closed and the school abandoned by the person he had left in charge. He re-opened the post office and store, took up the reins again at the school and also worked as a Presbyterian lay preacher and church elder.

The final string to Andrew’s bow was added in 1873 when he launched a weekly newspaper, The Evelyn Observer, setting up a printing press in one of the cottages and appointing a highly paid editor/printer. The paper was read throughout the Yarra Valley and was produced in Kangaroo Ground for 44 years before moving to nearby Hurstbridge in 1817 re-branded as The Eltham and Whittlesea Advertiser.

Andrew and Mary returned to Britain in 1876 and she died eight years later after almost 50 years of marriage.
In the years that followed it seems Andrew’s thoughts strayed back to that small part of Victoria where he had worked and lived for so much of his adult life. In 1887, at the age of 73, he began writing his reminiscences of his years in Kangaroo Ground and over the next six years these were published in the Evelyn Observer.

Andrew Ross died in August 1896 at the age of 82 and is buried next to his wife at Highcliffe near Bournemouth in Dorset.
In 1986 the Ross diary was acquired by the State of Victoria and is housed in the state library La Trobe Manuscript Collection.
In 1993 more than 40 of the Andrew Ross reminiscences were collected, transcribed and published by the Andrew Ross museum as the Reminiscences of Andrew Ross.

Ironically, for someone who painted such a wonderful word picture of Kangaroo Ground – and further afield – for so many years, very little is known of the man himself. Andrew Ross put few personal details into his diary and there are no known photographs or paintings of him.

Credit: With thanks to Dick Austin for research material.

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