James Alfred Ross and Hard Cash

John Low

James Alfred Ross was born at Bealiba in central Victoria on 17 December, 1868, the second son of Angus and Maria Ross. Angus Ross had migrated to Australia from Mid Clyth, a small coastal village in the northern Highland region of Scotland. He married James’ mother, Maria Theresa Roche, another new arrival, in Melbourne in 1863.

Not a lot is known about James A. Ross’s early life. By the early 1890s he was working as a printer, first on a newspaper in Albury and then at Wagga Wagga, and was active in the labour movement. In 1891 he assisted in the foundation of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union newspaper, the Hummer, with Walter Head and Arthur Rae. . When the Hummer became the Australian Worker, Ross moved with it to Sydney.

In 1894, with the Worker editor John Medway Day, Ross was instrumental in organising forums to consider the question of compulsory arbitration. After occupying the chair at meetings, first in the Protestant Hall and then in the Domain, he and Medway Day led a deputation to Premier George Reid to request that the Government take immediate steps to implement a system of compulsory arbitration.

It is clear that Ross’s feelings on this issue were very strong indeed. The Labor Party’s opposition to a penalty clause, considered by Ross to the “vital principle” of compulsory arbitration, and its replacement in the ensuing legislation with what he considered to be an unenforceable penal one, was a source of great disillusionment. Compulsory arbitration, he believed, “was strangled at its birth”.

When Ross left the Worker his journalistic career took him to a number of other newspapers. Among them were the Bulletin, the Stock & Station Journal (where he remained for 17 years) and The Land. He also became involved in business, being at one time a director of the Mount Ross Diamond and Tin Mining Company at Copetown in northern NSW.

James Alfred Ross was also a write or poems and plays. In 1896 William Brooks published his long poem “The Light of Life”. “The A wakening: A Tragedy in Three Acts” was published by the same company in 1915 and, the following year, John Sands brought out ‘The Midnight Sun: A Drama in Five Acts”. It is likely that “allegoria” a poem by James Alfred, published in 1897 by J.A. Ross, is also his.

Other than the first mentioned poem I have not sighted any of his literary work. According to an unidentified newspaper clipping among the family papers, Ross’s dramas deal with “the psychology of war, the forces of light and right in combat with the forces or darkness and night”. The poem “The Light of Life” is a religious allegory in which a seeker after Truth journeys to the mountains in his search. The “mountains” that are the source of inspiration for Ross (and his seeker) are none other than the Blue Mountains of NSW. The poem was dated “Katoomba. April 28, 1896” and a number of the region’s natural landmarks appear in the text, including “Katoomba’s living stream” (Katoomba Falls), “Point Sublime” and “The Lonely Mount” (Mount Solitary).

Ross’s obvious love of the Mountains seems to have led him there to live soon after World War I. In 1917 he married Margaret Matilda (Pearl) Holston (b.1889) and their first daughter was born in 1918. At this time Ross was living at Mosman. When the family moved to the Blue Mountains in the early 19208 they went to Lawson, where Ross soon became involved in town activities. He worked to improve the walking tracks in the area and he initiated a movement to establish a gold links in the town.

Ross and his family left Lawson around 1940 and moved to Parramatta. He died there on 9 January 1944.

James Alfred Ross’s memoir concerning Arthur Desmond and Hard Cash was kindly provided by his daughter, Mrs Aileen Downing of Maitland. She was also the source of most of the biographical information assembled above.

The Genesis of Hard Cash

With reference to the genesis of “Arbitration” and “The Minimum Rate of Wage”.

To one so apparently young as myself it does not seem possible that more than a quarter of a century has passed since I resigned my position, in Sydney, as manager of The Worker newspaper, with which I became associated with it, at Wagga, just prior to our removal from that place to Palmer Street, Woolloomooloo. This small beginning culminated, as far as I was concerned, in a real live Sydney daily newspaper in 1894, Hard Cash The Daily Worker, while in the interim I also printed and published and managed New Australia, The Woman’s Voice, and incidentally initiated and successfully conducted that mysterious little red flapper Hard Cash.

Hard Cash was not destructive, but creative in its objective. Nothing less than a complete collapse of existing, tottering financial institutions could provide a sure foundation for State enterprise in this direction on a big and permanent basis. Not only has this been successfully achieved by wise constructive legislation since then, but all the banks “hard hit” and other financial institutions involved in the general crash of 1893, possessing sufficient assets for reconstructive possibilities, are much better off to-day for passing through the close range, machine-like, fire of Hard Cash.

We were only emerging from the baleful effects of the 1889 land boom, the aftermath of the big 1890 strike was still with us, and there were whispers in certain quarters of possible big financial failures in the near future. Some of these rumours reached us at the “Hummer” office in Wagga, in plain simple language that indicated “authority” behind it, and some of the paragraphs of Arthur Desmond, the writer, were accepted and others were “not safe” for publication. One of his financial literary gems contained a long list of financial institutions destined to close their doors in the immediate future. Everyone of them closed their doors within seven months of my perusal of it.

Sometime after my arrival in Sydney, when the financial atmosphere was getting decidedly murky, Desmond called on me at “The Worker” office with “some copy”. The columns of “The Worker” had been closed to him. He was too dangerous a man to take any chances with in a struggling co-operative venture dependent on two or three branches of the ASU for its sustenance and I told him so, “but”, I said, “I am quite in sympathy with you and will provide a medium to deal with these matters entirely on its own”. Desmond was entirely without means and I had little more just than at my disposal than my salary of three pounds and ten shil1ings per week. But between us there was a powerful will and, naturally, the way was soon open. I managed to finance it.

I secured two rooms at a private house in Underwood Street Paddington. In the one, a little back upstairs room, I placed a couple of founts of type, and imposing stone and a demy folio Albion press. The other room I gave to Desmond, whom I joined there shortly afterwards and we lived together.

What Desmond did during the day I do not know. Where he got all his information from I cannot say. All I know is I made it as easy as possible for him to get it in completely relieving him of any personal or living expenses.

The date of the earliest issue of Hard Cash I have before me is May 22nd 1893; it also shows Vol 1, No 23. That No 23 is misleading. It was a suggestion of Desmond’s. It would have been either the first or second issue. There were only six fortnightly issues of Hard Cash published by me at Underwood Street Paddington. Its object having then been achieved I closed it down and had the plant removed and disposed of without delay.

The name of the printer and publisher A. Evans is my own second Christian and family name. James A. Ross – Evans. My stepfather’s name was E vans. So the little red live wire must have had a guardian angel of some power in its fearlessness to utter truth and to do it “within the law”, and for “the law” to seek it and not find it during the three months of its secret abode, which, on the face of it, was no secret at all, for if I remember correctly the first issue gives “Underwood Street” as well as Padding ton.

Hard Cash for those six issues was set up entirely by me as a practical printer during my spare time in the evening and early morning, the printing being done by Desmond and myself. Desmond did the rolling and I worked the press.

It was large … quarto size, cerise in colour, good surface paper, 4 pages. The number printed each issue was 200 copies, about 50 being sent to city and country papers in order to secure as wide a publicity as possible of its psycho-metric analysis of bank and other balance sheets and interesting paragraphs (a big feature of this multum in parvo miniature in red). The other 150 copies I gave to Desmond to do what he liked with them and keep the money on all sales. As there was always a good demand for Hard Cash, the price, I was told, was 6d per copy.

I did not treat myself to a single copy; kept no diary, which would have been a most valuable aid to me just now, writing all this, with the exception of the reference to No and date of an early issue, entirely from memory. In fact I have not seen a copy of Hard Cash since I closed it down in 1893.

Desmond kept me well informed of the kind of things said of Hard Cash by his particular “friends” in high financial circles, to wit, Sir George Dibbs, for instance, who, he said, “declared, today, from the steps of the Barrack Street Savings Bank, that this ‘red sheet’ had cost them three million pounds”. And then, he added, “they have every detective in Sydney out after us”. And I went on “setting”.

It was a nerve-racking, strenuous time for me. My duties as “Worker” manager in those days was a two man’s job and the overtime put in on Hard Cash on top of that was enough to break down a much stronger man. A frame, apparently weak, with a strong will behind it, is constitutionally fitter than that of a robust man and this was the force behind Hard Cash. At the time I was under 26 years of age; Desmond was a man of 40. While most of the writing was done by Desmond the heavy work and anxiety for its success was entirely on my shoulders.

In political opinions and social ideals we were quite out of touch with each other. He was a “direct actionist”; I was an avowed constitutionalist. I was a follower of Sir Henry Parkes; he was a true-blue Leninite. We had no time to argue even if we felt like it. At least I hadn’t, and he knew it. For that reason we got on well together and the honors are equal in keeping the flame of Hard Cash burning in the dark night of our short history of financial failure and of reconstruction.

Jas. A. Ross
Mosman, Sydney
December 6th, 1920.

P.S. In adding this postscript there is one man of all those who silently gave much to the cause of true democracy during the period I have referred to above, whose name should be honored by future generations, and that is Medway Day, the editor of The Worker. He and I had ideals in common, and we worked harmoniously together.

It was Medway Day who drafted the first compulsory arbitration resolution at my request, and also later on, when I told him I had to address a meeting of women in Sydney on co-operation and asked him for a suggestion, he at once told me to “advise them to secure a clause in the next Government clothing contract fixing a minimum rate to be paid by the successful tenderer, to all women employed on such work”. In this way Mr Day became the father of “the minimum rate of wage”, but though he drafted the resolution for me to submit to a public meeting – a big one by the way – which I organised and at which I took the chair, at the Protestant Hall, and a full report of which appeared in The Worker, I can safely say that I was the father of “compulsory” arbitration, or it would have been compulsory if the advice of the deputation from that meeting to the Premier (Me George Reid) in reference to the penalty clause had not been defeated by the opposition and the Labor Party when the bill came before Parliament.

Our advice was that the penalty for a breach of the Act be a fine on a per capita basis of the union involved, in the event of a strike, and a substantial fine for a “lock-out”. It was the vital principle of the bill. An amendment, as stated, made the clause a penal one and, in consequence, the Act inoperative and impracticable. The following day a prominent labor said to me at The Worker office “Well, we beat you over compulsory arbitration, last night”, and I knew it.