Picturing Bessie Ross
by David F Radcliffe
After we bought our Victorian era place on Esplanade East in 2017, I wondered when it was built and who had lived here previously. This led to the discovery that the allotment on which our house now stands was purchased by Elizabeth Ross and Simon Patience at a Crown Land auction in December 1883. Who were they and what was the context? Were they related? I was particularly interested in a woman purchasing property in that era. Historical records for women in the 19thcentury are scant especially if they did not marry and have children. The search for Elizabeth Ross had many twists and turns, complicated by her being referred to as Elspet in early census records but being known as Bessie later in life. Gradually I built up a picture of Elizabeth Ross as an independent, single woman from humble beginnings who make her own way in the world with the support of her siblings.
She was born in the tiny fishing village of Avoch on the Black Isle in Ross and Cromarty on the edge of the highlands of Scotland around 1838. Her father, Simon Ross, was a fisher and her mother, Margaret Patience, had six children, three of whom came to Australia. Elizabeth Ross arrived in Adelaide in 1862 on the Castle Eden as a domestic servant, an occupation she had been in for some years prior. Her younger sister, Sarah, who also came to Australia as a domestic servant, married George Linklater, a shipwright from Aberdeen, in the manse of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1865. Soon after, George established a slipway at Echuca/Moama on the Murray where he constructed at least twelve paddle steamers. Elizabeth and Sarah’s younger brother, Donald, also a shipwright, emigrated in the early 1870s and worked with George helping to build some of these vessels.
Tracing the movements of Elizabeth Ross after she arrived in Australia proved very difficult. She came to Victoria around 1867 and it seems she lived in Echuca with the Linklater family. Evidence for this is that Elizabeth Ross made provisions in her Will to support her namesake niece, Sarah’s daughter, Elizabeth Murray Linklater, who was born in Moama in 1870. The Will refers to Elizabeth Linklater as ‘Bessie’, the same familial name accorded to Elizabeth Ross, suggesting she was quite close to her sister and niece. When her brother Donald married in Emerald Hill in 1878, Elizabeth Ross was a witness. That year, Donald purchased a couple of properties in Cruikshank Street, Port Melbourne and for a time operated a grocery shop from one of them. It is believed Elizabeth lived there with Donald and his growing family. By August 1883, they were joined by their nephew Simon Patience. Four months later Elizabeth and Simon purchased the land on Esplanade East.
Then in August 1884, Elizabeth bought several blocks of Crown Land in her own right in Osborne Street, Williamstown near the recreational reserve that later became the Williamstown Botanic Gardens. Donald Ross moved to Footscray in 1885 and from that time until her death, Elizabeth Ross is listed as the owner of the properties in Cruikshank Street. She now lived in Richmond, rented the properties and worked as a dressmaker, an occupation that provided a source of income for many unmarried women and widows in those days. In 1892, Elizabeth Ross moved into a house recently erected on one of her allotments in Williamstown. A few years later she moved to her brother Donald’s place in Footscray and he bought the Williamstown properties from her. By then she owned land in Laverton and held shares in the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company.
I told the story of Elizabeth Ross in my book Changing Fortunes but was disappointed that I had never unearthed a picture of her. Enter Gordon Bird, the great grandson of George Linklater, builder of paddle steamers on the Murray. Out of the blue, Gordon contacted me in November 2022, after discovering an article I published in Provenance on Donald Ross, Simon Patience and their business partner, Peter Fraser. A retired graphic artist, Gordon was creating a Christmas card that featured the Gellibrand Pile Light, the piles of which were constructed by Ross, Fraser and Patience in 1906. Over the next week or two we exchanged emails, sharing what we each knew about the Linklater and Ross families. Then Gordon sent photographs of George and Sarah (nee Ross) Linklater and one of a woman he thought was their daughter Elizabeth. However, upon further examination it turned out to be Elizabeth (Bessie) Ross. It was wonderful to finally ‘see’ Bessie.
This portrait of Bessie Ross was taken in the 1880s, the decade when she purchased property in Port Melbourne and Williamstown. Its existence in the collection of family items George Linklater junior, son of the boat builder, kept and passed down to his grandson provided more evidence of the closeness of the sisters, Sarah and Elizabeth Ross. Sadly, the pair ended their days under vastly different circumstances.
Bessie Ross passed away in 1902 surrounded by family. The pall bearers at her funeral included Donald Ross, her nephew Simon Patience, George Linklater, junior, and Alexander McDonald, long time councillor and briefly MLA for Footscray. Her death certificate describes Elizabeth Ross as a “gentlewoman”, that is a woman of independent means. In contrast, Sarah passed away in the Sunbury Asylum aged 84 in 1925. Her death certificate is devoid of any detail about her background and life. Sarah had suffered very early onset dementia and was admitted to the asylum in 1879 when she was just 29. While members of Sarah’s family visited her over the years, she did not know who they were.
By serendipity, an article about the contractors who built the Gellibrand Pile Light and a modern Christmas card featuring its fiery end led to the discovery of a very special photo which would otherwise have remained in a private family archive. When you publish a story about the past, you never know where it might take you in the future.
I wish to thank Gordon Bird for generously sharing information about the Linklater family. Gordon grew up in Williamstown. His grandfather, George Linklater, junior, lived in the house directly behind Gordon’s and left a lasting impression on him about life on the paddle steamers in the Murray basin during the 1880s. The State Library of Victoria has a booklet on George Linklater’s reminiscences of those frenetic times. Gordon has created detailed models of the paddle steamers built by George Linklater, senior, and used these to illustrate a booklet on the history of each. In 2017, Gordon published a pictorial history of old Williamstown entitled Pubs, Schools, Churches and Williamstown: the end of the line.