Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland. 

The upbringing was in keeping with the background.  Eton College, where he patented his first rifle.  Trinity College, Cambridge, where he got a rowing blue.  (Also got married, despite his mother’s disapproval.  Ever aggressive, he decided that his mother had done a poor job managing his inheritance and sued her.  Impatient for results in this as in most things,  he stoppered the chimney to her rooms and smoked her out.)

He put this kind of Bertie Wooster stuff behind him by moving to Canada where get got involved with a series of business start ups – hydro-electric plant in British Columbia, a trolley company in Vancouver.  The sorts of things you can do when you have serious money.

Come the Boer War, he was in the army.  This being Africa, he brought along a hunting rifle of his own design (a rebuild is more like it, being cobbled together from bits and pieces from other manufacturers).  He had that interest in guns.

Canada was a largely forgotten participant in that war as well, yet for reasons best known to itself, Britain refused to sell or license the Lee-Enfield rifle to the colonies.   Once the shooting ended,  Canada looked into the matter, which presented an opportunity for the well connected and fleet of foot Ross.  He offered his services. With a contract from the Canadian army, he set about building an arms plant in Quebec in 1902.

The affair did not go well.  Between 1902 and 1916, there were three models, Mark I, II, and, just in time for the war, the Mark III   Basically it came down to the weapon being a fine target and even hunting rifle, but terrible under pressure.  It was delicate about dirt and rough handling.  In the trenches, it tended to jam, and worse, if improperly reassembled (which could happen in the heat of battle), it could send bolts backwards into the faces of the troops.

Pig-headedness kept the it with the army far longer than it deserved, and it was only when Sir Douglas Haig stepped in that the thing was withdrawn from combat usage.  The Canadian government paid off Ross to the tune of two million dollars and auctioned off the factory.

The Second Mrs. Ross

If his dealings with money were irregular, his dealings with women were even more so. His mother was the least of it.  His first wife left relatively peacefully in 1897.  His second marriage in 1901 was separate bedrooms by 1915.   In the twenties he tried for a Kentucky divorce on grounds of abandonment and when that didn’t pan out, a Mexican divorce.  Too late.  Mrs. Ross had gotten her decree in a more friendly (fifty fifty split) Scottish court.

The papers were full of it, and who can blame them?  Adultery on safari in Ngoro Ngoro, and with American socialite Emily Key Hoffman Dalziel (1876-1928),  the decidedly wild  mother of Diana Vreeland (1903-1989).  Naughty bits between the huntin’ and the shootin’ of lions and rhinos and elephants, both of which activities were lustily enjoyed by Ms Dalziel as well as by Ross.

Once back in civilization and served with a subpoena, Ms Dalziel successfully enjoined relatives to perjure themselves on her behalf. (Not that this affected the verdict much, but it did distress her elder daughter. Family is family, of course, but there are limits.)

Ross’ court fight was imaginative, to say the least.  One of his tactics was to declare all his holding, including the estate at Balagowen, part of an American corporation.  It had taken seven years for Mrs. Ross to get the judgement.  Eventually she had to settle for a $US 117,000 trust and $US 3,000 a month for life.

Charles Ross at Eton

He never returned to Scotland (well, not until he died), instead settling in Pass-A-Grille, Florida in 1929  and remained there for the remainder of his life, amazing the locals.

His last wife, previously his American secretary, eventually sold the old pile to Mohamed Al-Fayed who has done a bang up job in getting the place back up to snuff.

You can stay there if you have a mind to it.

3 thoughts on “Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

  1. Sir Charles was my great grandfather. He had a son named Cornelius. Cornelius served the British Army in WWI. He was the sole survivor of his unit after shelling and gassing by the Germans. He retreated, on foot, the entire breadth of France and was transported across the English Channel to recover in hospital. He fell in love with and married a nurse at the hospital named Easter. Sir Charles disowned Cornelius, considering Cornelius’ retreat an act of desertion and outraged over the fact that Easter was a Jew. Cornelius and Easter resided for awhile in Kent, England, where they had a son named Herbert (my father). The family emigrated to Canada and Cornelius changed his name from Ross to Wright, evidently in order to evade prosecution for shady business dealings. Cornelius, however, was in failing health and spent most of his adult life convalescing from war injuries. During the 1930s Herbert, at age 14, road the rails in the US as a hobo. In 1935, at age 16, he enlisted in the US Navy, served two years, and enrolled at the University of Washington achieving a bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering. In 1941 he again enlisted in the US Navy as an officer and became a naval aviator. After WWII ended Herbert again enrolled at the University of Washington to do doctoral studies in physics. He married my mother, Hannah, and soon I was born. After completing his dissertation he moved our family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he worked on the hydrogen bomb project along side of some very notable figures of twentieth century physics.
    The Ross clan has a strong tradition stretching back to the fourteenth century of being outlaws and stubborn, inveterate warriors, from pillaging Scottish Highlanders to innovators of monstrous technologies developed in secret government laboratories. I hold no pride in such a blood line.

  2. Thank you for this incredible story. I became interested in your great Grand father after discovering that one of my Dad’s old handgun was A Ross pistol prototype! It is stamped “GL” on one side of the barrel and “M” on the other. The prototype, called A-2 on a drawing taken from “The Ross Rifle Story” p.375, was probably build in the province of Quebec Canada around 1904.

    Would you have any information about this .45 caliber A-2 Ross pistol, more specifically: Any ideas on the meaning of those letters on the gun?

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