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Locals saw Sir Charles as brilliant, but 'a stinker'

The eccentric Scot - inventor, landowner international fugitive - made a splash in the '20s.

Published November 26, 2003

ST. PETE BEACH - In 1925, the arrival of Sir Charles Ross' yacht lured a sea of residents to the Eighth Avenue dock.

"(They) wanted to get a look at that British aristocrat," former Postmaster Blanche Merry said later. "We'd expected someone all dressed up to kill, but there was Sir Charles in his pajamas and slippers."

Sir Charles had been an officer and adviser to the Crown. He invented the Ross rifle, was a fugitive from Scotland and reportedly was the largest landowner in the British Empire. Once here, Sir Charles fished, exhibited his eccentricity and conducted mysterious experiments.

"He was very smart," said Jane Triolo, 86, a former St. Pete Beach resident. "Brilliant. But he could be a yucky man. A stinker from way back."

On April 4, 1872, Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross was born in Scotland. He became the Baron of Balnagown at age 11 and was educated at Eton and Trinity College in Cambridge.

Sir Charles eventually became Britain's largest landowner, possessing an estimated 366,000 acres with 3,000 tenants. When he was 21, Sir Charles settled a financial dispute with his mother, Frank T. Hurley Jr. wrote, "by stopping up the chimney to her bedroom and smoking her out of the castle."

In the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, Sir Charles was a major. From 1915 to 1916, he advised England's war secretary. During World War I, Sir Charles conferred with President Woodrow Wilson and worked with Gen. John T. Thompson on the Thompson machine gun.

Among Sir Charles' inventions were harvesting machines, jacketed bullets and the steel treating process. "The capstone of Sir Charles' inventive career was his Ross rifle, basic infantry arm of the Canadian army during World War I," Hurley said.

In the 1920s, Sir Charles traveled to Tanganyika to stalk rhino and lion. "Once he acquired proprietary interest (there) ... he took measures to reduce hunting," wrote Brian Herne in White Hunters: the Golden Age of African Safaris.

After abdominal surgery in 1925, Sir Charles arrived in Pass-a-Grille wearing slippers and pajamas - his common attire. "Without batting an eye, he strode down the ramp and marched up the road to the closest hotel with all the townspeople and half a dozen dogs following," Blanche Merry said.

One morning, Sir Charles assaulted a boy for not taking him fishing. The boy's mother bashed "Sir Charles on the head with her frying pan," Hurley wrote. "When they couldn't revive him ... they dragged him across Gulf Way and dumped him on the beach.'

From 1930 to 1935, Sir Charles engaged Kenneth Merry - Blanche's husband - to conduct marine propeller-speed experiments. "The boat was named Tim," said Shirley Lynch, 77, Merry's daughter. "A torpedolike thing. Didn't look like any other boat."

To enhance research, Sir Charles relocated his staff of 16 from Washington, D.C., to the bayside end of 17th Avenue. When the U.S. Navy refused to buy Sir Charles' propeller patents, the experiments ceased.

The Evening Independent's Paul Davis wrote that Sir Charles divorced Lady Patricia Ross, his second wife, after she refused to live anywhere in North America.

After being charged with tax evasion in Scotland, fugitive Sir Charles entered his homeland secretly at night. He drained two fortunes, Hurley wrote, yet often said he was cash-shy.

"He owed my brother money and didn't want to pay it," Triolo said.

Sir Charles leased a home and owned another on Pass-a-Grille Way. He loved to race his tan Chrysler Imperial over streets at 80 mph.

"I was afraid of him," Lynch said. "He always kept his hand in his pants (like Napoleon). I ran away and hid when he visited."

Ailing from diabetes, pneumonia and a heart condition on June 29, 1942, a bedridden Sir Charles barked his final words to nurse Marie Shepherd: "Get the hell out of here!"

With his third wife Lady Dorothy nearby, Sir Charles died that afternoon at St. Anthony's Hospital. He was 70.

British and American newspapers reported his death; it was front-page news locally. In 1945, Sir Charles' ashes were released from the summit of Ben More Assynt in the Scottish Highlands.

- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at

[Last modified November 26, 2003, 01:34:18]

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