Grace Nixon was born in Whangarei on 6 July 1883, the daughter of Zillah Johnson and her husband, Adam Nixon, a fireman who later became a marine engineer. When Grace and her younger brother were infants, the Nixon family moved to Sydney for a time, before returning to settle in Auckland. There Grace began her lifelong passion for music, particularly for playing the piano.
When Grace married Harry Campbell Manchester Ross, a salesman, at Auckland on 10 January 1904, she assumed the name Grace Hilda Cuthberta Ross, and became known as Hilda throughout the rest of her life. Hilda and Harry moved first to Cambridge, and then settled in Hamilton, where Harry founded the furnishing firm of Barton and Ross. Four sons were born of the marriage, two of whom died in infancy.
Hilda taught music at a private girls’ academy in the 1920s, and later on a voluntary basis at the Waikato Diocesan School for Girls. Her interest in music led to her involvement as pianist and occasional conductor for the Hamilton Operatic Society, and she helped found the Hamilton Choral Society, which she also conducted. As a founding member of the musical troupe The Dandy Dozen she gave recitals and concerts to raise money for churches, welfare organisations and children’s health camps.
Hilda Ross’s other major life interest – the welfare of children, women, the needy and the disadvantaged – first manifested itself during the influenza epidemic of 1918, when she worked with the sick. For the next 40 years she was vitally involved in welfare work at local and national levels. She organised committees to dispense assistance to victims of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931, established relief committees during the 1930s depression, and was a serving sister and later commander in the St John Ambulance nursing division. In 1927 she established, with the bookseller William Paul, the Waikato Children’s Camp League; the following year, the league held its first holiday camp for children from impoverished backgrounds. Hilda Ross remained closely involved with the camp for the next quarter of a century, returning every summer to attend the camp, where she cooked the breakfasts for more than 200 children and organised nightly concerts. Her interest in children’s welfare also led to her becoming an honorary child welfare officer for Hamilton in the early 1930s, and in 1939 a justice of the peace, in which capacity she served in the children’s court. Intensely devoted to patriotic duties, during the Second World War she formed (and was commandant of) the Hamilton Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Corps, and was president of the Lady Galway Guild and the Hamilton Ladies’ Patriotic Committee.
Family matters occupied her at this time as well, and for several years a grandson lived with her following his mother’s death. With her husband’s death in 1940, Hilda Ross began a new career in local body and national politics. She was elected to the Waikato Hospital Board in 1941, and to the Hamilton Borough Council in 1944 – the first woman to hold a council seat. Her connection with the Greater Hamilton Society saw her become deputy mayor in 1945. She resigned that post later in the year when she was elected New Zealand National Party MP for Hamilton, a seat she held until her death.
Hilda Ross continued her involvement in welfare matters in her various parliamentary positions. As minister in charge of the welfare of women and children (1949–57), then minister in charge of child welfare (1954–57) and minister of social security (1957), her only cabinet post with a portfolio, Hilda Ross took a close personal interest in the problems of welfare recipients, particularly the elderly. Her office was frequently crowded with people seeking assistance, and as she was the only female minister at the time, many people believed that they would receive a more sympathetic hearing from her than from some of her male parliamentary colleagues. While prepared to arrange housing and welfare matters, and to offer tangible aid when necessary (including giving from her own pocket), Hilda Ross could also be blunt, and did not suffer fools gladly. Her belief in the importance of marriage and family led her to deliver stern lectures to spendthrift or neglectful husbands and fathers. Parents whose children were under the supervision of the Child Welfare Division could receive sharp letters rebuking them for their child-rearing practices or expectations that the state would provide for their families.
Her parliamentary duties furthered her interest in issues of importance to women. She represented New Zealand at the United Nations Status of Women Commission in Geneva in 1952, and supported the campaign for equal pay launched by female public servants; she also advocated compulsory domestic education courses for all girls and women, no matter what their career choice. She received, and accepted, invitations to speak at women’s conferences, greet débutantes, and open nurseries and kindergartens: ‘I suppose you could call me New Zealand’s kindergarten opener-in-chief’, she reflected once. For her services to social welfare the American Mothers’ Committee cited her as ‘Mother of New Zealand’ for 1951, and in 1956 she was made a DBE, only the third New Zealand woman to be so honoured.
Survived by two sons, Hilda Ross died in Hamilton on 6 March 1959 aged 75, a few months after fulfilling one of her last major political responsibilities: a tiring trip to the West Indies to represent New Zealand at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference.