FERGUSON, John (1842-1913)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Papers of John Ferguson CMG, Assistant Editor, later Proprietor and Editor of the Ceylon Observer 1861-1913, and member of the Legislative Council for Ceylon 1903-1908; also some of his uncle Alastair Mackenzie Ferguson CMG, Assistant Editor, later Proprietor and Editor of the Ceylon Observer 1846-1893; including correspondence and papers relating to the Ceylon Observer , the Handbook and Directory of Ceylon , and the Tropical Agriculturalist , 1874-1911; correspondence, papers and press cutting relating to railways in Ceylon, 1867-1912; papers on coffee, tea, coconut and other planting trades in Ceylon, c1858-1895; correspondence and papers relating to the governors and governance of Ceylon, including correspondence with Sir (Joseph) West Ridgeway, 1898-1913 and Sir Henry McCallum, 1908-1913, correspondence, press cuttings and papers on the Ceylon Legislative Council and other political matters, 1895-1912; papers on the award of the CMG, 1899-1910; papers on religious matters relating to Ceylon, including letters on missionary work, the Salvation Army, and on Buddist temporalities; papers on John Ferguson's visits and lecture tours , 1878-1910; personal and family papers, 1895-1913; correspondence and papers of Alastair Mackenzie (AM) Ferguson, 1850-1893; correspondence and papers on the Royal Asiatic Society, 1859-1912.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Ferguson was born in Tain, Easter Ross in 1842. He was educated at Tain Royal Academy, then trained as a journalist in Inverness and London before going to Ceylon om 1861 to take up a position as Assistant Editor of the Columbo Observer , under his uncle, the proprietor and Editor, Alastair Mackenzie (AM) Ferguson. He was to remain with the paper (renamed the Ceylon Observer ) in 1867) for nearly 50 years, initially assisting his uncle, but gradually taking a more senior role, and becoming the proprietor and editor on his uncle's death in 1892. Ferguson developed an active role in the political, commercial and cultural affairs of Ceylon. He took a particular interest in the development and expansion of the railway system, and became closely involved in the tea, coffee, coconut and other planting trades for which he compiled and published statistics in his annually issued Handbook and Directory of Ceylon . His interest in these trades also led to his founding and publishing the Tropical Agriculturalist , a journal covering planting in all tropical regions, which began in 1881 and continued under his control until 1904, when responsibility for it was assumed by the Agricultural Society. Ferguson was very active in the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church (as was his uncle), and lectured on many of his interests. He travelled overseas from Ceylon on several occasions, visiting Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, North America and Britain. In 1903 Ferguson was awarded the CMG, and in the same year was appointed as a member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon. In this role he continued to support his interests, such as extension of the railway system and supporting trade. He resigned in 1908, and in 1912 returned to Britain for the last time, and he died there in 1913. He was married twice: firstly in 1871 to Charlotte Haddon (died 1903), by whom he had two sons and two daughters; secondly in 1905 to Ella Smith, who survived him. Alastair Mackenzie (AM) Ferguson, the uncle of John, was born in Wester Ross in 1816. He came to Ceylon in 1837 as one of the staff of JA Stewart Mackenzie, the newly appointed Governor. After holding various posts, he became assistant editor on the Ceylon Observer in 1846, under the then owner, Dr Elliott. In 1859 Dr Elliott sold the newspaper to Ferguson, who was himself joined by his nephew as assistant editor in 1861. From 1879 he took a lesser role in the production of the newspaper, but continued to contribute material, while in 1880-1 he was the Ceylon Commissioner to the Melboune Exhibition. He was awarded the CMG shortly after this event. He made return visits to Britain in the 1860s and 1870s but not thereafter for health reasons; however he continued to make visits abroad to India and Australia. He became a highly respected figure in Ceylon, and like his nephew was very supportive of the planting trades and railway development. He died in 1892.


The papers are arranged in series containing files on particular topics relating to John Ferguson's work and interests. The files, with some exceptions (such as series of printed works which were loose among the papers) are those in which the documents were found to be arranged on receipt at ICS. It is not known when this arrangement was created. The material is somewhat fragmentary, being only a small part of what must have been a much larger body of correspondence and papers, and this is borne out by lists of Ferguson's papers in some of the files, which include many items not to be found among the present papers. These lists were possibly compiled shortly after Ferguson's death when a memoir appears to have been considered. There are several files which contain material on several topics and which have been described as general correspondence and papers; and in turn the documents contained in files on specified topics do not always relate exclusively to that subject. No attempt has been made to separate material relating to AM Ferguson: firstly because of the relatively small quantity of this material, and secondly becauseof the difficulty in positively identifying some papers as those of one of the two men, their work and interests being so similar. However, there is one original file of papers relating to AM Ferguson.

Conditions Governing Access

Open although advance notice should be given.

Acquisition Information

Donated to ICS by Professor Sir Cyril Henry Philips, formerly Professor of Oriental History at SOAS, in 1990.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued to item level (see link to repository catalogue).

Archivist's Note

Compiled 2000, revised by Alan Kucia as part of the RSLP AIM25 project, Sep 2001.

Conditions Governing Use

Most items may be photocopied, at the discretion of the ICS Library staff. Copies are supplied solely for research or private study. Requests to publish, or quote from, original material should be submitted to the Information Resources Manager.

Geographical Names