Ferguson, John (1836–1906), publisher, home-ruler, and land reformer, was born 18 April 1836 in Belfast, the son of Leonard Ferguson (d. 1844?), who was in the provision trade there and whose family were tenant farmers in Co. Antrim and related to the United Irish martyr William Orr (qv). After Leonard Ferguson's early death his widow, Charlotte (née Ferris), moved with her son and daughter Margaret to Glenavy, Co. Antrim, where her father occupied large tracts of land on the shore of Lough Neagh. After schooling nearby at Crumlin the young John Ferguson was apprenticed to a stationer in Belfast. On some evenings he attended lectures provided by QCB and was much influenced by T. E. Cliffe Leslie (qv), an economist interested in agrarian reform. He devoted his Saturday evenings to improving himself by reading history and learning German and French. His father had been a Presbyterian, his mother was an episcopalian protestant. On Sundays he attended St John's, an episcopalian church, until he quarrelled with the minister, Charles Seaver (1820–1907), an evangelical and a conservative.
Aged 24, Ferguson left Ireland for Glasgow and eventually went into partnership with a publisher, Duncan Cameron. In Scotland he became a fervent Irish nationalist and cosmopolitan radical. When visiting Dublin he was persuaded by the publisher Henry Gill (qv) to bring out works of interest to Irish nationalists, which he began doing with The green flag of Ireland, a collection of popular songs. Many more such works followed with the imprint ‘Cameron & Ferguson, Glasgow’. Ferguson may be considered the founder of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, a body that gave rise to the Irish home-rule and land reform movements of the 1870s and 1880s. It was he who organised and presided over a well-attended public meeting in the Choral Hall, West Nile St., Glasgow, on 19 December 1871 which resulted in the formation of an Irish home-rule association, the first of many formed in British industrial towns in the 1870s and organised by Ferguson, John Barry (qv) and Martin Waters Kirwan into the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain. Kirwan (d. 1899) had commanded Irish volunteers fighting with the French in the Franco-Prussian war (1870–71).
When Joseph Gillis Biggar (qv) stood as a home-rule candidate at a Londonderry city by-election, Ferguson crossed over to Ireland to organise his campaign (August–November 1872). While there he joined the council of the Home Government Association of Isaac Butt (qv). Respected in Fenian circles (though not a member of the IRB) and always inclined gently to criticise Butt for his moderation, Ferguson was active behind the scenes and then in the public eye at the conference held at the Rotunda in Dublin to form a successor body, the Home Rule League (18–21 November 1873). From his base in Glasgow, from which he would often travel to Ulster on publishing business, Ferguson gave much moral and practical support to Butt and later to Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). He was present on Kingstown pier to welcome three released Fenian prisoners (13 January 1878) and at Irishtown, Co. Mayo, at the famous meeting of tenant farmers (20 April 1879). On the formation of the Irish National Land League (21 October 1879) he became a member of the first committee, joined the executive a few months later and chaired the Land League rally at the Rotunda (29 April 1880).
Ferguson was to the political left of his fellow Irishmen in Glasgow and was no less active in promoting land reform in the Scottish Highlands than in Ireland, which, because most highlanders were protestants, aroused suspicion among many Glasgow Irish. At the famous Mid Lanark by-election (1888) he worked tirelessly for the independent labour candidate James Keir Hardie to the disgust of most other Irish in Scotland, who favoured Hardie's Liberal opponent. After the split in the Irish home-rule party (1890), Ferguson was elected to Glasgow burgh council as a representative of the Fourth or Calton ward (1893) and later appointed magistrate (1896). At the parliamentary elections of 1905 he organised the Irish vote for Liberal and Labour candidates in Glasgow. A radical intellectual, admirer of Gladstone and Bright, devotee of J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer, and associate of Henry George, Ferguson was inclined to regard land reform as a panacea and at the time of his death was the leading advocate of taxation of land values. John Ferguson died 23 April 1906 at his home, Benburb House, Lenzie, and was buried in Old Aisle Cemetery, Kirkintilloch, a United Free Church minister officiating. Earlier in Glasgow he had been a communicant at an episcopalian church.
He married (1862) Mary Ochiltree, daughter of Matthew Ochiltree of Markethill, Co. Armagh, a well-educated woman who fully shared his enthusiasm for home rule and land reform. They lived at first in West Cumberland St., bordering the Gorbals and Tradeston. They had four children: John (b. 1865), William Bertram Ochiltree (d. 1867?), who became a physician at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Anna (b. 1869), who died unmarried, and Elizabeth, who died young.