Earl Russell [Obituary]

Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1878, Vol X, pp. 58-62.


W. Harpley

Prepared by Michael Steer

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, KG, GCMG, PC, FRS (18 August 1792 – 28 May 1878), known by his courtesy title Lord John Russell before 1861, was a leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1846–1852, and 1865–1866. It is an open question whether Lord John Russell should be considered the last of the Whigs or the first of the Liberals. He has an equal claim to both distinctions. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Earl Russell came of a house historically famous and pre-eminently among the "ruling families." Antiquarian tradition carries the ancestry of the Russele, or Rozell, family back to Olaf, King of Rerik, who lived in the sixth century, and who, like his successors, was so remarkable for his shrewdness that he was called the "Sharp-eyed." A more trustworthy record states that one "John Russell" paid fifty marks to King John for "license to marry a great man's daughter." It was in the time of Henry VII. that the house established itself so firmly, that civil wars and revolutions have but seemed to give it additional strength.

John, Earl Russell, the subject of the present notice, was the third son of the sixth Duke of Bedford, by the Hon. Georgiana Elizabeth, the second daughter of the fourth Viscount Torrington. Lord John was born in London on the 18th August, 1792. He may be said to have been destined to politics as a profession from infancy, and all his training was directed to that end. His after-life bore testimony to the judiciousness of the course pursued. After spending some time at a private school at Sunbury, and having completed his boyish studies at Westminster, he was sent to Edinburgh, and placed under the special care of Professor Dugald Stewart, then the fashionable tutor for the young Whigs of distinction, and so many of whose pupils afterwards attained eminence. In 1809 he started on a foreign tour; and as the whole Continent was then a sealed land to Englishmen, except so much of it as the British army was able to keep for them, it was natural that he should direct his steps to Spain and Portugal, and he landed at Lisbon, which Wellington had lately rescued from the grasp of the invaders. In 1813 he returned to England; and in July of the same year, while still wanting a month to be of age, he was returned for the family borough of Tavistock. Having early gained a seat in the House, he early made himself heard in it, and in the following session he made his first recorded speech, against the treaty which rewarded Bernadotte's defection and punished the vacillation of Denmark by uniting the crowns of Norway and Sweden.

To enumerate all the great questions with which the name of Lord Russell is associated is to epitomize our domestic politics for a period of fifty years; and to trace the various steps by which, through alternating victories and reverses, he achieved his fame in the field of politics would carry us far beyond the limits of a notice such as is suitable to these pages. Suffice it to record but the barest summary of his chief works. In 1819 he introduced his first Reform Bill. In 1868 he made his last important contribution to public affairs, in the shape of a pamphlet on the Church of Ireland. During this long interval his mind was actively engaged on a wide range of ecclesiastical questions, embracing the Test and Corporation Acts, the Jewish Disabilities, the Secularisation of Irish Church Property, the establishment of a Romish Hierarchy in England, the Commutation of Tithes, and the abolition of Church Rates. In politics he was connected first and foremost with Parliamentary Reform, having proposed in his lifetime no less than eight Reform Bills of his own, and having led the attack which proved fatal to the Conservative Reform Bill in 1859. Of the Municipal Corporations Act, a measure more pregnant with consequences than even the Reform Bill, he took charge in the House of Commons, and when the House of Lords showed a disposition to carry their resistance to extremes, it was Lord John Russell who arranged the necessary compromise. Among social questions he took a deep interest in education, and was long regarded as the leader of the unsectarian party in all schemes of educational reform. To his exertions in 1839 the appointment of the Committee of Privy Council is due; and the Marriage Bill of 1836 was the work of the same hand. Few men, indeed, have ever been the centre of so many great interests, or have led the van of battle in so many momentous controversies.

Entering upon office more than a generation ago, he occupied more important posts than any other minister of his day. Since the time when he entered official life as Paymaster of the Forces in 1830, he held three Secretaryships of State, having ruled at the Home Office, governed our colonies, and administered our foreign relations. He was twice President of the Council, Plenipotentiary Extraordinary, and twice Prime Minister. He sat for Tavistock from 1813 to 1832; he then was elected one of the representatives of South Devon, and retained his seat for that constituency till 1835, when, being rejected, he migrated to Stroud, and represented that borough until 1840; after this he represented the city of London until he was raised to to the peerage in 1861.

Through the greater portion of his life, Lord John Russell had only a younger brother's portion. A large portion of his manhood, no doubt, was spent in office, and in the enjoyments of the emoluments of office; but he has himself put it on record, in his evidence given before a committee on salaries, that he never got into debt except when he was in office. His lather, it is believed, left him a legacy of £1,000 a year. The late Lady Holland, as a testimony of her esteem for one who had been her and her husband's most trusted friend, left him, for his own life, the rents accruing from her extensive and valuable ground-rents in Brixton. The Queen, as a mark of her royal favour, gave him during his Premiership, and for the term of his natural life, the use of Pembroke Lodge, in Richmond Park, as a country house. This accumulation of gifts, no doubt, rendered him easy in his circumstances, but could hardly be reckoned sufficient groundwork on which to support a peerage and found a new family in the aristocracy. But in the course of 1861 his elder brother, the Duke of Bedford, died. Between the brothers there had always existed a strong bond of mutual affection. The Duke supported Lord John with all his influence, and Lord John took no step of importance at any time without first consulting the Duke. The next heir, the late Duke, was the only child of his father; he was not married, and not likely to marry. The heir next in succession was a nephew, the son of a brother older than Lord John, who had died several years before. To him the title, and the estates that gave solidity and support to the title, would of right descend. But there was a handsome Irish estate that might be conveniently subtracted from the rest without in any way impoverishing the dukedom; so the Amberley estates were handed over at once, and Lord John became an extensive landowner in his own right. The obstacle that stood in the way of his accepting a peerage was now removed; he was created Earl Russell and Viscount Amberley, and took his seat in the House of Peers.

To the visit of Lord Russell to Spain, which was mentioned above, we may perhaps attribute his lordship's choice of a Spanish subject for one of his early efforts in literature - his tragedy of Don Carlos - a work of no great merit, and one which he himself was soon willing should be forgotten. He wrote some other volumes, and edited more, but he would hardly take rank as an author. Among his literary efforts may be mentioned his life of his ancestor, Lord Russell; his Historical Disquisition on the British Constitution; and his Memoirs of Europe from the Peace of Utrecht. He edited a collection of letters from the archives of his own family, a Life and Diary of Moore, and a Life of Fox; and in the autumn of 1874 he published, under the name of Recollections and Suggestions, a running commentary on his own career. In 1866 he presided at the meeting of the Devonshire Association at Tavistock, and delivered an interesting address to a large and appreciative audience.

The last years of his life were saddened by a grief beyond healing - the premature loss of his eldest son. But for this calamity it might be said that the career of Earl Russell was sunned by fortune to its ending; its shadows were light and passing; its steady and sober radiance was suited to the tastes and traditions of the English people, for whom its forces were spent, and through whom they did their work. At the age of eighty-six, after having enjoyed such a share of power and consideration as rarely falls to the lot of man, and after long service having openly abandoned the militant toils of the arena, Earl Russell passed peacefully away, at Pembroke Lodge, at eleven o'clock on the night of Tuesday, the 28th of May, 1878.

Lord Russell was twice married. By his first wife, widow of Lord Ribblesdale, he had two daughters, one of whom married Mr. Archibald Peel, and the other the Hon. and Rev. H. Montagu Villiers. By his second marriage, with Lady Frances Elliot, daughter of the second Earl of Minto, he had three sons and a daughter. His eldest son, the late Viscount Amberley, married the daughter of the second Lord Stanley of Alderley. Their son, John Francis Stanley, now Earl Russell, is thirteen years of age.

A wish was expressed by the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Cabinet, that the remains of the late Earl should be interred in Westminster Abbey, and that the funeral should partake of a public character befitting the eminent services he had rendered to the State; but in consequence of instructions the Earl had given previous to his decease, this was not acceded to, and the remains were privately consigned to the family vault at Chenies, Hertfordshire.