Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Russell, Delia Constance (1870–1938)

by Judith Biddington

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Delia Constance Russell (1870-1938), community worker, was born on 5 April 1870 at Emerald Hill, Victoria, eldest of four children of James Donaldson Law, an accountant born in British Guiana, and his wife Alice Annie, née Meeson, from England. When her father was promoted to general manager of the Bank of Victoria in 1889, the itinerant life of a bank officer's daughter gave way to a settled existence at Camberwell, Melbourne, and an education at Grace Park Ladies' College. Delia trained as a pianist with Alberto Zelman, was interested in various music societies, and began a long association with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. On 7 October 1893 at St John's Church of England, Camberwell, she married Percy Joseph Russell, a solicitor who became mayor of Hawthorn that year.

Delia Russell's social activities, motoring, and six overseas visits were made possible by wealth, servants, and boarding school for her only child, a son born in 1904. But she also demonstrated formidable organizing capacities. In her second term as mayoress (1904-05) she arranged many financially successful social events. She was a founder of the Talbot Epileptic Colony, Clayton, and a member of its executive for twenty-five years.

As a fiercely patriotic mayoress of Hawthorn again in 1915-17, Mrs Percy Russell established the St Kilda Road Red Cross Kitchen. From a small group with a budget of £10 a week working from the town hall to provide dainties for wounded soldiers in two hospitals grew a mass volunteer catering enterprise located in a purpose-built Department of Defence facility providing more than 6000 evening meals a month to eighteen hospitals, and special meals three days a week to four others. For this work she was appointed O.B.E. in 1920. She continued her association with the Australian Red Cross Society after the war, becoming a member of the State council and convenor of the Junior Red Cross in Victoria. An executive-member of the National Council of Women, she was also active in the English Speaking Union.

In 1929 Russell was appointed a justice of the peace and a special magistrate of the Children's Court, and assumed an executive position with the Playgrounds Association. Her voluntary work with the (Royal) Women's Hospital, Melbourne, begun in 1919 (president 1933-34), expanded as she served on numerous committees dealing with matters as diverse as selecting royal wedding presents and raising funds to the training and discipline of nurses and major building works. She urged the appointment of an almoner for the hospital and became vice-president of the Victorian Institute of Almoners.

Russell gained notoriety from her connexion with the Housewives' Association of Victoria. In March 1929 she was elected president; she argued that it was of no use talking about the poor or the want of employment unless 'we get down to practical matters and try to make it possible for them to live better on a smaller wage'. Initially very successful, she ran foul of the executive, which next year publicly repudiated her over her support for temperance by education rather than prohibition, the ownership of the journal the Housewife, and constitutional issues. The ensuing acrimonious power struggle was played out in the press and split the organization. As the 'beloved leader' of the breakaway Victorian Housewives' Association she was vindicated in court and retained a loyal following in all her varied activities.

In 1930 Table Talk described Delia Russell as 'tall, slim and graceful' with 'big, animated eyes'. While she advocated that women should move from 'a chattel to man's equal', her activities reinforced gender and class differences. Never robust, she died of liver cirrhosis on 16 February 1938 at her home, Cliveden Mansions, East Melbourne, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. Her husband and son survived her. The family holds a portrait of her by George Coates.

Select Bibliography

  • Who’s Who in the World of Women (Melb, 1930 and 1934 edns)
  • Justice of the Peace, 7 Feb 1921, p 7
  • Hawthorn, Kew and Camberwell Citizen, 25 Aug 1916, 1 Sept 1916
  • Table Talk, 20 Feb 1930, p 13
  • Housewife, 1, no 1, Sept 1929, p 3, and no 2, Oct 1929, p 2
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1938, p 2
  • R. Oldfield, The Early Years of the Housewives Association of Victoria 1915-1930 (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1989)
  • J. Biddington, From a Chattel to Man’s Equal? (manuscript, 2002, Boroondara Library, Melbourne)
  • VPRS 932/P/0000, unit 414, no 7700 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Housewives Association of Victoria, minute books (State Library of Victoria)
  • Royal Women’s Hospital archives, Melbourne
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Judith Biddington, 'Russell, Delia Constance (1870–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/russell-delia-constance-13179/text23857, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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