Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Thomas Russell (1823–1876)

by Sydney H. Smith

This article was published:

Francis Thomas Cusack Russell (1823-1876), Church of England clergyman, was the only son of Rev. Thomas Russell, rector of Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland. Both his parents died when Russell was only an infant and he was brought up by his uncle, Sir William Smith, chief baron of the county. In 1841 he was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, intending to study medicine but he changed to law (B.A., 1846).

With his close friend, Peter Teulon Beamish, Russell offered himself to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for service in New South Wales and soon after their arrival in the colony they were both made deacons by Bishop William Grant Broughton in September 1847. Russell was appointed to St Mark's, Alexandria (Darling Point), whilst Beamish was stationed at Singleton. Within six months the staunch Protestant feelings of these two young Irishmen led them openly to criticize Tractarian teaching at St James's Theological College and Russell wrote a strongly worded protest to Broughton, virtually accusing the bishop of laxity in doctrinal standards after the secession of Revs Robert Sconce and Thomas Makinson to Rome. Sympathy for Beamish, whom he believed to have been badly treated on another issue by Broughton, possibly made Russell more outspoken than he might otherwise have been, but the result of this criticism was that both the friends were suspended for three months and were refused ordination to the priesthood. In spite of protests from Russell's parishioners and a number of prominent citizens including members of the Legislative Council, Broughton remained adamant and the two deacons offered their services to Bishop Charles Perry in Melbourne. At first Perry refused to take them without the sanction of the bishop of Sydney, but in 1850, believing that the necessary permission had been given, he sent Russell to itinerate along the Wannon River; Beamish was stationed at Warrnambool, where he later became archdeacon.

For the next twenty-five years Russell worked ably and faithfully in this pastoral area, earning a name as the 'Apostle of the Western District'. His parish included Heywood, Digby, Henty, Sandford, Casterton, Hamilton (the Grange), Harrow, Balmoral and Coleraine. Having no vicarage at first, he visited each district in turn, travelling continually and sleeping at station homesteads, often holding services under the trees by the roadside. Russell bought land at Hamilton at his own expense which was later repaid by his sympathetic parishioners, and eventually a parsonage was erected on the Tahara estate, between Coleraine and Merino, through the generosity of Samuel Pratt Winter who, in spite of his agnosticism, was a warm friend and admirer of Russell.

Energetic and purposeful, Russell was responsible for the first churches at Casterton, Merino, Henty, Digby, Branxholme and Hamilton. At the same time he found time to read for his Doctorate of Laws and his cultivated mind, combined with a sympathetic understanding of people, attracted him to a much wider circle than his own parishioners.

In 1866 Bishop Perry ordained him priest. More than once Russell declined preferment, being content to remain at his vicarage on the Wannon. In 1875 he was granted leave and his parishioners subscribed a total of £1500 for a trip to England, but his health had been broken by the strenuous years of pioneering and he died on 7 February 1876 in the Hampshire whilst returning to Victoria.

His portrait hangs in the dining-room at Murndal, the station of the Winter family, whose friendship he enjoyed throughout his ministry.

Select Bibliography

  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • R. Border, Church and State in Australia 1788-1872 (Lond, 1962)
  • J. Barrett, That Better Country (Melb, 1966)
  • K. J. Cable, ‘Religious Controversies in New South Wales in the Mid Nineteenth Century’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), 49 (1963)
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 13 Apr 1876
  • S. Smith, An Apostle of Western Victoria (Mollison Library, St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne)
  • Turnbull papers (Geelong Historical Society).

Citation details

Sydney H. Smith, 'Russell, Francis Thomas (1823–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




7 February, 1876 (aged ~ 53)
at sea

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.