Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James George Russell (1848–1918)

by Robert Thornton

This article was published:

James George Russell (1848-1918), lawyer and public servant, was born on 28 March 1848 at Richmond, Surrey, England, eldest son of James Russell, undertaker's assistant, and his wife Ann, née Stacey. In 1860, possibly with an uncle, he came to South Australia where he attended Edward Planta Nesbit's school at Angaston until 1864. He worked in Victoria, returning to South Australia to begin his articles in 1868 with Henry Bloxam of Mount Gambier; he was admitted to the Bar in 1873. On 6 February 1875 he married Annie Paige France at St Paul's Anglican Church, Adelaide.

Russell entered a partnership with Rupert Ingleby (senior), Q.C., at Port Adelaide. In 1878 he became master of the Supreme Court where he prepared new rules of procedure, enabling 'a great saving of time and expense'. He was also registrar of companies, friendly societies, trade unions and the Vice-Admiralty Court, and acted briefly as registrar of probate; he assisted Chief Justice (Sir) Samuel Way to draft new admiralty court rules. While acknowledging his 'great administrative power', Way found Russell vain and egotistical.

In 1884 Russell left the Supreme Court to become commissioner of taxes, with responsibility for introducing a direct land and income tax system under new legislation. Russell skillfully managed the delicate task; his guidance was later sought by the Victorian and New South Wales governments and he represented South Australia at interstate conferences on taxation and bankruptcy laws. In 1886 Russell also became the first commissioner of stamps. He was promoted in 1889 to commissioner of insolvency and special stipendiary magistrate at the Adelaide Local Court—a position he held for the next thirty years—while still supervising his other offices, controlling stamps and taxes. From 1896 he was also president of the State Board of Conciliation and next year was acting judge of the Supreme Court during Way's absence. Of sombre, consciously gentlemanly demeanour, on the bench Russell brought his sharp analytical mind to bear on complex and protracted cases—like the celebrated Harrold Bros' insolvency of the mid-1890s in which he decided many new and intricate points of law.

Russell worked very long hours, often waiving leave and leisure to keep up with the volume of litigation. In the first two years of the new direct taxation system he handled over ten thousand appeals, carefully considering his judgments and explaining his findings in great, some thought didactic and prolix, detail. His impartiality—noted in 1902 in the 'judicial independence with which he encountered Kingston's animosity'—won him respect and confidence, while his highly strung temperament seems not to have impaired the soundness of his judgments, which were rarely upset on appeal.

Russell sat on several royal commissions, notably those on pastoral valuations (1892) and the Land Titles Office (1908); he headed the controversial 1903 inquiry into charges of misconduct by Dr William Ramsay Smith. He was sometime president of the Public Service Association of South Australia. In 1903 he was appointed I.S.O. An earnest Anglican, Russell had a fondness for music, gardening and bowls; his private life was held up as a moral model.

In August 1916 Russell fell ill in court and was unable to return to work; he died of cancer on 5 January 1918 at his Eastwood home, survived by his wife, four daughters and three sons, and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine History of South Australia (Syd, 1890)
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 26 Dec 1902, 15 Jan 1904
  • Honorary Magistrate, July 1913, Feb 1915
  • Public Service Review (South Australia), Jan 1918
  • Mail (Adelaide), 7 Sept 1912
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 Jan 1918
  • Russell papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • Way letter books, PRG 30 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Robert Thornton, 'Russell, James George (1848–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 March, 1848
Richmond, Surrey, England


5 January, 1918 (aged 69)
Eastwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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