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John Russell (1792–1878)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

John Russell (1792-1878), statesman, was born on 18 August 1792 in Mayfair, London, the third son of John, sixth Duke of Bedford, and his first wife, Georgiana Elizabeth, second daughter of the fourth Viscount Torrington. Educated at Westminster School (1803-04) and Edinburgh University (1809-12), he began in 1813 that Whig political career for which his family connexions prepared him. He sat in the Commons almost without a break until 1861, when he was created first Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, Dorsetshire.

Russell was more important as a British than an imperial statesman. He was in the forefront of the movement for the Reform Act of 1832. In Lord Melbourne's government (1835-41), he was the most powerful minister; and he was himself twice prime minister. He presided over the Colonial Office in 1839-41 and from February to July 1855.

The problems of Canada took up much of Russell's energies during his first term at the Colonial Office. The most important part of his Australian policy was the issue of an Order in Council, 1 May 1840, to stop convict transportation to New South Wales on 1 August that year. Russell had sat in the select committee on transportation (1837-38) and thought that New South Wales, with its large free population, should cease to be a penal station. His Order in Council was issued precipitately and caused resentment in the colony among those who wished for convict labour, and concern in England to those troubled by the difficulties of providing for the convicts elsewhere. Believing that there was no longer any need to fear the emancipists as a separate political force in New South Wales, Russell tried to liberalize its Constitution. In July 1840 he introduced a New South Wales bill designed to increase self-government by establishing a part-elective Legislative Council; the bill had no stipulations against emancipists, but it did provide for the separation of new colonies out of New South Wales. Russell abandoned it almost immediately because of his own doubts and the opposition that it raised.

Russell intended also new measures of settlement. In December 1839 he dismissed the incompetent South Australian Commission. A month later he approved the appointment of a new board, the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission, to exercise wider functions throughout the empire as a whole, particularly in Australia. When he consulted them about land sales policy they advised him that all crown lands in New South Wales outside the Nineteen Counties and the towns already established should be sold at a uniform fixed price. In a dispatch of 31 May 1840 Russell proposed to divide New South Wales into three districts: the Northern including Moreton Bay, the Middle, and the Southern including the Port Phillip area. Land in the Middle District was to be sold by auction at a minimum upset price, and in the Southern District at a uniform fixed price of £1 an acre, except in new towns. No immediate arrangements were made for the Northern District.

All Russell's measures for New South Wales aroused strong opposition. Governor Sir George Gipps thought the Constitution too liberal and preferred sales by auction to sales at a uniform fixed price. Powerful interests wished to retain convict labour. The Middle District did not wish the colony to be dismembered. In addition, South Australia was still in confusion; Van Diemen's Land was running down economically and, partly because transportation to New South Wales had ceased, was suffering from too many convicts. Russell resolved on retreat. In August 1841 he cancelled his instructions for the division of New South Wales and the alienation of crown lands. In addition to ending transportation to New South Wales and appointing the land and emigration commission Russell made a significant contribution in two other matters: he was responsible for the appointment of Captain George Grey as governor of South Australia, and in 1840 he had disallowed an Act of the Legislative Council of Western Australia that permitted the evidence of Aboriginals to be accepted without oath in criminal cases and provided that summary corporal punishment might be inflicted on people of this race.

During Russell's first prime ministership (1846-52) imperial policy underwent great changes which he did little to promote and less to initiate. The third Earl Grey, who held the Colonial Office during those years, settled the government's policy on all important matters of empire, including the Australian Constitutions, land and immigration policy, and convict transportation. Russell objected privately to Grey's obstinate attempts to force convicts on the colonies, was lukewarm about his Federation proposals and thought Grey too active in policy-making. In none of these matters was his influence decisive.

In 1855 Russell was at the Colonial Office when some of the Australian Constitution bills were sent home. He decided to return the South Australian bill, which had been pushed through the Legislative Council of that colony to the annoyance of public opinion. By amending the New South Wales Constitution he defeated the attempts of that colony's conservatives to entrench their political position and persuaded parliament to pass an Act authorizing the Queen to assent to the New South Wales bill as amended. Because the Tasmanian bill was unexceptionable Russell at once obtained an Order in Council to put it into force, as allowed by the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850. To complete the bargains made with the Australian colonies by Sir John Pakington and the Duke of Newcastle, while they were secretaries of state for war and the colonies, parliament in 1855 passed 18 & 19 Vic. c. 56, which gave the colonies control of their own land policies.

Russell declined in 1855 to act on suggestions from New South Wales, Victoria and the General Association for the Australian Colonies, a private body in London, that the new Constitutions should be crowned with a federal assembly. Britain, he declared, would not federate the Australian colonies except at their official request.

Russell died at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park, Surrey, on 28 May 1878. He often doubted whether self-governing colonies would remain in the empire, but, so far as Australia was concerned, he nearly always supported the liberal side.

The National Gallery, London, has portraits by G. F. Watts and Sir Francis Grant, and a marble bust by John Francis.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Russell, Recollections and Suggestions, 1813-1873 (Lond, 1875)
  • R. C. Mills, The Colonization of Australia 1829-42 (Lond, 1915)
  • W. P. Morrell, British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell (Oxford, 1930)
  • J. M. Ward, Earl Grey and the Australian Colonies, 1846-1857 (Melb, 1958).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Russell, John (1792–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 June 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]

Alternative Names
  • first Earl Russell
  • Russell, first Earl
  • Russell, Lord John

18 August, 1792
London, Middlesex, England


28 May, 1878 (aged 85)
Richmond, Surrey, England

Cultural Heritage

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