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Robert Reid (Bob) Russell (1905–1993)

by Lyndon Megarrity

This article was published:

Robert Reid Russell (1905–1993), company director, grazier, and businessman, was born on 30 August 1905 in Edinburgh, second child of Scottish-born Robert Reid Russell senior, stockbroker, and his American-born wife Anita Dwyer, née Withers. Educated (1918–22) at Ampleforth College, Yorkshire, Bob was an apprentice shepherd in Scotland before migrating to Australia in 1923. The Russell family had a financial interest in the New Zealand and Australian Land Co. Ltd, for which Bob worked as a jackaroo and later as an overseer, gaining experience at pastoral stations in New South Wales. In 1929 he travelled to the United States of America and Scotland before returning to Australia.

Determined to try his luck as a grazier, Russell bought Carawa, a five thousand-acre (2024 ha) property near Chinchilla, Queensland, on which he grazed cattle and later sheep. Through a ballot he acquired a second property near Gayndah, which he improved and sold for a profit in 1932. Pursuing a passion for aeroplanes, he purchased a Cirrus II in 1937 and later a Gypsy Moth, and he helped to establish aero clubs at Chinchilla, Roma, and Surat.

Claiming to have been born in 1910, on 4 March 1940 Russell enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as an air cadet. He qualified as a pilot and, commissioned in August, served initially in training units. From December 1943 to October 1944 he flew with No. 36 Squadron, which operated from Townsville,  transporting troops and supplies to the front line. Russell was awarded the Air Force Cross for his courage, skill, and resourcefulness on these operations. Transferred to No. 12 Squadron in 1945, he flew Liberators on bombing missions against the Japanese. He was demobilised on 11 January 1946 as a temporary squadron leader. He served with the RAAF Reserve from May 1954 to September 1960.

Russell had married Elizabeth May (Betty) Bloxsome on 9 January 1942 at St Thomas’ Church of England, Toowong, Brisbane, and she subsequently accompanied him on many of his RAAF postings. While he was stationed at Townsville, they visited the Pioneer Estate near Ayr, in which the Russell family had a financial stake. Russell’s grandfather, Arthur Russell, had been a financial partner of Drysdale Brothers & Co., which had bought the Pioneer Estate near Ayr in 1883. In 1945 the general manager of Pioneer Sugar Mills Ltd, George Ashwell, asked Robert Russell to join the board of directors. Two years later the artist (Sir) Russell Drysdale also joined the board. As a director, Russell visited the company’s North Queensland properties twice a year, including the Pioneer Mill, near Brandon, and the Inkerman Mill, near Home Hill. He sold Carawa in 1947 and moved his growing family to Toowoomba, where he ran a real estate agency from 1948 to 1963.

In 1960, when Pioneer Sugar Mills became a public company, Russell was appointed chairman of directors. He moved to Brisbane in 1964, working in Pioneer’s Brisbane office and visiting the North Queensland properties once a month. The company sold its cane farms in 1967 and in 1974 purchased the Plane Creek Central Mill at Sarina, south of Mackay. By the time of Russell’s retirement in July 1978, Pioneer was producing more than 350,000 tonnes of raw sugar per year and employing between 1,100 and 1,200 people.

Russell worked to protect Pioneer from economic slumps by diversifying. In 1962 Pioneer acquired the family-owned United Chemicals Pty Ltd, renaming it Pioneer Chemicals and branching into paint production. Russell also formed a subsidiary company, Pioneer Stations Pty Ltd, which purchased grazing properties in the vicinity of Collinsville, Charters Towers, and Brandon, and bred Droughtmaster stud cattle. As managing director of Pioneer Stations, Russell enjoyed inspecting the properties, where he joined in the cattle work and took an interest in ‘everything from the cattle dip to the comfort of the stockmen’s quarters’ (Pioneer 1968, 13).

A man of medium height, compact and wiry, with dark, wavy hair and an air force moustache, Russell expressed his attitudes towards life and work in his ‘Chairman’s Message,’ for the staff magazine The Pioneer. Mindful of the company’s long history, and enormously proud of his family’s connection to it, he encouraged staff to identify with Pioneer, believing that ‘loyalty is the attribute that is respected above all’ (Pioneer 1973–74, 1). During a transitional period in Australian business, he balanced the need for modernisation with an appreciation of a company’s heritage and loyal workforce. The 1987 takeover of Pioneer by CSR Ltd was a disappointment to him.

In retirement Russell set up a manufacturing company that made solar hot water systems, but this was unsuccessful. He moved to Charters Towers in 1982 and then, in 1985, to the Sunshine Coast town of Buderim, where he helped form the North Coast branch of the Early Birds Association, for aviators who had flown before World War II. He was also involved with the Headland Croquet Club. Survived by his wife, three sons, and two daughters, he died on 23 August 1993 at Nambour Hospital, and was buried in Buderim cemetery.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, RUSSELL, R. R
  • North Queensland Register. ‘Key Sugar Identity in Q’land Dies.’ 9 September 1993, 25
  • Pioneer (Pioneer Sugar Mills). ‘Chairman’s Message,’ Summer 1973–74, 1
  • Pioneer (Pioneer Sugar Mills). ‘Change of Command in the Boardroom: A Pioneer Bows Out,’Summer 1978–79, 2–3
  • Pioneer (Pioneer Sugar Mills). ‘Group Head is Active Director,’ Summer 1968, 13
  • Russell, Ian Drysdale. Personal communication, 2 December 2013
  • Springer, Val. ‘Apprentice Shepherd Who Became Pioneer Leader.’ North Queensland Register, 15 July 1983, 23
  • Springer, Val. ‘He Promoted a Small North Q’land Industry into Powerful Asset.’ North Queensland Register, 22 July 1983, 23.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyndon Megarrity, 'Russell, Robert Reid (Bob) (1905–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 August, 1905
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


23 August, 1993 (aged 87)
Nambour, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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