Birthday: August 18, 1792
Died At Age: 85
Sun Sign: Leo
Also Known As: John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, The Earl Russell
Born Country: England
Born in: Mayfair, Middlesex, England
Famous as: Prime Minister of Great Britain
Spouse/Ex-: Adelaide Lister (m. 1835), Frances Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound (m. 1841)
father: John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford
mother: Georgiana Byng
children: George Gilbert William Russell, John Russell - Viscount Amberley, Lady Agatha Russell, Lady Georgiana Adelaide Russell, Lady Victoria Russell, Rollo Russell
Died on: May 28, 1878
place of death: Richmond Park, Surrey, England
education: Westminster School, University of Edinburgh
Who was Lord John Russell?
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, KG, GCMG, PC, FRS, alternatively Lord John Russell prior to 1861, was a British statesman who became the Prime Minister of Great Britain twice. A foremost Whig and Liberal politician, his first prime-ministerial tenure lasted from 1846 to 1852. He served his second tenure between 1865 and 1866. Both times, he served under Queen Victoria. Originally from the historic county of Middlesex (present-day Greater London), Russell belonged to the highest echelons of the British aristocracy. He received his education at Westminster and Edinburgh University. He was elected to the House of Commons from several districts in the early years of his political career. Between 1835 and 1839, he served as the home secretary. In the ensuing years, he also performed the duties of the secretary of state for war and the colonies, foreign secretary, and the leader of the opposition. A vociferous statesman on various issues, Russell advocated for the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1845, condemned the return of Catholic bishoprics in 1850, backed Italian nationalism, and maintained British neutrality during the American Civil War. On the other hand, under his leadership, the British government was unable to handle the Irish Famine, during which a quarter of Ireland's population either perished or immigrated.
Childhood & Early Life
Born small and premature on August 18, 1792, in Mayfair, Middlesex, England, John Russell was the third son of John Russell, later 6th Duke of Bedford, and Georgiana Byng.
His family had been involved in Whig politics since the 17th century and were one of the most affluent aristocratic landowners in Britain. However, being a younger son of the 6th Duke of Bedford, he was not his father’s heir. While he did carry the courtesy title, Lord John Russell, he was not part of the peerage on his own.
He was taken out of Westminster School due to poor health and was subsequently taught by private tutors. Between 1809 and 1812, he studied at the University of Edinburgh but did not receive a degree.
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Career & Later Life
In 1813, John Russell gained entry to the House of Commons as a Whig through his father’s actions, after the duke of Bedford ordered the 30 or so electors of Tavistock to send him back as an MP, despite the fact that Russell was neither an adult nor in Britain at the time.
In 1819, he began advocating for parliamentary reforms and served as a leader of the more reformist wing of the Whigs throughout the 1820s. In 1830, the Whig candidate Earl Grey became the prime minister, and Russell was appointed as paymaster of the forces and was promoted to the cabinet not long after.
He was one of the prolific politicians advocating for the Reform Act 1832. In 1834, the leader of the Commons, Lord Althorp, became a member of the peerage as Earl Spencer, and Russell was subsequently made the leader of the Whigs in the Commons.
This selection led to the dissolution of Lord Melbourne's government by King William IV. However, Russell was able to hold on to his position for the remainder of the decade, until the Whigs were removed from power in 1841.
During his tenure as the leader of the Whigs in the Commons, Russell advocated for religious freedom. He served as the home secretary between April 1835 and August 1839 and was instrumental in the democratisation of the cities of the United Kingdom besides London.
He was appointed the secretary of state for war and the colonies in August 1839 and served in that position until August 1841. As the leader of the opposition, Russell declared his support for the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1845.
In December 1845, he was requested by Queen Victoria to set up a government, but could not at the time as Lord Grey had declined to work with Lord Palmerston as foreign secretary. When Russell did become the PM in June 1846, Grey did not dispute Palmerston’s designation.
First Tenure as Prime Minister
John Russell’s first time as the PM showed that while he was still as passionate as he ever about progressive ideas, his capacity to execute had now severely decreased. He was successful in introducing the 10-hour day in factory labour in 1847 and setting up a national board of public health in 1848.
However, primarily due to party disunity and weak leadership, he could not put a stop to the civil disabilities of the Jews and expand the suffrage to the workers in the cities.
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The mass starvation, disease, and deaths in Ireland, known as the Irish Famine or the Great Famine, occurred between 1845 and 1849. The proximate cause of it turned out to be a potato blight. During these five years, about one million people perished and another million left Ireland, resulting in a 20-25% decrease in the Irish population.
The famine began during the tenure of Russell’s predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, but it became a catastrophe while Russell was in the office. His measures proved to be both ineffective and inadequate against the famine.
Second Term as PM & Later Years
After Palmerston passed away in 1865, John Russell became the PM for the second time in October that year. This time, he was in the office only until June 1866. His second premiership was not only brief but also exasperating.
He was unsuccessful in extending the franchise, an endeavour that would be completed by his Conservative successors, Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli.
He was the leader of the opposition for the second time between June 1866 and December 1868. His last significant activity in the House of Lords was on August 3, 1875.
Family & Personal Life
John Russell married twice in his life. His first wife was Adelaide Lister, widow of Thomas Lister, 2nd Baron Ribblesdale. They exchanged wedding vows on April 11, 1835. The couple had two daughters together, Lady Georgiana Adelaide Russell (1836-1922) and Lady Victoria Russell (1838-1880), before Adelaide died on November 1, 1838.
On July 20, 1841, Russell wedded Lady Frances Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, daughter of Gilbert Elliot, 2nd Earl of Minto. They resided at Pembroke Lodge, Richmond Park and were parents of four children, John Russell, Viscount Amberley (1842-1876), Hon. George Gilbert William Russell (1848-1933), Hon. Francis Albert Rollo Russell (1849-1914), and Lady Mary Agatha Russell (1853-1933).
Death & Legacy
John Russell passed away on May 28, 1878, at the age of 85. He is interred at the 'Bedford Chapel' at St. Michael's Church, Chenies.
It is believed that his tenure as the prime minister between 1846 and 1852 caused the ruination of the Whig Party. It never established a government again. His second tenure almost destroyed the Liberal Party as well.
Because of Russell’s advocacy for the Reform Act 1832 and ardently calling it a final measure, he received the nickname, “Finality Jack”.