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John Russell

1792 – 1878

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell KG GCMG PC (1792 –1878) was Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1839 to 1841 and served twice as Prime Minister of Great Britain, in 1846-1852 and 1865-1866. Born prematurely into an old Whig family, he was too fragile to attend an English public school, spending two years at Westminster School before proceeding to the University of Edinburgh, where he was imbued with Scottish philosophy. Thus a lifelong liberal, who championed religious freedom, total free trade and the limitation of corporal punishment, he was to be the last Whig prime minister. In 1831 he made his name with the presentation of a reform bill to the House of Commons that resulted in the Representation of the People Act 1832, substantially increasing the number (of men) eligible to vote. In 1837-1838 he sat on the parliamentary select committee on transportation chaired by William Molesworth. At the beginning of 1840, in charge of the colonies, Lord Russell 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. However, Russell is best-remembered in Australia as the man who, in May 1840, following an issue of an Order-in-Council, ordered the cessation of transportation to New South Wales. The last convict ship to arrive in the colony under the old system came in late 1840, although because of the resulting shortage of convict labour here, and the renewed problem of what to do with criminals in Britain, there were various attempts to prolong or resume transportation until 1850. Russell was responsible for the appointment of George Grey as governor of South Australia, and in 1840 he disallowed an Act of the Legislative Council of Western Australia providing that summary corporal punishment might be inflicted on Indigenous people. In Britain, his last great legacies were the Factory Act of 1847, setting a limit to factory working hours, and the Public Health Act of 1848, improving sanitation. He was elevated to the peerage in 1861. Charles Dickens was a friend of Russell’s from the 1830s, and dedicated A Tale of Two Cities to him. The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was his grandson.

Updated 2018