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Lord John Russell

PERTH NAMES. Russell of Russell-square. By Cygnet.

RUSSELL of Russell-square was that Lord John Russell who was Secretary for the Colonies, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and twice Prime Minister of England during the first half of last century. He was violently hated by King William the Fourth but beloved by Queen Victoria, and for more than 50 years exercised an extraordinary and commanding influence on English and world affairs. Yet he was the Tom Thumb of world politics, a fragile insignificant dwarf of a man whose head just showed above the Treasury Benches in the House of Commons, and he spoke in a thin, squeaky voice with an exaggerated Oxford accent, or what is commonly known as such. He has a close connection with Australian affairs for it was he who declared Victoria a separate colony and gave New South Wales responsible and representative government; but he has an even closer connection with Western Australia, for it was while he was in office, and Western Australia a sort of No Man's Land, that he was approached by an agent of the French Government with the query as to just how much of the Australian Continent the British claimed. The answer was short but expressive. It was . . . All!

Lord John Russell was born in 1792, the third son of the sixth Duke of Bedford. He was a premature child and as such delicate in the extreme from birth and condemned to a long life of ill-health and invalidism. His small stature and fragile frame were deceptive, however, though they made him the butt and the delight of caricaturIsts who never tired of picturing him as a small boy, or even a little girl, struggling with a giant load, such as a perambulator labelled "Reform Bill"; or as Hop o' My Thumb, or Red Riding Hood, or a little lamb among wolves. But delicate and fragile and invalid as he was he lived an astonishingly busy and hard-working life of 86 years, dying as the first Earl Russel in 1878. He was a member of the House of Commons two years before Napoleon's fall. When he entered public life no Jew in England could own property, no Roman Catholic could hold office or enter Parliament, no Protestant Dissenter could call his soul his own except by virtue of a special Act of Parliament which had to be formally passed each year. It was Lord John Russell who was mainly responsible for brushing all these religious distinctions away, although he himself had no religious feelings except "anti" feelIngs against every form of worship. And as well, although he was a member of one of the wealthiest families in England, the son of a duke, he it was who was responsible for breaking up the monopoly of power and wealth and public office which the peers and the rich had hitherto exercised and who made the working men and women of England realise that they were really and truly human beings and not chattels without rights and privileges.

LORD John Russell moved the Reform Bill three times before it was finally passed. On the first occasion it recelved short shrift but the mere moving of it at once raised him into the position of a public idol and his subsequent movements about the country were followed by enthusiastic mobs. King William the Fourth's likes and dislikes were usually beyond the understanding of any sensible person but in the case of Lord John Russell and his urge for reform the king's dislike can be understood. But not the length to which it went. For, when Lord John's name was mentioned to him by Lord Melbourne as the person to lead the House of Commons, King William at once dismissed the Government from office and invited Sir Robert Peel to form a cabinet. But Peel was abroad in Italy on holiday! That, however, did not disconcert the Sailor King in the least. He merely sent for the Duke of Wellington and invested him with Office as Prime Minister and Secretary for War, the Colonies, the Home Office, Foreign Affairs, and every other cabinet office until such time as Sir Robert Peel should not only return but prove that he could form a government! And for three weeks the nation was intrigued by the spectacle of the Duke of Wellington galloping round from department to department signing documents, now as this and now as that, and doing it all so well that not only did the nation not die on the spot nor the sun stand still, but things were along as normally as though twenty cabinet ministers were burning the midnight oil as they formulated policies to bring about the millennium. But Peel's cabinet did not last and the King had the mortification of seeing Melbourne back in power again and with Lord John Russell as a colleague.

IN 1846 Lord John became Prime Minister. They were stirring times. The Irish question was at its height. The Pope had appointed Catholic bishops in England for the first time since the Reformation, and religious feeling was blazing throughout the land so that Parliament was forced to pass an Act forbidding these bishops to officiate although the act was a dead letter from the beginning and was never enforced. Lord John Russell was blunt in his opinions and did not mince words. He called the practices of the Catholic Church "the mummeries of superstition"; he described the high churchmen of the Church of England "unworthy sons of the Church." And all the time he was engaged in fighting Lord Palmerston within the cabinet. Palmerston was the Foreign Secretary, and almost every day Lord John was receiving tearful requests, demands, and commands from Queen Victoria to dismiss Palmerston from office because of his rudeness to her and to the foreign nations. He ignored the Queen in everything he did and the first she would hear of most important decisions was when she would read them in the papers. But Palmerston laughed at her, and at the Prime Minister, too, until one day he went too far and Lord John summarily dismissed him from office. Palmerston's revenge was dramatic. In a few months he moved a resolution which defeated the Government and Lord John was forced to resign.

References and Links

Cygnet [Cyril Bryan], 'Russell of Russell-square', West Australian 10 December 1938: 4.

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