RUSSELL, Lord William (1767-1840).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1 Jan. 1789 - 1807
1807 - 18 Mar. 1819
1826 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 20 Aug. 1767, 3rd and posth. s. of Francis Russell, mq. of Tavistock† (d.1767), and Lady Elizabeth Van Keppel, da. of William Anne, 2nd earl of Albemarle; bro. of Lord John Russell I†. educ. Loughborough House, Lambeth Wick;1 Westminster 1778; Christ Church, Oxf. 1784. m. 11 July 1789, Lady Charlotte Anne Villiers, da. of George Bussy Villiers†, 4th earl of Jersey, 4s. (3 d.v.p.) 2da. d. 6 May 1840.

Offices Held

Ld. of admiralty Feb. 1806-Apr. 1807.

Capt. commdt. Streatham vols. 1803-4.


Russell, whose worsening eccentricities did not conceal from those who knew him well a generous spirit and a genuine interest in politics, continued the aimless and peripatetic mode of life which he had increasingly adopted after suffering the blows of his wife’s early death in 1808 and the onset of seemingly intractable financial problems. In 1820 he was in Switzerland, where on an outing to Chamonay he ‘amused’ Lady Hardy and Miss FitzClarence

by jumping and hopping about like the boys who were with us and when he took off his coat and capered about in his waistcoat holding his staff to jump over the crevasses and pieces of rock, I am afraid that Mary FitzClarence and I laughed most uncivilly but it was impossible to help it.

He outdid himself on a visit to Lady Hardy, one of the mature women with whom he liked to flirt, at Lausanne in September 1822:

He was very absent always and had a trick of opening his mouth and putting his watch into it, as he walked up and down the room ... he told me he had lost his watch and was inclined to suspect his servant of having stolen it, but as this man was a most respectable one, and I was sure he had left it somewhere, I tried to dissuade him from these suspicions and said, of course in joke, ‘Ah! you swallowed it in one of your absent fits.’ He stopped short in his walk and said, ‘Do you really think so? It is possible’ - which most certainly it was not, as it had a gold chain and seal attached to it which could never have got down his throat even if his huge watch had, by impossibility. I made inquiries through my maid as to where his servant thought he had been and it seemed he had taken several warm baths at a questionable establishment in ... Lausanne, where it was not advisable for ladies to go and probably it had disappeared then and there.2

He had been in Florence the previous spring.3 In January 1823 the wife of his favourite nephew and kindred spirit, Lord George William Russell*, reported that he was in Rome, flirting with Lady Westmorland, ‘who sometimes sits up from 9 till 5 in the morning with him tête a tête, and at others tells him he is "like a bad nut, I crack you and find nothing in you."’4 The following month he went ‘en Pierrot’ to a fashionable ball, and he participated in amateur theatricals at Florence later in the year.5 In 1823-4 he again wintered in Rome, where he made fine art purchases for his elder brother the 6th duke of Bedford, the head of the family.6 He migrated in the spring to Florence, whence he wrote to Lord Holland on politics, 19 Apr. 1824:

The cause of liberty is not at this moment rampant on the continent ... it has for some time been making retrograde movements, and those rapid ones. Still I am ... sanguine in belief that there is good working almost everywhere, to be brought to perfection sooner or later according to the understanding and common feeling that may be induced among persons who from talents or more adventitious circumstances, with right intentions, may be influentially placed in different parts ... I really think all looks well in England: public spirit improving, both in itself, and in its authoritative effect, and Canning well disposed to go with it and (if he finds it strong enough to keep him on his legs) to assist its right course. The case of Ireland is certainly one of tremendous difficulty, but there are some symptoms of attempting a better course towards her; and judging by the temper of the debates, I think we may be satisfied this will be the last year of the aliens bill.7

Lady Hardy found him ‘as odd and absent as ever’ at Lausanne in July 1825.8

At the general election the following year Russell was returned, rather surprisingly, by his brother for his former seat at Tavistock. In late October he was in Rome, whence he wrote to his nephew Lord John Russell*, urging him not to neglect his parliamentary duties for continental travel, as he seemed inclined to do:

One is always apt to think the present the most critical of all times, but I am very sure that good men were never more wanted than now. We are to struggle for life or death in the new Parliament ... There are not wanting numbers indisposed to the ministry as it is now constituted, but there is wanting a right tone to the opposition - the House of Commons is what it always has been, and has been justly described like a pack of hounds, ready to follow the huntsman’s call, and we have no one to lay them on the right scent. The opposition as it stands is a body of most discordant materials ... it is at least worth an effort to bring them together and draw them to one point. I hold it of first-rate importance that not a moment should be unnecessarily lost in announcing your reform bill - I mean the great plan - I don’t meddle with the revolution ... The zeal of a convert is always strong, and I am impatient to show myself in the colours of my new faith.

After seeing his daughter Gertude, who had been forced into continental exile in 1825 with her sexually deviant husband Henry Grey Bennet*, he made his way to England in the new year.9 He later wrote that he had ‘flattered myself with a delusive hope, that I might effect arrangements that would enable me to keep my place in the House of Commons’; but, after an initial burst of activity, he became a virtual cypher, largely as a result of ill health.10 He divided for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827. He voted for inquiry into the allegations of electoral corruption against Leicester corporation, 15 Mar., for further information on the Orange procession at Lisburn, 29 Mar., to postpone the committee of supply until the ministerial uncertainty was resolved, 30 Mar., and for inquiry into the Irish miscellaneous estimates, 5 Apr. He voted for the spring guns bill, 23 Mar. To the distress of Bedford, who thought he had been ‘talked over by Brougham and old Tierney’, he generally approved of Canning’s ministry.11 (It is ironical that Canning described him privately as ‘an acknowledged driveller’ in politics.)12 In the House, however, he took an idiosyncratic line. He was in the minority of 37 for the establishment of a separate bankruptcy jurisdiction, 22 May. That day he criticized the Coventry magistracy bill as ‘hardly strong enough’. He voted in largely Tory minorities against it, 11, 18 June, when, claiming to be ‘wholly unconnected with either party’, he condemned it as introducing ‘a principle highly dangerous to a free constitution, namely, that of non-responsibility in public offices’. He was in Lord John Russell’s majority for the disfranchisement of Penryn for electoral corruption, 28 May. He presented a petition from Tavistock Unitarians for repeal of the Test Acts, 30 May.13 He opposed Hume’s motion for repeal of the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act, 31 May, admitting that to do so ‘gave a seeming contradiction to that which had been the tenor of his whole life, the support of public liberty in its most extended sense’, but singling out the measure as the only one of the Six Acts to which he was ‘friendly’.14 He failed in his attempt to have Forbes ruled out of order for introducing the question of the ballot into a debate on Preston elections, 14 June 1827.15

Bedford was deeply unhappy that Russell was ‘induced to go as a mourner to the funeral of that political rogue and mountebank, Mr. Canning’, and he received complaints from other Whigs over the incident.16 The duke was implacably opposed to the Goderich ministry and Whig participation in it; and his son Lord Tavistock* had the impression in mid-September that Russell was ‘less disposed than he was to support and give confidence’.17 However, Russell wrote to Holland from Paris, 2 Oct. 1827:

I never felt a clearer conviction of anything in my life than that it is imperiously the business of those who hold Whig doctrines at heart ... to give to the ministry as it now stands an active, though undoubtedly a conditional and guarded support ... I by no means imply that I think it satisfactorily constituted. God knows, far from it. There is abundance of unfitness in many parts of it. Many are out of it, one would wish in, and some in, one would wish out. No one can regret more cordially than I do, that Lord Grey was not a party to the first arrangement ... I am sure that as far as can depend on you, or indeed any who have ever acted with him, nothing will be wanted to keep up an opening for co-operation with him, should circumstances come about favourably for it ... some accession on the right side is indispensable to the character and stability of administration. You ought to be in an efficient office ... I am sure it is required and anxiously looked for, both at home and abroad, and at home not merely by those who have generally acted with and followed you and your friends, but by all the moderate men of any party ... any little exertions in my power to make, will always be at your command. I will be in my place without fail on the first day of the session. Unhappily for me, my nerves disqualify me from expressing myself in public, but if I fail, it is not for want of attentive and I will say dispassionate consideration, and I must do my best.

In January 1828, when he sent Holland ‘a little book of poetry from Louis Bonaparte, with every sort of cordial assurance from him to you’, he admitted that while he had ‘certainly expected some upset’, he had not reckoned on ‘so complete a bouleversement’ as had brought the duke of Wellington to power.18 He presented petitions for repeal of the Test Acts, 18, 22 Feb., and voted for that measure, as proposed by his nephew, 26 Feb. He made a procedural point regarding membership of committees on private bills, 28 Feb. He voted against the scheme to extend the franchise at East Retford to the hundred of Bassetlaw, 21 Mar., and for inquiry into chancery delays, 24 Apr., and more effective control over crown proceedings for the recovery of excise penalties, 1 May. He presented petitions for Catholic relief, 5 May, and voted for it, 12 May. Soon afterwards he fell ‘very ill with inflammation on the chest’, but by the end of June 1828 he was better, having made ‘a great rally’. He suffered a relapse in the autumn, however, and was for a while ‘very seriously ill’.19

He did himself no good by ‘shooting and acting’ at Woburn Abbey in January 1829, and seems to have been unable to attend the House much for the first half of that session, though he was named to the Clare election committee which declared O’Connell duly elected, 3 Mar.20 He was a defaulter on a call of the House, 5 Mar., but he claimed to have been present later that day to hear Peel’s speech proposing the concession of Catholic emancipation, which, despite his inherent pessimism, tempted him to perceive ‘a clearer horizon, than I have ever done before’.21 There is no record of his having voted on the issue, but he divided in favour of O’Connell being allowed to take his seat without hindrance, 18 May. He voted for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, but on 2 June stated that he intended to vote for Fane’s motion for the issue of a new writ:

I have been anxious to throw the elective franchise into populous places, on proof of any delinquency ... I do not, however, consider East Retford as particularly delinquent, for nine-tenths of the Members of this House are returned avowedly by means of corruption ... If a practical opportunity were afforded of conferring the franchise on such a place as Birmingham, I should be most happy: that opportunity is hopeless now, and I vote for the issue of the writ, rather than the giving the right to the hundred.

Yet his name does not appear in the list of Fane’s minority.

Russell returned to the continent later in the year, when his brother, believing him to be ‘very ill’, was anxiously awaiting reports from his doctor in Munich.22 On hearing more reassuring accounts of him in September 1829, Lord Tavistock commented that ‘the farther he is removed from England the more eager he always is about politics. There cannot be a more honest and anxious minded politician’.23 He was in Florence, 10 Apr. 1830, when he wrote to Holland to express his anger at the ‘intolerable’ conduct of ‘many till then sound Whigs’ in voting with an ‘insincere’ and disorganized government against the amendment to the address and supporting it merely ‘because there is a possibility of a worse being formed in its place’:

Now this is very different from the doctrines I have always listened to. My only consolation is, it is some alleviation to my regret at leaving the field altogether. God knows my power to render assistance to the cause I am attached to and anxious to promote has been unavailing enough at all times. It is now absolutely nothing. My health is such that I very much doubt my being able even to take my place in the House during the whole session, but I am ... very earnest not to close my parliamentary life for ever, without two or three more votes if possible, and that they should be on such subjects as would bring the full spirit of our old principles the most clearly into action ... There appear now no leaders, and it would be vain boasting to offer myself as any man’s follower, but I may at least say with peremptory confidence that if I ever give another vote it will be such as you might dictate.

He made his way painfully towards England, reaching Paris in early May, when he counselled Holland, with whose views he was largely in agreement, against being ‘over apprehensive on imaginary grounds of consequences injurious to a good cause from your taking a more broad and distinct line on general measures’:

The public opinion I firmly believe would be right, if it were properly brought into action, and for evidence of that I will only recur to the short period of Canning’s administration ... I have never known the feeling of the country so united and so strong from unity, as during that interval. And why? Was it from any popularity that attached to the man? On the contrary, no man was more generally obnoxious, or had made himself even bitter enemies in a greater variety of sources than he had; but it was the courage with which he came out and the manly sentiments he proclaimed that had almost a magical effect, and generosity became catching.

Although he lamented the ‘terrible shabbiness and selfishness’ of some of ‘our own best friends’, especially in their attitude to foreign affairs, he was pleased with what Holland had told him of Grey’s ‘general tone’, and with the emergence of such ‘good young ones’ as Lords Howick* and Morpeth*. He was determined to attend to vote for the latter’s motion for repeal of the banishment clause of the Libels Act, scheduled for 18 May, even though ‘my doctors forbid me from entering the House’.24 In the event, the motion was postponed; but Russell was present that day to vote for Newport’s motion on Irish first fruits revenues, having paired for Jewish emancipation on the 17th. He paired for abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, and voted for it in person, 7 June. His only other known votes were for his nephew’s parliamentary reform motion, 28 May, and reform of the divorce laws, 3 June 1830. His brother, whom he joined at Campden Hill at the end of June ‘for change of air’, pressed Lady Holland to get her husband or John Allen to ‘look in upon him to cheer his solitude by talking a little Whiggery with him’. He retired from Parliament at the dissolution because of his continuing ill health.25

He elaborated on this decision in the course of trying to mollify Lord George William, who was angry at not being put up again for Bedford, even though he had shamelessly neglected both the constituency and his parliamentary duties for the best part of ten years. Russell said that if he had had his own way he would have vacated ‘two or three years ago’, when it had become clear that he was not capable of constant attendance, but that he had been persuaded to remain in for the sake of ‘the election interests at Tavistock’. After the election (in which Lord John Russell was beaten by one vote), Russell wrote:

We must have reform. The voice of the country, through the whole run of the late elections, has thundered retrenchment and reform ... In the early part of my life, I was a strenuous anti-reformer, though I never was hostile to the principle of reform; but it appeared to me as a measure impracticable, and extremely dangerous to its own professed end. The general call for it renders it now infinitely more easy of attainment; still, it is very far from being clear of difficulties. John has broached the outlines of a plan, preferable beyond measure to any that had before appeared, but would it satisfy the clamorous part of the public? I fear not. What we do want ... is a ministry of weight and capacity that would clap their shoulder to the wheel, in downright earnest, and fairly face the difficulties of the time, with their eyes open to everything around them. Retrenchment and reform should be carried into practice with responsibility attached to the execution, with reference to a whole and uniform system, not by piecemeal ... to save appearances, but with a real sincere desire of destroying the many-headed hydra that has been long unceasing in its activity to devour.26

He had ‘strong confidence’ in the intention and ability of the Grey ministry to deliver a ‘sweeping’ measure of reform and was delighted with the bill detailed by his nephew in March 1831: ‘I think we are landed in safety from a storm as tremendous as ever state was engaged in’.27 From the ministry he immediately solicited a legal appointment for his youngest and third surviving son William. (His second son, George, had died at the age of 30 in 1825.)28 William was appointed attorney-general of the duchy of Lancaster court in 1833 and doubled as secretary to lord chancellor Cottenham from 1836 to 1839, when he was given the post of accountant-general of the court of chancery, which he held for 34 years. In June 1831, Russell reflected on matters personal and public:

No pains were ever taken to correct my innate defects. They grew with my growth, but have not as a natural corollary decayed with my decay of strength. My sufferings from infirmity of health are sometimes very severe ... there never was a more critical period than the present ... the whole of the known world is in a state of ferment ... England ought to show the way ... I hope, and am inclined to believe we are in a right train at home, but it must be pursued vigorously and vigilantly. We must give content to our people, who deserve it, if ever people did, and we must hold out example for others to dress by.29

Russell, who was plagued with increasing deafness and had to wear a truss day and night, lost his sons Francis and John, both of whom were Members in this period, in 1832 and 1835. He continued his odd existence, passing back and forth between England and Europe. His sister-in-law reported from Woburn at Christmas 1838 that he ‘chatters more and more to himself every day’.30 He met a suitably bizarre end, for he was murdered in his bed (his throat cut from ear to ear and a napkin placed over his face) at his London house in Norfolk Street, Marylebone, in the small hours of 6 May 1840 by his Swiss valet, Francois Courvoisier, whom he had caught in the act of pilfering silver spoons and told that he would be dismissed in the morning. The case, as Greville noted

excited a prodigious interest, and frightened all London out of its wits. Visionary servants and air-drawn razors or carving knives dance before everybody’s imagination, and half the world go to sleep expecting to have their throats cut before morning.

Courvoisier, who might well have been acquitted for lack of evidence but for the fortuitous discovery during his trial of stolen plate which he had deposited at a Leicester Square hotel, confessed to the crime after he had been found guilty. He was executed before a large crowd on 6 July 1840.31 On 12 Jan. 1841 administration of Russell’s estate, which was sworn under £2,000, was granted to his son William.32

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. J.H. Adeane, Early Married Life of Lady Stanley, 3.
  • 2. J. Gore, Nelson’s Hardy and his Wife, 67, 68, 75-76.
  • 3. Russell Letters, ii. 4, 14.
  • 4. Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 78-79.
  • 5. Berry Jnls. iii. 330; Gore, 119.
  • 6. Russell Letters, ii. 27-35, 37-40.
  • 7. Add. 51681.
  • 8. Gore, 129.
  • 9. Russell Early Corresp. i. 249-52.
  • 10. Russell Letters, ii. 255.
  • 11. LMA, Jersey mss Acc. 510/416.
  • 12. Blakiston, 28.
  • 13. The Times, 31 May 1827.
  • 14. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1341.
  • 15. The Times, 15 June 1827.
  • 16. Russell Letters, i. 74; Lansdowne mss, Lady Holland to Lansdowne [?4 Sept. 1827].
  • 17. Russell Letters, ii. 104.
  • 18. Add. 51681.
  • 19. Russell Letters, i. 67, 100; ii. 88; Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 30 June [1828].
  • 20. Russell Letters, ii. 188; O’Connell Corresp. iv. 1526; CJ, lxxxiv. 98.
  • 21. Russell Letters, ii. 191.
  • 22. Blakiston, 195-6.
  • 23. Russell Letters, i. 128.
  • 24. Add. 51681.
  • 25. Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland [?24 June 1830]; Russell Letters, ii. 251.
  • 26. Russell Letters, ii. 253-60.
  • 27. Ibid. ii. 301-5, 330-2; Add. 51681, Russell to Holland, 7 Dec. [1830].
  • 28. Brougham mss, Russell to Brougham, 22 Nov. [1830]; Add. 51681, same to Holland, 5 Dec. [1830], 6 Aug. [1831].
  • 29. Russell Letters, ii. 347-9.
  • 30. Ibid. i. 284.
  • 31. Gent. Mag. (1840), ii. 86, 204-5; Greville Mems. iv. 261-2; Von Neumann Diary, ii. 145, 146, 147-8; Raikes Jnl. iv. 13, 14, 18-20; Broughton, Recollections, v. 264, 266, 275-6; Lady Lyttelton Corresp. 298; Disraeli Letters, iii. 1075; Ann. Reg. (1840), Chron. pp. 229-45. See Y. Bridges, Two Studies in Crime (1959), 11-128.
  • 32. PROB 6/217/221.