RUSSELL, William, Lord Russell (1809-1872).

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



1830 - Oct. 1831
1832 - 1841

Family and Education

b. 1 July 1809, o.s. of Francis Russell, mq. of Tavistock*, and Lady Anna Maria Stanhope, da. of Charles Stanhope,† 3rd earl of Harrington. educ. Eton 1823; Christ Church, Oxf. 1827. unm. styled Lord Russell 1809-39; mq. of Tavistock 1839-61. suc. fa. as 8th duke of Bedford 14 May 1861. d. 26 May 1872.

Offices Held


Russell was an only child, doted on and worried about by his odd, Stanhope mother and, more particularly, by his father, the serious-minded heir of the 6th duke of Bedford. As a child he was sickly, with hypochondriacal tendencies, and, like his father, he never enjoyed robust health. Nor did he ever overcome his extreme shyness, reserve and lack of self-confidence, which provoked Lord Grey to describe him, when he was 25, as ‘the most impenetrable person I ever met with’.1 He appears to have been educated at home until, in a departure from the long family connection with Westminster, he was sent to Eton, when well turned 13. His uncle, Lord George William Russell*, whose wife had recently described him as ‘a very gentlemanlike, pleasing lad, and well looking too’, wrote approvingly to Lord Tavistock:

A public school is what is necessary and is that which will add to his happiness hereafter and be a source of great satisfaction to yourself. I grant that the system of education is bad ... but it fits a boy to be a man, to know his fellow creatures, to love them, to be able to contend with the difficulties of life, to attach friends to him, to take a part in public affairs, to get rid of his humours and caprices and to form his temper and manners ... I can only rejoice that he is to have a public education. I am fully aware of the difficulties you have had to decide this question - an only child is an anxious care - but his being an only child makes public education more necessary, and I trust you will be rewarded for your decision by seeing him improve in health and strength.

Russell came home after his first term ‘with a return of his cold, glandular swellings, etc., etc.’, joining his father and grandfather on the sick list. ‘We are a miserable family’, commented Lord George William.2 Russell was reckoned to be ‘a very good, although not a first-rate scholar’.3

Tavistock agonized over the problem of his university education, being alarmed by ‘very bad’ reports of the current state of Cambridge, his own alma mater. He consulted his friend and Trinity contemporary John Cam Hobhouse* and eventually settled on Christ Church, Oxford, which seemed to be ‘the least objectionable of all our English colleges, and has more advantages for a young nobleman than any other’.4 When Hobhouse, who privately considered Tavistock’s instructional ‘system’ for his son ‘too strict’, visited the family at Oakley in January 1827, he found Russell

grown into a tall, full-made man ... Lord T. extremely anxious about him ... The boy understands him completely, and though now very docile and just what could be wished, may, very probably, turn out like other gay young men of his rank. He has good abilities, and apparently a very sweet and obliging disposition.

A conversational walk with Russell impressed Hobhouse:

He spoke with great simplicity of the mode adopted by his father towards him, and told me he thought it too strict, though he was aware it arose entirely from his attachment and anxiety for him. In the course of our walk he made some very judicious reflections on men and manners, and even on politics, which I remarked, because it is of importance to the nation that the head of his house should be an honest and a right-judging man.5

When Hobhouse soon afterwards sent him ‘a most formidable array of books’ Russell, who was bound for Christ Church after the Easter vacation, thanked him diffidently:

If I possessed your capacity to learn and your memory to retain, I might then hope to make myself master of them, but I greatly fear that my poor cranium does not contain half the sufficient quantum of brains. However, I must set at them ... I miss you very much in our pedestrian excursions.6

He attended his first grand London dinner, at Devonshire House, in July 1827.7 At the end of the year his father told Hobhouse that he was ‘doing very well at Oxford, much better, I believe, than we did at the other university, in as far at least as his constitution is concerned, and he has no turn, thank God, for play’. Twelve years later, just after succeeding to the dukedom, Tavistock noted that Russell

never was in debt, and I am persuaded he never will be ... When he was at Oxford, he told me that if I wished him to keep out of debt, and not exceed his income, I had better take him away, on account of the extravagance he found established there and which it would be impossible for him to resist.8

In 1828 he was sent on a tour of the Fens with the auditor of the Bedford estates, William Adam, who reported to Tavistock that although he was open and frank, he showed a worrying lack of mental energy and ambition: ‘It would be a great object to excite his curiosity and attention by making him acquainted with interesting subjects ... In his situation he must gain knowledge now or not at all’. Russell was in fact developing into a deep thinker, but his reflections on the misery and futility of the human condition only made him increasingly prey to morbid depression.9 In early January 1829 he visited Paris with Lord Lynedoch.10 Towards the end of the year he went to Rome, where he was taken under the wing of Lord and Lady George William, who had been encouraged by her brother-in-law Lord John Russell* to ‘put him in the way of opening his understanding to the wonders of Italy. He is very well disposed’.11 His father, who commented that ‘a better or truer boy never existed’, was pleased with the ‘excellent accounts’ which he received from Russell himself and the praise lavished on him by Lord George William. Privately, however, the latter thought that his nephew (whose tantalizingly delicate health stood between him and eventual succession to the dukedom), though ‘a nice young man’, had ‘little in him - pity he is not more brought out, directed and better educated’.12 On a lighter note, he reported to Lady Holland, who had formed a great liking for Russell, that he

was disposed to admire a pretty little Spanish lady but probably did not kindle so quickly as Spanish eyes desire ... so she gave the preference to young L. Bonaparte, whom the indignant husband caught and cuffed and kicked downstairs, and has packed off his poor little frail wife to be shut up in a convent in Spain for life. Thus has tragically ended the little innocent amour, of which Russell might have been the hero; still it is as well not to be kicked by an enraged Don.13

Russell moved on to Naples in mid-February 1830.14

That summer, when he came of age and was admitted to Brooks’s (7 July), the senior members of the family considered starting him at the approaching general election for Bedford, where, thanks largely to the neglect and absenteeism of the sitting Member, Lord George William, their interest was under serious threat. They decided to put up Lord John, but even so, only the chance of his discovering that a rival had stolen a march with a premature canvass, when he went to Bedford to announce that he had after all decided to stand for Huntingdonshire, prevented Russell from being thrown in at the deep end.15 As it was he was nominated to replace his ailing great-uncle, Lord William Russell*, on the secure family interest at Tavistock. His fretting father committed him to the experienced care of the other Russell nominee, Lord Ebrington*: ‘on every account I wish him to commence his political career there under your advice and direction. Pray have the kindness to take charge of him and to tell him how to act’. Lord John reported that Russell had gone to Devon ‘rather alarmed at the new career he is about to enter on’; but he and Ebrington were returned without fuss.16 After the election he spent much time with the Hollands, and his mother thanked Lady Holland, 27 Aug. 1830, for their ‘great kindness’ in this regard:

He feels it too, and is sensible of the advantage it is to him to be with you and Lord Holland, and the agreeable society you always have. He writes us word that he is only surprised at your patience in hearing him, for that he is seized with terrible fits of shyness, and is so stupid and taciturn that he is persuaded you must find him a great bore.17

In October 1830 he was paraded at the annual Bedford mayor’s feast as part of the Russells’ attempt to rally their supporters after Lord John’s narrow defeat.18

The Wellington ministry of course reckoned Russell among their ‘foes’. Entrusted by his father, who was unwell, to the care and direction of Hobhouse, he voted against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830.19 He is not known to have spoken in debate in this period, but he presented petitions from a Gloucestershire congregation of Protestant Dissenters for the abolition of slavery, 22 Nov. 1830, and from Thorney, Bedfordshire, in favour of the reform bill introduced by his uncle, 19 Mar. 1831. He voted for its second reading, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. He could not be ‘prevailed upon’ to stand for Buckinghamshire at the ensuing general election, showing what his grandfather perceived as ‘unreasonable diffidence’; and it was for Tavistock that he was again returned without opposition, this time with Lord John.20 Russell, who continued to frequent Holland House,21 voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and against using the 1831 census to determine the borough disfranchisement schedules, 19 July 1831. He paired for the committee divisions on Greenwich, 3 Aug., Gateshead, 5 Aug., Rochester, 9 Aug., clause 15, 17 Aug. (and doubtless for all the others), and for the passage of the bill, 21 Sept. Two days later Lord Tavistock, as he informed his brother, proposed to Bedford that Russell

should either accept the Chiltern Hundreds now, or retire from Parliament at the next general election. His health is not equal to the attendance he ought to give to his parliamentary duties. At some future time I hope he may be able to take his seat in a reformed Parliament.

It seems that late sittings brought on ‘his headaches’; and, on medical advice, he vacated his seat after voting for the motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct. 1831.22

A reluctant and terrified Russell was cajoled by the family elders into nominating Townley*, the reform candidate, at the formal opening of the Cambridgeshire by-election, on which much public attention was focused, 27 Oct. 1831. In the event, to the satisfaction of his father and grandfather, he spoke capably, criticizing self-styled ‘moderate reformers’ as hypocrites and denying that ‘the friends of reform were in any respect the enemies of the farmers’.23 A year later Bedford, though incredulous of ‘a strange report’ that Russell was to marry Lavinia Harcourt, observed that ‘he would be better of marriage (as the Scots say), for it would give him rational pursuits, and draw him out of his snail shell, where he buries his talents in his own shyness and extreme diffidence’. Soon afterwards, when the sudden death of his replacement at Tavistock threatened to derange Bedford’s arrangements, he ‘gallantly, and with proper courage’ agreed to stand there at the forthcoming general election. He topped the poll and held the seat without distinction until his retirement in 1841.24 He was very much inclined, at least in the abstract, to radicalism (and, indeed, was wrongly thought by some to espouse republican doctrines), though he had a poor opinion of the current radical leaders.25

Russell never married, writing in 1841 that ‘I shrink almost with a feeling of horror of uniting a young girl full of life to a semi-corpse’. He retreated even further into his carapace of shyness and morose introspection as he got older. Shortly after his retirement from the Commons he wrote to his father that

the more wisdom a man has the more miserable he is ... I have little life in me now. Always and every day I am living rather as flogged along or upon pluck, than having anything approaching to enjoyment of life ... I think that few people have ever passed a much more unpleasant life than I have done ... I have often broken out into a cold sweat and felt sick at the stomach with misery ... Fancy a soul in hell, that gives a better idea of my sensations and existence than anything else.

The medical men ascribed this and similar tormented outbursts to ‘deep hypochondria’; while Lord John Russell reflected that ‘a bad stomach, Byron and Voltaire have been the cause of the mischief’.26 Russell’s father lamented his ‘most extraordinary and morbid feeling of diffidence, which makes him think that he cannot be useful or agreeable to anybody’.27 After succeeding to the dukedom in 1861, he became a complete recluse, only leaving his London house at 6 Belgrave Square to ride in a brougham with wooden shutters to visit his current mistress in Kensington.28 He dropped dead in the hall of his house in May 1872.29 By his will, dated 12 July 1870 and proved under £600,000, 13 June 1872, he left, among sundry legacies, a life annuity of £450 to Mary Ann Ryland of Leonard Place, Kensington, ‘in testimony of my approbation of her long and faithful services to me’. He was succeeded as 9th duke of Bedford by his cousin, Lord George William’s eldest son, Francis Charles Hastings Russell† (1819-91).

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 24-25; Russell Letters, iii. 314.
  • 2. Add. 51681, Lady G.W. Russell to Lady Holland [n.d.]; Russell Letters, i. 11; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 75-76, 88, 100.
  • 3. Russell Letters, i. 44.
  • 4. Add. 36463, ff. 42, 189.
  • 5. Add. 56550, ff. 124, 125, 128; Broughton, Recollections, iii. 162-3.
  • 6. Add. 36463, f. 262.
  • 7. Broughton, iii. 207.
  • 8. Add. 36464, f. 100; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 432.
  • 9. G. Blakiston, Woburn and the Russells, 201.
  • 10. Russell Letters, i. 115.
  • 11. Add. 36465, ff. 251, 349; Russell Letters, i. 135; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 202.
  • 12. Add. 47223, f. 38; Russell Letters, i. 43-44; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 205.
  • 13. Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 205; Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 19 Aug. [1829].
  • 14. Add. 36466, f. 12.
  • 15. Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 212, 214; Russell Letters, ii. 251.
  • 16. Devon RO, Earl Fortescue mss, Tavistock to Ebrington, 15 July; Add. 51677, Russell to Holland [26 July]; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 7 Aug. 1830.
  • 17. Add. 51675.
  • 18. Russell Letters, i. 150.
  • 19. Add. 47223, f. 43.
  • 20. Add. 51663, Bedford to Holland [25 Apr.]; Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 5 May 1831.
  • 21. Macaulay Letters, ii. 21, 254.
  • 22. Russell Letters, ii. 382; Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland, 24 Oct. [1831]; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 243.
  • 23. Beds. RO, Russell mss R766, Peyton to W. Russell, 25, 26 Oct., Tavistock to same, 28 [Oct.]; Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland, 31 Oct; Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 29 Oct. 1831.
  • 24. Add. 51671, Bedford to Lady Holland, 5 Nov. 1832; Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 25, 449.
  • 25. Russell Letters, iii. 47-48, 99, 198-9; Blakiston, Woburn, 205; Greville Mems. iv. 152.
  • 26. Blakiston, Woburn, 204-6.
  • 27. Russell Letters, iii. 314.
  • 28. Blakiston, Lord William Russell, 25; Blakiston, Woburn, 206-7.
  • 29. The Times, 28 May 1872.