RUSSELL, Lord William (1767-1840), of Streatham, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1789 - 1807
1807 - Mar. 1819
1826 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 20 Aug. 1767, 3rd and posth. s. of Francis Russell, Mq. of Tavistock†, and 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. 2da.

Offices Held

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

Capt. commdt. Streatham vols. 1803-4.


Russell, who had joined the Whig Club in 1785 and Brooks’s in 1787, retained his seat for Surrey, where he had a residence on the property of his eldest brother Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, at the contested election of 1790 and was returned unopposed in 1796 and 1802. In November 1790 one of the younger Russell brothers resigned from the Revolution Club over its condemnation of Burke’s views on the French revolution, but it is not clear whether it was William or John.2

Russell argued that the impeachment of Hastings must not be allowed to lapse, 17 Dec. 1790, and voted against government on the Oczakov question, 12 Apr. 1791 and 1 Mar. 1792. He was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. He supported the wine licence bill, 24 Apr. 1792, as a curb on the drunkenness which he encountered as a Surrey magistrate. Unlike Lord John Russell, he did not join the Association of the Friends of the People and he supported the loyal address at the Surrey meeting of 18 June 1792, even though he ‘expressed a strong disapprobation’ of the recent proclamation against seditious societies. ‘This seems odd logic’, added the reporter, ‘but it is nevertheless the logic of Bedford House, which is at present very fluctuating and unsettled in its politics.’3

His inclusion in the list of Members ‘supposed attached’ to the Duke of Portland late in 1792 was subsequently queried; and by voting for Fox’s amendment to the address, 13 Dec., he confirmed that his allegiance, like his brothers’, lay with Fox. He voted for receipt of the Sheffield reform petition, 2 May, and spoke for that of the Norwich petition, 6 May, but evidently did not vote for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May 1793. He continued to divide regularly with the Foxite Whigs before and after the realignment of 1794 and was clearly one of their most assiduous attenders. He protested against the authority vested in magistrates to arrest on suspicion, 21 June 1793, attacked the suspension of habeas corpus, 17 May 1794, 15 and 23 Jan. 1795, and on 12 Nov. unsuccessfully tried to thwart the introduction of the seditious meetings bill by moving the adjournment before Pitt arrived in the House. Later in the debate he denied allegations that Bedford had encouraged popular protest meetings and, demanding inquiry into the necessity for the measure, again moved the adjournment, but was defeated by 145 votes to 32. He opposed the Westminster police bill as arbitrary, unconstitutional and expensive, 19 Feb. 1796. In the first session of the 1796 Parliament he condemned the tendency towards ‘military government’, 13 Dec., seconded Harrison’s motion for the reduction of sinecures, 13 Mar. 1797, when he advocated an unspecified measure of reform as well as economy, and voted for Grey’s reform motion, 26 May.

He did not initially participate in the Whig secession and when opposing the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 18 Dec. 1797, announced that he ‘had a general retainer to oppose the present ministers’. He was one of the minority of five who voted against the suspension of habeas corpus, 20 Apr., and of 11 who supported inquiry into the prosecution of the O’Connors, 11 June, as well as voting in the larger minorities on the land tax redemption bill, 23 Apr. and 18 May, and the Irish rebellion, 14 and 22 June 1798. He called the newspaper regulation bill an ‘underhand blow at the freedom of the press’, 4 Apr., supported the demand for inquiry into Lord Onslow’s application of the Defence Act in Surrey, 8 May, and attacked the proposal to use the militia for coercive purposes in Ireland, 19 June 1798. It was reported that Russell would have been master of the horse in a Lansdowne ministry had his eldest brother’s motion in the Lords for the dismissal of ministers, 22 Mar. 1798, been successful.4 In 1799 he seems to have attended only to vote, 7 and 14 Feb., and speak, 22 Apr., against the Union. He was more active in the lobbies in 1800, though apparently silent, and he voted regularly against the repressive measures of Addington’s ministry in 1801. On 25 Feb. 1801 he obtained leave to introduce a bill to empower magistrates to exempt poor householders from payment of poor rates, but it was thrown out at the report stage, 18 Mar., when ministers withdrew their support. His attempt to add a clause to the police bill permitting magistrates to hold office during good behaviour, 3 June 1802, was negatived. He voted for an address of thanks for the removal of Pitt from office, 7 May 1802, against the renewal of war, 24 May 1803, and joined in the combined attack on Addington in 1804, when he criticized the volunteer consolidation bill, 6 Mar. His bill amending the Act concerning the sums to be paid for persons compounding for statute labour passed into law on 16 May 1804. He divided regularly against Pitt’s second ministry, led the opposition to the salt duties, 1 and 4 Mar., and voted twice against Melville, 8 Apr. and 12 June 1805, being chosen for the select committee on the tenth naval report.

On the formation of the ‘Talents’ Russell was eventually settled at the Admiralty, after first accepting the post of treasurer of the Household.5 His only known contribution to debate during the life of the ministry was a minor intervention on the case of John Fenton Cawthorne*, 28 Jan. 1807. By 1806 he had decided to sell the Streatham property (bequeathed to him by his brother the late duke in 1802), presumably in order to pay off his mounting debts, and it was uncertain whether he would stand for the county at the next general election. His brother John, now 6th Duke of Bedford and lord lieutenant of Ireland, hoped to be able to return him for Tavistock or Bedford, but he had little room for manoeuvre in the disposal of his seats and in the event Russell took his chance in Surrey. With government backing he survived a contest unexpectedly forced by opposition elements in the county. According to Lord Holland, he supported the abolition of the slave trade, although Bedford was ‘against it or at least doubtful upon it’.6 He voted for Brand’s motion condemning the ministerial pledge, 9 Apr. 1807, and, encouraged by the retirement of his colleague to expect a quiet return for Surrey, stood again at the general election, only to be heavily defeated by his opponents of 1806, who took advantage of his poor preparation, Bedford’s reluctance to spend money in a county where the family now had little stake, and a strong ‘No Popery’ cry. In his parting address, he wrote:

Descended from Whig ancestors, I have formed from their maxims the rule of my public conduct; and with an attachment to the person and lawful prerogative of my sovereign ... I have never been the slave of courtly intrigue, or ministerial corruption: looking, on the other hand, to the influence of popular opinion on national councils, when gravely and deliberately expressed, as the only true criterion of a free government, it forms no part either of my creed or my inclination, to follow the wild and transient clamour of an infuriated mob.7

Provided with a seat for Tavistock by his brother, he was one of the most regular opposition attenders in the first two sessions of the new Parliament. He was in the minority of eight against the Irish insurrection bill, 27 July, and on 13 Aug. 1807 he praised his brother’s conciliatory regime in Dublin and deplored the policy of treating Ireland like a conquered country. He was one of the 58 Members who voted for Whitbread’s peace resolutions, 29 Feb., and he spoke against the sugar distillation bill, 3 June 1808.

Russell was clearly interested in politics and took his parliamentary duties seriously, but in 1808 a combination of private problems put him virtually hors de combat. In August he was widowed and left with six young children, and at about the same time his financial affairs reached a crisis which drove him to take to a nomadic and anxiety-ridden existence. He was at the Whig meeting called to endorse Ponsonby’s leadership, 18 Jan. 1809, voted against government on the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb., and demanded correction of the abuses revealed by the Duke of York scandal, 17 Mar. (though he evidently did not vote with opposition on the issue); but by May 1809 he was skulking in Scotland, staying first at Blair Adam, home of his brother’s auditor and confidant, William Adam*, then at Woodsend Cottage, near Cupar, and subsequently in and around Edinburgh. He continued to observe politics with interest, asking Adam, 5 May, ‘why don’t our friends take a more distinct and decided line of conduct and make a rallying point on Whig principles?’; but on 16 Oct. 1809 he lamented that his private affairs were ‘so forlorn, that the suggestion from me of any plan even to palliate the evil would be vain’. On 15 Jan. 1810 he told Adam that he might have to seek ‘perfect seclusion’ abroad, and wondered whether he could conscientiously retain his seat ‘for the sole purpose of screening my person’, particularly when there was so much agitation for reform of the abuses of a system of representation ‘which I have always been desirous of defending’.8 Adam proposed a scheme of stringent financial regulation which Russell seems to have adopted and, presumably at Bedford’s behest, indicated that he need not vacate his seat. Furious at the ‘despotism’ by which a degraded government was ‘maintained in power by the sole and sovereign will of the crown’, he went up to vote against them in the crucial divisions on the Scheldt question, 30 Mar. 1810. In the debate on the Burdett affair, 5 Apr., he argued that the House was bound to assert its privileges. He came up again at the end of the year for the Regency debates, when he voted against the adjournment, 29 Nov., moved the previous question on the resolutions to proceed by bill, 21 Dec. 1810, and voted for the amendment to the Household clause, 21 Jan. 1811. He arranged to pair in favour of consideration of Catholic claims in the division of 24 Apr. 1812 and was willing to attend for any subsequent motion on Ireland, but the ministerial crisis of May and June intervened.9

Bedford returned him again for Tavistock in 1812 and he came to London early in 1813 to settle arrangements for his daughters and show his face in the House, where he voted for Burdett’s motion on the Regency, 23 Feb., and for Roman Catholic claims, 2 Mar. He was so incensed by Speaker Abott’s ‘abominable’ anti-Catholic remarks in his 1813 prorogation speech that he made the journey to register a ‘personal vote’ for the censure motion, 22 Apr. 1814; he also attended to vote against the expulsion of Cochrane, 5 July 1814, and for Whitbread’s motion on behalf of Spanish Liberals, 1 Mar. 1815. Having promised Lord Grey his vote, if required, against the renewal of a war of proscription against Buonaparte, he came back to London for the division of 25 May and voted in five other divisions that month, including those against the property tax and for inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure. His strong feelings on the tax brought him up to help give it the coup de grâce, 18 Mar. 1816, and he stayed on to vote for economy and retrenchment in March and April and against the aliens bill, 20 May.10

Russell was evidently in London for almost the whole of the 1817 session, his most active since his enforced retreat from Westminster. He was present to vote for the amendment to the address, 29 Jan., opposed Binning’s appointment to the finance committee, 7 Feb., and was one of the minority of 16 who divided against the introduction of the seditious meetings bill, 24 Feb. He voted against the first and third readings of the habeas corpus suspension bill, 26 and 28 Feb., denounced the seditious meetings bill, 3 Mar., when he accused government of abrogating to itself the power of a Roman tyrant, and was one of the hard core of opposition Members who voted against its third reading, 14 Mar. He voted in censure of Canning’s embassy to Lisbon, 6 May, but did not support Burdett’s parliamentary reform motion, 20 May. He voted against the appointment of the secret committee, 5 June, and in the debate on the vote of thanks to Abbot as retiring Speaker the same day, registered a personal protest against his prorogation speech of 1813, but did not go so far as to divide the House.

He appears to have left London before the debates on the renewed suspension of habeas corpus and to have spent the entire 1818 session in Geneva, whence he wrote to Holland, 19 Feb., that ‘there never was a time like this for the discussion of large liberal views of state policy’, and encouraged him to focus attention on the licensing powers vested in magistrates under the Seditious Meetings Act:

There are no more useful members of the English government than the justices of peace, so long as they are confined to their proper sphere, that of entering into the grievances of the lower orders, adjusting their differences and settling business purely local. But the moment you mix them in politics you render them petty tyrants the most odious in themselves, and tools and spies of ministers the most pernicious of any that exist.

Returned once more for Tavistock at the general election of 1818, he attended to vote against government in the opening weeks of the new Parliament, but vacated his seat in March 1819 and returned to Geneva. He was to reappear as Member for Tavistock in 1826, but the last 20 years of his life were marked by increasing eccentricity and spent largely in aimless drifting on the Continent.11

He was murdered in London by his Swiss valet on 6 May 1840.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. J. H. Adeane, Early Married Life of Lady Stanley, 3.
  • 2. Minto, i. 365; Horace Walpole Corresp. (Yale ed.), xi. 131.
  • 3. Minto, ii. 42.
  • 4. The Times, 22 Mar. 1798.
  • 5. HMC Fortescue, viii. 16, 17.
  • 6. Brougham mss 34185.
  • 7. J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 586.
  • 8. Blair Adam mss.
  • 9. Ibid. Adam to Russell, 27 Jan., Russell to Adam, 18 Feb. 1810; Add. 51681, Russell to Holland, 23 May [1812].
  • 10. Blair Adam mss, Russell to Adam [26 Sept.], 2 Dec. [1812]; Add. 51681, Russell to Holland, 12 Jan. 1814; Grey mss, Russell to Grey, 28 Mar., 6, 27 Apr. [16 Dec.] 1815.
  • 11. Add. 51681; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iii. 16; G. Blakiston, Lord William Russell and his Wife, 28, 64-65, 197.