RUSSELL, Lord John I (1766-1839), of Woburn Abbey, Beds.

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



24 Apr. 1788 - 1790
27 Dec. 1790 - 2 Mar. 1802

Family and Education

b. 6 July 1766, 2nd s. of Francis Russell, Mq. of Tavistock, o.s. of John, 4th Duke of Bedford, by Lady Elizabeth Van Keppel, da. of William Anne, 2nd Earl of Albemarle; bro. of Lord William Russell*. educ. Loughborough House, Lambeth Wick;1 Westminster 1776. m. (1) 21 Mar. 1786, Hon. Georgiana Elizabeth Byng (d. 11 Oct. 1801), da. of George, 4th Visct. Torrington, 3s.; (2) 23 June 1803, Lady Georgiana Gordon, da. of Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon [S], 7s. 3da. suc. bro. Francis as 6th Duke of Bedford 2 Mar. 1802, KG 25 Nov. 1830.

Offices Held

Ensign, 3 Ft. Gds. 1783, ret. 1785; lt.-col. Beds. vols. 1803.

PC 12 Feb. 1806, ld. lt. [I] Mar. 1806-Apr. 1807.

Recorder, Bedford 1802-d.


In 1811 Russell, then Duke of Bedford, wrote to his son John, the future prime minister:

Lord Holland tells me that you pay him the compliment of saying that he is the only remaining Whig in England. I am sorry that you should exclude me from this honourable distinction, for whilst I agree with you that a genuine Whig is become a rara avis, I pride myself upon being one of the few of that description, and I think if I know what the true principles of Whiggism are they are implanted in my own breast, where they have taken such deep root, which nothing can shake, whilst life and reason remain within me.

An unpretentious, affable, self-indulgent man with little formal education, he was shrewd and levelheaded, but too shy and taciturn to make any great mark in public life. As he confessed to Lady Holland in 1821, he lacked ‘both talent and practice for public speaking’ and tended to ‘leave unsaid half what I wish to say’.2

At the general election of 1790 he was put up for Hampshire by his elder brother Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, in an attempt to establish an effective Whig interest in the county, where the family had property. On 18 Jan. Mrs H. M. Bramston told her niece that a fierce contest was inevitable and that she was ‘heartily sorry for Lord John Russell, who is a very amicable, worthy young man, his constitution delicate and loaded with bile, which added to a natural shyness, makes him a very unfit person for so rigorous an undertaking’.3 He was heavily defeated, but returned for the family pocket borough of Tavistock, where his former seat had been kept warm for him, at the first opportunity after the meeting of Parliament. A renewed attempt on Hampshire was considered, but eventually decided against in 1796.

It is not clear whether it was Russell or his younger brother William who joined Earl Stanhope in resigning from the Revolution Club in November 1790 over its condemnation of Burke’s recently published views on the French revolution.4 He voted against government on the Oczakov question, 12 Apr., and was listed a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland the same month, but spoke against abolition of the slave trade, which he thought it was practicable only to regulate, 19 Apr. 1791. He joined the Association of the Friends of the People in April 1792 and when opposing the royal proclamation, 25 May, declared that he ‘most perfectly and cordially agreed with, and approved of, everything they had done or written’. Less than two weeks later, however, he and four others resigned from the Association, ostensibly because of the radical Cartwright’s continued membership, though it was thought that Russell had been swayed by the duke, who disapproved of the Friends and was currently wavering in his politics.5

Bedford soon afterwards attached himself firmly to Fox, and Russell followed suit, voting for the amendment to the address, 13 Dec. 1792, and against the war, 18 Feb. 1793. He voted for receipt of the Sheffield reform petition, 2 May, and for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May 1793. A member of the committee formed in June 1793 to supervise the collection of money to defray Fox’s debts, he remained an utterly loyal Foxite, but was evidently one of their poorest attenders during the sessions of 1794, 1795 and 1796, when his name appears in only seven of the surviving minority division lists. In his only known speech in this period, 19 Nov. 1795, he contended that the fencible cavalry was intended to ‘awe the people’. He was more active in the first session of the 1796 Parliament and voted for Grey’s reform motion, 26 May 1797.

As he later told Tierney, he considered the Foxite secession ‘rash, ill-judged, ill-advised’, though he could not bring himself ‘to breathe a particle of anger, animosity or resentment’ against Fox himself. In the ensuing session he continued to attend and voted not only against the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4 Jan., the land tax redemption bill, 23 Apr. and 18 May, and for inquiry into the state of Ireland, 14 and 22 June 1798, when he made his last known speech in the House, but also divided in small minorities against the assessed taxes, 18 Dec. 1797, against the suspension of habeas corpus, 20 Apr., and for inquiry into the prosecution of the O’Connors, 11 June 1798. In a list purporting to represent the plan for a Lansdowne ministry in the unlikely event of the success of Bedford’s motion for the dismissal of ministers, 22 Mar. 1798, Russell was named as lord chamberlain. By the end of the year he had decided that continued parliamentary activity was futile, professed willingness to resign his seat if his brother gave the nod and was more than ever convinced that ‘an adequate representation of the people in Parliament’ was ‘the only real remedy to all our grievances’.6 His only recorded vote in the 1799 session was against the Union, 7 Feb., and he was little more active in 1800, voting only in the comparatively large minorities on the failure of peace negotiations, 3 Feb., and the Dutch expedition, 10 Feb., and the less well supported motions for a call of the House, 27 June, and inquiry into the state of the nation, 9 July. After voting for peace negotiations, 1 Dec., in affirmation of the incapacity of ministers, 4 Dec. 1800, and for the amendment to the address, 2 Feb. 1801, he asked Lord Holland for the use of his town house in anticipation of a busy session as the Whigs returned,7 and he voted regularly with the Foxite opposition to Addington during the following months. He was to have been returned for Bedford on his brother’s interest at the next general election, but the duke’s sudden death at the age of 36, in March 1802, put a premature end to his career in the Commons.

His brief period as lord lieutenant of Ireland in the ‘Talents’ administration, when his recommendation of concessions to prevent the embarrassment of a Catholic petition led his colleagues to propose the measure which brought their downfall, was his only experience of political office. Although he took no very active part in politics thereafter and seemed at times, as Lady Spencer put it, ‘morbidly stupid and inert’, his professed lack of interest in politics was largely feigned. He was one of the Whig party’s most respected and popular grandees, ready to assist the cause with cash and seats for leading Commons men, and remained well in advance of the bulk of the Whig hierarchy in his views on parliamentary reform, which he continued to think ‘indispensably necessary’.8 Habitually careless with money, he spent lavishly on building, agricultural improvement and the fine arts and burdened his successor with debts of over £500,000. In 1839 Charles Greville wrote that ‘a more uninteresting, weak-minded, selfish character does not exist’, but other visitors to Woburn found him ‘easy and natural’, ‘very well informed’ and ‘most amiable and unassuming’, while Sydney Smith considered him ‘an honest, excellent person, full of good feelings and right opinions’.9 He died 20 Oct. 1839.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: P. A. Symonds / David R. Fisher


  • 1. J. H. Adeane, Early Married Life of Lady Stanley, 3.
  • 2. Early Corresp. Lord John Russell, i. 156; Ilchester, Home of the Hollands, 341.
  • 3. Hants RO 20M64/7.
  • 4. Minto, i. 365; Horace Walpole Corresp. (Yale ed.), xi. 131.
  • 5. Minto, ii. 41; Debrett, xxxii. 457; NLS mss 11137, f. 36; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 78-79.
  • 6. Hants RO, Tierney mss 60; The Times, 22 Mar. 1798.
  • 7. Add. 51661, Russell to Holland, 13 Feb. [1801].
  • 8. Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer, 16 Nov. 1813; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 95.
  • 9. Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, iv. 209; Farington, ii. 175; v. 19; vii. 141; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 391.