RUSSELL, William (1798-1850), of Brancepeth Castle, co. Dur.

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



22 May 1822 - 1826
1826 - 28 Apr. 1827
13 Feb. 1828 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 9 Nov. 1798, o.s. of Matthew Russell* and Elizabeth, da. of George Tennyson† of Bayons Manor, Lincs. educ. Eton 1811; St. John’s, Camb. 1818. unm. suc. fa. 1822. d. 30 Jan. 1850.

Offices Held

Sheriff, co. Dur. 1841-2.


With a fortune derived from banking, trade and coal mines, Russell’s family had purchased three borough seats at Bletchingley and Saltash and built interests at Great Grimsby and in the county and city of Durham. At the general election of 1820 the question arose of his possible candidature for Great Grimsby, where his uncle Charles Tennyson, one of the sitting Members, had ‘not the slightest doubt’ of his success. However, his father informed Tennyson that he had determined

to write to William that I should not be justified in bringing him into Parliament at this time from my knowledge of his indolence, and indisposition to attend to anything in the form of business (the propriety of which I am sure you agree with me). Indeed, with his present frame of mind and all its bearings, it would be the worst step I could take for him, and most likely to be attended with ruinous consequences.

Tennyson advised his nephew that he must resolve ‘to make Parliament a business’, and Russell decided to bide his time until ‘my father reposes greater confidence in me’.1 In the event, following his father’s sudden death in May 1822, when he inherited the family estates, Russell was able to return himself for Saltash.

He was a poor attender, who made no known speech in his first Parliament. He was apparently content to allow Tennyson, his borough manager, to act as his political representative. In September 1822 Tennyson, anticipating Canning’s return to the foreign office, wrote to him offering to support Lord Liverpool’s ministry and adding that ‘I may venture from what I know of his sentiments to answer for my nephew Mr. Russell’, whose important borough interests he alluded to. Tennyson indicated in a letter of April 1823 that they would have followed this line up to that point, had they not been ‘detained in France until Easter’, but despair of any change in foreign policy now led them to ‘suspend the intention we had evinced of attaching ourselves to government’, in favour of a policy of neutrality; they maintained their personal regard for Canning.2 Russell divided for parliamentary reform, 24 Apr. 1823. He voted for reduction of the army, 23 Feb. 1824. His presence four days later in the minority against entering committee on the usury laws repeal bill perhaps stemmed from a procedural objection, as he was likely to have been the ‘M. Russell’ listed as voting for repeal, 17 Feb. 1825. He joined Brooks’s Club, 9 May 1824. He divided for Catholic relief, 21 Apr. 1825. At the general election of 1826 he returned himself for Bletchingley.

Early in April 1827, according to a subsequent letter from Tennyson, Russell made an ‘unqualified and unconcealed offer of support to Mr. Canning’. Later that month he temporarily resigned his seat, in favour of a member of Canning’s government, so that he might travel abroad.3 However, his plan to visit the eastern Mediterranean was curtailed by the outbreak of hostilities there, and in November 1827 he wrote from Naples that he intended to return home and resume his seat; Tennyson advised the prime minister Lord Goderich that his nephew’s attitude towards government had ‘somewhat changed’ since Canning’s death.4 The need to reclaim one of his borough seats was obviated by a propitious vacancy in county Durham, for which he was returned unopposed in February 1828. He pledged support for Catholic emancipation, ‘should the state of Ireland ... be such as to warrant [it]’, and promised to attend to the shipping interest and promote measures to revive trade. He approved of the revision of the corn laws proposed by government in the previous session, and said he was willing to support the duke of Wellington’s new ministry provided it continued with Canning’s policies.5 He took his seat, 11 Mar., and divided for Catholic relief, 12 May. He may have been the ‘Capt. Russell’ who was listed in the minority against the archbishop of Canterbury’s bill, 16 June 1828, though no evidence has been found that he ever held military rank. That summer he reportedly ‘declared himself against the government’.6 He divided for Catholic emancipation, 6 Mar., and against requiring Daniel O’Connell to swear the oath of supremacy before taking his seat, 18 May 1829. He presented Stockton petitions in favour of a local railway bill, 18 Mar. 1829. He voted for his uncle’s amendment to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb. 1830. He presented a petition against the malt and beer duties, 26 Feb. On 1 Mar. he was named as a defaulter and ordered to attend the next day. In his stead appeared his medical attendant, who testified that he was ‘in such a state of excitement as to render him unfit for any serious business’. Further light is shed on this episode, and on his poor attendance record generally, by Lord Durham’s report to Lord Grey, 9 Mar., of rumours that ‘Russell is a confirmed lunatic and under confinement, drinking having at last effected it’.7 In fact, he resurfaced later in the session to vote for Jewish emancipation, 17 May, abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June, and reform of the civil government of Canada, 25 May 1830. Despite whispers against him in Durham, he was returned unopposed at the general election that summer.8

In August 1830 Durham informed Grey that, during an interval in which Russell ‘happened to be sober’, he had confided his belief that ‘no good would ever come until the duke was turned out’. The following month Durham gathered that Russell and Tennyson were likely to wait and ‘see how "the cat jumps"’, but that they ‘incline towards the Huskisson section’.9 Ministers listed Russell among their ‘foes’ and, had he not been shut out of the lobby, he would have voted against them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov.10 He presented anti-slavery petitions, 11 Nov., 8 Dec., and commended the repeal of the coastwise coal duty to Grey’s ministry as a popular measure, 19 Nov. 1830. Early in 1831 he received generous remuneration for making two of his borough seats available to the premier.11 Although the government’s reform bill scheduled Bletchingley and Saltash for disfranchisement, Russell divided for the second reading, 22 Mar., and presented petitions in its favour, 28 Mar., 19 Apr. 1831, when he voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment. He was returned again for Durham at the ensuing general election. He presented a petition from the inhabitants of Stockton for parliamentary representation, 30 June. He paired for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, but was listed as an absentee from many of the divisions in committee. He was granted three weeks’ leave on account of ill health, 16 Sept., and again, 7 Oct. He divided for the second reading of the revised bill, 17 Dec. 1831, its details and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He was absent from the division on the motion for an address asking the king to appoint only ministers committed to carrying an unimpaired measure, 10 May. He voted with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb., but was absent from the later division on the loan, 12 July. He divided in the minority for inquiry into distress in the glove trade, 31 Jan. He voted with the majority in a committee against the Sunderland wet docks bill, 2 Apr. 1832.

The division of Durham by the Reform Act weakened Russell’s interest, and he did not stand again at the general election of 1832. Writing to Lord Melbourne the following year, he bitterly recalled ‘the largest sacrifices of property’ he had made for the Whig cause, for which he had ‘never asked any but the slightest favours, not one of which has been granted’.12 He continued the comprehensive rebuilding programme at Brancepeth Castle begun by his father, but he neglected Wallsend colliery, the fount of his wealth; it became prone to accidents and flooding and was eventually closed, contributing to the depletion of the family fortunes.13 He died in January 1850. He left £5,000 to his ‘adopted son’ Alfred Joseph Riddell, while all his real estate passed to his only sister Emma, wife of Gustavus Frederick Hamilton, 7th Viscount Boyne, who took the additional name of Russell.14

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Howard Spencer


  • 1. Durham CRO, Brancepeth mss D/Br/F294; Lincs. AO, Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss Td’E H108/15, 16, 18, 24.
  • 2. Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss H1/87, 93.
  • 3. Ibid. 105, 108.
  • 4. Ibid. 109; Add. 38753, f. 4.
  • 5. Durham Chron. 16 Feb. 1828.
  • 6. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 5 July 1828.
  • 7. Grey mss, Durham to Grey, 9 Mar. 1830.
  • 8. The Times, 16 July 1830.
  • 9. Grey mss, Durham to Grey, 17 Aug.; Brougham mss, Durham to Brougham, 7 Sept. 1830.
  • 10. The Times, 18 Nov. 1830.
  • 11. NLS, Ellice mss, Ellice to Russell, 25 Dec., reply 27 Dec. 1830; PRO NI, Anglesey mss D619/28A-B/36.
  • 12. Tennyson d’Eyncourt mss H3/8.
  • 13. Brancepeth mss F375; H.C. Surtees, Castle of Brancepeth, 11, 39; D. Bean, Tyneside, 164-5; W. Richardson, Hist. Wallsend, 240-2.
  • 14. PROB 11/2212/313; IR26/1878/250.