Lord John Russell served twice as prime minister. Neither period of office proved smooth, and his achievements were limited by weak leadership and difficult circumstances.
Born prematurely on 18 August 1792 in Mayfair, London, John Russell was the third son of the Duke of Bedford. The Russell family had been one of the principal Whig dynasties in England since the 17th century, and were among the richest handful of aristocratic landowning families in the country. He was educated first at Westminster School, and then privately. due to ill health, Russell was educated by tutors. He attended the University of Edinburgh between 1809 and 1812.
Russell entered the House of Commons as a Whig in 1813. In 1819, Russell embraced the cause of parliamentary reform, and led the more reformist wing of the Whigs throughout the 1820s. When the Whigs came to power in 1830 in Earl Grey’s government, Russell entered the government as Paymaster of the Forces, and was soon elevated to the Cabinet. Lord Russell came to Parliamentary attention for helping to write the 1832 Reform Bill, which increased the number of people eligible to vote.
He served as Leader of the Commons, and later as Home Secretary and Colonial Secretary under Melbourne. He then went on to lead the opposition to Robert Peel’s government, but supported Robert Peel in repealing the Corn Laws.
Prime Minister (30 June 1846 – 23 February 1852).
In 1846 after Peel resigned, Russell became leader himself.
Due to party disunity and his own ineffectual leadership, he was unable to get past many of the measures he wanted. His government also had to face problems including poor trade, high unemployment and the Irish potato famine.
As Prime Minister, he did manage to liberalise trade and limited women’s working hours. The Education Act of 1847 improved pay for teachers and granted money to non-conformist schools. The Australian Colonies Act of 1850 gave representative government to New South Wales. He also achieved improvements to the Poor Law.
Russell was forced to resign by his independent-minded Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. He then served briefly as Foreign Secretary under the Earl of Aberdeen, and then later under Lord Palmerston, having made up his differences with him.
In 1861 he was created Earl Russell.
Prime Minister (29 October 1865 – 28 June 1866).
When Lord Palmerston suddenly died in 1865, he formed a second government. His advanced age was outweighed by Queen Victoria’s trust in him but, when he immediately tried to introduce a further Reform Bill to extend the political franchise, his Cabinet failed to support him. He resigned with little regret the following year.