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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Russell, Edward John (1878–1925)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Edward John Russell (1878-1925), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

Edward John Russell (1878-1925), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366941

Edward John Russell (1878-1925), politician, was born on 10 August 1878 at Warrnambool, Victoria, son of Irish-born Joseph Russell, baker, and his wife Mary Frances, née Conway, of Melbourne. Educated at Newport State School and St Mary's Catholic School, Williamstown, he worked as a dray-driver and later as a tinsmith. His involvement with the labour movement, dating from 1899, gave him a career. A delegate to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council for the Printers' Union he became an active member of the Victorian Socialist Party. In 1904 he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Prahran for Labor. Russell's ready tongue was his greatest asset; the handsome 'boy orator' was regarded as one of the movement's best debaters. In 1906 he was a successful Labor Senate candidate. Described before his election as 'clerk' or 'estate agent', Russell was remembered by a fellow socialist as in fact 'very unkempt, being unemployed for a long time'. V.S.P. members bought him a suit in which to campaign. On 30 April 1907 at St Ambrose's Catholic Church, Brunswick, he married Margaret May Evans.

Easy-going, popular and of moderate opinions, Teddy Russell adapted well to life in the Senate. Late in 1911 Melbourne Punch saw him as 'a man to be reckoned with—a wily political antagonist, who, under an air of never-failing bonhomie, conceals a cool, shrewd, wise head … He knows the game, and he plays it for all he is worth. But, unlike some members, he plays it fairly and truly all the time'. In 1913 he was a member of the select committee on the general election and a deputy chairman of committees. Next year he became the youngest member of the Fisher ministry (without portfolio), and served later under Hughes. In September 1916 the Victorian State executive of the Labor Party requested him to withdraw from the government over the conscription issue. Russell stayed on until 27 October, when he was one of three ministers who resigned in protest at Hughes's conduct of the conscription plebiscite. Only a few weeks later, despite his professed opposition to conscription, Russell became the sole Victorian member to follow Hughes out of the Labor Party, asserting that the State executive had no right to compel his resignation.

After rejoining Hughes, Russell continued as assistant minister. He was honorary minister, involved especially in shipping, in Hughes's Nationalist government in 1917-19. In March 1918, he was given the salaried post of vice-president of the Executive Council, but he carried a heavy workload. In 1918-21 he was chairman of the Commonwealth Wheat Board, of the jute, rubber and butter pools, and vice-president of the Board of Trade. He assisted (Sir) George Pearce in the defence portfolio and was acting minister for most of 1919. At one stage that year, when acting for E. D. Millen, Russell was responsible for all government business in the Senate. Tried beyond his capacities and prone to ignore the advice of his public servants, Russell's performance was dogged rather than distinguished. His health may have already begun to fail. He was dropped from the ministry in December 1921.

Russell's mental condition gradually deteriorated and his public life ceased after 1922. Still a senator, described in his will as an orchardist, he died in Sunbury Hospital for the Insane on 18 July 1925 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him. The family was left in straitened circumstances. The Australian Worker, not given to praise for renegades, recalled that for twenty years Russell was 'one of the Australian Labor Movement's most brilliant adherents and advocates'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Walker, Solidarity Forever (Melb, 1972)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1916, p 9761, 1925, p 1327
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Sept 1914, 20 July 1925
  • Punch (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1911, 20 Nov 1919
  • Herald (Melbourne), 18 July 1925
  • S. Merrifield collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Russell, Edward John (1878–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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