Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Russell, William (1740-1818)

RUSSELL, WILLIAM (1740–1818), merchant and reformer, son of Thomas Russell (1696–1760), ironmaster, and Frances (1713–1767), daughter of Thomas Pougher of Leicester, was born in Birmingham on 11 Nov. 1740, and educated for a mercantile life. His business was the export trade from Birmingham and Sheffield to Russia, Spain, and the United States. As a Birmingham townsman he showed great public spirit. In politics he was a strong advocate for measures of reform, especially interesting himself in the agitation for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. On the settlement of Joseph Priestley [q. v.] at Birmingham in 1780, Russell, who was a member of his congregation, became his generous supporter and intimate friend. The dinner of 14 July 1791, which led to the Birmingham riots, was mainly promoted by Russell, and, as he states, on commercial grounds, in the interest of the Birmingham trade with France (Letter in Priestley's Appeal, 1792, ii. 135). On the third day of the riots his house at Showell Green was burned by the mob. He went up to London with his family, arriving on 18 July, and, at an interview with Pitt, obtained assurance that the government would indemnify the sufferers. His letter (20 July) to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ gives an account of the dinner, in correction of an inflammatory article in the ‘Times’ of 19 July.

Soon afterwards Russell retired from business, and lived near Gloucester. In August 1794 he set out from Falmouth for the United States with his son Thomas and two of his daughters, intending to wind up matters connected with his American trade, and to look after his paternal estate in Maryland. His vessel was captured by a French squadron and detained in Brest harbour. He did not reach America till September 1795. Here he stayed nearly five years, seeing much of the leaders of American affairs, visiting Washington in his retirement at Mount Vernon, and beginning a correspondence with him. In 1802 he visited France on his way to England, and was detained, on the outbreak of war, at Ardennes, in Normandy, where his kindness to the needy gained him the name of ‘le père des pauvres.’ He returned to England after the peace, arriving on 26 Oct. 1814.

His last years were spent under the roof of his son-in-law, James Skey, at The Hyde, near Upton-on-Severn, Worcestershire. He died there on 26 Jan. 1818, and was buried on 3 Feb. in a family vault at St. Philip's Church, Birmingham. He married, in September 1762, Martha Twamley (1741–1790), and had a son, Thomas Pougher Russell (1775–1851), and four daughters.

[Memoir in Monthly Repository, 1818, pp. 153 seq.; Rutt's Memoirs of Priestley; Journal relating to the Birmingham Riots, in Christian Reformer, 1835, pp. 293 seq. (by Russell's eldest daughter); art. Priestley, Joseph; information from T. H. Russell, esq., Birmingham.]

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