Radical Liberal with a social conscience
In 1919 a book was published in London entitled The New Heaven. It was written by a minister, as you might expect.
The Times of London described it as a “glowing picture of the future life”. It was indeed written by a minister but he was the Minister of Internal Affairs and Public Health in the William Massey government in New Zealand.
The author was one of the few Liberal Party members of that coalition government. More than 40 years earlier he had been a Wesleyan minister. His story makes fascinating reading, though his moment of glory was also his tragedy.
He was George Warren Russell, born in London in 1854, the son of Miriam and Gregory Russell, a bricklayer and builder. The family emigrated to Tasmania, where George was educated at Launceston Grammar School. They moved to New Zealand in 1865.
As a lad George worked for the Southland News in Invercargill and later served his apprenticeship as a compositor with the Evening Post in Wellington.
He then entered Wesleyan Methodist ministry. He was stationed as a probationer at Gisborne, New Plymouth and Hokitika in the early 1870s. Disagreements with the church over its itinerant system led to his resignation without ordination.
In partnership with his brother George Russell established the Manawatu Herald. In 1879 he returned to Hokitika to marry Charlotte Park. He managed the Manawatu Times in Palmerston North and then bought two Waikato newspapers.
In some ways Russell remained a preacher all his life. His 1887 booklet, Catechism on the Duties of Life, was later approved for use in state schools as a non-sectarian guide to ethics, morality and civic duty.
He moved to Christchurch in 1889, and became senior partner in a printing firm. In 1898 he took over the newly founded Spectator, an illustrated weekly embracing sport, society, literature and politics. Under his outspoken editorship the Spectator prospered.
But Russell aspired to a career in politics, and was a Liberal member for Riccarton in 1893. He established a reputation for incisive speaking and independent views – advocating women's rights, a state bank, and a universal pension.
At first nicknamed 'Riccarton Russell' to distinguish him from Captain William Russell of the Hawkes Bay, he was later known as 'Rickety Russell', due to his tenuous hold on the Riccarton seat.
He gathered around him a small group known as the Progressive Liberal Association. In 1896 he tried to form them into a Radical Party to hold the balance of power in the next parliament but lost his seat to William Rolleston in that year's election. He regained the seat in 1899 by just one vote but lost it in 1902.
During the ensuing break he became involved with education in Canterbury.
Russell returned to politics in 1908, winning the Avon seat on the licensing issue. Although a Wesleyan, he opposed prohibition. He retained the seat quite comfortably in 1911, and was considered as a possible Liberal leader when he was chosen for the 1915 Cabinet.
During World War I Russell carried the largest load of administrative responsibilities in the Cabinet. Besides Internal Affairs, he was also minister of Public Health, and of Hospitals and Charitable Aid, among other things.
Among his most important wartime work was the organisation of the hospitals at Hanmer and Rotorua for sick and convalescent soldiers.
The great challenge of his ministerial career came late in 1918 with the influenza epidemic. He had to decide whether or not to quarantine the passenger liner Niagara when it arrived at Auckland in October 1918. On the advice of his officials he allowed it to dock without quarantine, a decision that was medically correct but politically disastrous.
When his senior departmental officials went down with influenza, he took charge himself. He set up temporary hospitals and sent army medical units to the worst-affected areas. He set out a comprehensive system of relief that did much to steady public morale.
He persuaded Cabinet to approve a generous pension for epidemic widows, and called for a national conference on town planning, which took place in May 1919.
The epidemic left Russell run down and exhausted. He suffered a backlash of public bitterness over the influenza epidemic, and lost his seat to the Labour candidate. He stood for an Auckland seat, and in 1922 contested Avon again, but was unsuccessful.
After the death of his wife, Charlotte in 1924, Russell retired from public life. In 1927 he married Hilda May Tidey in Wellington, and was still sending letters and articles to the newspapers right up to his death at the age of 83, at Eastbourne, Wellington, in June 1937.
His waspish tongue in opposition won him few friends or allies but he deserves to be remembered as one of New Zealand's most effective wartime cabinet ministers. It’s difficult to see his like in Wellington these days. What’s happening to our social conscience?
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