Saturday, May 02, 2020

"Independent mind" - Thomas Wallace Russell (1841-1920) - Part Two

Intro: 100 years ago tomorrow, on 2 May 1920, Thomas Wallace Russell died at his final residence of Olney, Terenure, in south Dublin, at the age of 79. He was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin. His obituaries portray him as having been a complex, contradictory and conflicted man. But maybe that's what life does to us all...

• Early 1895
The death of his wife Harriet had certainly caused Russell to reflect on his life, but it didn't knock him off course. His prolific writing resumed, sharp attacks in the press continued, and by summer he was back in campaigning mode. He delivered a lecture in Fintona Presbyterian Church at the end of March, mainly recounting some of his experiences touring Canada and the USA. At Fintona he of course majored on Land Reform, reminding his audience that he was "standing between the extreme Land Leaguer and the extreme landlord".

He had been to Canada in 1892 and 1893, speaking to large crowds of Ulster expatriate audiences about Home Rule, and specifically opposing the pro-Home Rule stance of Edward Blake, the second Premier of Ontario. Russell had packed Montreal Opera House in January 1893. During the trip he studied the Canadian system of government, perhaps to see if any of that could apply to Ireland, but feared that Ireland might become as theocratic as Quebec.

• 1895 General Election victory

Standing once again in South Tyrone, Russell was opposed by the Methodist pro-Home Rule Thomas Shillington of Portadown, and won by 3239 votes to 3046. When the result was declared, three bands accompanied Russell and his campaign team into Dungannon – the Moygashel Flute Band, Dungannon Conservative Flute Band and the No Surrender band – where thousands of people had gathered to welcome him to the same Market Square where he had addressed large crowds before –

"although it rained during the whole evening it did not mar or prevent the loyal men of South Tyrone of celebrating and rejoicing over the grand victory they had obtained by sending the loyal, Unionist and farmer's friend Mr T.W. Russell, to represent them in Parliament. Bonfires and torchlights were kept up to a late hour. All passed off peaceably". – Belfast News Letter 27 July 1895

"South Tyrone has once more proved its loyalty to the Constitution, and shown that it cannot be bought by wither Irish Nationalists or English Separatists" – Tyrone Constitution, 2 August 1895.

One of the career outcomes for Russell was that in July 1895 the new Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Lord Salisbury appointed him to the role of Parliamentary Secretary of the Local Government Board.

• 1896: Remarriage, to Martha Catherine Keown
In October 1895 Russell announced his intention to marry again. Martha Keown was related to the late William Keown MP of Ballydugan near Downpatrick; she was the daughter of the late Lieutenant Colonel Keown of the 15th Hussars. She was also a niece of the Archbishop of Armagh, William Alexander, who conducted the ceremony at St Andrew's Church (shown here), Ashley Place, London on 25 May 1896. It was a quiet service with few guests, after which the couple honeymooned in Scotland. The church is gone now, demolished in 1953. The HQ building of John Lewis stands there today.

From the British Newspaper Archive, Russell's life for the next few years is the usual fare - public constituency meetings in towns like Aughnacloy, Clogher and (the) Moy, Parliamentary business, spats with opponents.

• 1899: Cracks appearing - 'black sheep in the fold'
In 1899 tremors were being felt in South Tyrone and he felt obliged to write to the press to request a special meeting in the constituency "to give me an opportunity of explaining my position and defending myself from attacks made in my absence". Rev Thomas Adderley from Ballygawley wrote an open letter to Russell which was published in the Freeman's Journal of 14 June 1899 which said "there are black sheep in every fold even as we believe you are one yourself".

Among other things, Russell vocally supported the establishing of a Catholic university in Ireland; the News Letter opposed him, the Northern Whig supported him and alleged there was a clique trying to oust him. It looks like Russell was on a collision course, caught between the two positions of what we call the 'constitutional question', and hoping that a completion of full Land Reform in Ireland might somehow satisfy both sides and preserve the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

• December 1899: Back to Scotland
There were rumours that Russell was going back to Scotland at the next election, to run in Glasgow.

In December Russell was back home in Cupar in Fife, where he addressed an audience on the subjects of the Boer War, the United Kingdom, and temperance reform, in which he said "in the main, the drink power was on the Unionist side, while temperance was with the Liberals". Certainly when you look at the background and politics of the Belfast distillers of that era Russell was correct. He went on to celebrate that he had helped "defeat and destroy two Home Rule Bills", and detailed all of the ills with which Ireland had been troubled during the past 100 years, which had resulted in "hatred of England".

• 1900 Russell's "extraordinary volte face"
Eventually, Russell would need to choose a side, and it seems that he decided to make overtures towards the Nationalist audience.  The Derry Journal ran an article entitled 'Mr T W Russell Adjusts His Muzzle'. Regardless of 1899 public disagreement with Rev Adderley, in July 1900 Adderley was one of those who once again selected Russell to run in the General Election to be returned as MP for South Tyrone.

• The Clogher Speech
On 20 September 1900, to launch his election campaign to an public audience of mainly Unionist voters, Russell delivered a single-issue speech on his proposals for 'compulsory land purchase'. He was received with loud applause, and aimed his verbal firepower at landlords, land agents, administrators and lawyers, as well as Unionist grandee Colonel Saunderson. Russell said the scheme 'would light a fire throughout Ulster which would not easily be put out' and that 'in the new Parliament there would be a real united Ireland on this question'.  Within days the speech was bring reprinted in pamphlet form on public sale.

Within days, Dromore born farmer's son William Gibson, (who was by then the founder of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company Ltd in London and an occasional patron of arts and literature) wrote an open letter to Russell, via William Richey of the Clogher Poor-law Board, commending his 'magnificent scheme ... this is the one thing required to make Ireland prosperous ... it is now in the hands of the farmers and traders of Ireland to remove the sole cause of all the trouble of the past', and offered to host four Co Down farmers to stay in London at Gibson's expense to lobby Parliament for up to two years, with the aim of gaining Parliament's approval for Russell's scheme. The Gibson Trust still exists today.

A week later the Irish Landlords Convention were going berserk, saying "we desire to protest in the strongest manner against the scheme of spoilation and confiscation just propounded by a member of the Government, Mr. T. W. Russell, under the name of compulsory purchase, and also against his numerous misstatements and inaccuracies respecting Irish landowners."

• The 1900 South Tyrone victory
He ran again as a Liberal Unionist, against Independent Nationalist candidate Edward Charles Thompson; the two men were personal friends, and mutually recognised each other as 'honourable opponents'. On Friday 12 October, in his victory speech at the successful count at Clogher courthouse, Russell showed his hand in what was reported as a 'Remarkable Speech by Mr Russell'. He said that

"... the landlords and their followers had turned against him, and had done their best to oust him from the position which he had filled for fifteen years ... a number of sensible Nationalist farmers had noticed the landlords' trick and had helped to return him as their candidate ... he had endeavoured to act fairly to all parties in this country ... he hoped that Roman Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists alike, would be benefitted, if he were spared, by his labours ..."

• A ‘vicious, little, teetotal, radical Scotchman’
Writing to the Marquess of Salisbury in 1900, the Duke of Abercorn described Russell as a ‘vicious, little, teetotal, radical Scotchman’. Salisbury in reply wrote, ‘I think he would keep his head better if he returned to alcohol.’ (NB – I must express my thanks to the friend who emailed that gem of a quote to me!)

December saw a public fallout between Russell and Sir William Moore, MP for North Antrim, and public talks being given by Russell at Fisherwick Place Presbyterian Church in Belfast as well as back in Clogher.

• December 1901: Ireland and the Empire, A Review 1800–1900
Russell expanded his thinking even further in book form, just before Christmas 1901 when he published Ireland and the Empire, A Review 1800–1900, which is on here. The chapter entitled 'The Two Irelands – The Ulster Problem' from page 258 onwards is particularly interesting.

A row about it ensued in the pages of the Northern Whig, it was praised in the Irish News by William Redmond. The London Evening Standard was unimpressed, saying that 'Mr Russell is the hero of his story ... no-one can say positively whether Mr Russell is still a Unionist'. The Dundee Evening Telegraph review said "the book is written with the directness which one is accustomed to have from the writer when he is on the platform... Mr Russell still claims to be a Unionist, but the whole plea of his writing is for a very decided form of Home Rule ...".

But maybe binary politics could never be an arena that Russell's ideas would succeed in.

• 1902 East Down election
Amidst the furore surrounding the content of the book, the next target for Russell was the by election in East Down. Campaigning began in mid January 1902, and his man of the moment was Monaghan-born James Wood, with their messaging focussed on Russell's high-profile land reform proposals. And the small tenant farmers of East Down were on board.

Part Three to follow...