The Decline of Lord John Russell

John Prest describes how the progressive Whig reformer of the 1830s became unpopular as Prime Minister after 1846.

John Prest | Published in History Today

Lord John Russell reached his peak early and made more impact as Leader of the House of Commons between 1835 and 1841 than he did as Prime Minister from 1846 to 1852. His gradual loss of effectiveness did not pass unnoticed at the time. He was, as is well known, a seven months child and a very small man; fully grown, he stood five feet four and three quarter inches tall.

In 1831, when this ‘little fellow’ introduced the Reform Bill, he was regarded as a marvel, and in cartoons of the period he is drawn almost as large as Althorp who was a giant.

In 1835 when he became more prominent, Patrick Doyle set an enduring fashion by caricaturing him as Little John in the company of Robin Hood (O’Connell) fleecing the Irish church, but still showed him more or less man-size. Eleven years later, however, when Lord John became Prime Minister, few people referred to him so kindly as the Scots cottager with whom he sought shelter from a shower who looked him over, and called out to his wife that it was ‘Lord John Russell the biggest man in the kingdom’.

Rather it was Punch that expressed the general opinion by ransacking English history and English literature for scenes in which Lord John could be presented alternately as a small boy and a withered old woman.

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