Russell, Charles (1832–1900), Baron Russell of Killowen , lord chief justice of England and Wales 1894–1900, was born 10 November 1832 in Newry, Co. Down, one of six children of Arthur Russell, owner of a brewery in Newry, and Margaret Russell (née Mullan). She had five children by her first marriage to John Hamill (d. 1820); she and Arthur Russell married in 1825. The family was comfortably off. While Charles was still a child, they moved to Killowen on the shores of Carlingford Lough. The Russells were a well known catholic family in Co. Down: Arthur Russell's brother, Dr Charles Russell (qv), was the president of Maynooth College and a close friend of Cardinal Newman (qv). Arthur Russell died relatively young, in 1845.
Education and early career Russell was educated in his early years by a governess and then at the diocesan school in Belfast and a private school in Newry; he spent the final year of his school education at St Vincent's College, Castleknock, Dublin. Although he wanted to go to the bar, his mother was against the idea and he yielded to her wish and became a solicitor. Having practised at first in Newry, he later went to Belfast, where he quickly became known as an effective advocate in the police and county courts. He acquired a wider reputation as a result of his successful defence of his co-religionists in the village of Cushendall in the Antrim glens, who were involved in disturbances that followed a vigorous protestant proselytising campaign. But he had never abandoned his ambition to go to the bar and in 1856, at the age of 24, he made what was to be the most important decision in his career. Rather than go to the bar in Ulster where, as a Roman Catholic, his prospects would not have been of the best, he decided to take his chance on going to the English bar.
In order to reduce the time he would have to spend reading for the bar, Russell went to TCD for two years, where his tutor was John Kells Ingram (qv) (author of ‘Who fears to speak of ‘98?’), and where he passed the examination known as ‘Little-go’, but did not take a degree. He then went to London to read for the bar at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the bar in January 1859. A few months earlier, on 10 August 1858, he had married Ellen, eldest daughter of Dr Joseph Mulholland of Belfast, whom he had known since the end of his school days.
At the bar To start marriage and life at the bar in England without any connections in the legal profession was a remarkably bold step. However, he was lucky on two counts: his mother gave him £1,000 when he got married (quite a substantial sum in those days) and Dr Russell of Maynooth gave him a letter of introduction to a leading Irish catholic woollen merchant in Liverpool. This in turn brought him introductions to Irish catholic solicitors in Liverpool, and it was in the ‘Court of Passage’ in that city that he began to practise, although he and his wife continued to live in London. His practice developed rapidly and he soon became one of the leading figures on the northern circuit. From an early stage, he displayed an interest in public affairs and wrote a pamphlet, The catholics in the workhouse, pointing out the lack of catholic chaplains and schoolmasters in those institutions.
Russell's success as an advocate was due not only to his immense capacity for work, attention to detail, and shrewdness as a tactician: his dominating – some preferred to call it domineering – personality had a profound impact on both judges and juries. His frequently brusque manner towards solicitors did not prevent them from recognising his great gifts as a barrister, and those close to him were aware that, for all the roughness of his temperament, he was also a kind and considerate man.
He became a QC and bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1872 and moved to Harley St. Over the next three decades, he was to appear in some of the most famous causes célèbres in English legal history, including the divorce proceedings brought against Lady Colin Campbell, citing the duke of Marlborough as a co-respondent, and the ‘baccarat’ case in 1891 in which the prince of Wales made an appearance in the witness box. He appeared for Sir Charles Dilke in another notorious divorce case, which effectively ended the latter's political career. He also unsuccessfully defended Mrs Florence Maybrick on a charge of poisoning her husband; she was convicted and condemned to death, a sentence that was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. Russell was convinced that her conviction was a miscarriage of justice and pressed successive home secretaries, without success, to free her, even after he became a judge.
Liberal MP 1880–86 Russell had become actively interested in politics at an early stage in his career and, after two unsuccessful attempts, was eventually elected as a liberal MP for Dundalk in 1880. This was at a time when the Irish parliamentary party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), was bringing the issue of home rule for Ireland to the forefront of British political life. Russell, however, although he admired many of the Irish patriotic figures from the earlier part of the century, such as O'Connell (qv) and the Young Irelanders – he had a particular respect for his fellow Newry man, John Mitchel (qv) – was initially not a supporter of the home rule cause. He thought that priority should be given to the struggle for the reform of land tenure and local government. However, as a result of the 1886 general election, while the liberals led by W. E. Gladstone were the largest party in the house of commons, the Irish party held the balance of power. Russell was appointed attorney general in the new liberal administration, thus fulfilling his long cherished ambition to become the first catholic holder of the office since the reformation. He also, by virtue of his office, became leader of the bar and was knighted.
Gladstone, who had been for some time convinced that some degree of legislative independence would have to be accorded to Ireland, now introduced his first home rule bill, and Russell, despite his earlier reservations as to the wisdom of giving priority to the demand for home rule, played a prominent role in rallying support for the measure, which he helped pilot through the house of commons. It was, however, ultimately defeated and the prospect of home rule receded further with the return to power at the next election of the conservatives led by Lord Salisbury.
The Special Commission There followed in the years 1888–9 the episode in Russell's life for which he is perhaps still best remembered. This began with the publication in The Times of a series of articles entitled ‘Parnellism and crime’, intended to demonstrate a link between the Irish leader, his principal colleagues, and various outrages. Among the documents relied on in the articles to advance this thesis were letters alleged to have been written by Parnell which condoned, in part at least, the Phoenix Park murders. A special commission consisting solely of judges was appointed by the government to investigate the claims made in the articles, and Russell accepted the brief on behalf of Parnell and the other Irish politicians accused of complicity in such activities by the authors of the articles. Russell's cross-examination of Richard Pigott (qv), the journalist who had supplied The Times with the letters, destroyed his credibility and exposed him as having forged the letters himself; Pigott fled to Madrid before his evidence was completed and committed suicide, having left a written confession that he had fabricated the letters. Part of The Times's case was left in ruins, and Russell spent nine days in a closing address to the commission in which he urged the judges to have regard to the long history of agrarian unrest in Ireland.
However, when the report of the commission appeared, while it inevitably confirmed that the letters had indeed been forged, it also concluded that Parnell and his colleagues had had links to various criminal activities that accompanied the land war. There were some who were critical of Russell's conduct of their defence before the commission: they charged him with having concentrated on the discrediting of Pigott – a task which, given the material at his disposal, could have been easily accomplished by any competent advocate – while neglecting the other aspects of the articles which were potentially damaging to the Irish party. Some fuel was added to these criticisms by the fact that Russell had a general retainer from The Times. Although he had informed his clients that he required to be released from it in order to appear for the Irish leaders, he conspicuously refrained from cross-examining the editor of the newspaper, leaving that important assignment to his junior, Herbert Asquith, the future prime minister. However, it is undoubtedly true that Russell's cross-examination of Pigott became part of legal folklore in much the same manner as that other famous forensic duel from the same period, also involving two Irish protagonists, Edward Carson's (qv) destruction of Oscar Wilde (qv) during the trial for criminal libel of the marquess of Queensberry.
Attorney general and lord chief justice 1892–1900 When the liberals returned to power in 1892, Russell again became attorney general and added to his reputation by his conduct on behalf of the government of the Behring Sea arbitration in which the British and United States governments clashed over seal fishing rights in that area, the ruling eventually being in favour of Great Britain. Gladstone wished Russell to be appointed lord chancellor, but was frustrated by the law that excluded catholics from holding that office. In May 1894, however, he was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary, adopting the title of Baron Russell of Killowen. Only a month later, Lord Coleridge, the lord chief justice of England and Wales, died, and Russell was appointed to succeed him, the first Roman Catholic ever to hold the office.
Great advocates notoriously do not always make good judges. The tapping on his silver snuffbox which was the ominous counterpoint to so many cross-examinations was now replaced by the insistent drumming of his pencil on the bench as the Chief showed his exasperation at obtuseness or long-windedness. Despite this, his tenure of the office, although relatively brief, won almost universal praise. The combative and domineering style that had marked his career at the bar now gave way to courtesy and open-mindedness. He made some notable contributions to the civil law, but, of the cases in which he was involved, that which attracted the greatest public attention was undoubtedly the prosecution that arose out of the Jameson raid in South Africa late in 1895. Dr Jameson and four others were handed over by the Boer authorities in the Transvaal following the abortive raid they had led on the Boer republic, instigated by Cecil Rhodes, prime minister of the Cape Colony, with the apparent connivance of the British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. The five were tried before three judges (led by Russell) and a special jury in July 1896, and Russell, concerned that the mounting tide of anti-Boer feeling in Britain would lead to a perverse verdict, insisted on the jury being asked specific questions as to the actions of the defendants. While the jury answered all the questions adversely to the defendants, they displayed a marked reluctance to bring in a verdict of guilty; they were told peremptorily by Russell to record a verdict of guilty, which they ultimately did. Russell himself, it should be said, was certainly not an anti-imperialist: he regarded the British empire as providing a splendid opportunity for Irish people to carve out rewarding careers abroad. But his friend and biographer, R. Barry O'Brien (qv), a Parnellite MP, recorded a private conversation with him towards the end of his life in which he expressed profound and prescient misgivings as to the looming Boer war: he saw it as the beginning of the end of the empire.
Russell was not a bookish man: he was gregarious and particularly fond of playing cards and racing. He was well known as a good judge of racehorses, was an owner himself and was counsel to the Jockey Club. Russell died on 9 August 1900 after a short illness. He was survived by his wife and nine children, with whom he had enjoyed a happy marriage and family life. He was the founder of a remarkable legal dynasty: both his son and his grandson followed in his footsteps as lords of appeal in ordinary under the same title of Baron Russell of Killowen. There is a full-length portrait in oils of Russell, wearing the robes of lord chief justice, by his namesake, Charles Russell (1852–1910), in Castleknock College, Dublin. Portraits in London include a head-and-shoulders by Sargent in the National Portrait Gallery, a full-length by J. D. Penrose in the Law Courts, and a half-length by Edwin Ward in the Reform Club.