Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Russell, John (1795-1883)

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RUSSELL, JOHN (1795–1883), ‘the sporting parson,’ eldest son of John Russell, rector of North Hill, near Callington in Cornwall, and afterwards of Iddesleigh in North Devon, by his wife Nora (Jewell), was born at Dartmouth on 21 Dec. 1795. His father was of the family of Kingston Russell, and the descendant of a branch which settled in Devonshire in 1551. He himself was a ‘hunting parson,’ and his sons and pupils took their share in field sports from the earliest possible age. John was sent to Plympton grammar school (where Sir Joshua Reynolds was educated), and thence passed to Blundell's school, Tiverton, where he and a friend started a scratch pack of hounds of various breeds. His exploits with this pack came to the master's ears, and he was within an ace of being expelled, but recovered the goodwill of Dr. Richards by winning the Balliol scholarship. Eventually, however, he matriculated from Exeter College, Oxford, as ‘of Crediton,’ on 9 Nov. 1814. At Oxford he managed, while avoiding debts, to make aristocratic friendships, and to enjoy a good deal of sport, hunting as often as he could afford it with Sir Thomas Mostyn's and Sir Harry Peyton's hounds. To excel in the hunting field was already his ambition when, having graduated B.A. on 17 Dec. 1818, he was ordained a deacon in 1819. In the following year he was ordained priest, and obtained his first curacy at George Nympton, near South Molton, where he enjoyed the friendship of the Rev. John Froude of Knowstone, famed throughout Devonshire for his love of hounds and disregard of episcopal authority. On 30 May 1826 Russell married, at Bath, Penelope Incledon Bury, daughter of Admiral Bury of Dennington House, Barnstaple, and shortly afterwards went to Iddesleigh to act as his father's curate. He had kept some otter-hounds at Molton. At Iddesleigh he was enabled to realise his desire to keep and hunt a fine pack of foxhounds. The brilliant sport that he showed with these ‘wild red rovers of Dartmoor’ soon made his name a household word in the west of England; his stentorian ‘view-halloo’ could be sworn to by every rustic between Dartmoor and Exmoor, and sportsmen journeyed from afar to have a day with the clerical Nimrod. His abstemiousness and his powers of endurance were remarkable, and the distance that he rode to and from cover, generally on the same horse and often over lonely moors, enhanced the quality of his achievements on the hunting field proper. With the hounds, he seemed to know instinctively the line that the hunt would take. No man had a more masterful control of his pack; it was said that he never needed a whip to turn them, and that he never lost a fox by a false cast. ‘Jack Russell,’ as he was familiarly called, was equally popular with the rural population and with the county gentry, numbering among his intimate friends Earl Fortescue, the Earl of Portsmouth, George Lane-Fox, and Henry Villebois.

In 1831 Russell went to live at Tor Down, an old stone grange on the Exmoor road, not far from Barnstaple, and in the following year he was presented to the perpetual curacy of the adjoining parish of Swymbridge. Soon after his appointment the bishop of Exeter, the martinet Henry Phillpotts [q. v.], much troubled by the number of hunting parsons in his diocese, cited Russell to appear before him and answer certain charges of neglect in his cure, and remonstrated with him on the subject of keeping hounds. The charges were discovered to be unfounded; Russell bluntly refused to give up his hounds, and there the matter rested. In 1845 he was instrumental in getting up the annual fox-hunting gathering at South Molton, a sort of Tarporley meeting of the west, and he helped to revive the Exmoor stag-hunt. He did what was in his power to further agricultural improvement in a backward part of the country. In 1865, at the Royal Agricultural Society's Plymouth meeting, he first met the Prince of Wales, who was much delighted by his society; and, subsequently, during Christmas week, he was more than once a visitor at Sandringham. In 1880 he was collated to the rectory of Black Torrington upon the presentation of Lord Poltimore, and left Swymbridge with reluctance. His famous pack of small foxhounds was sold to Henry Villebois. Russell was now over eighty, but he lost no time at Torrington in starting a pack of harriers. His local popularity and his keenness in all matters connected with sport had in no wise abated when he died at Black Torrington rectory on 28 April 1883. He was buried at Swymbridge on 3 May 1883. His wife had died on 1 Jan. 1875, leaving a son John Bury, who predeceased his father.

An insatiable hunter, an untiring rider, an excellent judge of horse and hounds, an enthusiastic upholder of Devonshire cider and cream, and no less staunch in support of Devonshire wrestlers against their traditional rivals across the Tamar, Russell possessed every element of county popularity. With a stalwart frame and a long reach, he had in his youth an additional claim to respect, for he was an admirable sparrer; and in his old age he well knew how to exact the deference due to his station. A tall, spare, upright figure, ‘with a character to match,’ he was a keen discriminator of men and an excellent talker, his full-flavoured Devonian speech being garnished with picturesque west-country phrases, and illuminated by a pungent wit. He was a good friend to the poor, and left no pastoral duty unperformed. In the pulpit he tried to reform conduct rather than to expound doctrine, being a stern denouncer of bad language, strong drinks, and the ‘filthy habit of smoking.’

[Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1714–1886; Boase's Regist. of Exeter Coll. p. 216; the Russell Album, with introduction by C. A. Mohun Harris, and portrait; Illustrated London News, 12 May 1883 (portrait); Sporting and Dramatic News, 5 and 12 May 1883; Field, 5 May 1883; Men of the Reign, 1885, pp. 783–4; Times Obituaries, 1883; notes kindly supplied by W. F. Collier, esq., of Horrabridge. In addition to the above a full-length picture of Russell amid his sporting surroundings was supplied during his lifetime in the gossipy ‘Memoir of the Rev. John Russell, and his Out-of-door Life’ (London, 1878, 8vo; new edit. 1883), compiled from papers originally contributed to Baily's Magazine.]

T. S.