Page 1: Biography
Russell, John Benjamin
Lawyer, businessman, landscape gardener
This biography, written by R. C. J. Stone, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
John Benjamin Russell was born on 11 December 1834, at Maitland, New South Wales, Australia, the son of Irish immigrants Mary Roberts and her husband, Thomas Russell, a carpenter. In April 1840 John and his older brother and sister were brought by their parents in the Lady Leith to Kororareka (Russell), New Zealand. Within a year the family had moved to Auckland. Two more brothers and a sister were born before Mary Russell died suddenly in 1847.
John had less formal schooling than his talented elder brother Thomas, his education being interrupted in 1850 when their father took John and his younger brother James to the Californian gold diggings. On his return to Auckland John was articled to become a lawyer, for much of the time attached to his solicitor brother Thomas, who by the late 1850s was already adept in the arts of conveyancing and business.
On 19 November 1861, while still an articled clerk, John Russell married Mary Ann Nolan at Auckland. Also of Irish stock, she had recently arrived from Australia. Theirs was to be a happy and successful marriage. There were seven children – only one a boy – all of whom Mary Russell taught to paint and draw. Endowed with strength of character and personality, she held advanced ideas for her time; for example, all her children were successfully instructed about contraception. She became a renowned hostess. When she died at Auckland on 10 September 1931 an alert matriarch of 97, she had outlived her husband by almost four decades.
John Russell, more generally known in his adult years as 'J. B.', was admitted by Chief Justice G. A. Arney to practise as a lawyer after examination on 23 January 1863. Inclined to deprecate his personal looks – 'what a black-faced fellow for a half Irishman!', he once said of himself – he was probably the most handsome of the four Russell boys. All, like himself, were to become successful lawyers.
Working out of a small office at the foot of Shortland Street, for some years as a solo general practitioner, J. B. Russell did not feel the need for a permanent partner until 1873, when he admitted A. E. T. Devore (a later mayor of Auckland) into the firm. It was Russell's good fortune to have a sequence of able, even distinguished, partners: as well as Devore there were G. B. Davy and Theophilus Cooper, both of whom became judges, and Hugh and J. P. Campbell.
Yet J. B. was never overshadowed by any colleague, and it was he who provided the client base of what was to become one of New Zealand's most powerful law firms. Always hard-working and studious, as a young lawyer he would be accompanied home each day by the office boy carrying a sack full of books, on which he would work in the evening. As solicitor for the Auckland Harbour Board from its incorporation in 1871, and in time trusted adviser of powerful merchant families like the Nathans, Russell deliberately steered the practice towards the port and overseas trade, recognising Auckland's emerging economic significance. His chosen specialty, maritime law, was also related to a private passion for the sea. He sailed a yacht, and for some time commuted by ferry from a seaside suburb when it was neither fashionable nor convenient to live there.
A keen businessman who could become combative if thwarted, in private life Russell was, like his wife, eminently companionable. His obituary spoke of his having 'many intimate friends and acquaintance' who looked on him as 'a kind-hearted and generous man'.
The Russells' main homes, all standing in eight to 10 acres of land, were designed for entertaining no less than for living. They were large, or Russell quickly made them so. The first, in Upper Queen Street, was reported to have the biggest drawing room in Auckland. Thornedge, on the North Shore near Cheltenham Beach, quickly became a social centre. Characteristically, Mary Russell instituted in 1881 a Friday night 'bread and butter dance' to which guests came from as far away as Auckland, whence they were returned after midnight on a special ferry the cost of which was underwritten by Russell himself.
The Russells' last home, Marivare, in Epsom, into which the family moved after undertaking a two-year world tour in 1884–86, was the grandest by far. Extensively renovated, it contained a ballroom 48 feet long with a sitting-out bay, and an attached conservatory. Marivare parties and tennis afternoons became celebrated social occasions.
J. B. Russell was an ardent horticulturist. Each of his residences had vegetable allotments, a 'home farm' and a landscaped garden. The site of his home in Queen Street, now Myers Park, has huge trees such as Moreton Bay figs planted by him. Marivare he extensively replanted and landscaped with Phoenix palms, sycamores, Spanish oaks, bougainvillaea and other exotics to complement the native trees he reintroduced. Russell participated in the keen spirit of competition and emulation in the beautification of grounds shown by neighbours like John Logan Campbell, H. B. Morton, T. B. Gillies and G. B. Owen, thereby helping to convert Epsom into a picturesque, tree-filled suburb.
About 1892 Russell fell painfully ill with abdominal abscesses of obscure origin – diagnosed after his death as actinomycosis. In search of a cure he went to England, but after two operations by the renowned Harley Street surgeon Henry Morris, he died in London on 26 February 1894.