Henry Russell – the Robert was added later – was born in the parish of Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, on 13 January 1817, the son of Robert Russell, a lawyer, and his wife, Elizabeth Purvis. Little is known about his upbringing and education, although he probably went to the local parish school attached to the Free Kirk. Russell's brother Thomas Purvis (known as Purvis) came to New Zealand in January 1843; Henry and two other brothers, John and Robert, followed soon after. Probably in Wellington, sometime before April 1849, Henry married Susanna Cobham Herbert; they were to have one daughter.
Henry Russell is said to have worked at Makara and learnt some Maori before he and his brothers joined the movement of more enterprising New Zealand Company settlers into Wairarapa. Purvis grazed stock on Maori land at Whangaimoana for a small rent; Henry and John also worked there. In partnership with Purvis and Daniel Riddiford, Henry successfully applied in 1853 for grazing runs on depasturing licences with the right to purchase a homestead. Backed by the millionaire investor in New Zealand Company settlements, A. G. Tollemache, he acquired a run on the Waipukurau block, naming it Mount Herbert after his wife's family. It adjoined Purvis's run, Woburn, which was on the Porangahau block.
A shrewd, enterprising land-jobber and runholder with great energy, Henry Russell continued to purchase land, enlarging Mount Herbert and acquiring Little Bush at Mangateretere. His flock numbers rose from 1,410 in 1856 to 25,502 in 1879. Long before the improvement of sheep runs became a general practice he set a good example. He advertised for tradesmen and workers in Scottish newspapers. Passage money was paid by Russell and then deducted from wages, as was the cost of homes and the first year's rations. When Hannah Richardson (later Hannah Ormond) visited Mount Herbert in 1860 she was comforted and charmed by elegant living in what was 'just like an English home'. In the grounds were an avenue of oaks, other trees, a rose garden, lawns, walnuts, figs, grapes and vegetables. After the original homestead was burnt down, the site was used for a shorthorn stud; a new homestead was built in Wanstead road.
In 1867 Russell purchased the native reserve Pa Flat, and laid out the village of Waipukurau. He leased town sections at low rentals for 99 years and erected cottages for 'one of every needed trade to form a compact little community' under his patronage. He provided sites for a school, a town hall, a public hospital, a cemetery, a Presbyterian church, and an Anglican church for which his sister-in-law, Harriet Herbert, gave him £100. To provide employment for tradesmen and labourers in the district he started a number of short-lived enterprises: a sawmill, a brick works, a flax mill, a boiling-down works and fellmongery, a flour mill and a nursery garden.
Henry and Susanna Russell and Harriet Herbert became well known in Waipukurau for their largesse. Harriet recruited and assisted young women immigrants for the province. While 'poor Mrs Russell' remained in the background and managed the home and garden, Harriet was an indefatigable worker for the Anglican church, the day school and the hospital, and was the first woman to be elected to an education board. Russell, 'a capital, genial and open-handed host', was much involved in public affairs. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1856 and given a commission to investigate the affairs of the Te Aute College Trust, established in 1862. He sat on the Bench in Waipukurau, was sheriff of Hawke's Bay district, and a member of various local bodies. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1862 and regularly attended its sessions. Proudly independent, autocratic and overbearing, he quarrelled with most of his fellow settlers; they dubbed him 'Lord Henry' because of the way he treated them.
Russell's political career was marked by a bitter feud with Donald McLean and J. D. Ormond. In 1863 Russell and other inland settlers wanted the government to send military forces to Hawke's Bay while Ormond looked to friendly Maori and a small volunteer force to keep the peace. He regarded Russell as 'a very dangerous fellow' and 'a great mischief maker', and abused Russell's inefficiency, calling the local militia a complete farce and claiming that the Waipukurau stockade was not needed and was neglected. In March 1869 Premier Edward Stafford dismissed McLean as agent of the general government in Hawke's Bay and replaced him with Russell. Before his appointment could be gazetted, McLean became minister of defence and native affairs and instructed Ormond to take over Russell's duties. The enmity continued: when the Native Lands Frauds Prevention Bill came before the Legislative Council in 1870, Russell moved a new clause to make it retrospective for five years, but McLean had this thrown out in the House of Representatives.
Rivalry between the two factions in Hawke's Bay politics peaked during the scramble by the Crown and private individuals to gain the favour of the chiefs named on certificates of title awarded by the Native Land Court, and to purchase large blocks of land. Although the Russells employed the same pressure tactics as their opponents, they were nevertheless (as W. R. Russell said) 'volunteer protectors' of the Maori, 'self appointed.' Henry Russell was genuinely concerned about the condition of Maori in the Wairarapa and Waipukurau districts, and appreciative of their contribution to the success of early colonising. He resented the arrogant way in which they were treated by settlers and wanted them to retain some of their land and rangatiratanga. With Purvis Russell he assisted them in various ways, for example by pushing up the price paid to Maori when land was being purchased; by encouraging Karaitiana Takamoana to demand a higher price for the 70 Mile Bush block which Ormond required for the Napier–Manawatu railway and bush settlement; and by trying to secure the interest of Te Hapuku's grand-daughter, Arihi Te Nahu, in the Heretaunga block when it was purchased by a syndicate of runholders which included Ormond.
In the early 1870s the Russells formed an uneasy alliance with Henare Matua, one of the chiefs who had sold the Waipukurau and Porangahau blocks to the Crown; he now wanted to repudiate land sales and leases. Henare Matua told his supporters that 'the Russells could get their tribal lands back if sufficient funds were raised.' A Maori committee was formed to build up the movement, which spread rapidly south from Pakipaki to Wairarapa. From March 1872 Henry Russell spent much of his time on the road and in Maori settlements, addressing meetings called to rally support, collect material and raise contributions for the Repudiation movement. Russell proposed proceedings be taken in the Supreme Court to upset flawed land deeds, and exerted pressure on the government to investigate land deals. Leading chiefs and settlers favoured such an investigation, and the Hawke's Bay Native Lands Alienation Commission was appointed. It sat in Napier from 3 February to 12 April 1873, but spent most of its time investigating the Heretaunga purchase. Other prominent leases on which Henare Matua had prepared information were not investigated.
To assist the Maori committee in seeking information, preparing submissions and supplying newspapers with material for national distribution, Russell opened the Repudiation office in Napier. He had an interpreter, Edward Maunsell, from Wairarapa and a lawyer, A. R. W. Lascelles, to assist him. He also engaged the Auckland lawyer-politicians John Sheehan and (later) W. L. Rees, another interpreter, John White, and clerks. To meet expenses he drew unsparingly on his personal reserves. At Maori meetings he backed Henare Matua's appeals for contributions, and to enable chiefs to contribute he advanced them money, taking mortgages over their land as security. An additional burden on him was the financing of Te Wananga, a bilingual paper, published from 1874 to 1878 in opposition to the government-controlled Te Waka Maori o Niu Tirani.
Ormond and his supporters had counter-attacked by attempting to expel Russell from the Hawke's Bay Club, without success. A public meeting in Napier which had favoured the special government inquiry wanted Russell expelled from the Commission of the Peace and the Legislative Council. Ormond competed with Russell in making loans to chiefs and used his influence with the banks to stop advances to Russell. An advance from the National Bank of New Zealand enabled Russell to carry on.
The Hawke's Bay Native Lands Alienation Commission was a bitter disappointment to the Repudiationists because it upset no titles. Thereafter Russell concentrated on challenging land deeds in the Supreme Court. Napier was said to be 'bristling with writs' issued from the Repudiation office. But litigation was expensive and few deeds were invalidated. Russell was heavily mortgaged and in 1878 his credit was restricted by the National Bank. To add to his troubles, fire destroyed the greater part of his timber, some fences, small fields of seed-grass and 30 acres of oats. Little Bush was publicly auctioned in small allotments in September 1879.
By this time Maori support for the Repudiation movement had fallen away. Sullen and discontented in the aftermath of the commission, Henare Matua's followers unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament for another special commission, and in 1876 decided to establish a separate Maori parliament. Encouraged by Ormond some Maori in the Te Aute district cut Russell's fences and disturbed stock on his leasehold land, forcing him to act against them. In 1881 he won his claim for the amount of £2,746 he had advanced Arihi Te Nahu a year after the Heretaunga purchasers finally got her to sign a deed of confirmation for about £5,000. At least the Repudiation movement had forced up the price paid for the Heretaunga block and delayed the issue of land transfer titles to the purchasers.
Russell was now in poor health and in 1883 left for a trip to England. He intended to return but changed his mind several times. His seat on the Legislative Council was declared vacant after he had been absent without leave for two consecutive sessions. He died on 30 April 1891 at The Wick, The Hill, Richmond, Surrey, England. Susanna Russell died in Napier on 23 September 1910. When news of Russell's death reached Hawke's Bay, the newpapers made no mention of his connection with the Repudiation movement. Rather, they chose to describe him as 'a grand settler.' No Maori lamented him. Clearly they suspected his motives and used him for their own purposes as he had used them. His motives were complex; his achievements included the exposure of sharp practice and injustice in land deals.