Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



, C.M.G. (1830–1904).

Lawyer, politician, and land speculator.

A new biography of Russell, Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Thomas Russell was born at Cork, in Ireland, being the son of a small farmer who emigrated to New Zealand with his family in the Lady Leigh and, after living for a few months at Kororareka, settled at Auckland in 1840. The elder Russell earned his living as a small farmer and a carpenter, while the mother managed a shop in Shortland Street. Although opportunities for education must have been limited, Thomas Russell received his from a Dr Currie. Later he entered the office of Thomas Outhwaite, a solicitor, and in 1851 was finally admitted to practice as one of the first two New Zealand lawyers. According to Larkworthy he was refused a partnership – hence his entering into practice on his own. Russell was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church and a close friend of the Rev. Walter Lawry, the leading Methodist in New Zealand. In 1855 he married Emmeline Vercoe, Lawry's niece. Shortly before, her sister Martha married John Grigg, who later took over Longbeach. The Methodist connection helped the growth of Russell's law practice, but he must have been engaged from an early date in land speculations, although opportunities at the time were rather limited. In 1860 his first major business undertaking, the New Zealand Insurance Co., was established, followed in 1861 by the Bank of New Zealand. Although it is probable that the idea of a New Zealand bank had been mooted for some time amongst the Auckland merchants who founded the New Zealand Insurance Co., Falconer Lark-worthy in his memoirs claims that Russell's decision to promote the establishment of a bank was prompted by the reluctance of the Bank of New South Wales to take over Russell's account with the Oriental Bank, which was withdrawing from New Zealand.

Russell entered into partnership with Frederick Whitaker in 1861 and, in the same year, was elected the member for Auckland City East, a seat which he held until 1866. He joined Domett's Executive in August 1862 and made his presence felt by a less compromising approach to the Maori land issue, a policy given expression by the passage of the Native Lands Act 1862 which abolished the sole right of the Crown to purchase Maori Land. The Whitaker-Fox Ministry was formed in 1863 for the purpose of pursuing a more rigorous war policy. The New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863, which authorised confiscations by proclamation of Maori-owned land, was the major legislative change made by this Ministry. Its fall in 1864 was the result of a growing conflict with Sir George Grey, who eventually refused to sanction the sale of confiscated land, with the consequent failure of Russell's policy of military settlements.

Upon the removal of the capital to Wellington in 1865 Russell became an ardent provincialist, but after a year's sojourn in the Provincial Council he retired from politics to devote his energies to business affairs, principally the Bank of New Zealand and the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Association which was established in London in 1865 with a capital of £500,000 to make advances to run-holders and farmers. The connection between this company and the bank remained a very close one for the next 20 years. Apart from his association with goldmining on the Thames, where he and Whitaker were most successful in the Caledonian Mine venture, Russell's name over the next decade or so is most closely linked with land companies in the Waikato, and the manner in which land was acquired for these companies caused a good deal of controversy. The Piako swamp purchase of 1873 was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry in 1875, as the land was sold to Russell at 5s. per acre (2s. 6d. in cash only) without all the provisions of the regulations having been complied with, particularly that which required that notice of purchases of confiscated land be advertised in the Gazette. In the same year the Government was criticised for entering into an arrangement with Russell which granted him a block of land near Te Aroha in return for his not competing with the Crown in the purchase of Maori land on the east side of the Waihou River. This transaction was finally validated by legislation in 1883. Although his name was not directly associated with it, the parliamentary controversy sparked off by Sir George Grey in 1879 and 1880 over the Patetere purchase in the Upper Waikato was also a criticism of Russell's speculative ventures.

To profit from the large blocks of land that he and his partners had secured in the Waikato, Russell, who had taken up residence in London in the mid-seventies, floated three large companies there with the aim of developing the land and selling it at a profit. The Waikato Land Association, formed in 1879 with a capital of £600,000, took over the 88,000 acres of the Piako swamp purchase; the Auckland Agricultural Co., with a capital of £800,000, was formed in 1881 and took over 107,000 acres stretching from Cambridge to Okoroire; and the New Zealand Thames Valley Land Co., in 1883 with a capital of £500,000, took over about 300,000 acres extending from Okoroire to Atiamuri. Although the promoters were ignorant of the fact, much of this latter block suffered from what was later discovered to be cobalt deficiency. Some of Russell's associates in these ventures were the former premier, Sir Edward Stafford, Sir James Fergusson, a former governor, Sir George Russell, and the Liberal politician, Phillip Mundella. None of these companies was successful, the decline in prices during the 1880s being one cause, but the main difficulty was the inability of Waikato soils to sustain satisfactory pastures or a succession of annual crops. The three companies came to lean more heavily on the Bank of New Zealand and the Loan and Mercantile Association for working capital, and thus contributed greatly to the difficulties both institutions faced in the early 1890s. Russell's connection with the Bank of New Zealand ceased in 1888, but he remained a director of the loan company. It was compelled to suspend payments in 1893 and the actions of its directors in continuing to pay dividends and increase capital when they knew that the company's advances were inadequately secured was severely criticised by the judge who examined its affairs. The President of the Board of Trade, Phillip Mundella, who had been a director, was forced to resign his office in 1894 as a result of these disclosures. Although Russell's land speculations ended in failure, his most successful venture began in 1890 when he acquired ownership of a number of mines at Waihi which he combined into the Waihi Goldmining Co., of which he remained a director until his death. After retiring from the Bank, Russell lived in England. He died at Normanswood, Farnham, Surrey, on 2 September 1904.

Most historians' estimates of Russell have been unfavourable, it being accepted that he was little more than an unprincipled speculator. This viewpoint is reinforced by Larkworthy who, though not interested in the ethics of Maori land confiscation, felt that Russell continually subordinated other people's interests to his own. There is no doubt, however, that he was a man of wide vision and had full confidence in New Zealand's economic expansion and that, although the immediate benefits derived by the community from large capital expenditure on land development in the Waikato were not so apparent, the longer term results were highly advantageous. Mention must also be made of his work as Minister of Defence, where he displayed his unusual organising abilities in establishing the Waikato military settlements in the face of the scepticism and, at times, hostility of the British military authorities. Russell was awarded the C.M.G. in 1877.

by Patrick Russell Stephens, M.A., Economics Section, Department of Agriculture, Wellington.

  • Ninety-one Years, Larkworthy, F. (1924)
  • New Zealand Banker's Hundred, Chappell, N. M. (1961)
  • Sir George Grey, Rutherford, J. (1961)
  • The Times (Lond.), 3 Sep 1904 (Obit).


Patrick Russell Stephens, M.A., Economics Section, Department of Agriculture, Wellington.