George Warren Russell was born in Haggerston, London, England, on 24 February 1854, the son of Miriam Warren and her husband, Gregory Ruffell Russell, a bricklayer and builder. The family emigrated to Tasmania, where Russell was educated at Launceston Grammar School, before moving to New Zealand in 1865.
As a lad Russell worked for the Southland News in Invercargill before serving his apprenticeship as a compositor with the Evening Post in Wellington. He then decided to enter the Wesleyan Methodist ministry, and served as a probationer at Gisborne, New Plymouth and Hokitika in the early 1870s. While in Taranaki he climbed Mt Egmont in 1876. Disagreements with the church over its itinerant preacher system eventually led to his resignation without ordination. Returning to journalism, Russell joined the Evening Argus (later the Evening Chronicle ) in Wellington as sub-editor, and in 1878, in partnership with his brother John Ruffell Russell, he established the Manawatū Herald at Foxton. On 11 March 1879 he married Charlotte Eliza Park at Hokitika.
After selling his share of the Manawatū Herald to his brother, Russell managed the Manawatū Times in Palmerston North from 1882 to 1884; in 1885 he bought at auction the bi-weekly Waikato Gazette at Cambridge. Soon he was also issuing an evening paper, the Cambridge News, from the same office. In 1887 he published his Catechism on the duties of life, which was later approved for use in state schools as a non-sectarian guide to ethics, morality and civic duty. He sold his Cambridge papers in 1889 and moved to Christchurch, where he became senior partner in the firm of Russell and Willis, printers. In 1898 he took over the newly founded Spectator, an illustrated weekly journal embracing sport, society, literature and politics, and later hired a promising young cartoonist named David Low to enliven its pages; they quarrelled and parted in 1909 or 1910. Under Russell's independent and outspoken editorship the Spectator prospered and expanded, surviving until 1928.
Russell also aspired to a career in politics, contesting the Foxton seat in 1881 and Waikato in 1887. He was finally elected as the Liberal member for Riccarton in 1893, with a comfortable majority. In the House he quickly established a reputation for incisive speaking and independent views. In his first term he spoke regularly on a wide range of topics, advocating women's rights, a state bank and a universal pension. He was at first nicknamed 'Riccarton Russell' to distinguish him from Captain William Russell, but this later became 'Rickety Russell', reflecting his tenuous hold on the Riccarton seat.
Russell was most prominent in debates on the land question, favouring small farms for settlers and more flexible land regulations. Defeated in committee on the Land for Settlements Act 1894, he made several attempts over the next two years to introduce his own bill for periodic revaluation of the lease-in-perpetuity. His vitriolic criticism of the premier, Richard Seddon, whom he accused of letting the Liberal reform programme stagnate, attracted around him a small group known as the Progressive Liberal Association. In 1896 he tried to form them into a 'Radical Party' to hold the balance of power in the next parliament, but he lost his seat to William Rolleston in that year's election. Accusing Rolleston of being 'too much of a colonial politician', Russell regained the seat in 1899 by just one vote. Seddon was now so anxious to be rid of this 'very independent Liberal' that he gave his endorsement in 1902 to George Witty, a leading New Zealand Farmers' Union organiser in Canterbury. Despite Russell's vigorous campaign, in which he made use of a motor car as an outdoor speaking platform, Witty easily won the seat in 1902, and retained it in 1905.
While Russell was out of politics his energies were unlikely to be fully absorbed by the Spectator. In 1902–3 he wrote a rather unconventional novel about the ideal ethical life, which was published in London in 1919 as A new heaven, and in 1905 he was elected chairman of the Conference of Education Boards which met in Wellington. Russell had been elected to the board of governors of Canterbury College in 1897, and now took an active interest in its affairs, becoming, from 1907 to 1910, one of its most progressive and dynamic chairmen. From being one of the college's sharpest critics in the 1890s, Russell was now its staunchest defender, fighting for increased government funding, improved student facilities, the development of new courses, and the reformation of the board's structure to create the post of rector as academic head. Three years at this pace nearly wrecked his health.
Russell returned to politics in 1908 when he challenged William Tanner for the Avon seat and won it on the licensing issue. Although an ex-Wesleyan, he opposed prohibition, and was thereafter identified with the breweries and liquor interest. He retained the seat quite comfortably in 1911, and was considered as a possible Liberal leader when Joseph Ward resigned. In the Mackenzie government of 1912, Russell was one of four Canterbury cabinet ministers, but he was the only one chosen for the 1915 National government cabinet.
Russell carried the largest single load of administrative responsibilities in the New Zealand cabinet during the First World War. Besides internal affairs, which he later claimed expanded in workload 14-fold during the war, he was also minister of public health, and minister in charge of hospitals and charitable aid, the Registrar General's Office, the High Commission and the Dominion Museum. Whenever the minister of finance was overseas, he was also responsible for the Public Trust Office and the Government Insurance Department. Russell was a reformist health minister, planning a major departmental reorganisation which was deferred for lack of finance until after the war. Among his most important wartime work was the organisation of hospitals at Hanmer and Rotorua for sick and convalescent soldiers.
The greatest challenge of Russell's ministerial career came late in 1918 when New Zealand was struck by the worst pandemic of modern times: the so-called Spanish influenza. Russell had to decide whether or not to quarantine the passenger liner Niagara when it arrived at Auckland on 12 October 1918. There had been a mild epidemic of influenza among the crew, with one death, but no passengers had been affected. Acting on the unanimous advice of the ship's doctors and port health authorities, Russell allowed the Niagara to dock without quarantine. This decision, it can now be shown, was medically correct but politically disastrous. Auckland was already in the grip of a serious epidemic of influenza. This suddenly worsened towards the end of October and over the next few weeks New Zealand was swept by its worst recorded public health disaster, which left at least 6,091 Europeans and 2,160 Māori dead by the end of December.
When senior health department officials went down with influenza, Russell took charge himself. Medical resources were at a low ebb because of the war, but Russell enlisted the help of the Defence Department to set up temporary hospitals and send army medical units to the worst-affected areas. He also advised local authorities how best to deal with the crisis. His telegram of 12 November to all towns and boroughs set out a practical and comprehensive system of relief, which did much to steady public morale. However, his well-intentioned ban on the publication of death statistics only served to fuel rumour and anxiety. Although he rose to the occasion and proved himself a decisive and resourceful organiser, his dealings with civic leaders tended to be peremptory and acrimonious. The epidemic had revealed the existence of slums in Auckland and Wellington, and his accusations of civic neglect caused great offence. Yet even before the epidemic was over, Russell had persuaded cabinet to approve a generous pension for epidemic widows, and called for a national conference on town planning, which took place in May 1919.
Russell defended himself vigorously before the Influenza Epidemic Commission in March 1919, but the commission sided with public opinion and criticised the Department of Public Health for its unpreparedness and slow response to the crisis. On the question of the Niagara, its report cautiously concluded that this must have been 'a substantial factor' in the introduction of infection into New Zealand. Russell took the unusual step of making a public reply to the commission's report. Also in 1919 Russell wrote and published New Zealand today, a substantial and lively book designed to attract new migrants. It remains one of the best descriptions of the country at that time.
The epidemic and its aftermath left Russell run down and exhausted, and he fought the 1919 election as if he expected to lose. He suffered in silence a backlash of public bitterness over the influenza epidemic, but his strident attacks on 'Bolshevism' also cost him votes, and he lost his seat to the Labour candidate, Dan Sullivan. In 1921 he stood unsuccessfully for an Auckland seat; in 1922 he contested Avon again, but was unsuccessful. After the death of his wife, Charlotte, on 1 May 1924, Russell retired from public life. On 23 March 1927 he married Hilda May Tidey (née Farmar) in Wellington. He was still sending characteristically vigorous letters and articles to the newspapers right up to his death at the age of 83, at Eastbourne, Wellington, on 28 June 1937. Russell was survived by his second wife and by seven daughters and six sons of his first marriage.
Peter Fraser once told Russell that he deserved a knighthood, or at least a seat in the Legislative Council, for his outstanding effort during the 1918 influenza epidemic, but instead he had become the convenient scapegoat for a bitter and bereaved public. His waspish tongue in opposition won him few friends or allies, but he deserves to be remembered as one of New Zealand's most effective wartime cabinet ministers.