William Russell Russell was baptised on 22 December 1838 at Sandhurst, Berkshire, England, the son of Lieutenant Andrew Hamilton Russell and his wife, Eliza Ann Howlett. A strong military strain was evident throughout the family: William's grandfather, father, brother, nephew and grand-nephew were all professional soldiers.
William Russell was educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where on 16 March 1855 he was commissioned ensign in the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot. The regiment was dispatched to New Zealand where its main occupations were road making and garrison duties. Russell joined it there as lieutenant in 1856. In 1859 he returned to England, but in July 1860 was gazetted captain and transferred to the 14th (Buckinghamshire) Regiment of Foot, with which he returned to New Zealand in 1861.
In the following year he sold his commission in order to take up land with his brother, Andrew Hamilton Russell, in the Tunanui district, Hawke's Bay, some 25 miles west of the area now known as Hastings. The property which the brothers leased from its Māori owners and later freeholded consisted of some 31,000 acres of rolling hill country, part of which became known as Sherenden. The principal owners, who included Pāora Kaiwhata and Rēnata Kawepō, later attempted (unsuccessfully) to have the purchase annulled by bringing a case before the Supreme Court. In March 1870 the Russell brothers also bought land on the Heretaunga Plain from Māori owners, whereby they became members of a group which was popularly known as the Apostles. The group's purchases became the subject of an investigation by the Hawke's Bay Native Lands Alienation Commission, which in 1873 found that the transactions were not illegal. On this land, known as Flaxmere, William eventually built his family home.
On 11 July 1867, at Chichester, Sussex, England, William Russell had married Harriette Julia Hodgskin of Sherenden, Sussex, who was to bear seven sons and four daughters. They returned to New Zealand in 1868.
Although Russell had been a working farmer from the start of his life in Hawke's Bay he soon took an active part in local politics; he represented both Waimārama (1869–71) and Napier (1871–76) in the Hawke's Bay Provincial Council. Although he vigorously continued his interest in local concerns he had already set his sights on national politics and stood successfully for the Napier constituency for election to the House of Representatives in 1875. A natural conservative, Russell allied himself with the Atkinson ministry. He lost his seat in the 1881 elections and attributed his defeat to a number of plural voters casting ballots against him. He regained his seat in the 1884 elections and was appointed postmaster general and commissioner of telegraphs by Harry Atkinson, but was in office for only one week before his leader was again defeated. The Atkinson faction returned to power in 1887, and in 1889 Russell became colonial secretary, minister of defence, and minister of justice, posts which he retained until the Atkinson ministry was finally ousted in 1891. Two years later – after the Liberals, led by Richard Seddon, won the election comfortably and clear party lines became established – Russell became the acknowledged leader of the opposition, a position which he retained until he lost his seat in the 1905 elections.
During his last years in Parliament Russell represented New Zealand at the Australian Federation Conference held in Melbourne in 1890, and the Australasian Federal Convention in Sydney in 1891, when the possibility of his country becoming a federated state was under discussion. There was no indication that Russell was in favour of the move – the proposal was generally unpopular among New Zealanders – although as a strong supporter of the monarchy he advocated that any such federation only be carried out following approval of the supremacy of the Crown. With others Russell appears to have been apprehensive about an invasion of northern Australia by coloured races.
In recognition of his long and conscientious parliamentary career Russell was made a Knight Bachelor in 1902, an honour much acclaimed by the people of Hawke's Bay whom he had served so well. Both as a member of the House of Representatives and after his defeat at the 1905 elections Sir William Russell continued his local work, serving on such bodies as the Hawke's Bay County Council and the Hawke's Bay Education, Hospital, Charitable Aid and Waste Lands boards. He was a governor of Napier High School, and captain of the Napier Militia and (later) the Hastings Rifle Volunteers. An interest in breeding race-horses led to his establishing a stud at Flaxmere. He was the first president of the New Zealand Racing Conference and devoted much energy towards raising the tone of that body. He also keenly supported polo from its earliest days in this country, becoming the first president of the Hawke's Bay Polo Club in 1894. He was an enthusiastic player of tennis, laying out one of the first tennis courts in the district at Flaxmere.
That Sir William Russell was a popular local figure is indisputable. His involvement in a multiplicity of local affairs made him widely known in Hawke's Bay; his gentlemanly behaviour endeared him to others in élite society, especially the ladies. There was indeed an air of respectability about a man owning broad acres, married to a lady of some charm and with a family of 11 children. Sir William inspired confidence.
Russell's performance as a parliamentarian, although altogether different from his role in Hawke's Bay as administrator and leader of society, did not carry with it the same panache. He witnessed the beginning of party politics in New Zealand and saw the Liberals come to power and strengthen their hold on people's imaginations. His own parliamentary supporters barely combined as a party in spite of their leader's efforts, and it is significant that they were known only as the opposition, no party label being attached. Moreover, Seddon was a rumbustious, thrusting figure who almost entirely overwhelmed Russell both in parliamentary debate and political skill. Russell was a man noted for his courtesy to others, his honouring of his word and his consideration, but not as one suited to conducting a parliamentary brawl with Seddon or even to being firm with members of his own party. He himself acknowledged that it was not in his nature to be hard, quoting his grandmother as saying 'William is soft'.
William Pember Reeves commented that Russell was the last of the oligarchs to lead a party. To Liberals and others Russell was a typical representative of an oligarchy which comprised well-to-do squatters of English birth and conservative opinions, having little sympathy for working people of little means. Yet Russell was surprisingly liberal in his views on many aspects of life affecting ordinary men and women. He had, for example, no rigidly puritanical views about alcohol, gambling, horse-racing and other sports. He favoured rather than opposed the vote for women. His attitude towards the Māori lacked understanding, probably coloured by his indignation when the ownership of land he and his brother bought had been questioned.
He was deeply concerned with the importance of education; although he sent his own children to private schools he exerted himself when serving on education boards, to see that children were properly taught, teachers satisfactorily paid and schools sufficiently funded. His letters to members of his family contain many thoughtful comments about the education of his own children.
In the last year of his life Sir William Russell was appointed to the Legislative Council, probably a reward from the Massey government for his long and honourable service. He died in Napier on 24 September 1913 survived by his wife and six children.