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Gilding the cages of others

28 August 2020

Rod Garner celebrates the life and work of a philanthropic duchess compelled by her faith

Balfore Archive Images/Alamy

Adeline Russell, 1905

Adeline Russell, 1905

IN THE weeks after her death from heart failure 100 years ago (12 April 1920), obituaries lauded the achievements of Adeline Marie Russell, Duchess of Bedford. She was praised — and, in some instances, revered — as a penal reformer, philanthropist, and prominent leader of a public movement against political tyranny.

To those who knew of her tenderness and compassion, “there was no one to take her place in the sphere of activity she had made her own.” Accolades and awards had accrued throughout her life, her remarkable qualities testifying to her solid Catholic upbringing at the hands of her mother, who had educated her at home.

She was born in 1852, and her privileged background eventually led to marriage to the British peer and politician George Sackville Russell, who succeeded as the 10th Duke of Bedford in 1891. (A cousin on her mother’s side was Virginia Woolf, who was given the first name Adeline in her honour.) Tasteful décor, polite conversation, and endless “society” gatherings were not enough to fulfil Russell, nor to address her abiding sense of life as a struggle — “a long contest between truth and falsehood”.

The plight of the poor concerned her, and she immersed herself in a project supporting prostitutes around Victoria Station in London. She rejected the harsh and judgemental approach of the earlier rescue work (known as “Magdalenism”) which emphasised the sin of the prostitute and the need to do extreme penance to receive forgiveness and rehabilitation. In its place, she offered practical assistance and kindness to fallen souls, who were often despised by the men who used them, and rejected more widely as carriers of disease and “mere masses of rottenness”.


FOR 20 years, she gained valuable experience as a prison visitor in her home country and in Europe. She witnessed the isolation, brutality, and inhumanity that routinely attended hard labour, and the exploitation of women which forced them to provide sexual services for inmates. The justification for what effectively amounted to torture was to punish the prisoners while simultaneously turning incarceration into a barely concealed brothel.

Russell advocated a better way. Against the “Silent System” associated with the Prisons Act of 1865, which sought to break convicts’ will by keeping them in total silence, she fought for reforms that showed prisoners respect as part of God’s creation, and recognised that they deserved to be treated decently. Her zeal, combined with that of the Quakers and the Evangelicals, helped to bring about the Prison Act of 1898, which defined reformation — personal redemption, and renewal of moral character — as the main purpose of prison regimes.

In 1913, Russell’s commitment to penal reform took her into new and dangerous territory. After she read in the Spectator magazine a letter expressing dismay at the brutal treatment of political prisoners in Portugal, she went to Lisbon to see for herself. Under the auspices of the recently elected Republican government, a secret society had emerged: a ruthless body of men, known as the Carbonarios — more than 30,000 in number, and pledged by oath to “kill, poison, or dagger” anyone perceived as representing a threat to the new Republican movement.

The Carbonarios roamed the streets in bands, extracting false statements from householders before dragging them off to prison, where they starved or died from disease. Such atrocities represented the tacit will of a government that had initially bound itself to the principles of liberty and justice which led to its recognition by other European nations.


ON HER return to England, Russell did not equivocate: in her damning report, followed by letters to the press and public speeches, and the formation of an influential protest committee, she declared that Portugal was under despotic rule, and that no change could be secured until “all official recognition was removed from the Carbonarios”.

Acquaintances assured her that nothing could be done, and she faced resistance from sections of the press and politicians; yet, within a year of her Lisbon visit, the seemingly politically impossible happened. The doors of Portugal’s prisons were opened; its malign government fell; an amnesty was declared; and prisoners were freed from their living death.

Congratulations poured in. Within a matter of months — and probably already exhausted by her earlier campaign — Russell was appointed to chair the European War Fund. This new position entailed many visits to the Western Front, where she “went from hospital to hospital, seeing wrecked and suffering beings” engaged in a war that, from the perspective of those in the trenches, appeared to be making no headway. She saw it as a parable of life: incessant struggle, and the duty to endure.

After hostilities ceased, she continued to receive repatriated prisoners, often three or four times daily. She welcomed them with affection.

At 67, Russell’s life ended prematurely, almost certainly the consequence of her unceasing exertions for the causes that she had championed. She had no children, and was buried in the churchyard at Chenies, Buckinghamshire. To the charge that she gave too much and neglected what we now call the duty of “self-care”, she would, I think, have replied that, where there is a need, there is an obligation: “The love of Christ leaves us no choice” ( 2 Corinthians 5.14 ).


Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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