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John Russell, sixth Duke of Bedford, was the second son of Francis Russell, marquis of Tavistock (1739-1767), and grandson of John Russell, fourth duke. He was an officer of the Bedfordshire militia from 1778 to 1781, and ensign in the 3rd regiment of footguards from 18 March 1783 to 9 April 1785 but in early life he turned his attention to politics. He was a parliamentary reformer and a member of the Society of Friends of the People, to which Sheridan and Erskine, Rogers and Whitbread, Mackintosh and Grey belonged. Under the name of Lord John Russell he in 1788 entered the House of Commons as one of the members for Tavistock, in succession to Richard Rigby. He sat for this constituency till 2 March 1802, when, on the death of his elder brother, Francis Russell, fifth duke, he succeeded to the dukedom.
On 12 February 1806 he was created a privy councillor, and took office as lord-lieutenant of Ireland in the administration of ‘all the talents.’ He resigned with his colleagues on 19 April 1807. Thenceforth he took little part in political life, chiefly residing at Woburn, and devoting himself to the improvement of his property in Bedfordshire, Devonshire, and London.
In 1830 he rebuilt Covent Garden market at a cost of £40,000. Like his brother, he interested himself in agriculture, and continued for some years the famous sheep-shearings at Woburn. In 1811 G. Garrard, A.R.A., painted a well-known picture of the ceremony, with portraits of the duke and the chief agriculturists of the day; an engraving of the picture was very popular. He was long president of the Smithfield Club, and became in 1838 a governor of the newly founded Agricultural Society, and one of the first vice-presidents.
From 1813 to 1815 he was in Italy, and formed a notable collection of statuary, paintings, and other works of art, which found a home at Woburn, and are described in the ‘Woburn Abbey Marbles’ (1822, fol.). He helped to effect the drainage operations of the ‘Bedford Level’ — works which were directed by Telford and the Rennies. The duke was also an enthusiastic naturalist. He made valuable experiments upon the nutritive qualities of grasses, and under his direction George Sinclair (1786-1834) published in 1816 his ‘Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis.’ Subsequently the duke turned his attention to the cultivation at Woburn of heaths, willows, pines, and shrubs, and catalogues of specimens planted at Woburn were published under his direction as ‘Hortus Ericæus Woburnensis’ (1825), ‘Salictum Woburnense’ (1829), ‘Pinetum Woburnense’ (1839), and ‘Hortus Woburnensis,’ describing six thousand ornamental plants and shrubs.
He was created K.G. on 25 November 1830. He died at the Doune of Rothie-Murchus, Perthshire, on 20 October 1839, and was buried at Chenies on 14 November. He was twice married: first, on 25 March 1786, to Georgiana Elizabeth, second daughter of George Byng, fourth viscount Torrington; she died on 11 October 1801, leaving three sons — Francis, seventh duke; George William; and Lord John, the statesman. He married, secondly, on 23 June 1803, Georgiana (d. 1853), fifth daughter of Alexander Gordon, fourth duke of Gordon; by her he had seven sons and three daughters.
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