Head of prominent, pioneering family
John Rolleston Russell, 1938-2011
Last month more than 600 mourners gathered at St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Hastings to farewell John Rolleston Russell, head of a prominent Hawke’s Bay farming family with strong links pioneering and military past.
John Russell was a direct descendant of two Russell brothers who resigned from the British Army in the early 1860s, emigrated to New Zealand and took up 14,000ha of Maori leasehold land in the foothills of the Kaweka Range, 30km west of Hastings.
He was the grandson of Major-General Sir Andrew (Guy) Russell, who commanded the New Zealand mounted brigade at Gallipoli in 1915 and the 20,000-strong New Zealand Division that fought on the Western Front until the end of World War I.
He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel John Tinsley Russell, who was killed in Libya in 1942 while commanding the 22nd Infantry Division of the NZ Expeditionary Force.
John himself was a territorial officer before taking up the management of Tunanui station in 1960.
He was a hard-working farmer, a pilot, a keen fisherman and a breeder of Hereford bulls and game birds on his 1500ha property. He staunchly supported his community. He was a member of the board of Hereworth School, on the committee of the Hawke’s Bay-East Coast Aero Club, and a member of the board of NZ Aerial Mapping. At various times he held executive positions on the local branches of Federated Farmers and the Young Famers Club.
In 2001, John brought together a group of farmers to publish West to the Annie, a geographical, Maori and pioneering history of the country between the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri rivers, stretching from Fernhill to the Kaweka Ranges.
John in many ways resembled his soldier-grandfather – physically tough, energetic and strong-willed.
Friends and family remembered a blunt-spoken but thoughtful, generous and sociable man, with a great laugh that would shake him from top to toe.
Frank Wilson, John’s half-brother and a distinguished former diplomat, said: “He was a traditionalist, a conservative, a man of utmost integrity and unfailingly loyal. His passing marked the end of an era. They don’t make them like John Russell any more”.
At the time of his death, John and his wife Phillida were living on Tunanui Station at Sherenden, which John’s grandfather had managed and developed through a succession of depressions and two world wars until his death in 1960.
John and Phillida then took over and farmed Tunanui for another 45 years before handing management to their sons, Andrew and Sam.
One of the great pleasures of John’s final months was to speak at the launch in August of the biography of Major-General Sir Andrew Russell – The Forgotten General, written by Jock Vennell.
With the death of John’s father on active service, it was the general who, from an early age, became John’s mentor and role model.
Earlier in the year, John and Phillida were part of an official party that visited Crete to mark the 70th anniversary of the role played by New Zealand troops in the defence of the island against German paratroops in May 1941.
It was on Crete that John’s father had won a military decoration (the DSO) before his death at El Alamein.
In a moving tribute to John, aircraft of the Hawke’s Bay-East Coast Aero Club flew in formation over St Matthew’s Church following the service.
More than 200 guests gathered afterwards on the lawns of the homestead at Tunanui for a missing pilot poignantly remembered.
– Jock Vennell