Francis Albert Rollo Russell papers, 1858-1928


Date: 1858-1928 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet, Ca. 60 items


The collection is primarily professional letters written to Russell, but there are also a few letters from his wife and a few by him. There is also an autobiographical letter written by Russell. Most of the correspondence pertains to the Royal Meteorological Society, snow crystals, dew, frost, hail, fog, etc. Russell had wide-ranging interests, however, and some of his non-scientific concerns appear in the letters.

Background note

Francis Albert Rollo Russell (1849-1914) was a meteorologist, civil servant and author most noted for his studies of London fog and smog, as well as the worldwide effects of the 1883 volcanic explosion on the island of Krakatoa in Indonesia.

Russell was born on July 11, 1849, the third son of Whig politician and Prime Minister Lord John Russell and his second wife, Frances Anna Maria Elliot. Russell was educated at home by a tutor until the age of fourteen, after which he attended Harrow. In 1869 he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, graduating in 1872 with distinction in natural science. After graduation he took a clerk position with the British Foreign Office, but found office work insufferable. He was reticent and reclusive by nature and plagued by poor eyesight. Consequently, he resigned from the British Civil Service in 1888 and devoted himself to scientific observation and writing.

After the sudden deaths of his brother, sister-in-law and niece over an eighteen-month period in 1875 and 1876, Russell and his mother were jointly appointed guardians of his nephews Frank and Bertrand. Both brothers remembered their uncle Rollo as a timid and obsequious man, who always conformed to his mother's repressive demands. While Frank found the atmosphere intolerable, Bertrand (later a renown mathematician and philosopher) (1872-1970) considered his uncle an important influence. When Bertrand was still young, his uncle introduced him to eminent scientists and philosophers. Later, while Russell was working on his Krakatoa paper (1883), Bertrand reported that his uncle treated him more as a collaborator than a child.

In 1885 Russell married Alice Sophia Godfrey of Balderton Hall in Nottinghamshire, with whom he had a son Arthur. She died within a year and he married Gertrude Ellen Cornelia Joachim of Haslemere, Surrey in 1891. They had a son John and a daughter Margaret.

Russell was elected to the Royal Meteorological Society at the early age of nineteen in 1868. He served as its vice-president in 1893 and 1894. Fond of rural life, Russell was simultaneously fascinated and repelled by urban conditions, particularly the fogs and smogs that affected London between the 1870s and 1890s. An environmental determinist with an anti-urban agenda, Russell was convinced that atmospheric pollution would exacerbate the predetermined drift of urban peoples toward social and biological degeneration. This was part of his message in a best-selling pamphlet Russell published in 1880, entitled London Fogs. The work inspired a number of aristocratic and upper middle class groups to push for a reduction in the consumption of domestic fuel (i.e. coal) in favor of cleaner gas heating. This was a theme to which he would return time and again in the succeeding decades, although Russell and other members of the meteorological community were puzzled by improvements in urban smogs during the mid-Edwardian period of the early twentieth-century.

Russell is probably best remembered for another meteorological study, his 1883 paper on the effects of the volcanic explosion that obliterated the Indonesian island of Krakatoa and affected weather patterns world-wide. He presented his paper, entitled "The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena," to the Royal Meteorological Society on November 26, 1883. As a result of the explosions, which ejected 21 cubic kilometers of rock, pumice and ash into the atmosphere weather became erratic and global temperatures dropped 1.2 degrees celsius, not returning to normal until 1888.

When not involved in environmental activism, Russell involved himself in other scholarly research, which bore fruit in several other published works on health and the environment. These included Epidemics, Plagues and Fevers (1892), Atmosphere in Relation to Human Life and Health (1896) and Strength and Diet (1905). Although his work was characterized by a definite tendency toward geographical and meteorological determinism, he did not abandon the possibility of social improvement through political intervention. In fact, in his later years he wrote a brief history of the Liberal Party and completed an edition of his father's early correspondence just before his death.

Russell and his mother were Unitarians, who helped to found the Unitarian Christian Church of Richmond in 1888. He wrote Unitarian hymns with a scientific flair.

Francis Albert Rollo Russell died in his London home on March 30, 1914. He was survived by his second wife Gertrude; two sons and a daughter.

Collection Information

Physical description

Ca. 60 items.


Purchased Sessler (Sotheby, 4/28-29/69, no. 337; £160) and accessioned, 07/11/1969 (1969 1099ms).

Indexing Terms

Corporate Name(s)

  • Royal Meteorological Society (Great Britain)


  • Autobiographies.


  • Meteorologists -- England.

Personal Name(s)

  • Owen, Richard, 1804-1892
  • Russell, Francis Albert Rollo, 1849-1914
  • Thiselton-Dyer, William T.(Wiliam Turner) (1843-1938)
  • Tyndall, John, 1820-1893
  • Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913


  • Dew.
  • Fog.
  • Frost.
  • Hail.
  • Meteorology.
  • Precipitation (Meteorology)
  • Snowflakes.
  • Water.