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Harry Thompson Russell

Biographical Notes

In 1927, the mysterious 'H-T-R-' produced a unique language book. Written for those who already had school French, it was oh-so-sophisticated, very funny and technically brilliant. Brighter French had huge appeal, and sold like a popular novel.

But who was 'H-T-R-'? No one knew. Someone well-heeled, apparently. In his world, 'the real French of everyday life' was 'the spoken language of the dinner-table, the boudoir, the theatre, race-course, promenade-deck, stables, garage, etc.' The book identified him only as 'H-T-R-, London.'

When Phaeton came across Brighter French a few years ago and decided this was a book that had to be republished, H-T-R- remained a person of mystery. The British Library was able to provide his name: Harry Thompson Russell. But who was this Harry Russell and what had happened to him? Finding the answers to those questions took years, and the help of countless librarians, record-keepers and residents of houses he had once lived in, most of whom would become as curious about H-T-R- as the publishers.

It turned out that H-T-R- had led a life of two halves: the first, one that was expected of him, as a successful career officer in the British Army; the second (after a divorce and remarriage in 1926) anything but.

The young H-T-R-He was born in Ireland, brought up in Milford House, County Limerick, and went to school (along with his two younger brothers) at Cheltenham College in England (where he excelled academically) and then joined the Royal Artillery as a cadet. He was mentioned in Despatches in the second Boer War; authored a number of military manuals, including A French-English Military Vocabulary; won a prestigious prize for a remarkable military essay in 1911, and retired with the rank of Lieut.-Colonel at the end of World War I. He had married Alicia Studdert of Bunratty Castle, County Clare, in 1902, and they had four children. Prior to the war, they lived in South Africa, in Ireland (County Cork), and at Dinard in France.

So far, so very conventional. H-T-R-'s brother, Reginald, had an equally distinguished military career. A Colonel in the Royal Engineers, he invented the 'Russell charges' used by Lawrence of Arabia to destroy railway lines, and his granddaughter, Lavinia Baring, (Harry's grand-niece) was a Lady in Waiting to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Then in 1926, H-T-R- divorced and remarried, to Marion Lee of County Dublin. Cut off from his comfortable life and needing money to support a new family, a H-T-R- emerged that the Bright Young People might have found easier to understand.

Harry T. Russell photoHe and his new wife worked as private detectives in London for a time. Then Brighter French was published and was a huge hit. Two more books followed, including The Brighter French Word-Book in 1929 and Still Brighter French in 1932, and Harry and his family moved to Montpellier in the south of France. In 1940, the family returned to England as war refugees, with nothing except 'what they stood up in.' In his final years, Harry worked as a head gardener and did translations of books from several languages, including Italian and German. He died in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in 1953, where his granddaughter still lives. Other grandchildren (by his first marriage) live in County Cork.


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