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 Russell Lea is located 8 kilometres west of the Sydney central business district in the local government area of the City of Canada Bay. Russell Lea sits on the western shore of Iron Cove, on the Parramatta River. It is a quiet tree-lined suburb with large waterfront homes as well as more traditional federation homes. Russell Lea takes its name from one of its original settlers, Russell Barton, who was a pastoralist, mine owner and politician. He developed the "Russell Lea Estate" on a 24-hectare (60-acre) grant.

Russell Lea was once encompassed in the Five Dock Farm estate of surgeon John Harris. In 1790 this outspoken Irishman arrived in the infant colony, for which he displayed an instant dislike. However his rapid acquisition of Crown land may have served to change his tune. After being appointed court magistrate in 1794, Harris received 45 ha (110 acres) in the Parramatta region which now bears the name Harris Park. Subsequent to this he received land at Ultimo and South Creek, earning him the distinction of being one of the principal landholders in New South Wales.

Two years prior to the surgeon's death in 1838, Harris sold Five Dock Farm to the prominent Sydney auctioneer Mr Samuel Lyons. Although a modest residence stood on Harris' land, it appears he preferred to reside at his Ultimo Place mansion or Shanes Park, South Creek. It was at the latter that the surgeon died in 1838. Aged 84, the widowed Harris had achieved a prominent public profile, leaving an estate worth an estimated 150,000 pounds. Samuel Lyons proceeded to subdivide Five Dock Farm into substantial 12 to 24 ha (30 to 60 acres) estates. This made way for the grand mansions, some of which spawned suburbs of their own. These included Drummoyne House, Abbotsford, and Barton Russell's grand residence Russell Lea. Russell Barton was born in Penge near London in 1830. As a young man he accompanied his family to the colony, settling a station in the then remote state of South Australia. In 1855 he married Miss J. M. Davie, and within a decade acquired two stations on the Barwon River. Barton could turn his hand to any task. In addition to stock handling, farming, horse breaking and shepherding, Barton proved himself adequate as a butcher, blacksmith, builder, carpenter, contractor and stonemason. In 1874 he invested in the Cobar mine, eventually rising to serve as its Managing Director. Displaying much skill in this industry, Barton was soon elected to no less than 11 mining company boards. From 1880 to 1886 Barton served as parliamentary member for Bourke. It was during this time he erected the imposing Victorian Italianate mansion Russell Lea, whose estate occupied the suburb which bears its name.