New Zealander Harold Williams was listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the worlds greatest linguist. He is said to have spoken over 58 languages fluently as well as some of their dialects Swahili, Hausa and Zulu among them. This amazing polygot was said to "read grammars as others read detective stories". He was the foreign editor of The Times; described as the "the most brilliant foreign correspondent" his generation had known, he "knew everyone and everything and was always at the point of greatest interest and risk." Williams' editorials on foreign affairs were regarded as the authoritative version. His personal qualities and his expansive knowledge, particularly of Russian affairs, led to associations with some of the most influential people of the time, from statesman, to writers such as H.G. Wells and Hugh Walpole (also born in New Zealand).
An Explosion in the Brain
Williams was born in Auckland on 6 April, 1876, the eldest of seven sons. His parents had emigrated from Cornwall, England, and his father, the Reverend W.J. Williams, was one of the early leaders of the Methodist church in New Zealand, for many years editing the Methodist Times. Williams senior was well-read and gave Harold early instruction in the classics. Like most youngsters his age, Harold wasnt possessed by a voracious appetite for learning, but he recalled that, when he was about seven, an explosion in his brain occurred and from that time his capacity to learn, in particular languages, grew to an extraordinary degree. He began with the study of Latin, one of the great root languages, and hungrily acquired others, almost by osmosis.
As a schoolboy he constructed a grammar and vocabulary of the New Guinea language, Dobuan from a copy of St Marks Gospel written in that language. Next he compiled a vocabulary of the dialect of Niue Island, again from the Gospel written in that language, and was published in the Polynesian Journal. Behaving as if he were single-handedly attempting to restore the tower of Babel, Harold spent his pocket money purchasing New Testaments from an obliging Christchurch bookseller in as many languages as he could. By the end of his life he had studied the bible in twenty-six languages, including Zulu, Swahili and Hausa. Before attending Christchurch and Timaru Boys' High Schools he had managed to teach himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian and other Polynesian dialects.
In 1893 the Williams family moved to Auckland, where the teenage Harold would visit ships at the Auckland wharves so that he could converse with Polynesian and Melanesian crew members in their own tongue. He sat for his BA at Auckland University, but was failed because of an inability to sufficiently master mathematics, and, on the instruction of his father, entered the Methodist Ministry at the age of 20. After appointments in St Albans, Christchurch, and Inglewood, Taranaki, he went to the Northern Wairoa district around Dargaville where there were crowds of gumdiggers of diverse nationalities. He quickly absorbed their languages and then begun to study Russian and Polish, inspired in part by an interest in the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina).
As Harold wrote to a
Christchurch friend Macie Bevan Lovell-Smith, he was "struggling with
reading Tolstoy in his native tongue". Harolds admiration for
Tolstoy was not only literary, but philosophical. Like Tolstoy, Williams
was a vegetarian, he tried to practice non-resistance, and was a proponent
of "the doctrine of Christian Anarchism." He enjoyed preaching,
but his speech was marred by a stammer, and some members of his
congregation were suspicious of his intellectualism, socialist views and pacifism.
Conservative members of the clergy also harboured suspicions, as Eugene Grayland writes in Famous
New Zealanders, "His clerical superiors distrusted his views and
disapproved of some of the heterodox books in his library, touching on
evolution and such matters."
In June 1899 Harold wrote, "I have had rather slavonic crazes lately." One of these crazes would eventually be the compulsion for him to leave New Zealand. In 1900, aged 23, Harold decided to "embark on a pilgrimage" determined to visit the home of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. With a grant of £50 to cover the voyage (from a director of the New Zealand Herald who had been informed of his talents), and no scholarships or other assistance, he set off for Europe. He went first to Berlin and by the time he arrived at Berlin University he already knew twenty languages. There, and at Munich University, he studied philology, ethnology, philosophy, history and literature. These years as a student were marked by poverty - Harolds money from New Zealand had quickly run out - and he was forced to sell his books and the prizes he had won at school. He taught English part-time to make some money and he often had only a few hours each day to pursue his studies. There were days when he had nothing to eat, but he persevered and gained his PhD (in languages) from Munich in 1903.
Williams next undertook the study of Slavic languages and as a result became interested in Russian affairs. He toyed with becoming a University teacher, but instead entered journalism. The Times correspondent in St. Petersberg, D.D. Braham, had been expelled and was organising a news service from adjacent countries. He appointed Williams as a special correspondent to work with exiled Russian liberals in Stuttgart. The city had become the centre of organised political opposition by Russian political refugees working towards reform in their own country.
Later Williams obtained positions with the progressive Manchester Guardian in Russia, and worked towards Anglo-Russian rapprochement as special correspondent for the Morning Post in Russia in 1911 and Turkey in 1912. By 1914 he was writing for the Daily Chronicle dispatching telegrams and feature articles from all over the Russian Empire. He was in constant pursuit of his avowed quest "to serve the great cause of liberty".
His work in Russia enabled him, in 1905, to meet Tolstoy, and they talked of politics, literature and morality. Reportedly Tolstoy asked him why he had learnt Russian and received the reply,
"Because I wanted to read Anna Karenina in the original."
"But how many languages do you know?" Tolstoy asked.
"But how many? Ten?"
Finally, Tolstoy insisted on the languages being enumerated. The interview was published in the Manchester Guardian on 9th February 1905, but for Williams the meeting was not a success. He was disappointed with Tolstoys withdrawal from the world of political reality and the consequences of contemporary events. A believer in individual liberty, Williams found himself sympathetic towards the left-wing reformers, the Cadets and Liberals. In these circles he met and married Ariadna Tyrkova, the Madame Roland* of Russia.
political journalist she was the first woman to be elected to the Russian
Duma (Parliament) and was an accepted leader of feminist opinion. At this time events and conditions that he
encountered tested some of Williams' early views. He gave up being a
vegetarian, and soon afterwards his pacifist ideals, but remained throughout
his life a practising Christian, though with a belief guided by a general sense of the
spiritual rather than the dogmatic. As he declared in his final sermon in
New Zealand: "Whatever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not
Authority on Russian Affairs
His remarkable knowledge of Russia soon established him as an authority on Russian affairs. He had freely travelled into every part of the country accumulating an immense amount of knowledge about Russia its people, history, art and politics - augmented no doubt by his acquisition of Finnish, Lettish, Estonian, Georgian and Tartar. He also acquired a grasp of Russian grammar that was better than that of most of his Russian friends. His dispatches were thus more than disinterested journalism they were the personal accounts of an observer living intimately in a society. His book, Russia and the Russians, reflected not only Williams' knowledge, but his astute mind, as H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds, Time Machine) appreciates in a glowing 1914 review for the Daily News:
Williams was always liberal in sharing his knowledge (the title of Tyrkovas biography of him is Cheerful Giver), and it was his many interest, broad and esoteric, that initially led to associations with eminent writers of the time, Wells*, Frank Swinnerton, and Hugh Walpole, associations that would develop into enduring friendships. In September 1914 Walpole arrived in Russia, and he met Williams in Petrograd. After the out- break of war, both accompanied the Russian Army into the Carpathians. Williams was the only foreign correspondent to take part in Cossack raids penetrating over the Hungarian frontier. From there he dispatched to the British public authoritative reports on military, political and social conditions.
These reports enhanced Williams' reputation and revealed his prophetic vision, leading to him becoming the chief source of information for the British Embassy. He also became chief confidante to the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan. Harold Begbie, author, journalist and playwright, who was then in Russia, said of Williams,
War and Peace
During these times, Williams often reminisced about his life in New Zealand. Confronted by a decimated little church surrounded by devastation and the bodies of dead Austrian soldiers, Williams was provoked to make telling, uneasy comparisons with his life in New Zealand
Five out of his six brothers had volunteered for service straight away and personal doubts grew as to where his duty lay: on the Western or Eastern Front. An empathetic spiritualism lay behind his decision to remain in Russia:
Advisor to Statesmen
In 1916, Walpole and Williams, on the instruction of the Foreign Office, set up a British Propaganda Office in Petrograd. Co-operating with the Russian press, they organised and managed efforts to bring the Allies together, working towards "this quickening interchange of thought and feeling and aspiration" between the British and Russians. Walpole would later refer to Williams' "tact, experience, and kindness" to him during his time in Russia, and would often defer to Williams' "encyclopedic" knowledge. In August 1916, he returned briefly to Britain to give a special lecture at Cambridge University, entitled, "Russian Nationalities".
As the war progressed Williams foresaw the coming revolution in Russia, insistently reporting to British Ambassador Buchanan that discontent was growing. Williams often acknowledged the romantic quality of his yearning to see international peace realised, and began also to see that the war had obscured vast tears in the fabric of the Russian domestic environment.
Throughout 1917, as the events of the Bolshevik revolution unfolded, he sent regular dispatches to the Daily Chronicle, up until 18 March 1918, the date of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty by the All-Russian Council of Soviets. The scholar Sir Bernard Pares noted in 1931, that Williams' accurate and vivid articles "are amongst the sources of Russian history".
In 1918 increasingly violent events forced Williams and his wife to flee their beloved Russia, and he was immediately recruited as part of the Committee on Russian Affairs, along with Buchanan, Walpole, Bernard Pares and others. An advocate of liberal reform, Williams advocated Allied intervention in the revolution, and he was sought after as one of the few people who knew the Soviet leaders intimately, recounting to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George that Trotskys last words to him before he left Russia were, "It will be the happiest day of my life when I see a revolution in England." Lloyd George disregarded his advice of intervention in Russia, even as Williams' prophecies were being realised. Williams continued to write for the Daily Chronicle and addressed a more influential reading public with his contributions to New Europe. He met Frank Swinnerton at the Lyceum Club. Swinnerton like Walpole, reviewed for Rhythm and the Blue Review - two avant-garde journals run by Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Later in his autobiography Swinnerton would affectionately regard Williams as "the sort of friend who told me his affairs without disguise and received my domestic news as if they had affected himself." And wrote of his qualities as a journalist:
When Germany surrendered in
1918, Williams was sent by the Daily Chronicle to Switzerland, and
the following year was back in Russia, at the request of the British
Military Mission, reporting for the Times from the headquarters of
the White Russians. When opposition to the Bolsheviks crumbled, he and
Ariadna escaped in a refugee ship, first to Turkey, then to Serbia, where
he astounded the local Serbs by speaking their language fluently in
just two days.
Down and Out in Fleet Street
On his return from Russia he taught himself Japanese, Old Irish, Tagalog, Hungarian, Czech, Coptic, Egyptian, Hittite, Albanian, Basque and Chinese. He mastered the Cunniform inscriptions and a book of 12,000 Chinese Mandarin characters.
Back in London Williams felt underemployed and despondent. Despite the fact that he had witnessed first-hand two wars, three civil wars and revolutions, and was applauded as one of the great journalists of his age, he now found himself jobless. It seems vast knowledge of languages and societies wasnt high on the list of post-war curriculum-vitae priorities.
Foreign Editor for the Times
Typically, he used his knowledge as a tool of diplomacy and was able to talk to every delegate in their own language. Williams held the position of foreign editor for six years before his untimely death in 1928. He had been unwell, but was about to go to Egypt on an assignment for the Times, when he collapsed. He had blood transfusions and seemed to rally, but died on 18 November 1928, after taking the sacraments of the Russian church the night before.
Death of a Cheerful Giver Mourned
Williams' pacific openness was exemplified in his relationship with H.G. Wells. Despite marked differences of opinion and philosophy over the direction events in Russia had taken, they had an understanding based on mutual respect. As Tyrkova-Williams writes in Cheerful Giver, "they understood each other at half a word, at a glance even." In a letter before Williams died, Wells refers to his "old friend", and after Williams' death he wrote that his admiration for him remained "very great indeed."
Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, described Williams' death as, "in a very real sense a national loss." He walked with the most prominent figures of his day, yet remained unassuming; the Times obituary called him, "a very lovable man, modest to a fault."
Williams traversed the edges of the globe, literally and linguistically. His parents came from Cornwall to New Zealand and as Eugene Grayland writes, "their boys inherited their love of the sea. Harold Williams' wife has said that whenever Harold looked at the sea his light blue eyes would grow more tender and darker." Williams went from New Zealand to devour the world. He stood, absorbing, on the edge of countries, civilisations and cultures, offering a life to match the expanse of his experience. The poet Maurice Baring wrote these lines as a tribute to Harold Williams:
We are grateful to Irene Zohrab of the Russian Section of the School of European Languages, Victoria University, Wellington, for her help in preparing this story, especially for her time, photos and sources.
* Another Kiwi connection is H.G. Wells' celebrated affair with the New Zealand-born daughter of Sir William Pember Reeves, Agent General for New Zealand and later High Commissioner. The affair ended with the birth of a daughter.
Charlotte Alston is currently
pursuing doctoral research on Williams' importance as an interpreter of
Russia to the British. She is working in the Department of History,
University of Newcastle on Tyne. See her web-page and contact details here.
An article lauding Williams as
an inspiration, entitled "Devouring the World", in the Brown
University Alumni Magazine
Excerpts of Williams' reports
to the Daily Chronicle during the 1917 Revolution
Link to the Tyrkova-Williams
collections at the British Library
A brief biography of Williams
wife Adriana Tyrkova
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