Harold Williams

Harold Williams

Harold Williams

Voice of the World

New Zealander Harold Williams was listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s greatest linguist. He is said to have spoken over 58 languages fluently, as well as some of their dialects. Among these were Swahili, Hausa and Zulu. This amazing polyglot 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 wasn’t 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 Mark’s 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 Bachelor of Arts 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”. Harold’s 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.”

Slavonic Crazes

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 – Harold’s 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.

“A few.”

“But how many? Ten?”

Finally, Tolstoy insisted on the languages being enumerated. The interview was published in the Manchester Guardian on 9 February 1905, but for Williams the meeting was not a success. He was disappointed with Tolstoy’s 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.

Ariadna Tyrkova, Harold William’s wife

A 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 unto men.”

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:

“In a series of brilliant chapters, Doctor Williams has given as complete and balanced an account of present-day Russia as any one could desire … I could go on, sitting over this book and writing about it for days … it is the most stimulating book upon international relations and the physical and intellectual being of a state that has been put before the English reader for many years.”

Williams was always liberal in sharing his knowledge (the title of Tyrkova’s 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.

ANZAC picture courtesy www.worldwar1.com

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:

“More than one Russian has said to me, ‘Williams knows Russia better than we do.’”

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:

“I thought last night of a little deserted chapel on a hillside in Hungary, and I thought of a little chapel on a hill under the shadow of a high mountain in New Zealand [Mt. Taranaki/Egmont] … the heart of its devotion had gone out of it. It stood limp before God. That little chapel in New Zealand is happy, I thought, to be spared this, happy because the dairy-farmers still gather there on Sunday afternoons and sing slow hymns to the accompaniment of a wheezy harmonium, and listen to a preacher easily and confidently dispensing the comforts of heaven. But perhaps there is more effort in the preaching now, more passion in the prayers. Even into that far place the unrest of the war has entered. The New Zealanders are at the Dardanelles. A link is being forged between the Uniate Church and that New Zealand Chapel.”

ANZAC picture courtesy www.worldwar1.com

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:

“Russian troops have gone to France, and no doubt will meet there Englishmen, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and even brown men from the Pacific Islands of Raratonga and Niue. It would be a delight to see a little Russian Soldier dancing a hopak as an offset to a Maori haka. This is romance, but the reality from which it springs is that the British and Russian Empires are now engaged in mutual discovery. The spirit of the world is weaving out of this new friendship between Russia and England a wonderful garment of colour.”

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” during his time in Russia, and would often defer to Williams’ “encyclopaedic” 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 Trotsky’s 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:

“…one who seemed by instinct to go where the raw material of the news was occurring, who if one walked with him in any street or town, would often dart across the road to buy another newspaper; but he found time to hear of and read all sorts of unlikely books in multitudinous languages, and would often give one unexpectedly humorous summaries of what he had been reading which threw glancing lights upon the irony underlying his simple faith … one thought of him as a scholar and a visionary as well as a journalist. He combined a serenely happy-go-lucky air with an unembittered sadness at the fate of Russia.”

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 wasn’t high on the list of post-war curriculum-vitae priorities.

Foreign Editor for the Times

In 1921 his luck changed. The editor of the Times, Wickham Steed (who himself spoke several languages), offered Williams a position as a leader writer. In May 1922, he was appointed foreign editor (or as the Times would phrase it, ‘Director of the Foreign Department’). Although his interest in Russia never waned, in this influential position he was now responsible for interpreting and passing judgement on political events all over the world for the pre-eminent newspaper of the time. As always, he was outspoken on issues that he believed were morally right, commenting on European affairs, but also those in Asia, China, the United States, Japan, India and the Commonwealth. The impetus of his leader articles always gestured towards a desire to preserve peace through the creation of European security. Aspiring towards “moral disarmament” he did much to promote and bring to a gratifying conclusion the Treaty of Locarno of December 1925. As he wrote to his father in New Zealand:

“For the first time for eleven years, the chief nations of Europe are really at peace … I am very thankful today. After all one can sometimes do a good piece of work.”

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

The Times, a newspaper normally careful to project an aura of objectivity through its policy of maintaining staff anonymity devoted an entire column to Williams’ obituary.

“His literary ability and political judgement were abundantly manifested in the numerous leading articles which he contributed to the Times until within the last fortnight of his life … to the Times indeed, his loss is irreparable. Not only was his knowledge of international affairs most extensive and accurate, but he had a remarkable gift of sympathy which enabled him to write of them both definitely and without offence, while his origin as a New Zealander always preserved him from too narrow a regard for the politics of Europe. He had many friends in the diplomatic world, where he was as much respected for his kindness as he was for his experience and his grasp of the essential factors of the most complicated situations.”

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 with his grand-daughter, late 1920s.

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:

Upon the bread and salt of Russia fed,
His heart her high sorrow seared and bled;
He kept the bitter bread and gave away
The shining salt, to all who came his way.

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.


* Madame Roland, the wife of a French statesman of the 18th Century played a prominent part in the French Revolution and was executed after the fall of the political party that she belonged to.

* 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.



Grayland, Eugene. (1967) Famous New Zealanders, ‘Dr Harold Williams: Linguist With Amazing Powers’ Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, New Zealand.

Web References:

(unfortunately insubstantial and scarce)

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.
[Accessed November 2001; No Longer Active 2006]
[Alston’s research has since been published as a book, Russia’s Greatest Enemy? Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions (2006) www.amazon.com]

An article lauding Williams as an inspiration, entitled “Devouring the World“, in the Brown University Alumni Magazine
[Accessed June 2000; No longer active October 2006]

Excerpts of Williams’ reports to the Daily Chronicle during the 1917 Revolution
[Accessed November 2001]

A toast to ‘Masters of Language’ from the Linguistics Society of America
[Accessed June 2000; No longer active October 2006]

Link to the Tyrkova-Williams collections at the British Library
[Accessed June 2000]

A brief biography of Williams’ wife Adriana Tyrkova
[Accessed June 2000; No longer active 2006]


Tags: Editor  forigen correspondent  Guinness Book of Records  Harold Williams  Linguist  

  • Wanda Hale Wright - 8:27 pm on July 25th, 2018
    Would have loved to meet him.
  • Editor - 9:03 am on October 2nd, 2013
    Hi Guy, it seems Harold Williams was born 6 April 1876 in Auckland. Good luck on your research- sounds interesting!
  • Guy Ollivier - 3:53 pm on October 1st, 2013
    Inspiring to read about Harold Williams. If you know the time of birth (as well as date and place) please include it for those of us who like to research horoscopes of unique and outstanding individuals.
  • K. Barrett - 3:53 pm on September 25th, 2013
    What a remarkable man. Just the sort of man Peter Jackson could make a brillant movie about.
  • Anonymous - 6:09 pm on May 23rd, 2002
    Just came across the bio of Harold Williams on NZ Edge - I was searching for a quote from Peter Buck. The Williams piece is brilliant. You've got the makings of a lovely doco in those biographies or perhaps a series of ad length docos. They're wonderful uplifting tales. Cheers. Communications Co-ordinator Wellington, New Zealand
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