Journalist and linguist, foreign editor of The Times.
Harold Williams, the son of the Rev. W. J. Williams, was born at Auckland on 6 April 1876. Because his father, who was president of the Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Church and editor of the Methodist Times, was constantly on the move, his schooling was haphazard, but from his early years Harold Williams absorbed languages with the ease of a genius. As a boy he taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and most of the European and Pacific island languages. In 1888 he won a scholarship which took him to the Christchurch Boys' High School; in 1892, while attending the Timaru Boys' High School, he gained a Junior National Scholarship. When the family returned to Auckland, in 1893, he sat for his B.A. degree but, for all his brilliance, he was failed in mathematics, a subject he never mastered. At the age of 20, despite a slight speech defect which made public speaking distasteful to him, he entered the Methodist Ministry and, until he sailed for Germany in 1900, with little more than a present of £50 as his sole fortune, he served his church at St. Albans, Stratford, and on the Wairoa gumfields, where he increased his knowledge of foreign languages by talking with kauri-gum diggers. After three years at Munich University he was appointed to the staff of The Times and stationed at Stuttgart, where he met and married Ariadna Tyrkova, first woman to be elected to the Russian Duma. In 1905 Williams went to Russia and remained there for 14 years, representing The Times, Manchester Guardian, Morning Post, Daily Chronicle, and New York newspapers, and collecting immense quantities of material which bore fruit as his authoritative book, Russia of the Russians.
Williams' political perception was remarkable. In recording the 1905 revolution he saw in it and its aftermath the genesis of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. That was only one of his many prophetic warnings. When war came in 1914, Williams reported its progress and effect with such discernment and clarity that diplomats often came to him for advice. He returned to London in 1918 and, after a bleak period, joined the staff of The Times in 1921 under Wickham Steed. There he became foreign editor and director of the Foreign Department, the only New Zealander ever to hold that exacting post. He was still in office when he died on 18 November 1928, loved by all with whom he worked. Harold Williams spoke 58 languages fluently and many dialects. He was the only man to attend the League of Nations in Geneva and talk with every delegate in his own language; he read the Bible in 26 languages, including Hausa, Zulu, and Swahili. He read grammars all his life as other people read detective stories. From 1919 to 1928 Williams exercised a notable influence over European and American political thought, and his leading articles were quoted in debate by world politicians. He strongly supported the League of Nations, though the inadequacy, presumption, and intrigue of many of the delegates depressed him. He had an amazing capacity for friendship and remained an unassuming, practising Christian all his life. When he died, The Times, in a glowing tribute, said that modesty was his only fault.
by Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.
- Cheerful Giver, Williams, Ariadna Tyrkova (1935)
- The Times (London), 19 Nov 1928.