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  Rufus Daniel Isaacs (1860–1935), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1925 Rufus Daniel Isaacs (1860–1935), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1925
Isaacs, Rufus Daniel, first marquess of Reading (1860–1935), politician and judge, was born on 10 October 1860 at 3 Bury Street, in the parish of St Mary Axe, London, the second son and fourth of the nine children of Joseph Michael Isaacs (1832–1908), fruit importer, and his wife, Sarah (1835–1922), daughter of Daniel Davis of London. Joseph and his brother Harry carried on the business in Spitalfields founded by their father, Michael Isaacs. Michael's grandfather, the first Isaacs to settle in England, was probably of Spanish Jewish origin. Michael himself married Sarah Mendoza, whose father, Aaron, came from Madrid. Aaron's younger brother, the celebrated prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza, was Rufus Isaacs's great-uncle. Rufus's uncle Harry (later Sir Henry) Isaacs became an alderman and (1889–90) lord mayor of London. Rufus's sister Esther married the playwright Alfred Sutro. High-spirited and rebellious as a child—‘he was wild, he was idle, he was volatile’ (Reading, 1.11)—Rufus was sent away to school from an early age: to a kindergarten at Gravesend; between the ages of five and seven to a school in Brussels to learn French; then for some years as a boarder at an Anglo-Jewish school in Regent's Park. At all these schools he was precociously bright and exceedingly disruptive. In 1873 he entered University College School in Gower Street, London, where the headmaster noted his promise; but his father, seeing no future for him in higher education, removed him after less than a year in order to prepare him for the family business. Rufus was thirteen years old.

After six months in Hanover learning German, Rufus duly entered M. Isaacs & Sons as an apprentice; but he found the life irksome and uncongenial. There is no truth in the story that he ran away to sea; his father, feeling that discipline was his greatest need, arranged for him to join the sailing ship Blair Athole. Rufus refused to sign up for the two years laid down in the deed of apprenticeship, but he agreed to complete a round voyage as ship's boy—in effect, a deckhand. He was just sixteen years old. Conditions on board were harsh and menial; he jumped ship at Rio de Janeiro, but was caught and after punishment rejoined the vessel for the voyage to Calcutta. Here, briefly, he landed in the country over which he was to rule as viceroy forty-four years later. On his return to London in September 1877, his father sent him to Magdeburg to extend his knowledge of the import business; but his sojourn ended after eight months when he emptied a tureen of soup over a fellow lodger with whom he had fallen out. In 1879 he finally abandoned the family business to become a jobber in the foreign market at the stock exchange. At first he prospered. He became something of a man about town, bought his own horse, and regularly attended music-halls and dances. His stock exchange career ended disastrously, however, after a slump in 1884: he was ‘hammered’, owing debts of £8000. His father now determined that Rufus should seek his fortune in Panama, but after Rufus had left for the station his mother threw a fit of hysterics; his brother Harry pursued him to Euston and hauled him out of the Liverpool train at the last minute. His father at last agreed to let him read for the bar, a suggestion originally made by his headmaster at University College School. He was twenty-four years of age.

The law

Isaacs began by attending for six months in the office of Algernon Sydney, the family solicitor, by way of experiment. He took instantly to the law; and the gadabout and seeming ne'er-do-well at last put his wild youth behind him and applied himself soberly and single-mindedly to his studies. In January 1885 he was admitted as a student to the Middle Temple. He read for a year as a pupil in the chambers of John Lawson Walton, and was called to the bar on 17 November 1887. Three weeks later, on 8 December, at the West London Synagogue, he married Alice Edith (c.1866–1930), third daughter of Albert Cohen, a City merchant, and set up house at 10 Broadhurst Gardens, near Finchley Road Station. The Isaacses were ‘a remarkably good-looking couple’, wrote his first pupil barrister, who noted their ‘joie de vivre and their radiant devotion to each other’ (Oppenheimer, 99). They had a son.

Isaacs took the bold and unconventional step of setting up in chambers of his own, at 1 Garden Court, Temple. His confidence was vindicated. Work came flooding in. He earned £519 in his first year alone. He was soon bringing in an annual income of £7000, then a very considerable sum; and he repaid, within five years and with interest, the £8000 debt to his creditors. His firsthand experience of the stock exchange and close familiarity from the import trade with every sort of commercial document he put to good use, especially in the commercial court, established in 1895. He also became expert in trade-union law from his long association with the leading case of Allen v. Flood, which he argued through every court including the House of Lords. After only ten and a half years as a junior, he took silk in 1898, at the age of thirty-seven, and the Isaacses moved to the West End. Within five years he doubled his income; five years later he was earning an annual income, colossal for the time, of £30,000.

As a leader, Isaacs vied with such giants as Sir Edward Clarke and Sir Edward Carson. He practised chiefly in the commercial court or before special juries, occasionally in the divorce court or the Old Bailey. His triumphs included his defence of The Star newspaper in a libel action involving Joseph Chamberlain (1901), the Taff Vale litigation (1902), the prosecution of the fraudulent company promoter Whittaker Wright (1904), and the defence of Sir Edward Russell on a charge of criminal libel (1905) and of Robert Sievier on a blackmail charge (1908). Isaacs was exceedingly hard-working, and was blessed with an unusually robust constitution and, as he agreed, ‘high animal spirits’ (Jackson, 28). Able to do with little sleep, to take sleep when he chose, to ration his energy, and compartmentalize his mind, he invariably rose at 5 or 4 a.m. to prepare the day's work, arriving ‘fresh and smiling’ at the Temple (The Times, 31 Dec 1935). He made it a rule never to work after dinner, and though his wife's recurrent ill health often prevented her from accompanying him, she always encouraged him to seek an active social life and to enlarge his circle of acquaintances.

Isaacs was an engaging advocate: a slim, taut figure, with striking, chiselled features, and a melodious, beautifully modulated voice, delicate hands, firmly planted in the lapels of his coat, and an alert, compelling glance. His forensic strengths were his mastery of facts and figures, aided by a prodigiously retentive memory; great clarity of thought and expression; and total self-control. His opening speech in the Whittaker Wright case was considered ‘an epic of lucidity and conciseness’ (Muir, 35). His advocacy was the opposite of the rhetorical, browbeating technique then dominant. Always calm, always courteous, he never overstated his case, readily conceded his opponent's strong points, and knew how to put unpromising facts in the most favourable light. Never was he caught out or provoked into losing his temper. Beneath his impressive composure lay great tactical dexterity. He was among the first to put his client in the witness box under the Criminal Evidence Act 1898 to testify in his own defence. His mode of cross-examination—disarmingly quiet, polite, and equable—set a new and lasting standard. J. C. Davidson recalled:
I was immensely struck by his capacity of exacting information without the giver of the information really realising it. He always asked questions with an anaesthetic in them, so that you really felt that if he was operating on you, you would never feel any pain. (Memoirs of a Conservative, 395)
His speeches in court—factual, couched in straightforward, almost conversational language—were singularly effective with both judge and jury. His acute judgement enabled him to seize the vital issue and press it home; to argue a point of law with ingenuity and persistence; and to sense the moment to compromise. His matter-of-fact, low-key approach also served him well in appeal cases. He handled the bench suavely, and he appeared frequently before the House of Lords. In the more measured assessment of his fellow lawyer and colleague John Simon, ‘he was not a profound lawyer, but hard work and good sense made him the master of all the law that mattered for winning his case’ (DNB).

Liberal MP and law officer

In politics, Isaacs was a Liberal Imperialist, and his record of trade-union litigation stood him in good stead as a friend of the working man. After unsuccessfully contesting North Kensington in 1900, he was returned for Reading at a by-election in August 1904 and retained that seat, despite some close contests, until 1913.

In March 1910 Isaacs succeeded Sir Samuel Evans as solicitor-general and was knighted. In this capacity Sir Rufus Isaacs was immediately confronted by a painful dilemma in the case of George Archer-Shee, the naval cadet falsely accused of stealing a 5s. postal order and expelled from the Royal Naval College at Osborne. The case later became the subject of a well-known play by Terence Rattigan, The Winslow Boy (1946), and of two films (1948 and 1999). Perhaps over-cautious and relying too heavily on precedent and his predecessor's ruling, Isaacs declined to waive the Admiralty's crown privilege of immunity from suit. The Court of Appeal, however, decided that the facts should be heard; and after a full hearing Isaacs, on behalf of the Admiralty, acknowledged the boy's complete innocence.

In October 1910, after only six months as solicitor-general, Isaacs succeeded Sir William Robson as attorney-general. As such, in 1911 he secured the conviction for criminal libel of Edward Mylius, a republican agitator who circulated the falsehood that George V, when he married the future Queen Mary, was already married to another. The king wished to enter the witness box, but Isaacs advised that a reigning monarch cannot give evidence in his own courts. Shortly after, in June 1911, Isaacs was appointed KCVO. He prosecuted in the case of R. v. Seddon (1912), the only murder trial in which he took part—he did so reluctantly and only because the attorney-general customarily leads for the crown in poisoning cases. Seddon insisted on testifying in his own defence at the Old Bailey, where Isaacs's deceptive mildness of manner in cross-examination led Seddon fatally to expose his mercenary character to the jury and to entrap himself in the web of circumstantial evidence which Isaacs wove around him to prove that he had poisoned Eliza Barrow for her money. The same year, Isaacs prosecuted the militant suffragette Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst for conspiracy to commit injury and damage (though he personally favoured votes for women). In 1912 he represented the Board of Trade at the inquiry into the Titanic disaster.

Isaacs also helped pilot through the House of Commons the government's heavy and controversial legislative programme, including the Parliament Act, 1911; the Official Secrets Act, 1911, ‘a very startling innovation’, as he admitted (Hyde, 90); the National Insurance Act, 1911; the Trade Unions Act, 1913; and the Home Rule Act, 1914. He became the friend, perhaps the only close friend, of Lloyd George, and was much liked by the prime minister, Asquith. His ‘outstanding quality was his tact’ (Beaverbrook, 96) and a captivating charm which enabled him to win the confidence of men of very opposite characters and politics. His heavy legal practice took priority over attendance in the house, however: by the time he arrived in the evening, as he recalled, ‘I was tired out’ (Hyde, 61). His speeches there seldom caught the imagination, and he never became a ‘House of Commons man’. He was appointed a privy councillor in the coronation honours of July 1911.

When, in June 1912, Lord Loreburn resigned from the woolsack, Isaacs, as attorney-general, expected to be appointed in his place. He was deeply affronted when Lord Haldane was appointed instead, deeming this a slur on his office and himself. At first he suspected that he was being passed over on grounds of religion. Asquith, however, had long since intended Haldane for the woolsack; but he assuaged Isaacs's pique by agreeing that the attorney-general should join the cabinet. This privilege, which Isaacs himself came to question, involved an inherent clash of interest with the functions of a law officer, and it was eventually discontinued.

The Marconi scandal

Isaacs's career was interrupted and nearly terminated by what soon became known as the Marconi scandal. The Imperial Conference of 1911 having recommended the setting up of a chain of wireless stations across the empire, in March 1912 the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company's tender was accepted by the postmaster-general, Herbert Samuel, subject to ratification by the House of Commons. The company's managing director was Rufus Isaacs's younger brother, Godfrey. Rufus Isaacs played no part in negotiating the contract, and apparently only learned of its existence from his brother a few days before it was concluded. Unsavoury rumours, however, began to circulate: first, that Godfrey Isaacs had secured the contract through the influence of his brother and Herbert Samuel; then that Rufus Isaacs and his friends—the chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, and the government chief whip, Alec Murray, the master of Elibank—had made profitable speculations as a result of Isaacs's inside knowledge (the company shares having risen more than tenfold in value by April 1912). Neither allegation was true, as was later unanimously accepted by an all-party parliamentary select committee. What was true was that there was another company, the American Marconi Company, in which Godfrey Isaacs held a large block of shares, some of which he offered to Rufus and Harry. The American company had no interest, direct or indirect, in the profits of the English company; but while Harry purchased a large shareholding, Rufus wisely declined Godfrey's offer. In mid-April came the Titanic disaster, underlining the huge importance of wireless telegraphy. When Harry Isaacs then offered Rufus some of his American shares, this time Rufus accepted, and bought 10,000, though not at the jobbing price of 21s. which Harry offered, but at the market value of £2. The same day he transferred 1000 shares each to Lloyd George and Murray at the same price. Meanwhile the rumours concerning the English Marconi company abounded. The accusations were made openly in August in a highly offensive article by Cecil Chesterton (brother of G. K. Chesterton) in his journal The Eye-Witness. On Asquith's advice, Isaacs decided to do nothing rather than to stir up the controversy; but the effect of his inaction was precisely that.

When parliament reassembled in October 1912, Samuel moved for the appointment of a House of Commons select committee to investigate and report on the Marconi contract. Isaacs intervened in the ensuing debate. He denied having ‘had one single transaction with the shares of that company’, meaning the English Marconi company (Reading, 1.246). He said nothing, however, about his shares in the American company, having satisfied himself before purchasing that while the English company might profit from the success of the American company, the reverse was not the case. His purchase and subsequent dealings were thus unexceptionable in themselves, and in fact the shares depreciated. His failure to mention them, however, was a cardinal and almost a fatal error of judgement, since it came close to disingenuousness and exposed his motives and actions to obvious misconstruction when the truth came out. The news broke in the course of an undefended libel action against the Paris newspaper Le Matin in March 1913, when Isaacs admitted that he, Lloyd George, and Murray had dealt in the American shares. Soon afterwards he appeared before the select committee. While even his political opponents on the committee were satisfied that the allegations of corruption were baseless, the question of ‘grave impropriety’ was raised in a minority report; but the final report, adopted by a majority of eight to six, accepted that Isaacs, Samuel, Lloyd George, and Murray had all acted in the belief that what they did was not in conflict with their public duty.

The press then discovered that when he joined the stock exchange at the age of nineteen, Isaacs had signed a false declaration that he was twenty-one. The fact admitted of an innocent explanation, but such revelations were extremely awkward at a time of acute political partisanship, when the Unionist opposition was out to embarrass the government and, in some quarters, to destroy both Isaacs and Lloyd George. In the Commons debate on the report on 18 June Isaacs admitted that, while at the time he believed there was nothing untoward in his American purchase, he had since concluded that ‘it was a mistake to purchase those shares’ (Reading, 1.271). The concession was belated and grudging. It was Asquith who, by treating the matter as a motion of censure on the government, throwing his personal authority behind his colleague, and vouching for his honesty, saved Isaacs's career. Isaacs, whose nature was essentially fastidious, suffered acutely during this long and painful controversy. ‘As I walked across the lobbies or in the streets or to the courts’, he said, ‘I could feel the pointing of the finger as I passed’ (Walker-Smith, 327). What was strange was that a man so sage in his counsel to others could himself have been so ill-advised.

Lord chief justice and ambassador

In October 1913 the lord chief justice, Viscount Alverstone, resigned. As attorney-general Isaacs had a prescriptive right to the office; but the moment could hardly have been less propitious, and Asquith hesitated before offering him the post and Isaacs before accepting. To refuse would have been taken as an admission that he was not free from taint in the Marconi scandal, which in turn would have put in question his position as attorney-general. Other than quitting public life, therefore, ‘he had very little option but to accept’ (Judd, Lord Reading, 110). As it was, the appointment cut short his political career, which he was reluctant to abandon at the age of fifty-three, and revived hostile comment in sections of the press. Rudyard Kipling joined the attack with ‘Gehazi’, a poem of stinging contumely. Isaacs was cheered by the abiding confidence which the bar showed in his integrity. In the new year's honours list of 1914, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Reading of Erleigh.

Reading had been in office barely half a year when, in August 1914, his help was urgently sought by Lloyd George to assist in coping with the unprecedented financial crisis brought on by the outbreak of war and in drafting the necessary emergency legislation. Almost daily after court Reading would repair to Whitehall, where an office was provided for him. His advice and his services were found to be indispensable: he himself considered this contribution the most gratifying of his career; and although he remained lord chief justice until 1921, his presence in court was to be intermittent. In Porter v. Freudenburg (1915) he ruled that an enemy alien, though he cannot sue, can be sued, and has the right to appear and defend himself. The most dramatic case over which he presided was the treason trial of Sir Roger Casement (1916). The main charge related to Casement's attempts while in Germany to recruit Irish prisoners of war to fight against England. Upholding the opinions of Coke, Hale, and Hawkins against the somewhat strained construction placed by the defence on the Statute of Treasons of 1351, Reading held that ‘the offence, if proved in fact, has been committed in law’ (Walker-Smith, 377).

As unofficial adviser at the highest level, Reading was entrusted by the government with a variety of wartime challenges at home and abroad. In June 1915 his services were rewarded with the GCB. In September, leaving Mr Justice Darling to deputize as lord chief justice, he headed an Anglo-French mission to the United States to seek American credits for urgently needed supplies. Despite much American neutralist and pro-German opposition, he secured from a consortium of American banks a loan of £100 million, though this was only half the amount hoped for and was restricted to purchases in the United States. During his six-week visit he made many influential contacts and left an excellent impression among his interlocutors, notably Colonel House, President Wilson's closest adviser. When House travelled to London early in 1916 to explore the possibilities of a compromise peace, Reading hosted his confidential meetings with the cabinet. The government continued to rely on his advice, and he was raised to a viscountcy in June 1916. In the political crisis of December 1916, he acted as intermediary between Lloyd George and Asquith in an attempt to keep both men in office; and after Lloyd George became prime minister, Reading tried to persuade Asquith to rejoin the cabinet as lord chancellor, while anticipating and indeed soliciting from Lloyd George further employment for himself.

Advancement was not long delayed. In September 1917 Reading returned to the United States with the special appointment of high commissioner (his mandate also extending to Canada). Although America was now an ‘associated power’, the war was going very badly for the allies. Reading's task—difficult, delicate, and calling for all his gifts—was to persuade the administration to integrate America's war effort more closely with that of the allies, to prioritize the deployment of military supplies and shipping, and to grant regular credits for the duration of the war. He persuaded William McAdoo, secretary to the treasury, to allow part of these credits to be spent on purchases in Canada. He helped to convince Wilson of the need for closer military co-ordination between America and the allies through a joint supreme war council at Versailles. In this, an observer commented, he ‘achieved one of the biggest things of the war’ (Hyde, 227). Reading himself was appointed to the supreme war council as financial adviser to the war cabinet. On his return to England in November, Lloyd George instigated his elevation to an earldom. Reading also helped to engineer the recall of the British ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice, a jealous and unbalanced professional, who resented his success and obstructed his work.

In January 1918 Reading was appointed ambassador-extraordinary and high commissioner at Washington in place of Spring Rice. On his return to America in February, he engaged or re-engaged in many crucial and desperately urgent problems: the acceleration of food supplies to the allies, now within measurable distance of starvation; Britain's chronic and mounting overdraft with her American bankers; the fraught issue of allied intervention in Russia, and America's role therein; and the question of Irish home rule, always an irritant in Anglo-American relations (for the sake of which Reading urged Lloyd George to offer a generous settlement). Amid these daunting preoccupations, he continued to discharge, with unruffled aplomb, his public ambassadorial duties in the cause of Anglo-American co-operation. An observer recalls his diplomatic grace, as to the manner born, his ‘sensitive hands toying with a chicken wing, sipping gingerly from a glass of good claret … elegant in evening dress’ (Hyde, 218).

Reading's crucial mission proved successful. ‘I do not know how we should get on without you’, Lloyd George wrote feelingly (Hyde, 262). ‘He can get more out of the Administration than anyone I can think of’, Sir William Wiseman confirmed (Judd, Lord Reading, 165). Above all he faced and surmounted the dire problem of depleted allied military manpower following the collapse of Russia. Throughout the supreme crisis of the war in the spring and early summer of 1918 he instilled, at Lloyd George's behest, with infinite tact but infinite persistence, a greater sense of urgency in the president and the administration in transporting American troops to the western front in numbers and training sufficient to enable the hard-pressed forces of Britain and France to withstand the successive German onslaughts. Had he failed in this task, the war might have been lost. His absence in England, where he was recalled for consultation in August 1918, unforeseeably lasted for over six months in the second half of 1918, giving rise to complaints in Washington (where he returned to wind up his mission between February and May 1919). He regularly attended the war cabinet, and was Lloyd George's confidential emissary on high-level missions to France. He was present at cabinet discussion of the armistice, represented Great Britain in Paris on an inter-allied committee to discuss the revictualling of Europe, and perhaps aspired to a higher role at the Paris peace conference. If so, his hopes were not realized.

Viceroy of India

Reading resumed with extreme reluctance his duties as lord chief justice. After the excitement of recent years—‘the war, he would say, had spoilt him’ (The Times, 31 Dec 1935)—he found the bench mundane and uninspiring, and the prospect of remaining there until retirement depressed him. Strolling in Paris with the new lord chancellor, the 46-year-old F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, Reading, himself nearing sixty, exclaimed: ‘Look here, F. E., you and I are both too young to be stuck for the rest of our lives as judges. Let's go back to the Bar!’ (Reading, 2.149). In the case of R. v. Beard (1920), Reading held that drunkenness may reduce murder to manslaughter if it is sufficient to preclude the defendant from forming the necessary ‘specific intent’. Birkenhead overruled Reading's judgment. A curious aspect of the case was that Reading, who also took part in the hearing of the appeal by the House of Lords, acquiesced without demur in the reversal of his own judgment. Perhaps he simply changed his mind, though his original ruling represents the law as it now stands. As lord chief justice ‘he was a good judge’ but ‘not a great judge’ (Walker-Smith, 389). The truth is that he was bored with the law, and hankered after the glamour of high politics and, noted the attorney-general, Hewart, ‘the glitter of diplomacy’ (Hyde, 313). He offered to return as ambassador to the United States, and continued through Lloyd George to have sight of the dispatches between London and Washington. He even angled for the British embassy at Paris.

Thanks to Lloyd George he soon secured another enviable position: in January 1921 he was appointed viceroy of India. After over thirty years in the law, he broke with his profession with unfeigned relief. ‘I will never look at a law report again if I can help it!’, he declared (Hyde, 327). The fresh challenge rejuvenated him: he showed himself ‘marvellously bright and energetic’ (Mersey, 314). The Government of India Act of 1919 envisaged increasing participation by Indians in the Indian Civil Service and army, and Reading was determined to implement it despite both die-hard tory hostility at home and widespread suspicion of British intentions among the Indians themselves. He took a principled stand against racial discrimination. ‘I am convinced’, he wrote to Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, ‘that we shall never persuade the Indian of the justice of our rule until we have overcome racial difficulties [i.e. discrimination]’ (Hyde, 356). In charm and courtesy, Reading demonstrated his habitual qualities of political address. He believed in the reforms and in eventual Indian self-government, and he strove to show himself just, liberal, and sincere. He personally received both Gandhi and Jinnah. He made a point of visiting Amritsar as a gesture of reconciliation for the massacre of 1919. But he had to contend with Indian nationalism, now in the ascendant. Gandhi sought to rally Hindu and Muslim against the British on a common platform of non-co-operation. There was much unrest; and Reading showed patience and finesse in exploiting differences between the Hindu-dominated Congress Party and the Muslim League before marginalizing extremists on both sides. In 1921, however, he moved against two Muslim agitators, the Ali brothers; and in 1922, after long forbearance, he ordered Gandhi's arrest on a charge of sedition, for which the mahatma was sentenced to six years' imprisonment. Reading also cultivated the princely rulers, who governed a third of India; but again, his policy was even-handed, combining conciliation with firmness, as when, for cruelty to their subjects, he forced the abdication of two maharajas. In August 1921 he ordered the suppression of rebellion among the Moplahs, a fanatical Muslim sect in the Madras presidency, and in 1922 of Sikh unrest in the Punjab. Despite a volatile political situation, the prince of Wales's visit to India in November 1921, which took place largely at Reading's insistence, was a success.

In February 1922 Reading telegraphed a dispatch to Montagu in which he stressed the resentment among India's Muslims at Britain's post-war treatment of Turkey, and formally requested, in the name of the government of India, revision of the treaty of Sèvres. When at his request Montagu published this dispatch, but without seeking the consent of the prime minister or foreign secretary, Lloyd George forced Montagu to resign. Reading, as he informed Lloyd George, was ‘very distressed by the resignation’ (Hyde, 374). For a time he contemplated resigning himself, though he had not been at fault; and the treaty of Lausanne (1923) went far to relieve the Muslim anxieties which he had sought to allay.

Elder statesman

On his return to England in April 1926, Reading was created a marquess, the first commoner to rise so high since the duke of Wellington. As before his Indian appointment, Reading ‘faced a tremendous problem of readjustment’ (Judd, Lord Reading, 232). In the first place, he had his income to consider. He had no pension, his investments had often failed, and he spent heavily. He was appointed to the boards of a number of companies (including the National Provincial Bank and the London and Lancashire Insurance Company, of which he became chairman). The most important of these remunerative posts was his directorship of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), the founder of which, Sir Alfred Mond, was the father of Reading's daughter-in-law. After Mond's death in 1930, Reading became president of ICI. He still yearned, however, for political office. He took part in efforts to heal the rifts in the Liberal Party which emerged after Asquith's retirement. As head of the Liberal Party delegation, he played a leading role in the three round-table conferences on the Indian constitution in 1930–32 and, during 1933–4, on the select committee appointed to draft the Government of India Act 1935.

On 30 January 1930, after forty-two years of marriage, Lady Reading died of cancer. She had encouraged Reading's ambitions throughout his career; a close observer even considered that ‘she was the more gifted of the two’ (Oppenheimer, 99). On 6 August 1931 Reading married Stella (1894–1971) [see ], third daughter of Charles Charnaud, when he was nearly seventy-one and she was thirty-seven; she had served on his staff in India and thereafter as his private secretary. That same month, with the onset of the great depression, Ramsay MacDonald formed an all-party National Government and much to his delight appointed Reading, now Liberal leader in the House of Lords, as foreign secretary. The office, his son recorded, ‘had always had a powerful attraction for him’ (Judd, Lord Reading, 253) and he entered upon it with zest. It was a position which, but for the crisis, as he admitted, ‘I could not have hoped to occupy’ (ibid., 261). He also became leader of the House of Lords. In this capacity he was responsible for steering legislation through the upper house, notably on the suspension of the gold standard. He resigned the Foreign Office after the general election in October, though he negotiated to remain in government. However, he declined MacDonald's invitation to take office as lord privy seal in the second National Government.

Reading was appointed GCSI and GCIE in 1921 and GCVO in 1922. He received the freedom of Reading (1920) and of London (1926). He became a bencher of the Middle Temple in 1905 and served as treasurer in 1927. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Toronto, and Calcutta, and from Cambridge and Oxford (1926). Having held the captaincy of Deal Castle since 1926, he was appointed lord warden of the Cinque Ports in 1934.

Retrospective survey

Reading's career was a tale of dramatic success, the more remarkable in one whose schooling was patchy and ended before he was fourteen, who never, as he often regretted, attended university, whose early years were chequered, and whose soaring promise almost foundered in the Marconi scandal. To himself as to others, his life seemed a romantic adventure. ‘Here I am,’ he mused in 1918, ‘ambassador, lord chief justice, peer, and I started from nothing’ (Hyde, 284). As his son commented, visiting his parents in the viceregal lodge at Simla, they had come a long way since Broadhurst Gardens (Reading, 2.174). From his boyhood, Reading was bold and full of life, outgoing and ready to defy adversity. Aboard the Blair Athole he learned to use his fists (later, as an amateur boxer, he received a broken nose). These innate qualities of resilience and determination—to which he himself attributed his success—he applied assiduously in the furtherance of his career, while sublimating in that cause the too open pugnacity and recklessness which marred his early life. Both Margot Asquith and Frances Stevenson agreed that ‘ambition was his ruling quality’ (Stevenson, Years that are Past, 55); while the key to his continual advancement was his friendship with Asquith and Lloyd George. That he retained the favour of both without being harmed by the fall of either and tried, though unsuccessfully, to reconcile them was a mark of his suave and conciliatory character. The steely glint of Reading's ambition was screened by a velvet cover of ubiquitous amiability and genuine good nature. ‘He did not challenge; he charmed’ (Walker-Smith, 391); and his ‘abundance of personal charm’ (Beaverbrook, 96) won over colleagues and critics alike. His ambition, though constant and intense, was usually also tempered by prudence and reserve. According to Beaverbrook, he was ‘so cautious that he never gave an opinion until he was forced to do so’ (ibid.). J. M. Keynes noted this characteristic in 1918, when Reading hoped for a position of influence at the peace conference: he was ‘terrified of identifying himself too decidedly with anything controversial’ (Judd, Lord Reading, 145). Avoiding the rough and tumble of politics while forwarding his career from behind the scenes, he glided discreetly upwards from success to success, always with a modest smile and a friendly wave to those below him on the political escalator, though he had what Frances Stevenson called ‘the “cafeteria” mind—self-service only’ (Stevenson, Years that are Past, 55).

Reading's long and varied experience, dignity, and poise lent him in later years the authority of an elder statesman—‘an affable Caesar’ (Sitwell, 224)—and a reputation perhaps somewhat above his real merits, considerable though these were—and they included great industry and powers of concentration, as every stage of his career bears witness. Behind a certain elusive modesty he had not really much to say for himself. ‘He owed much’, Lord Birkenhead observed, ‘to a very distinguished appearance’ (Birkenhead, 106). In this sense the office of viceroy suited him admirably: a photograph of 1926 shows him acknowledging the obeisance of assembled Indian notables, politely doffing his sola topee. He was a diplomat and peacemaker—‘this imperturbable negotiator’ in the words of Colonel House (Hyde, 217), a conciliator rather than a leader of men. He attempted to mediate in the national strike of 1926. In politics he early became thought of as indispensable—‘the inevitable Lord Reading’, in C. P. Scott's somewhat peevish description (Political Diaries, 220)—and in his wartime mission to America, on which depended victory or defeat, he was undoubtedly the right man in the right place at the right time. While ambition drove him ever upward, the steady pursuit of advancement was for him perhaps an end in itself, the attainment of office more satisfying than the exercise. He had not, indeed, a commonplace mind, but perhaps a more bland, conventional, and even sentimental outlook than might have been expected. As a public speaker he was fluent but ‘dignified and dull’ (Beaverbrook, 96), saved from pomposity by a sense of humour. ‘Few men indeed’, Lord Birkenhead observed, ‘have risen so high whose spoken words possessed so little literary distinction’ (Birkenhead, 105–6).

Reading was no intellectual, though he enjoyed music and drama. He took up bridge, riding, shooting, tennis, and golf, at which last he was said to be a cheerful incompetent. Of a nature both tough and finely wrought, he shrank from crudity or emotional display, and as lord chief justice he was strangely embarrassed by cases of a sexual nature. His tastes were simple, though ‘he thoroughly enjoyed the pomp and pageantry’ (The Times, 31 Dec 1935), alternating formality with informality both as viceroy of India, where he introduced ballroom dancing to relieve the tedium of levees, and at Deal Castle and Walmer Castle, where he hosted festive family gatherings. In private he was good company, debonair, genial, and spontaneous. He would burst unexpectedly into music-hall songs or sea shanties. Motoring with Lloyd George in the south of France before the First World War, to his companion's astonishment he chanted in Hebrew the ‘Song of Miriam’, which he had learned at school. Kindly and generous—Marshall Hall and Asquith were among those to whom he proffered financial help in their time of need—he was ‘a just and most likeable fellow’ and ‘a lovable man’ (Beaverbrook, 96).

The first Jew to become lord chief justice or foreign secretary before Peter Taylor and Malcolm Rifkind in the late twentieth century, Reading was proud of his Jewish birth and he always spoke up for his co-religionists. But he had little feeling for religion as such: he seldom attended Jewish observances, his second wife was a gentile, and his grandson was baptized in the Anglican faith. Having scaled the heights and done service as an Englishman, he felt lukewarm towards Zionism, though he took pleasure in a visit to Palestine in 1931, and the advent of Hitler made him more sympathetic to the cause. Having helped to found the Anglo-German Association in 1929, he resigned as its president in 1933.

On holiday in Egypt in 1931, Reading nearly died of double pneumonia, though he made a quick recovery. In September 1935, while practising golf, he suffered a violent attack of cardiac asthma, and a further bout in December. He died at his home, 32 Curzon Street, London, on 30 December 1935, as he ‘always said that he wished to die’—‘in harness’ (Mersey, 388). On 1 January 1936 his body was cremated and his ashes were interred near the remains of his first wife in the Golders Green Jewish cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £290,487 11s. 7d., a figure never exceeded hitherto by a practising member of the English bar. He was succeeded as second marquess of Reading by his only child, Gerald Rufus Isaacs (1889–1960).

A. Lentin


Marquess of Reading [G. R. Isaacs], Rufus Isaacs, first marquess of Reading, 2 vols. (1942–5) · H. M. Hyde, Lord Reading: the life of Rufus Isaacs, first marquess of Reading (1967) · D. Judd, Lord Reading (1982) · D. Walker-Smith, Lord Reading and his cases (1934) · DNB · M. A. Beaverbrook, Men and power, 1917–1918 (1956) · Earl of Birkenhead, ‘Lord Darling’, Contemporary personalities [1924] · F. Donaldson, The Marconi scandal (1962) · The Times (31 Dec 1935) · Memoirs of a Conservative: J. C. C. Davidson's memoirs and papers, 1910–37, ed. R. R. James (1969) · F. L. Lloyd George, The years that are past (1967) · F. Oppenheimer, Stranger within (1960) · S. Jackson, Rufus Isaacs: first marquess of Reading (1936) · O. Sitwell, Laughter in the next room (1949) · The political diaries of C. P. Scott, 1911–1928, ed. T. Wilson (1970) · Viscount Mersey [C. C. Bigham], A picture of life (1941) · R. Muir, A memoir of a public prosecutor (1927) · W. B. Fowler, British-American relations, 1917–1918: the role of Sir William Wiseman (1969) · F. Stevenson, Lloyd George: a diary, ed. A. J. P. Taylor (1971) · The Leo Amery diaries, ed. J. Barnes and D. Nicholson, 1 (1980) · D. Judd, ‘Reading, Lord’, The Blackwell dictionary of British political life in the twentieth century, ed. K. Robbins (1990), 353–4


BL OIOC, corresp. and papers; corresp. and papers relating to India, MSS Eur. E238, F118 · priv. coll., papers · Royal Arch. · TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, FO800/222–6 |  Balliol Oxf., letters to Sir Francis Oppenheimer · BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49741, passim · BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51082 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62156 · BL OIOC, letters to Lord Birkenhead, MS Eur. D703 · BL OIOC, letters to Sir Basil Blackett, MS Eur. E397 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir Harcourt Butler, MS Eur. F116 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Goschen, MS Eur. D595 · BL OIOC, corresp. with second earl of Lytton, MS Eur. F160 · BL OIOC, corresp. with E. S. Montagu, MS Eur. D523 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., H. A. L. Fisher papers · Bodl. Oxf., letters to the Lewis family · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Sankey · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · Harvard U., Houghton L., Walter Hines Page papers · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · Parl. Arch., corresp. with David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · priv. coll., Birkenhead papers · priv. coll., Simon papers · TNA: PRO, Foreign Office papers · TNA: PRO, Grey papers · Yale U., Sterling Memorial Library, corresp. with Edward House · Yale U., Wiseman papers  



BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage


G. C. Beresford, photographs, 1903, NPG · O. Birley, oils, c.1914, Reading Municipal Art Gallery · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, c.1915, NPG · W. Orpen, oils, 1919, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1919, NPG · G. F. Watt, oils, c.1920, Middle Temple, London; on loan to Palace of Westminster · K. Kennet, bronze bust, 1925, NPG · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1925, NPG [see illus.] · F. Bremner, photograph, c.1926, NPG · O. Birley, oils, 1928, Middle Temple, London · C. S. Jagger, statue, c.1928, New Delhi, India · E. Kapp, drawing, 1929, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · F. May, caricature, gouache, 1930–39, NPG · A. Lowental, bronze plaque, 1936, NPG · P. A. de Laszlo, portrait, viceroy's house, Delhi, India · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, lithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (14 Feb 1904) · Spy [L. Ward], mechanically reproduced caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (18 June 1913)

Wealth at death  

£290,487 11s. 7d.: probate, 28 Feb 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales