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Williams, (Arthur Frederic) Basil (1867–1950), historian, was born in London on 4 April 1867, the only son of Frederick George Adolphus Williams, barrister, and his wife, Mary Katharine Lemon. Although born a Londoner, he attached great importance to his Somerset ancestry, and occupied his old age with genealogical researches. He was educated at Marlborough College and New College, Oxford, where he was a scholar and was placed in the first class in classical moderations (1888) and the second class in literae humaniores (1890). He obtained a clerkship in the House of Commons where it was his duty to attend the parliamentary committee of inquiry into the responsibility for the Jameson raid of 1896; the appearance of Cecil Rhodes made a deep impression on him, and perhaps this accounts for his decision, many years later, to write Rhodes's biography. Williams volunteered for service in the South African War, and campaigned for a year in the same unit as Erskine Childers. The friendship thus confirmed meant much to him later: he co-operated with Childers in attempts to work out a solution of the home rule question, wrote a memoir of him after his execution in 1922, and also contributed a notice of him to the Dictionary of National Biography.

After a brief return to England, Williams went again to South Africa as a civilian, and put his services at the disposal of Lord Milner. He assisted Lionel Curtis, then town clerk at Johannesburg, and worked later in the education department. He frequently insisted that these military and administrative experiences proved valuable to him in his career as a historian, to which he now gave himself in earnest after his second return to England. In 1905 Williams married Dorothy (d. 1948), daughter of Francis William Caulfeild, a descendant of William Caulfeild, first Viscount Charlemont. There were two sons of the marriage.

Williams had already chosen the eighteenth century as his field of study, and had distinguished himself by a series of articles on Sir Robert Walpole's foreign policy in the English Historical Review (1900–01). Much of his best work was biographical at least in form: his lives of William Pitt, earl of Chatham (1913), and Stanhope (1932) were for a long time the most satisfactory treatment of their subjects, though they reflect ‘a weakness for personal magnetism’ (Pares, 253). There was ‘something about the heroic, or even the energetic, which always attracted him’ (ibid., 256). His later book Carteret and Newcastle (1943) was similar though less exhaustive and less well balanced. He also wrote for the Oxford History of England The Whig Supremacy, 1714–60 (1939; rev. edn, by C. Stuart, 1962). All these books were written from a British point of view, with a certain unaffected patriotism, but showed remarkable comprehension of the relation between Great Britain and Europe. At the same time he did not lose sight of South Africa, which became for him a secondary sphere of historical interest; in 1921 he published his life of Cecil Rhodes and as late as 1946 he brought out a little book entitled Botha, Smuts and South Africa.

In the earlier part of his career as a historian Williams had no professional post, but lived on his private income. At one time he thought of a political career, and unsuccessfully contested Lewes in January 1910 and Rugby in December 1910 as a Liberal. In the First World War he served as an education officer in the Royal Field Artillery and in 1919 was appointed OBE for his services. He was Kingsford professor of history at McGill University (1921–5), and then held the chair of history at Edinburgh until 1937 when he retired, having reached the age limit. He was not an exciting lecturer, but he played some part in syllabus reform, increasing the role of European history. In Edinburgh, where the Williamses lived in Drummond Place, they became a focus of eclectic hospitality. Despite an old-fashioned manner, Williams ‘held political views which were generally considered as “advanced” and they seem to have become more advanced as he grew older’ (Pares, 260). He lived in his last years at the Athenaeum, London, and at Fernshaw Mansions, Chelsea, London. He was elected FBA in 1935. He died at 46 Amhurst Park, Stoke Newington, London, on 5 January 1950.

Richard Pares, rev. H. C. G. Matthew

Sources  

A. F. B. Williams, Family memoir, 1939 [in private hands] · R. Pares, ‘Basil Williams, 1867–1950’, PBA, 36 (1950), 251–60 · personal knowledge (1959) · private information (1959) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1950)

Archives  

Bodl. RH, corresp., diaries, and papers relating to South Africa and his life of Cecil Rhodes |  TCD, corresp. with Erskine and Mary Childers · U. Newcastle, corresp. with C. P. Trevelyan


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1935, NPG · Lafayette, photograph, repro. in PBA, p. 250

Wealth at death  

£15,223 17s. 0d.: probate, 2 March 1950, CGPLA Eng. & Wales