Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading

Rufus Daniel Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, PC (10 October 1860 – 30 December 1935) was a British Liberal politician and judge, who served as Lord Chief Justice of England,[1] Viceroy of India, and Foreign Secretary, the last Liberal to hold that post. The second practising Jew to be a member of the British cabinet (the first being Herbert Samuel,[2] who was also a member of H. H. Asquith's government), Isaacs was the first Jew to be Lord Chief Justice, and the first, and as yet, only British Jew to be raised to a marquessate.

The Marquess of Reading
Reading in 1917
Leader of the House of Lords
In office
25 August 1931  5 November 1931
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterRamsay MacDonald
Preceded byThe Lord Parmoor
Succeeded byThe Viscount Hailsham
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
25 August 1931  5 November 1931
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterRamsay MacDonald
Preceded byArthur Henderson
Succeeded bySir John Simon
Viceroy and Governor-General of India
In office
2 April 1921  3 April 1926
MonarchGeorge V
Prime Minister
Preceded byThe Lord Chelmsford
Succeeded byThe Earl of Halifax
Lord Chief Justice of England
In office
21 October 1913  8 March 1921
MonarchGeorge V
Preceded byThe Viscount Alverstone
Succeeded byThe Lord Trevethin
Attorney General for England and Wales
In office
7 October 1910  19 October 1913
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterH. H. Asquith
Preceded bySir William Robson
Succeeded bySir John Simon
Solicitor General for England and Wales
In office
6 March 1910  7 October 1910
MonarchsEdward VII
George V
Prime MinisterH. H. Asquith
Preceded bySir Samuel Evans
Succeeded bySir John Simon
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
9 January 1914  30 December 1935
Hereditary Peerage
Preceded byPeerage created
Succeeded byThe 2nd Marquess of Reading
Member of Parliament
for Reading
In office
6 August 1904  19 October 1913
Preceded byGeorge William Palmer
Succeeded byLeslie Orme Wilson
Personal details
Rufus Daniel Isaacs

(1860-10-10)10 October 1860
Tower Hamlets, London, England
Died30 December 1935(1935-12-30) (aged 75)
Mayfair, London, England
Political partyLiberal
Alice Edith Cohen
(m. 1887; died 1930)

Stella Charnaud
(m. 1931)
ChildrenGerald Isaacs, 2nd Marquess of Reading
EducationUniversity College School
ProfessionLawyer, jurist, politician


Rufus Isaacs was born at 3 Bury Street, in the parish of St Mary Axe, London, the son of a Jewish fruit importer at Spitalfields.[3] He was educated at University College School[1] and then entered the family business at the age of 15. In 1876–77 he served as a ship's boy and later worked as a jobber on the stock-exchange from 1880 to 1884. In 1887 he married Alice Edith Cohen, who suffered from a chronic physical disability and died of cancer in 1930, after over 40 years of marriage. The Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar is named after her.

He then married Stella Charnaud, the first Lady Reading's secretary. His second marriage lasted until his own death in 1935. After his death Stella Isaacs was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1941,[4] promoted to Dame Grand Cross (GBE) in 1944,[5] and then in 1958 made a life peeress as Baroness Swanborough, of Swanborough in the County of Sussex.

Isaacs caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1904

Isaacs was admitted as a student to the Middle Temple in 1885, and was called to the Bar in 1887.[6] He set up his own chambers at 1 Garden Court, Temple, and was very successful; within five years he was able to repay his creditors, and after twenty years at the bar earned the enormous sum of £30,000 per year. He was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1898, after only ten and half years at the junior bar.

Isaacs mainly practised in the Commercial Court, with occasional appearance in the divorce court or at the Old Bailey. Among his famous cases were the defence of The Star against a charge of libel by Arthur Chamberlain (at the behest of his brother Joseph), the Taff Vale case (where he appeared for the union), the 1903 Bayliss v. Coleridge libel suit, the prosecution of the fraudster Whitaker Wright, the defence of Sir Edward Russell on a charge of criminal libel, and that of Robert Sievier on a charge of blackmail.

As a barrister, Isaacs was a hard worker, rising early to prepare his cases, although he never worked after dinner. His advocacy was calm and forensic, and he was renowned for his style of cross-examination.

Political career

Having earlier contested unsuccessfully North Kensington in 1900, Isaacs entered the House of Commons as the Liberal Party member of Parliament (MP) for Reading at the by-election on 6 August 1904, a seat he held for nine years until 1913.[1]

In 1910, he was appointed solicitor general in the government of H. H. Asquith and received the customary knighthood. After six months, he was appointed attorney general. On the resignation of Lord Loreburn as Lord Chancellor in 1912, Isaacs had expected to succeed him, but was passed over in favour of Lord Haldane. To apease him, Asquith invited Isaacs to join the Cabinet; he was the first attorney general to sit in the Cabinet.

As law officer, Isaacs handled many high-profile cases. As solicitor general, he appeared for the Admiralty in the George Archer-Shee case. As attorney general, he led the prosecutions of Edward Mylius for criminal libel against King George V (and was appointed KCVO shortly after), of poisoner Frederick Seddon (the only murder trial Isaacs ever took part in), and of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. He also represented the Board of Trade at the inquiry into the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

In addition, he helped to pilot through the Commons several pieces of key legislation, including the Parliament Act 1911, the Official Secrets Act 1911, the National Insurance Act 1911, the Trade Union Act 1913, and the Government of Ireland Act 1914. He was appointed to the Privy Council in the 1911 Coronation Honours.

Marconi scandal

Isaacs was one of several high-ranking members of the Liberal government accused of involvement in the Marconi scandal.[7] An article published in Le Matin on 14 February 1913 alleged corruption in the award of a government contract to the Marconi Company and insider trading in Marconi's shares, implicating a number of sitting government ministers, including Lloyd George, the chancellor of the Exchequer; Isaacs, then attorney general; Herbert Samuel, postmaster general; and the treasurer of the Liberal Party, Lord Murray.[8]

The allegations included the fact that Isaacs's brother, Godfrey Isaacs, was managing director of the Marconi company at the time that the cabinet, in which Isaacs sat, awarded Marconi the contract.[9][10] Isaacs and Samuels sued Le Matin for libel, and as a result, the journal apologised and printed a complete retraction in its 18 February 1913 issue.[8][11][12]

The factual matters were at least partly resolved by a parliamentary select committee investigation, which issued three reports: all found that Isaacs and others had purchased shares in the American Marconi company, but while the fellow-Liberal members of the committee cleared the ministers of all blame, the opposition members reported that Isaacs and others had acted with "grave impropriety".[8] It was not made public during the trial that these shares had been made available through Isaacs's brother at a favourable price.[13]

Diplomatic career

Mr. Lloyd George (2nd left), Lord Reading (2nd from right) and M. Albert Thomas (far left) visiting the Front, France. (photo: Ernest Brooks)

In October 1913 he was made Lord Chief Justice of England, in succession to the Viscount Alverstone. At the time the Attorney General had the right of first refusal for the appointment, but his involvement in the Marconi scandal complicated matters. Although reluctant to abandon his political career Isaacs felt he had little choice: to refuse would be to suggest that the Marconi scandal had tainted him. Consequently, he accepted the post, and was elevated to the peerage as Baron Reading, of Erleigh in the County of Berkshire, on 9 January 1914.[14] His appointment caused some controversy, and led to Rudyard Kipling attacking him in the poem "Gehazi".

As Lord Chief Justice, Reading presided over the trial of Roger Casement for high treason. His attendance in court was, however, intermittent, as he was frequently called upon by the government to serve as an advisor. In August 1914 Reading was enlisted to deal with the financial crisis brought about by the outbreak of the First World War. In 1915 he led the Anglo-French Financial Commission to seek financial assistance for the Allies from the United States. During the December 1916 Cabinet crisis, he acted as intermediary between Asquith and David Lloyd George.

In September 1917 Reading returned to the United States with the special appointment of high commissioner to the United States and Canada. In 1918 he was appointed British Ambassador to the United States, all the while remaining Lord Chief Justice. Returning to England for six months in 1918, he frequently attended the War Cabinet and was sent to France as Lloyd George's confidential emissary. He returned to the United States as Ambassador in 1919, relinquishing the post the same year. After the excitement of wartime diplomacy, he returned unwillingly to the bench in 1919, while seeking new appointments.

For his wartime public service he was appointed GCB in 1915, made Viscount Reading, of Erleigh in the County of Berkshire in 1916, and Earl of Reading as well as Viscount Erleigh, of Erleigh in the County of Berkshire, in 1917.[15][16]

Viceroy of India

Statue of Isaacs as Viceroy of India, originally sited in New Delhi but now in Eldon Square Gardens in Reading

In 1921, he resigned the chief justiceship to become Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Reading preferred a conciliatory policy: he was determined to implement the provisions of the Government of India Act 1919 and opposed racial discrimination. He personally received Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and visited Amritsar as a gesture of reconciliation. However, he ended up using force on several occasions: in 1921 he ordered the suppression of the Malabar rebellion, and in 1922 he put down Sikh unrest in the Punjab. The same year, he had Gandhi arrested for sedition. Reading cultivated good relations with the Indian princes, but forced two maharajas to abdicate.

On his return from India in 1926, he was made Marquess of Reading, the first man to rise from commoner to a marquessate since the Duke of Wellington.[3] The next year he was made Captain of Deal Castle in 1927, a position he held until 1934.[17] As Viceroy Reading was appointed GCSI and GCIE ex officio in 1921, and in 1922 was promoted to GCVO.

As a former viceroy, Reading was critical of some of the policies of his successor Lord Irwin. On 5 November 1929 he attacked Irwin in the House of Lords for using the term "Dominion Status" with regard to India, prior to the report of the Simon Commission.[18]

Later life and career

Lord Reading and his wife at Haifa Power Station, 1930s

On his return from India, Reading, who had no pension and was a heavy spender, sat on several corporate boards, and later became president of Imperial Chemical Industries. The Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords from 1931 to 1935, he took part in the Round Table Conferences of 1930–32 on the future of British India as head of the Liberal delegates. He was also a member of the select committee charged with the drafting of the Government of India Act 1935.

In MacDonald's National Government in August 1931, Reading briefly served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the House of Lords, but stood down after the first major reshuffle in November due to ill-health.

He was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1934.


Lord Reading died in London in December 1935 aged 75. After cremation at Golders Green Crematorium his ashes were buried at the nearby Jewish cemetery.[19] The house where he died, No. 32 Curzon Street in Mayfair, has had a blue plaque on it since 1971.[20]

Honours and commemoration

In addition to five peerages and five knighthoods, Reading received many other honours. In 1925 he was appointed Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold.[21] He was Captain of Deal Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, received the freedom of Reading and of London, and was a Bencher and Treasurer of the Middle Temple. He received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Toronto, Calcutta, Cambridge and Oxford.

Although he had no apparent link with Canada, his eminence was such that the Lord Reading Law Society (founded in 1948 to promote the interests of Jewish members of the Quebec Bar) was named in his honour.[22] A founding chairman of the Palestine Electric Corporation (along with Alfred Mond (father of his daughter in-law) and Herbert Samuel), the Reading Power Station in Tel Aviv, Israel was named in his honour.[23]

Scholarly assessment

In his approach to politics, Isaacs was, according to Denis Judd,

"no blood-red Radical, and had 'little sympathy with the narrower aspects of the Nonconformist outlook which constituted so powerful an element in contemporary Liberalism.' Liberalism, nonetheless, was the natural party for him to support. Within his own father’s lifetime Jews had been obliged to struggle to obtain full civil rights. Moreover, the Liberal party apparently stood for the noble principles of liberty, toleration and progress whereas the Tories, although somewhat disguised with the Unionist coalition, seemed to offer little in the way of enlightened policies. For a man who approved of social reform, yet wanted to stop well short of revolution, the Liberal party was the obvious home."[24]

Indeed, Isaacs championed such measures as the taxation of land values and reforms in the legal standing of unions, education, licensing, and military organization.[25] Isaacs also gave staunch official backing to David Lloyd George's initiative on land reform, together with his tax on land values[26] and national social insurance scheme.[27]


  1. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Reading, Rufus Daniel Isaacs, 1st Earl of" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 32 (12th ed.). London & New York: The Encyclopædia Britannica Company. p. 255.
  2. Although Samuel's religious views were generally considered to be atheist, he remained an observant Jew to please his wife: see Wasserstein, Bernard (2004). "Samuel, Herbert Louis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35928. Retrieved 22 March 2014. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) Isaacs could be considered the first believing Jew to be a member of the Cabinet.
  3. "Isaacs, Rufus Daniel, first marquess of Reading". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34119. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. "No. 35029". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1941. p. 12.
  5. "No. 36544". The London Gazette (Supplement). 8 June 1944. p. 2586.
  6. The Concise Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1992.
  7. Lady Frances Lonsdale Donaldson, "The Marconi scandal", Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962
  8. W. J. Baker, "The history of the Marconi company 1874–1965", Routledge, 1998 ISBN 0-415-14624-0, pages 144–146
  9. H. Montgomery Hyde, "Lord Reading; the Life of Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading", Heinemann, 1968, pages 124,138–140
  10. Stanley Jackson, "Rufus Isaacs, first marquess of Reading", Cassell, 1936, pages 167–172
  11. Ian D. Colvin, "Carson the Statesman", Kessinger, 2005, ISBN 1-4179-8663-8, page 179
  12. Michael Finch, G.K. Chesterton: A biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986, ISBN 0-297-78858-2, pages 204–205
  13. ^ a b Michael Finch, G. K. Chesterton: A biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986, ISBN 0-297-78858-2, pages 204–205
  14. "No. 28791". The London Gazette. 9 January 1914. p. 258.
  15. "No. 29651". The London Gazette. 4 July 1916. p. 6597.
  16. "No. 30442". The London Gazette. 21 December 1917. p. 13384.
  17. "Captains of Deal Castle". East Kent freeuk. Retrieved 10 January 2017.
  18. Jago 2015, pp.65-7, 70
  19. The Complete Peerage, Volume XIII, Peerage Creations 1901–1938. St Catherine's Press. 1949. p. 182.
  20. "Rufus Isaacs blue plaque". Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  21. Royal Decree of 1925/-Mémorial du centenaire de l'Ordre de Léopold. 1832-1932. Bruxelles, J. Rozez, 1933.
  22. "About us". The Lord Reading Law Society. Archived from the original on 26 August 2022. Retrieved 26 August 2022.
  23. The Power Plant on Two Rivers
  24. Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading: radical liberal
  25. The Platform On Which He Stood
  26. Rufus Isaacs and land values
  27. Hansard 25 May 1911, National Insurance bill

Further reading

  • Fowler, Wilton B. British-American Relations 1917-1918 (Princeton University Press, 2015).
  • Hyde, Harford Montgomery. Lord Reading; the Life of Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading (London: Heinemann, 1967).
  • Judd, Denis. Lord Reading: Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading, Lord Chief Justice and Viceroy of India, 1860–1935 (Faber & Faber, 2013).
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