Sydney Olivier, 1st Baron Olivier

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Sydney Haldane Olivier

Birthdate: (83)
Birthplace: Colchester, Essex, England
Death: February 15, 1943 (83)
Immediate Family:

Son of Henry Arnold Olivier and Anne Elizabeth Hardcastle Olivier
Husband of Margaret Olivier
Father of Brynhild Sherrard; Margery Olivier; Daphne Harwood and Noel Richards
Brother of Herbert Arnould Olivier and Henry Dacres Olivier

Occupation: Colonial civil servant, politician and author
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Sydney Olivier, 1st Baron Olivier

Sydney Haldane Olivier, 1st Baron Olivier KCMG, CB, PC was a British civil servant. A Fabian and a member of the Labour Party, he served as Governor of Jamaica and as Secretary of State for India in the first government of Ramsay MacDonald. He was the uncle of the actor Sir Laurence Olivier.

Olivier was born in Colchester, the second of ten children of the Reverend Arnold Olivier, a stern Anglican. During Olivier's youth, the family spent time at Lausanne and Kineton, and at Poulshott in Wiltshire, where the Reverened Olivier was rector. Sydney Olivier was sent to Tonbridge School, and then studied Philosophy and Theology at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. At Oxford he became a close friend of Graham Wallas , who came from a similar background. After graduation he refused family pressure to become a barrister and sat the qualifying exam for the Civil Service. He came first, beating Sidney Webb into second place. Olivier entered the Colonial Office in spring of 1882, working as a resident clerk. He was joined by Webb shortly afterwards, and the two became good friends. In contrast to Webb, Olivier was an impulsive and dominating dandy, nicknamed the "socialist hidalgo".

At this time Olivier also worked at Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, living in the slums of Whitechapel and teaching Latin at the Working Men's College. He was a member of the Land Reform Union , where he met George Bernard Shaw in 1883, and part of team which in 1883 established a monthly periodical called the Christian Socialist, inspired by the Christian Socialist movement of 1848-52. Olivier had become enthusiastic about Positivism after working as a tutor to the son of Henry Compton, a leading Positivist. He was attracted to the Positivist vision of a moral reform of capitalism, rather than mere amelioration, and for a while entertained this notion as a alternative to socialism that might be more palatable to Victorian England.

On 1st May 1885, Sydney Olivier and Sidney Webb followed Shaw's lead and enrolled in the Fabian Society, which had been formed at the start of 1884; Wallas joined the following year, and the three became known as the Three Musketeers of the Society, with Shaw as their D'Artagnan. Partly through Olivier, the Fabians would adopt the policy of reforming capitalism as a necessary precursor to explicitly socialist reforms, Olivier arguing that the sudden introduction of socialism would result in either anarchy or tyranny and attacking Marxism's neglect of non-economic values. The same month that he joined the Fabians, Olivier married Margaret Cox, the sister Harold Cox, an old school friend and later a Liberal MP. Olivier's wife was intimidated by the Fabians, preferring the less intellectual Simple Life movement, but Olivier was an eager member of the movement, serving as the Society's secretary from 1886 to 1890. He began speaking at the Hampstead Historic Society , a reading group for a number of Fabians, and developed his oratorial skills to address larger meetings. In the summer of 1887 he took part in the Fabians' mock legislature experiment, the Charing Cross Parliament, as Colonial Secretary.

In 1888 Olivier wrote the seventh Fabian tract, Capital and Land, in which ciritcised "Georgism" (a system, popular with some Radicals and Christian Socialists, in which land continued to be privately owned and managed but should be taxed for the benefit of the community) and instead advocated the communal ownership and control of land. That year he performed clerical duties at the strike headquarters during the Bryant and May match factory strike . By now he was one of the "Big Four" of the Fabian movement in London, with Shaw, Webb and Wallas. In 1889 he wrote Moral Aspects of the Basis of Socialism in the Essays in Fabian Socialism, an attempt to develop a distinct programme for the Fabians. That year he stood down as Secretary of the Fabian Society, being succeeded by Edward R. Pease. The Oliviers bought a holiday home in Limpsfield in the North Downs; they had two daughters by now, and a third was born in November.

In October of 1890, having established an excellent reputation at the Colonial Office, Sydney Olivier was appointed as acting Colonial Secretary of British Honduras. He continued to be active in the Fabian Society during his periods back in London. In 1891 the Oliviers made a permanent home in Limpsfield; several other Fabians and radicals moved to the area, and they soon became the dominant force on the Parish council. In 1892, Olivier and Shaw attacked Robert Blatchford, Fabian leader in Manchester, for calling for members to boycott both the Conservative and Liberal parties at the ballot, regardless of the policies of individual candidates. In 1895 he was posted to the Leeward Islands as Auditor-General, a special appointment to examine and reorganise the finances of the colony. After this he returned to London, working as Private Secretary to the Under-Secretary to the Colonial Office, Lord Selbourne. In 1897 he became Secretary to the West Indian Royal Commission, and during 1898 he went to Washington to take part in trade negotiations on behalf of the West Indian Colonies.

In the run-up to the Boer War, the executive of the Fabian Society became split. Some Fabians, including Olivier and Ramsay MacDonald, adhering to the traditional Liberal opposition to militarism and imperialism, opposed the war; Olivier claimed that the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, had engineered the conflict to increase British holdings in South Africa. Other Fabians, including Webb and Shaw, believed military action could be used to promote democracy and civilisation, whilst some also felt that the best policy was to reform the British Empire rather than, as Olivier advocated, retreating from it. The majority of the leading Fabians believed that it was a just war and that the native population would be better off under the British than under the Boers, whom many saw as religious fundamentalists and bigots. After a series of close votes, executive came out in support of the declaration of war, although the Society would change its position during the war, as the government's conduct came under scrutiny.

Having caused a stir in Downing Street by voicing his opposition to the war and his criticisms of Chamberlain, Olivier was posted as Colonial Secretary in Jamaica, departing in early 1900. He again enhanced his reputation as a colonial administrator, and was acting Governor in later in 1900 and again in 1902. This posting ended in 1903 and Olivier returned to England, but he went back to Jamaica a short while later to work in relief and rehabilitation following a devastating hurricane, and served as acting Governor for a third time. He returned to England in September 1904, and spent three years as Principle Secretary to the West Africa and West Indian Department of the Colonial Office. During this time he was again active in the Fabian Society. Feeling that the society had been stagnating since 1897, he hoped that a prominent new member, H. G. Wells, would be able to re-energise it. He supported Wells' campaign for a more radical Fabian agenda in 1906, but by the end of the year he had come to find Wells too erratic.

In 1907, following a devastating earthquake in Jamaica, Olivier retruend to the colony as Governor. He was granted a KCMG, making him him Sir Sydney Olivier. He quickly calmed the anarchy that had followed the earthquake, and his reforms of the colony's government proved to be very popular. He served in this post until 1913 then returned to England permanently, though he took very little part in Fabian activities upon his return. Moving outside of the Colonial Office, he served as Permanent Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries for four years, then as Assistant Comptroller and Auditor of the Exchequer from 1917 until 1920, when he retired from the civil service to devote himself to philosophical and political study. However, this proved not to be the end of his public life.

Sir Sydney Olivier was raised to the peerage by Ramsay MacDonald as Baron Olivier of Ramsden in February of 1924, having been appointed Secretary of State for India in the first Labour government. This appointment dismayed those who had expected the office to go to Josiah Wedgwood, a supporter of the Indian independence movement. Under Olivier there was no departure from the Tory policy on India, although Mahatma Gandhi was released from prison after serving only two years out of a six-year sentence. Olivier's attitude to Empire had changed and he rejected calls for a new conference to discuss changes to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1921, reaffirming the traditional canard that Britain's contribution to India gave it a right to be there and that the native Indians were not ready for self-government. Privately, he believed that the problems of India could not be solved at that time or by a minority Labour government, and resolved to merely defend the status quo.

In July 1924, he sided unsuccessfully with Wedgewood, Philip Snowden and J. H. Thomas in the Cabinet, opposing the promise of a loan to the Soviet Union, and was critical of MacDonald's decision to call an unnecessary election later that year. MacDonald did not give him an office in the Labour government of 1929, instead sending him to the West Indies to investigate the sugar trade. Following this he retired for the final time, living in the Cotswolds and then Sussex. He had tried writing poetry during his early years but without any success. He wrote throughout his life, faring better with a few plays (first performed at the Fabian Society) and a Fabian paper on Emile Zola (1890), but was most noted for several books on colonial matters, including White Capital and Coloured Labour in 1906 and Jamaica, the Blessed Island in 1936. Having no sons, Olivier's peerage became extinct upon his death in 1943, though his nephew, the actor Laurence Olivier, would be granted a Life Peerage in 1971.

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Sydney Olivier, 1st Baron Olivier's Timeline

April 16, 1859
Colchester, Essex, England
Age 27
February 15, 1943
Age 83