Sydney Haldane Olivier (18591943), by Walter Stoneman, 1924
Olivier, Sydney Haldane, Baron Olivier (18591943), civil servant, politician, and author, was born at Colchester on 16 April 1859, the second son and the sixth of the ten children of Henry Arnold Olivier (d. 1912), then curate of All Saints, Colchester, and his wife, Anne Elizabeth Hardcastle (d. 1912), the daughter of Joseph Arnould MD, of Whitecross, Wallingford, Berkshire, and the sister of Sir Joseph Arnould. He was descended from a family of French Huguenots. One of his younger brothers was the painter Herbert Arnould Olivier; another brother, the Revd Gerard Kerr Olivier, was the father of the actor Laurence Olivier.
Olivier was educated at Tonbridge School and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he was an exhibitioner and was awarded a second class in literae humaniores in 1881. There he became a close friend of Graham Wallas. With another undergraduate friend, Hubert Campion, he wrote a volume of light verse, Poems and Parodies, published in 1880. After leaving Oxford he read for the civil service competitive examination, and in 1882, having headed the list of successful competitors, he entered the Colonial Office. On 21 May 1885 he married Margaret (c.18621953), the eldest daughter of , a county court judge, and the sister of ; they had four daughters.
In London Olivier became seriously interested in politics and reform, and in 1885 he joined the Fabian Society, serving as its honorary secretary from 1886 to 1889. Sidney Webb, then a colleague in the Colonial Office, George Bernard Shaw, and Graham Wallas joined about the same time, and it was mainly under the influence of the four friends that the Fabians made their distinctive contribution to the development of modern socialism. In Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), perhaps the most important of the society's publications, Olivier wrote on the moral basis of socialism. He came to socialism through Auguste Comte, and remained a socialist during the rest of his life.
Olivier was colonial secretary of British Honduras in 189091, auditor-general of the Leeward Islands in 18956, and secretary to the royal commission on the West Indies in 18967. In 1898 he was appointed CMG and spent five months in Washington, DC, assisting on behalf of the West Indian colonies in reciprocity negotiations with the United States. From 1900 to 1904 he was colonial secretary of Jamaica, on three occasions acting as governor. In 1907 he was appointed captain-general and governor-in-chief of Jamaica and advanced to KCMG. His most urgent task was to repair the havoc caused by earthquake and fire a few months earlier, the work including the reconstruction of Kingston on a new plan, in which he obtained the services of his brother-in-law Sir Charles Nicholson. He was a highly popular governor. His six years of office formed a memorable period of development in the island's history, one of his many reforms being the introduction of Jamaica's first comprehensive sanitary code.
Olivier returned to England in 1913 as permanent secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries and entered the Treasury in 1917 as assistant comptroller and auditor of the exchequer; he was appointed CB the same year. He retired from the civil service in 1920. In 1924 he joined Ramsay MacDonald's first Labour government as secretary of state for India, was sworn of the privy council, and created Baron Olivier of Ramsden. Ten months later his tenure of office was ended by the resignation of the government, the prime minister having, so Olivier told him, needlessly thrown in the sponge.
Olivier proved to be an uncomfortable and unsatisfactory cabinet minister. He was an advocate of peasant self-sufficiency, and his open criticism of Labour's colonial policies, coupled with his inability to defend the party line, precluded his participation in the 1929 Labour government. However, MacDonald's second administration did find ways to employ his expertise in colonial economic affairs, and in 192930, as chairman of the West Indian sugar commission, he paid his last official visit to Jamaica.
Olivier was a member of a remarkable generation who came of age in the 1880s imbued with a spirit of humane reform. Often they were, as was Olivier himself, the children of clergymen. In his case the spirit manifested itself in imperial reform, and he displayed a keen insight in issues of race and ethnicity within the empire. His deep interest in these problems found expression chiefly in two books of international repute: The Anatomy of African Misery (1927) and White Capital and Coloured Labour (2nd edn 1929); he discussed such questions also in contributions to periodicals and in two later books: The Myth of Governor Eyre (1933) and Jamaica: the Blessed Island (1936). His studies led him to reject what he called the short-sighted theory that the dividing habits of race are permanently stronger than the unifying power of humanity.
Tall and handsome, Olivier was a striking figure in any assembly, looking, wrote Shaw, like a Spanish grandee in any sort of clothes, however unconventional. He was a man of great energy and commanding intellect, and he could, and did, labour terribly, demanding a high standard of performance from himself and those who worked with him. He had a remarkable literary talent and was a frequent contributor to periodical literature. His philosophical articles and his short story, The Empire Builder, won the admiration of William James, whose guest he was on one of his visits to America. His prose style was distinguished and individual, and he had a felicitous turn for light verse. His writings include three plays, one of which, Mrs Maxwell's Marriage, was performed by the Stage Society in January 1900. In 1911 the honorary degree of LLD was conferred upon him by the University of Edinburgh. Baron Olivier died at his home, Wychwood, Selsey Avenue, Bognor Regis, on 15 February 1943, when his peerage became extinct.
G. F. McCleary, rev. George Mariz
Sydney Olivier: letters and selected writings, ed. M. Olivier (1948) · J. Cerullo, The secularization of the soul: psychical research in modern Britain (1982) · F. Lee, Fabianism and colonialism: the life and thought of Lord Sydney Olivier (1988) · GEC, Peerage · m. cert. · d. cert. · private information (1959) · personal knowledge (1959)
Bodl. RH, corresp., draft memoranda, and chapters of a book never finished | BL, letters to A. R. Dryhurst, Add. MS 46362
BL, letters to G. B. Shaw, Add. MS 50543
BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Goschen, MS Eur. D 595
BL OIOC, corresp. with second earl of Lytton, MS Eur. F 160
BL OIOC, letters to Lord Reading, MSS Eur. E 238, F 118
BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Willingdon, MS Eur. F 93
BLPES, letters to Fabian Society
BLPES, notes and papers relating to International Socialist Workers Conference
Bodl. Oxf., Gilbert Murray MSS
Bodl. RH, corresp. with Arthur Creech Jones
CKS, Hardinge MSS
CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge
JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian
Nuffield Oxf., Fabian Society MSS
Plunkett Foundation, Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire, corresp. with Sir Horace Plunkett
TNA: PRO, corresp. with Ramsay MacDonald, 30/69/1/199
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1924, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, c.1925, repro. in Olivier, ed., Sydney Olivier · N. Heath, portrait · H. Olivier, two portraits
Wealth at death
£937 16s. 2d.: probate, 22 June 1943, CGPLA Eng. & Wales