Sydney Olivier, the second son and the sixth of the ten children of Henry Arnold Olivier, the curate of All Saints Church, and his wife, Anne Elizabeth Hardcastle, was born at Colchester on 16th April 1859. Olivier was educated at Tonbridge School and Corpus Christi College. At Oxford University Olivier met Graham Wallas who became a life long friend.
In the spring of 1882 Olivier became a clerk at the Colonial Office. That year he married Margaret Cox (1862-1953). Over the next few years they had four daughters. After being inspired by the work of Henry George, Olivier joined the Land Reform League. Another influence was the Rev. Stewart Headlam. Olivier also contributed articles to the Christian Socialist, a journal run by Henry Hyde Champion.
At the Colonial Office, Olivier became friends with Sidney Webb, and the two men joined the Hampstead Historic Club where they met George Bernard Shaw. In the spring of 1885, Shaw encouraged both Webb and Olivier to join the Fabian Society. The following year Olivier was elected to Fabian Society Executive Committee and in 1886 was appointed Secretary of the organisation. Olivier also contributed to the Fabian journal Today, wrote the Fabian pamphlet Capital and Land (1888) and provided the article, The Moral Basis of Socialism, to the book Essays in Fabian Socialism (1889).
In 1890 Sydney Olivier was appointed Colonial Secretary to the government of the British Honduras. Over the next twenty years, overseas postings restricted him involvement in the Fabian Society. This included posts as Auditor General of the Leeward Islands and Secretary of the Sugar Commission in the West Indies. His biographer, George Mariz, has pointed out: "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 retired from the Civil Service in 1918 and once again played an important role in the Fabian Society. His biographer, Herbert Tracey pointed out: "Sydney Olivier... has a clear and penetrating mind, and, in spite of his customary gravity, a delightful sense of humour which appeals irresistibly to an educated audience. His approach to Socialism was by way of religion and philosophy... He had no sympathy with the view, at that time rather prevalent in Socialist circles, that slipshod methods in the practical affairs of life were an appropriate and useful method of expressing contempt for the soulless routine of the capitalist system. His contention was that the more efficient a Socialist was in the work at which he obtained his living, the more valuable he would be for the cause of Socialism."
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. MacDonald had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. MacDonald granted Olivier a peerage and appointed him as Secretary of State for India.
In October 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev Letter urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, told MacDonald that they were convinced that the letter was genuine. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government.
Sydney Olivier wrote several books on colonialism including The Anatomy of African Misery (1927) and White Capital and Coloured Labour (1929). Following the 1929 General Election, MacDonald appointed Olivier as Chairman of the Royal Commission that investigated conditions in the sugar industry.
Sydney Olivier died at his home, Wychwood, Selsey Avenue, Bognor Regis, on 15th February 1943.
(1) Sydney Oliver, Capital and Land (1888)
Until the workers of this and every other country collectively own and control the instruments they must work with, till then are liberty and manhood impossible for the majority; and that until we cease to pay to non-effectives the half of our annual sustenance, it will be impossible for the many to obtain that existence and education in youth, that security and leisure in old age, and those opportunities for human and appreciative life which the resources of our country and our civilisation are amply sufficient to yield them.
(2) Sydney Oliver, The Moral Basis of Socialism (1889)
The form, perhaps, does not outrun the spirit, any more than the spirit anticipates the form; and it may have been sufficient to have shown some grounds for the conviction that Socialist morality, like that of all preceding systems, is only the morality which the conditions of human existence have made necessary ; and that it is only the expression of the eternal passion of life seeking its satisfaction through the striving of each individual for the freest and fullest activity; that Socialism is but a stage in the unending progression out of the weakness and the ignorance in which society and the individual alike are born, toward the strength and enlightenment in which they can see and choose their own way forward - from the chaos where morality is not, to the consciousness which sees that morality is reason; and to have made some attempt to justify the claim that the cardinal virtue of Socialism is nothing else than Common Sense.
(3) Edward Pease, The History of the Fabian Society (1918)
At the meeting on June 19th, 1886, at 94 Cornwall Gardens, Sydney Olivier assumed the duties of Secretary. Sydney Webb, Bernard Shaw, Graham Wallas, and Sydney Olivier, then and for for many years afterwards may be said to have worked and thought together in an intellectual partnership. Webb and Olivier were colleagues in the Colonial Office, and it is said that for some time the Fabian records - they were not very bulky - were stored on a table in Downing Street.
(4) Beatrice Webb, diary (August, 1909)
The end of our friendship with H. G. Wells. A sordid intrigue with poor little Amber Reeves - the coming of a baby, and the run to cover of marriage with another man, a clever and charming young Fabian (Blanco
White), who married her, knowing the facts, out of devoted chivalry. The story got about owing to Amber's own confidence to a Cambridge don's wife, and owing to H. G. Wells's own indiscretions. Moreover, after the hurried marriage, without the Reeveses' knowledge, of Amber and Blanco, Amber and H. G. Wells insist on remaining friends - a sort of Days of the Comet affair. We hear of it late in the day and feel ourselves obliged to warn Sydney Olivier, who was over on a holiday, against letting his four handsome daughters run about with H. G. Wells. (Apparently H. G. tried to seduce Rosamund Bland. If the Reeveses had only known of that, they would not have allowed Amber to stay with him at his Sandgate home for a month at a time.) So I think we were right to tell Sydney Olivier. But as a matter of fact H. G. had already told him that Amber was going to have a baby, that he was supplying the rent of the house, and that he had been madly in love with Amber and that `we were much too timid about these things'.
For some reason that we do not understand, Sydney Olivier quoted us as his authority, and so we got these letters from H. G. Wells as well as apathetic one from Reeves. It is a horrid affair and has cost us much. If Amber will let us, we shall stand by her as Blanco's wife and drop H. G. Wells, once for all, as he no doubt will drop us. He will doubtless drift into other circles - probably the only person of his own menage who will suffer is his patient and all-enduring little wife, who, having entered into that position illicitly herself at the cost of another woman, cannot complain.
But the whole case, and the misery that seems likely to follow, is a striking example of the tangle into which we have got on the sex question. We accepted Wells, in spite of his earlier divorce case, on grounds of tolerance. He and his wife were happy - the other wife had married again, and there seemed no reason, on ordinary enlightened principles, for us to hold back or object.
(5) Herbert Tracey, The Book of the Labour Party (1925)
Sydney Olivier, although not then developed into the fluent speaker he has since become, took an active part in these combats of wit and intellect. He has a clear and penetrating mind, and, in spite of his customary gravity, a delightful sense of humour which appeals irresistibly to an educated audience. His approach to Socialism was by way of religion and philosophy. He had, according to Bernard Shaw, " wrestled with the huge philosophy of Comte, who thus comes in as a Fabian influence." Before joining the Fabian Society he was a member of a group of persons who established in 1883 a monthly periodical entitled the Christian Socialist, and who claimed to be inspired by the Christian Socialist movement of 1848-52. According to E. R. Pease, the historian of the Fabian Society, this group included individuals who were not Socialist and others who were not Christian. Whether Sydney Olivier was both is a matter of conjecture ; he was certainly a Socialist. The leading member of the group was the Rev. Stewart D. Headlam, who was, and remains, an ardent advocate of the Single Tax, and still continues a long career of public service as a member of the London County Council. Other persons who were connected with the group were the Rev. C. L. Marson and the Rev. W. E. Moll. The latter afterwards took a prominent share in the work of the Independent Labour Party.
Sydney Olivier graduated at Corpus Christi, Oxford, and then entered the Colonial Office in 1882, after heading the open competition for the Civil Service. He joined the Fabian Society in 1885 at the same time as Sidney Webb, and at once became one of its most important figures. For a number of years he with Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, and Graham Wallas formed a close working intellectual partnership which shaped the policy and ultimately the traditions of the society. They were a remarkable combination, their various qualities providing the essentials of effective leadership, and they acted with a loyalty to each other rarely equalled in the history of such coteries. Sydney Olivier's contribution to the alliance was a wide culture, a literary taste of a high order, and an artistic sensibility together with a strong belief in efficiency. He had no sympathy with the view, at that time rather prevalent in Socialist circles, that slipshod methods in the practical affairs of life were an appropriate and useful method of expressing contempt for the soulless routine of the capitalist system. His contention was that the more efficient a Socialist was in the work at which he obtained his living, the more valuable he would be for the cause of Socialism. The truth of this precept has certainly been exemplified in his own career.