THIS VOLUME HAS BEEN
BY THE UNIVERSITY OF
Books by Lord Olivier
POLITICS AND ECONOMICS
White Capital and Coloured Labour
The Anatomy of African Misery
Jamaica : The Blessed Island
The Myth of Governor Eyre
The Empire Builder
Portrait about the year 1925
LETTERS AND SELECTED
EDITED WITH A MEMOIR BY
WITH SOME IMPRESSIONS BY
GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN LTD
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1948
All rights reserved
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY
THE BLACKFRIARS PRESS LTD.
MY husband's fragment of autobiography stops short at the end
of his time in British Honduras, where he held his first official post
I am adding to it a brief record of the chief incidents in his life with
some which, though quite trivial, give, I think, an impression of him
and, like his letters, help to show the sort of man he was. Some of his
interests are indicated in the articles and speeches I have included.
His articles on race and colour questions, on the West Indies and on
India and Africa-subjects with which he was most concerned and
which are relevant to his whole life-will, I hope, be published in a
later book. It is also hoped to publish later his plays and poems,
together with his writings of a philosophical nature.
Mr. Bernard Shaw has made a great contribution to this volume by
furnishing his "Impressions": I acknowledge with warm thanks his
estimate and his vivid picture of the man he knew.
I am indebted to the late Mr. H. G. Wells for permission to publish
letters written to him, also to the late Sir Alexander Harris and to
the late Mr. de Lisser for their reminiscences. To Miss May Wallas
I owe my thanks for the use of the letters to her father, also to
Mr. Henry James for permission to publish his father's letters to my
husband, and to Mrs. Henry Salt and Mr. Arnold Freeman for letters.
Mr. Ridgeway, Librarian to the Colonial Office, has supplied me
with valuable records of my husband's official career in Jamaica, and
I am much indebted to him for his careful research.
For their constant help in the preparation of this volume I wish to
thank Dr. and Mrs. McCleary.
Some Impressions, by Bernard Shaw 9
Not Much, a Fragment of Autobiography 23
Memoir, by Margaret Olivier
I. Earl Years 45
II. Landon 59
III. Socialism 73
IV. British Honduras 81
V. Lmpsfield and the West Indies 92
VI. Jamaica 105
VII. Departure and Home 116
VII. Jamaica again 131
IX. The Board of Agriculture 141
X. Ramsden and the India Offce z15
XI.- Rcturn to Oxfordsrire 5 8
XII. Later Years 165
XIII. Retirement 173
Selected Writings and Addresses of Sydney
I. The Transplanted African, Southampton, 1913 189
II. Loge the Dane 196
III. Wycbwood Starlings, 1926 202
IV. Restore Stonehenge, 1927 207
V. Praise of Aargau, 1928 211
VI. Vision of te Antechamber, 1923 216
I. By Sir Alexander Harris 227
II. By Herbert de Lisser 229
Extracts from the Official Records of the
Colonial Office 238
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Portrait about the year 1925
(a) At Lausanne age 6 years
(b) At Oxford
Auditor General in Antigua 1895
The West India Commission, 1897
Governor reviewing troops at Kingston, Jamaica
Secretary of State for India, 1924
At "Old Hall" Ramsden
I FIRST met Sydney Olivier when we were both in our twenties,
and had from different directions embraced Socialism as our creed.
I had come by the way of Henry George and Karl Marx. He had
begun with the Positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte, and was as
far as I know, the only Fabian who came in through that gate.
He and Sidney Webb, ,Comtist at second-hand through John
Stuart Mill, shared the duty of resident clerk at the Colonial Office.
Both of them had passed into the upper division of the Civil Service,
Olivier heading the competition list, apparently so easily that I never
heard either of them speak of it, though to me it was a wonder, as the
passing of even an elementary school examination has always been
for me an impossible feat. There was no question then of peerages to
come for either of them: by plunging into Socialism they were held
to be burning their boats as far as any sort of official promotion was
concerned, though as founders of Fabian Socialism they soon took
The Cause off the barricades, and made it constitutional and
Olivier was an extraordinarily attractive figure, and in my experi-
ence unique ; for I have never known anyone like him mentally or
physically : he was distinguished enough to be unclassable. He was
handsome and strongly sexed, looking like a Spanish grandee in any
sort of clothes, however unconventional. He was not interested in
athletics ; but his college chum, Graham Wallas, who stood six foot
two (or was it four ?) in his socks, told me that once when he
alluded to Miss Margaret Cox, now Lady Olivier, as if she were no
more than any other young lady, Olivier threw him across the room.
I believe he could have carried a cottage piano upstairs; but it
would have cracked in his grip.
It was fortunate for mankind that he was a man of good intent and
sensitive humanity ; for he was a law to himself, and never dreamt of
considering other people's feelings, nor could conceive their sensi-
tiveness on points that were to him trivial. He once paid a call on a
family after an interval of some years, and immediately (he was very
IO SYDNEY OLIVIER
observant) remarked, "I see you have moved that carpet: the hole
in it is now under the sofa." He had no apparent conscience, being on
the whole too well disposed to need one; but when he had a whim
that was flatly contrary to convention he gratified it openly and
unscrupulously as a matter of course, dealing with any opposing
prejudice by the method recommended by the American Mrs.
Stetson, of "walking through it as if it wasn't there."
This freedom from the tangle of inhibitions which go to the
make-up of a typical Englishman made him as foreign as his name
and his Huguenot ancestry, which gave him also the invaluable
power of taking an objective view of his employer the British
Empire, now reluctantly re-christened the British Commonwealth.
It helped him to get on very well with me; for I being Irish, am
more a foreigner in England than any man born in Wiltshire could
Though Olivier came to positions of authority by sheer gravitation,
he could never have become a popular idol, because his mental scope,
like that of a champion chess player, enabled him to see the next five
or six steps in an argument so clearly and effortlessly that he could
not believe that anything so obvious need be stated. I found this out
when I edited Fabian Essays in 1887. To that epoch-making volume,
Olivier contributed the essay on the Moral Basis of Socialism. On
reading his manuscript I found a hiatus in his argument which
convinced me at first that a couple of pages must have dropped out.
But as the hiatus occurred in the middle of a page I had to reconsider
this. I had to think out the missing links for myself: and finally I
wrote the page and a half needed to fill the gap in the argument, and
brought it to Olivier to re-write in his own fashion. He said that my
chain of reasoning was all right; but I could not persuade him that
it was not too obvious to need mentioning, nor to take the trouble
to translate my version into his own language. I could stick it in just
as it was for the benefit of readers (if any) imbecile enough to be
unable to follow the argument without it. Which I accordingly did.
This excess of mental and muscular power was accompanied by an
excess of nervous power which hampered him as a public speaker.
He spoke only on special provocation, and always had to wrestle
with his speeches rather than deliver them comfortably. I once asked
SOME IMPRESSIONS II
the chief of the Observatory on Mount Vesuvius why the energy
wasted by the burning mountain was not utilized for industrial
purposes. He replied that there was too much of it to be manageable.
That was Olivier's case ; but once I heard it serve him in good stead.
It was at the International Socialist Congress at Zurich, where he
and I were the Fabian delegates. As usual, the Congress, instead of
getting at once to real business, fell back on the old controversy
between Marx and Bakunin, and began disputing whether anarchists
should be expelled or not. Day after day was wasted in endless ora-
tions by the opposing windbags, followed by tedious translations into
two languages, which, being made by amateur interpreters, who
were also strong and eloquent partisans, either improved the originals
recklessly or guyed them mercilessly. This went on and on, and was
all the fun of the fair for most of the delegates ; but to us Fabians, out
for business, it became at last quite unbearable; and I was on the
point of attempting some sort of protest when suddenly the silent
Olivier shot up from his chair, and Vesuvius went into full eruption.
In a voice like the roaring of a safety valve releasing a thousand
horse-power, he discharged his impatience in a speech such as I had
never heard before nor have heard since. It left me amazed, and the
Congress stunned. When we recovered sufficiently to take action the
Congress closed the discussion by throwing the Anarchists out. Once
safely outside they produced credentials as trade unionists, and came
back and resumed their seats unchallenged. That was what Socialist
Congresses were like in those days.
Olivier began his official career overseas by being sent to straighten
out the finances of British Honduras. He found that his success in the
entrance examinations for the upper division of the Civil Service had
left him so ignorant that he had to discover the art of book-keeping
by double entry and learn it on his outward voyage. This revolu-
tionary stroke established him as a great financial authority and
business head in Downing Street. When he had balanced the Hon-
duras books by double entry he was made Auditor General of the
Leeward Islands. When they too were successfully straightened he
was pushed into one post after another in which some capacity for
figures as well as an imposing presence was indispensable. Thus his
12 SYDNEY OLIVIER
freedom from vulgar ambition did not retard his career : distinction
and promotion came to him unasked.
In Honduras his habit of observation came into play. He noticed
when he bathed in the sea that there was a plank missing in a palisade
meant to keep out sharks. When he pointed this out, much as he had
pointed out the hole in the carpet, the local authorities, instead of
mending the palisade, instructed a native to bathe always with the
Colonial Office gentleman, as sharks preferred coloured diet to white.
But there is a snag in eminent success as a civil servant. Efficient
men of action, though they are indispensable when the mere
routineers land their departments in intolerable messes, terrify their
ministries as dangerous innovators and upsetters. An official capable
of discovering and learning book-keeping by double entry may be
capable of anything: he cannot be trusted to do always what was done
last time. Certainly Olivier could not. He went his own way politi-
cally, just as he did privately. When in 1884 I discovered a little bud
of middle-class social compunction which had been happily inspired
to call itself The Fabian Society, and induced Olivier and Webb to
join and capture it, we were so pre-occupied with industrial problems
that we left colonial and foreign policy out of the question until the
South African War forced it on us in 1899 ; and even after we had
said our say on that subject in Fabianism and the Empire, we dropped
it until 1913, when the rumblings of the coming European earthquake
came to me, not in our Fabian councils, but through an attack
made by an English critic on the music of Richard Strauss. We had
got only so far as that colonial government should be democratized
by the formation of local and native councils, with our viceroys and
governors working with them as Prime Ministers rather than as
When Olivier was Governor of Jamaica I visited him there, and
one day asked him whether he had tried our democratic plan, and if
so, how did it work. He replied that he had tried it, and found that
whenever he proposed a measure intelligible only to people who
could see further than the ends of their noses he was invariably
opposed by his democratic councils. "I now" he went on "do not
consult them. I do what is needed. In eighteen months or so they see
that I was right, and stop howling about it."
SOME IMPRESSIONS 13
Hitler could say no more; and it is a pity that Hitler had not
Olivier's brain and kindly objectivity. The trouble in Jamaica just
then was that the Americans had a way of behaving as if the island
belonged to the United States. In particular, their color prejudice
demanded satisfaction in a colony in which blood was so mixed that
no matter how white your host might be, you never could be sure
that his father was not as brown as a berry. Olivier consulted the
Americans as little as he consulted his infantile councils, and gave an
important public appointment to a colored native over their heads.
He understood thoroughly the conflict ofeconomic interests between
the planters and the black proletariat, sympathising with the
oppressed negroes; but these easy-going and likeable darkies under-
stood nothing but their immediate grievances. They made no trouble
until their tram fares were raised, when they immediately revolted
and confronted their Governor with riots which he had to suppress.
In one of these, when an insurgent negro was battering in the door of
a newspaper-office, Olivier handled him as he had handled Graham
Wallas in his college days.
Later on the rioters got a bit of their own back. They managed
to launch a heavy stone which struck their high-handed Governor
flush on his occiput. The same thing happened to Nelsonat the Battle
of the Nile. For a year or two after, in Naples, Nelson's insubordinate
Nelsonism got out of hand to an extent that cost the life of Caracciolo.
Olivier's head being stronger he did not hang anybody : but he was
not quite unaffected by the injury. He was none the less Olivier;
but he was more talkative, and, if possible, more indifferent to the
effect of what he said on his hearers. This, I think, made the Foreign
Office afraid of him, and might have prevented his promotion to any
of the few governorships that could be considered more important
than that ofJamaica, had he not himself had enough of colonial exile
and pressed for central work.
Although he always held steadily by the Colonial Office as the
only power that stood between the black proletariats and their
pitiless exploitation by the West Indian Planters and the diamond-
ocracy in Africa, he had no Kiplingesque idolatry of the Empire, and
said, quite openly, that its break-up would not be the end of the
world. After one of these utterances he expressed to me, without any
14 SYDNEY OUVIER
bitterness, some surprise at being left for the moment without a
special job ; for he still expected his jobs to come to him unasked for
as they had always done. I reminded him that it was hard for any
British government to select for an imperial job a man who had just
been reported as saying, in effect, that the British Empire might break
up for all he cared. He was taken aback for a moment. It had never
occurred to him to consider the feelings of the Foreign Office, or the
Colonial Office, or anyone else's. His Fabian grasp of the appalling
social danger of the imperial instincts that were keeping Downing
Street under the thumb of a handful of planters in the face of millions
of black proletarians, reduced official Kiplingism, in his view, to
But this general statement cannot convey any impression of
Olivier's idiosyncrasy, nor of the effect his reports must have made
on the routineers of the Colonial Office. He wrote and thought, and
could only write and think, clean over their heads. Let me quote a
typical letter he wrote me in 1932, when I had just published a story
with a negress as its heroine.
Ioth December, 1932
I think your Black Girl, in her full dress, is charming, and ought to
be influential as a mild diaphoretic. The problem for the missionary
is an acute one. The lady missionary whom you begin by caricaturing
-for I can hardly believe your account of her engagements to be
authentic-finds herself capable, by influences (emanating through
her) which she associates with certain formulas, of producing a really
vivifying and stimulating effect upon the African temperament,
hitherto protected from the impact of European spiritual and intellec-
tual development. That has also been the case in the West Indies, and
especially in Jamaica, where the ex-slaves were helped only by
Christian missionaries, and with great profit to their development :
but with the result that all the best people in such a community (for
instance, the late Archbishop Nuttall, who was a really great man)
are frightfully bigoted evangelical formalists, and indeed, practically
fundamentalists : so that I find it very difficult to write honestly and
conscientiously about civilization in Jamaica as I am trying to do.
However, I have just sent out a copy of the Outline of Knowledge for
SOME IMPRESSIONS 15
Young People to a club of young Jamaicans formed for education
and study. I am hesitating whether also to send them a copy of The
The Black Girl's observation that it is impossible to get Europeans
to understand what is "less than enough" for Africans, is a thing I
have been up against all my life. The political economy of Colonial
Government is founded upon the obvious fact that an African or a
negro can, apparently, consider himself well-off with much less than
a white man, and therefore, that no wrong is done him by exploiting
him to the full surplus value that can be extracted from his labour
over and above that limit: and that if he grumbles about the difficulty
of paying taxes, he is a lazy hypocrite. And it is impossible for a
white employer, and almost insuperably difficult for a European
official, to apprehend that these people are really very poor and suffer
hardship from poverty, and that what they manage to produce for
themselves and are satisfied with, costs them a physical and intellec-
tual labour of which any white man would be simply incapable under
similar conditions, and that the reason why they perspire freely is
not merely because they have large sweat glands, but because they
are effecting a high quantity of metabolism. The only people whom
I have found capable of appreciating the facts of the black man's
economy in that aspect are missionaries, who believe they can only
give the black man what he wants by means of their fundamentalist
Whence did you get your idea of calling the writer of the Revela-
tions a drug-addict? The book is an elaborate and deliberate crypto-
gram embodying Chaldaeo-Egyptian astrology: all its forms and
figures, dragons, archers, centaurs, virgins, etc., are sublimations of
the imagery of the constellations. The souls under the Altar are the
souls that form the Milky Way in which is the constellation Ara
which was the habitat of released souls awaiting re-incarnation-i.e.,
in purgatory. As the Christian church formulated that doctrine I
think it is a blunder to speak of John of Patmos as a drug-addict.
He was a mystical symbolist in the line of Blake; and he had a very
clear idea of the theories he wanted to symbolise.
Many years ago, writing an essay on the idea of the Significance
of Bodily Form and of its persistence after terrestrial death, I struck
16 SYDNEY OLIVIER
out in the precise argument (from the nature of form and matter)
which you do, and declared I felt myselfperfectly capable ofcontinu-
ing my life in the sun, also anticipating your observation that the
inventors of a material fiery hell apprehended that possibility quite
rationally. I have been trying to look up what I wrote, which was
curiously coincident and identical in idea, but I cannot find it. But
I have never seen it said anywhere else.
I am in a state of complete deflation following influenza and
pneumonia, which has stopped my finishing a book I wanted to get
off before Christmas, hoping then to get away into some sunshine.
The devil caught me (visiting Oxford Gaol as a Justice). I have been
dictating this letter to you because I cannot force inyself to the
labour of composition devoid of internal stimulus: by which you
may understand the Black Girl has afforded a pleasant stimulus.
Under present circumstances I devote myself to writing unnecessary
letters to people who have written to me, but whom I have not
replied to so long as I found I could be better employed. As you will
be better employed in digging your garden, please don't regard this
as imposing on you any obligation of commentary or reply.
Margaret has gone off today to see Margery, otherwise she would
send her love to Charlotte and you. Mine please.
P.S.-The Black Girl's observation "why are you surprised at a thing
like that?" is very pertinent to the psychology of the unsophisticated
African in contact with the sophisticated civilized man. He constantly
detects the obvious which is concealed from the civilized man by the
very formula which has been built up from observation of it. Of
course, you may find the same quality in really unsophisticated
country peasants where they survive. They are realists; and the lady
ethnologist has sound reason for her theory that the next great
civilization will be a black civilization. The white man will be
destroyed by his idols if he doesn't look out: and I see little sign of his
doing so. Lala Lajpat Rai once asked me "Why do English people
make such a fuss about a few of them being killed?" It was apropos
of the Amritsar Massacre, which English imperialist opinion,
SOME IMPRESSIONS 17
exemplified by Mr. Justice McCardie, thought reasonable and
laudable. Indian opinion thought it unbalanced; and it was in fact
the crucial event in Indian Constitutional history. Similarly, when the
peasants of St. Thomas in the East were fed up with their magistrates,
and after resisting arrest, went down to demonstrate that they would
stand no nonsense, and when a shindy broke out, they clubbed
some of the magistrates to death and burnt the courthouse. Eyre
thought it quite reasonable that 450 peasants should be killed
and 600 flogged and a thousand houses burnt in compensation for
the deaths of I5 Europeans.
The Jamaica black people were shocked at the clubbing, and,
having a respect for Law, condemned it; but they positively consi-
dered that the retaliation exacted was entirely out of proportion!
It is amusing that General O'Connor (the O.C.T.), an Irishman,
frankly told Eyre, at an early date in the business, that he was making
much too heavy weather about it, and that from his experiences in
Belfast and for many years in the West Indies he did not think this
was very much of a riot and was certainly not an insurrection.
Anyhow, it had been put down in three days, so why worry ? Eyre,
however, thought that "justice must be done" and condign punish-
ment (his favourite expression) inflicted. So did Mr. Justice McCardie
and the people who canonised General Dyer in England. But the
fun of the thing is that we learn from Edward Thompson's last book
that Dyer himself acknowledged that the Amritsar Massacre was an
appalling mistake, because he had had no intention of killing all
those people, but expected them to run away, which they would
have done if they had not had a stone wall all round them, a fact he
was not aware of Which leaves Justice McCardie rather in the air !
It will now, I think, be pretty clear why none of Olivier's later
appointments were governorships nor had anything to do with the
treatment of subjugate native races, although it was just here that his
exceptional character and ability had asserted itself most conspicu-
This did not prevent him from writing books about the blacks
unlike any that had been written about them before. There was an
arresting freshness about his analysis of the much decried half-breed,
18 SYDNEY OLIVIER
comparing him to a black and white sugarstick, in which the black
threads and the white, however finely and intimately drawn out,
never mixed, preserving their integrity side by side, so that in deal-
ing with a half-breed you were dealing, not with a shifty rogue, but
with a man of two different moralities, who would slip from one to
the other without notice, and with a suddenness very disconcerting
to a white European with a single-track mind. The more Olivier
wrote, the plainer it was in Downing Street that he was pro-negro
and not pro-planter, and that he must be kept out of the colonies at
all cost. But as this was what he himself desired, he made no trouble
about it and was in fact not conscious of it. He was never that most
tiresome of public nuisances, a man with a personal grievance.
Accordingly, after Jamaica, he found himself not in Ceylon,
Australasia or Canada, but safe at home, first as Secretary to the
Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and finally, until his super-
annuation in 1920, as Assistant Comptroller and Auditor to the
Exchequer. Here he found that the British Empire was keeping its
accounts exactly as they were kept in the reign of King John, except
that they were recorded by ink-marks in cash-books instead of by
notches in sticks called tallies. Even tallies had been used as recently
as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The method was so
crude that though it could record the issue of stores to a Navy ship,
it could not grapple with any return of them. Consequently our
cruisers, when their commissions were fulfilled and they came
back home, had to throw all their remaining stores overboard. The
English Channel is paved with ropes and barrels of paint, ship's
biscuit and salt horse, deposited there by many generations of the
mariners of England whose flag had braved a thousand years the
battle and the breeze.
When the new Labor Party reached the Treasury Bench under
the banner of Socialism, but under the thumb of Trade Unionism,
its lack of representation in the House of Lords compelled it to hand
out peerages to any presentable members within its reach who were
not needed in the House of Commons: and Olivier, being eminently
presentable and much more aristocratic-looking than most of the
hereditary nobles, became Lord Olivier. Being also the only available
overseas diplomat, he was made Secretary of State for India.
SOME IMPRESSIONS 19
But here, knowing too much, he could do nothing fundamental,
and did not pretend that he could. British Secretaries for India,
like the old Secretaries for Ireland, were only scapegoats. On the
rare occasions when the Houses of Parliament discussed Indian or
Irish affairs, the Secretary's duty was to whitewash the Government.
For this the only talent needed was for eloquently pouring out at
the greatest bearable length phrases that told the House nothing
that it did not know better than it knew the Chaplain's prayers.
In short, he had to be an accomplished bunk merchant. Ramsay
MacDonald, the Prime Minister, who made Olivier Secretary for
India, was easily the champion bunk merchant of his day; and he
finally fell back on this gift of his so shamelessly that after his last
two November performances at the Guildhall he became negligible
even in the House of Commons, and was dismissed from history as
what Beatrice Webb had long before dismissed him from Fabian
consideration, as "a facade."
Now the accomplishment which Olivier most conspicuously
lacked was that of bunk merchant. He never spoke when he had
nothing to say; and even when he had he did not speak easily. Often
the ellipses in his reasoning (like the one in his Fabian Essay) made
him hard to follow. And even had he been a spellbinder like Bebel,
Jaurbs, or Lloyd George, it would never have occurred to him to
whitewash the Government or anyone else: he would have pointed
out the black spots instead, making him, from the party point of
view, utterly impossible as a deadhead secretary. After ten months of
this, his last official job, MacDonald's short-lived Government
collapsed before Olivier had had time to do anything except establish
his impossibility as a parliamentary hack careerist and scapegoat. He
was then sixty-five and had retired from the Civil Service, where
his great practical ability and authority had been needed, and pro-
ficiency in the parliamentary game of marking time was not expected
from him. His life lasted nineteen years longer (death has a long
struggle with men of his vitality); and he employed them in writing
on the problems raised by the subjugated colored races in Africa
and the West Indies. He kept educating himself and learning from
his experience to the last. Out of official harness and out of politics,
he could indulge his distaste for conventionally-minded company
20 SYDNEY OUVIER
to the full. In his last letter to me he said that he never went out of
I have enjoyed (or suffered) much more celebrity, or as they call
it now, publicity, than this old Fabian colleague of mine, though as
a man of action I was not qualified to tie his shoestrings. Nothing
can be more unfair and dangerous than the enormous excess of
popularity, or at least of notoriety, lavished on playwrights, novelists,
artists and actors, as compared with our rarer Oliviers. Only victori-
ous soldiers can compete with them in that respect. And their
celebrity is long deferred unless they are also incorrigible actors.
My friend H. G. Wells has complained that it is impossible to move
about without being confronted with some effigy of my "wicked
old face" in painting or sculpture or photography: and though this
is true only dramatically, my aspect is much better known than
Olivier's. But Olivier had a single and real self and never exploited
it histrionically. My portraits are not all portraits of the same person.
There are many portraits of my reputation, and so few of my real self
that without them I should doubt, like Peer Gynt when he peeled
the onion, whether I have any real self. Rodin, when he modelled
me in plaster, said to my wife, when she began to explain to him
who and what I was: "I know nothing of Monsieur Shaw, but
what there is I will give you." And he did, so exactly that none of
the dupes of my reputation could see any likeness to me in the bust.
Many years later, when Dame Laura Knight, whose nature is so
entirely frank and direct that no reputation can blind her, painted a
portrait of me into which, as all true artists do, she substituted her
own simple sincerity for my artificiality, my wife said, "It's not a
bit like you: you're always acting." But I knew better. I recognized
in Rodin's bust and Laura's portrait the simple truth about myself.
Now Olivier has no double set of portraits. There was only one
Olivier. However many abusive names he was called by the
planters and Unsocialists he was never called a humbug. His
success as a Civil Servant was not in the least illusory. His air of being
a Spanish grandee was not an affectation: it was entirely natural. I
am glad I retained his friendship to the last; for he did not give his
friendship for nothing. I hope his biographers will rate him as highly
as I do. 22nd September, 1944.
A Fragment of Autobiography
It is not much that a man may save
In the straits of Life, on the shores of Time,
That swims in sight of the third great wave
That never a swimmer may cross or climb ...
Weed from the water, grass from a grave,
A broken blossom, a ruined rhyme.
(Swinburne-The Triumph of Time.)
I PROPOSE, for a start, to be trivially autobiographical. The
trivialities I select to record are not singular. If they were not of
common experience they would signify nothing. I do not stress them,
they will only be notes of typical experiences lightly touched. It
seems to me easiest thus to get things in their proper perspective
and order of value for myself, as parts of my outlook.
For almost, if not for quite as long as I can remember, I have been
aware of the world in two distinct characters. First, though at the
outset I was entirely uncritical, if not unconscious of it, the simple,
natural, taken-for-granted world of my family life: which, being a
well-provided, genteel life, seemed reasonable and natural enough.
It belonged to a world bound up with all the natural and nutritive
industrial processes of adjusted, civilised existence. I shall speak of
this world by the name of "the nutritive life." R. L. Stevenson has
summed up its self-complacent philosophy:
"The child that is not clean and neat,
With lots of toys and things to eat,
He is a naughty child, I'm sure;
Or else his dear papa is poor."
And if his papa was poor it was because God had called him to that
state of life to bless him in it, or else because he, too, was naughty
and drank beer at the public house, or had joined a Trade Union and
lost his employment: which served him right, but it was hard for his
poor wife and children.
This uncritical confrontation of the civilised, external world, so
24 SYDNEY OLIVIER
far as that world and sphere was concerned, survived for me un-
invaded for many years; its nutritive conditions perhaps inducing in
me a somewhat deficient sensibility to the crucial importance of
respectable clothing and things to eat, or at least, of adequate means
for commanding them. But when I was between four and five years
old, there was opened to my conscious recognition a world about
which no one had ever told me anything. If they had meant to do
so, I had not apprehended it. It had no recognisable place in the
established scheme of education, theology or religion. It certainly
could not be Heaven, for I knew a great deal about Heaven; I said
my prayers, loved singing hymns and had always thrilled exultantly
at the notion of dashing down my crown with a clang on the crystal
pavement and damaging nothing.
I drifted into this new environment by way of Battle, in the
county of Sussex. There were windmills on Battle Down, and they
were the first things I ever sincerely worshipped. There used to be
three of them in a row; black, with great whistling sails. "Holy!
Holy! Holy!" I used to sing to them. Downs without windmills,
or windmills without downs, are stupendous, but downs with wind-
mills on them are supernatural, apocalyptic.
The next thing was a quite common-spoken little girl with long
yellow hair, named Polly Kettle, with whom I used to rush hand-in-
hand down the steep, grass terraces round the lawn in the garden of
the red-brick house where we lodged, and lean over the parapet of
the railway bridge as the trains rushed under, puffing up warm steam
in our faces. There were coloured advertisement posters on the wall
of the bridge, and having kicked holes in them with our toes, we
hid our crime by tearing off long strips of the paper and making it
into artificial flowers: no doubt a proceeding of sinister meaning
patent to psycho-analytical experts. It gave me, at the time, a satisfac-
tion, possibly artistic. The next, and most important, experience of
kindred nature was a long day's escape by myself into fields of spring
flowers and hay-grass, whence I returned very hot and dishevelled,
shouting verses of inspiration to original melody..
Through these, and other such definite and recognisable accidents,
however their effect might be analysed, a distinct order of con-
sciousness awakened in me. Not a critical consciousness, but on
NOT MUCH 25
the one hand, an assured awareness of a private, privileged and
exceedingly spacious world of my own, and on the other, a discon-
certing but unquestionable recognition that the established and
orthodox and comfortably-provided world was not altogether my
world, nor satisfying for me to live in. This impression was dis-
turbingly reinforced when I came into contact with other boys, the
product of that well-provided society of the period, and of its schools.
And seeing that, for the most part, although with a few exceptions,
my boy companions and schoolfellows swam like fishes in a sea of
consistent and manifestly advantageous conventions, it never occurred
to me to suspect the reality and permanent authority of that order of
Nature, so that I lived in a good deal of internal solitude.
But being clever enough to play the normal game, and being
really of a sociable, or at least gregarious, disposition, I found it
pleasantest, on the whole, to do so. And having some humour, and
a good deal of natural capacity for dirtiness and vulgarity, and very
little pugnacity, until I was hard pressed, when I became dangerous,
I adapted myself. When I wanted really to enjoy myself, however,
I wandered about the country alone, or in company with some
reputed madman of similar tastes, with whom I could not only share
the intoxicating excitement of living and growing things in the
fields and woods among which I seemed nearest to reality when
alone, and out of contact with which came joy and inspiration of
fancy-but could also talk about love-affairs and acknowledge the
composition of poetry. I never became a poet sufficiently urgently
to believe in my poems to the point of publicity, except as a satirical
versifier. It was not in that generation recognized as natural, or even
creditable, for everyone to write poetry. Rupert Brooke was, I
know, the first British schoolboy to ignore that tabu. And he lived
at home; not as a boarder.
Most of the orthodoxly accepted fiction and poetry on which I
had been brought up belonged, for me, to that unquestioned,
nutritive world. "Those immensely over-paid accounts" Walt
Whitman was naming them just about the same time. I knew by
heart immense masses of poetry and pages of Dickens. I had been.
reared among painters and musical amateurs. (I first heard the violin
played by Carl Deichmann, at Horatio Brabazon's Sussex house.),
20 SYDNEY OLIVIER
But I had no notion what literature, or poetry, or music, or art,
Before I left my first boarding-school, when I was about eleven
years old, I came across George Meredith's novels, Evan Harrington,
and Harry Richmond, in magazines and they were the first important
contributions I got from books at school to my spiritual education:
not because they added much to my knowledge, but because they
bore witness to, and showed understanding of, certain things that
till then had been to me a private and uncommunicable possession,
and not part of the acknowledged and minted treasure of life.
Thenceforward I knew that there was an authority who wrote in
prose that had the run of my private world. There is nothing in the
shielded life of a private school to make anyone a social reformer.
There is nothing, except the prevailing brutality of traditional
British Toryism, which is the predominant politics there, to make
one a Liberal. The public school to which I proceeded, however,
not being so aristocratic in tone, I came there to call myself a Liberal;
but politics had little practical hold or vital interest for me, being so
far removed from all my private realities, and I never, although I
was President of the Debating Society, became even a tolerable
platform speaker. In the course of nine years at two boarding-schools,
I encountered only three masters, out of, I suppose, more than thirty,
who were qualified, both by character and intelligence, to be educa-
tors of youth. Some of the others could, of course, cram classics
and mathematics, and inculcate the public-school virtues. Of these
three, two were whispered to be secretly atheists. The other was a
head-master of such disconcerting sanity and outspokenness of view
that he never suited the post, and retired after considerably depleting
the numbers of the school.
In regard to myself, this head-master discerned that at the age of
seventeen I had got all the good that a public school could give me,
and advised me to go up to Oxford a year earlier than I did. When I
did not do so, he allowed me thereafter to break disciplinary rules
in a manner most unseemly for the head-boy, understanding that
the pursuit of my love affairs and the exploration of my own private
world were more important for me than the public-school idols.
In this, and in his general, fearless rationalism, he prepared me for
NOT MUCH 27
the sceptical dialectic and, indeed, it was because he was in this
sense so good an educator, that he was under-valued as a public-
school master. He could not bow down to the traditional idols of
the public-schoolboy's parents, would constantly suspend scholastic
routine in pursuit of some intellectual interest, and sacrifice the
instruction of a whole form to the education of a single small boy.
In other respects, my public-school life was, for the most part, a
development in the established order, including the usual phases of
school religion. In regard to religion, I found myself so disappointing
a subject that, at or about the end of my time at school, while not
questioning for a moment the premises, I recognized that on those
premises I must be bound to be eternally damned, but recognized
also in that privileged world of my own, that I did not really believe
any such thing, and that anyhow, if it was so, it did not matter, and
that I was prepared to go on on that basis.
My consciousness of my private world had, in the meantime,
extended, and had been justified, now and then, by confirmations
from other minds; although, for the most part, literature completely
ignored it. It was the period of the popularisation of Zola's writings,
and Edward Fitzgerald's Rubdiydt. The latter, much affected by some
of my more bold-minded friends, I had no use for. It belonged
nowhere, had no root in the world out of which, for me, poetry
came. It seemed to me ingenious but factitious sentimentalism, an
opinion I still entertain. Zola's work did, at any rate, very courage-
ously fill large gaps in the legible record of the known and visible
world. It made that record a little less artificial and insincere.
But from time to time during all that school period surprising
illuminations had come, recognisably out of the life of my privileged
world (through the special receptivities of my sex). I see that they
must have begun with the golden-haired Kettle girl under the
windmills at Battle End and I had by this time become critical of
them. Their most arresting significance to my critical apprehension,
was not in their stimulus of the fancy, their purging and creative
ecstasies,- nor later in their dominant and distracting obsessions,
irrational as I felt these to be: it was in the little unpremeditated
achievements and unforseen miracles of intelligence. Capacity was
enhanced, will quickened, that was obvious. So much indeed was
28 SYDNEY OLIVIER -
ironically or tolerantly coincident to the imagination by the accepted
record; but what was this that occurred at first sight, that came
without observation, through no consciousness of the senses of
understanding and shifted me into that world of the windmills and
of the rippled fields and made plastic the petrifactions -of established
reality and altered its laws and slipped round the back of its conditions
of time and space and action
It was the little wonders that did not perturb, that had not suffi-
cient sway to unbalance intelligence and came when imagination
was sleeping, that forced themselves upon me as significant. For
example, here is a very common-place little set of occurrences, the
point of which is that there is nothing unusual or exceptional in it.
When I was about thirteen years old I fell in love, across half a
gallery full of boys and the citizen congregation that slumbered in the
aisle of Tonbridge Church, with a girl of about my own age. I had
no acquaintance with her and never imagined she noticed me.
One morning, towards Easter I was absent from school for some
ailment and was walking round my housemaster's garden to
promote convalescence. This child and a smaller sister came in.
Their mother was indoors calling. They walked round the garden
very demurely in one direction, accompanied by an enormous black
mastiff. I walked round very demurely in the other. They had little
fur caps of brown sable that matched their eyes in the sunlight; their
jackets were trimmed with the same, and below they were growing
very noticeably out of their winter-frocks. This state of things could
not last, gravitation alone must have perturbed our contrary orbits.
The maiden indeed was terrible as any army with banners, but on
the third time round I technically assaulted the mastiff by patting his
head. This desperate exploit led to a brief and embarrassed colloquy
from which there comes back to me only the echo of my heart
in my ears, like the thudding of a very distant big drum. We were
just getting on nicely when the children's mother appeared and
carried them away, and then the holidays came; and when I
returned to school they were gone. But five years later, it being
Old Boys' day at the school and many visitors being assembled for
Divine Service in Chapel, I got the impression of being summoned,
and on raising my eyes discovered them on a very brilliantly lovely
NOT MUCH 29
young lady awaiting them. I wondered, but until her radiance
insisted could not credit that we were recognizing each other. The
sequel has no importance. I was at that period under other allegiance,
a circumstance which (very scandalously as I recognized) I found
myself distinctly regretting, another proof of .my predestined
damnation: and though I braved that Cerberus also, we had only one
day available, and I was prudent, and, I am quite sure, disappointing.
There is nothing (you see) in the story except just this-what
business had that infant to know, and to have the assurance after
five years, to challenge my recollection of those few minutes of
stammered schoolboy banalities in that garden She had the right,
and she knew it, and I recognized her as a fellow spirit in that she did
so. I am thus loyal myself and I expect it of others and find it, but it
was not then according to the rules or the certainties of the visible
and established world. In one aspect, doubtless (as Mr. John Tanner
might say), merely the sense that of the ichneumon-wasp that strikes
her needle through the bark of the tree into the burrowing grub:
but what it said to me was-Yes, you were right, she belongs; her
being also is of the things that appear without observation, that lie
behind the web of the visible world and are known independently
of its intelligence.
Moreover, it revealed me to myself for a moment as exempt from
exclusiveness and free, in a relation of which in the everyday world
exclusiveness and restriction were reported the essence, a moral
convention so strong, and so really then a part of my living character,
that it was only in the flash of the first illumination of my recovered
mystical world that I saw and understood my freedom. Realisation
in time and space: two Incarnations on adjacent seats on the cricket
field, made sadly short work, at that time, of such assurances.
I make every tolerant person to whom I may fail to make clear the
relevance of this interpolation, a present ofits triviality and illusoriness
as a commentary on my own character. I can only say that these
experiences did then embody, in the conditions in which such
apprehensions at that time chiefly came to me, apprehension or
perception of the kind that I have come to think the most important
in life (which extends very far outside the relation of sex), and
showed reciprocity of such apprehension. Such experiences then
30 SYDNEY OLIVIER
arrested my attention as singular, I do not now think them singular
at all, but recognize their order to be the order of all that appears as
inspiration and power.
As I have spent most of my life in the civil public service, it
amuses me to recall certain characteristics of that service as I have
I did not enter the public service from any sense of vocation. My
parents, though they both of them had inherited comfortable
endowments, derived their property from great-grandfathers and
grandfathers who had made money in trade, finance, or manufacture,
brought me up to regard any money-making profession as not
suitable for a gentleman. I agreed with them and have never regarded
buying cheap and selling dear as a beneficial activity. The only
profession I ever desired to enter was that of an architect. My mother
whose elder brother had prospered in the profession of Law, much
wished me to be a barrister: but I disliked what appeared to me to
be the practice of professional insincerity involved in pleading cases
and taking money for defending the right or justifying the wrong.
Her father, an able medical man, had retired from his profession as
soon as he could to become a country squire, as was my other
grandfather, deeming this the only proper kind of life for a self-
I had to earn my own living and when I was first confronted with
the problem of doing so the only respectable profession appeared
to me to be that of a schoolmaster, about the conditions and prospects
of which I knew too much from my closest friend, GrahamWallas,
to fancy it as a career.
It was manifest to me that my first necessity was to get an assured
income. The situation of nice young men like myself at that period
was exceedingly trying. It was considered compromising even to
dance as much as twice in one evening with the same partner,
or to indicate affection without a proposal or an assumption of an
engagement to marry. I read, by chance, an advertisement in my
College lodge of clerkships starting at 250 a year in the Treasury
and Colonial Office, to be obtained by competition. That opening
seemed preferable, at least, to school-mastering, and I had no doubt
NOT MUCH 31
about my capacity for making a good show in examinations. This
facility had given the death-blow to my own projects of being an
architect, for I got scholarships both at school and at college, which
agreeably relieved my parents of paying apprenticeship fees, and
convinced them that I was destined to shine in some learned
So I entered the Colonial Office, knowing nothing whatever about
the Colonies or any kind of official work. It was then a strange
establishment. Its members were graded in three official classes, and
fell into four sections of character. The older staff, who formed the
First-class Upper Division Clerks, were survivors of the old patron-
age system of Civil Service recruiting. The second class of the Upper
Division consisted partly of a senior batch of the first University
men who had been recruited,by competition, and a younger, more
distinctly intelligent class of men nearer my own age. Then there
was the Lower Division, hard-working, subordinate clerks recruited
at about seventeen years of age from "middle-class" schools. Then
the Writers (typing was not yet invented) who copied all despatches
in manuscript by the job.
I was put into the West India Department, the head of which was
one of the old stagers,'a pleasant, non-excitable man who had been a
University cricket blue, and who drove up to the office from a
remote suburb every day in a dog-cart tandem, arriving about
half-past twelve, after which he consumed a substantial lunch and
went to sleep until tea-time. The clerk who did the work of the
department was the Senior Second-class Clerk, Mr. C. Alexander
Harris, later Governor of Newfoundland, a most energetic and able
competition recruit from Cambridge, who covered his papers with
thousands of words of minutes in a rapid, dashing hand. He was my
instructor. For about three years, I was allowed to fill up printed
forms, most of them formally granting leave reported or further
extensions of leave to British Officers. I was also responsible for
scheduling despatches addressed to Governors by the outgoing mails,
when they came down from the Writers' Room, copied in manu-
script; the original manuscript drafts (generally written by Harris,
and corrected by the Assistant Under-Secretary, and initialled by
the Secretary of State, who contributed little or nothing to the
32 SYDNEY OLVIER
proceedings at any stage) being kept as the only copies of the des-
patches sent. These survive to-day in the Record Office as a torment
to students exploring Colonial correspondence. It was also my duty
to stand by the office messenger when he opened the mail-bag, and
packed up the despatches and sealed them, together with any packets
of documents that had to go into the mail. This appeared to me to
be a kind of public service hardly needing the expense of a University
education, even if my time was worth f250, rising to 300o a year,
as it did during that period.
The office did not profess to be open for public business before
ii a.m., by about which time at least one Upper Division junior
clerk was expected to be present in each department, usually with
nothing to do. But we generally stayed to 7 or 7.30 p.m. and most
work in the departments was done after tea-time, with the exceptions
I shall indicate. The system was not so inefficient in its results as might
have been supposed from a cursory examination of the normal
procedure. A really efficient and energetic junior clerk like Harris
would quickly pick out all the papers which appeared to be worth
any trouble. These he would analyse and minute with recommenda-
tions for action and send on to his seniors in the department. There
was, when I entered the office and for a long time afterwards, only
one really able and statesmanlike First-class Clerk, the late Edward
Fairfield, an extraordinarily able person, and a talented caricaturist,
whose room was papered with sketches of outstanding events within
his colonial experience. Most of the chief clerks were too sleepy and
easy-going to add very much to the work of a qualified junior,
although some of them would waste a good deal of paper and ink
in adding not very valuable observations. From them the papers went
on, sometimes after many days, to an Assistant Under-Secretary,
some professional man introduced from outside the office, who
amended the recommendations for drafting, and if necessary, sent
them on to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who, when I
entered the office, was an exceedingly brilliant and capable man,
formerly Premier in one of the great Colonies.
By this time, until Mr. Joseph Chamberlain entered the office as
Secretary of State, the work of maturing decisions was practically
completed. No previous Secretary of State in my time ever added
NOT MUCH 33
much except his initials, preceded, perhaps, by the words "So
proceed." Then the paper returned to the department in which it
arose, and a draft of the reply was prepared. In most cases this was
expected to follow verbatim the minute of the Assistant or Principal
Under-Secretary. The blight of the whole business was procrastina-
tion and bottling. The mails in both departments arrived fortnightly
and went out fortnightly. Toward the end of the fortnight consider-
able activity might be developed, but meanwhile there was no hurry.
The block usually arose on the tables of our easy-going, middle-
aged, First-class Clerks, some of whom were, moreover, men of
shattered nerves or destroyed by the official disease of "Potterers'
Rot," or from some suppressed phobia which made them paper-shy.
My tandem-driving head of department suffered from the first-
named affliction. He was a man who liked to exercise judgment, but
had little capacity for so doing. Consequently, he took time to think
over things, and papers accumulated in stacks on his table. He was
reputed to have caused the first Ashanti War by inability to make up
his mind on a crucial proposal sent home by the Governor of the
Gold Coast for a mode of accommodation between the Queen and
King Kofi. When the time for the mail came he locked the papers
securely away in a leather pouch and war was duly declared. In
process of time a remonstrance arrived from the Governor which
found its way to the Secretary of State (then Sir Michael Hicks-
Beach), an overbearing and forcibly-spoken man, from whose
room the unfortunate H. emerged in permanently broken spirit, after
which time the only form of official energy I ever knew him to
develop was to rush suddenly into my room with a paper in his
hand, tear off a large quadrant from my spotless pad of blotting
paper, and blot his initials upon the file, a practice which filled me
with rage and disgust.
Another incurable bottler was a dear fellow of nervous mind,
never intended for office work. He was well-known to me because
my father had been his father's curate, and he and my eldest brother
used to play leap-frog over the tombstones in the parish churchyard.
Because his father and brother were bankers, he had been made what
was called "Financial Clerk" and his chief connection with the
Colonies was to arbitrate on claims of retiring officers for pension.
34 SYDNEY OLIVIER
These, in his anxiety to be fair to all parties, he would accumulate in
stacks of large leather pouches, which at one time he used to take
home with him, until it was rumoured that the office messengers
were suspected of carrying these receptacles home filled with the
office coals. After that they supported the walls of his room, and
retired Colonial servants waited for months, expectant of the award
of their pensions. To mitigate the results of these habits some Under-
Secretary had invented an infernal machine known as the "Monthly
Arrear List," an enormous blanket of double brief paper prepared
in the Registry, scheduling all letters and despatches unanswered for
more than a week. This document, so far as the problem of where-
abouts could not be answered off-hand, was put in the hands of some
fearless, irreverent junior clerk, sometimes myself, whose mission
it was to go round all the departments and ask inconvenient questions,
or even fossick and burrow in the department's pigeon-holes and
among the dusty piles on the covers of tables, or in the stacks of
leather pouches aforesaid. If it was a pension paper, we always knew
how to account for it. It did not follow that we were able to over-
come the Financial Clerk's anxiety complex, and end the suspense of
This habit of bottling papers survived for many years, and may
perhaps be not even now extinct in certain departments, although
there had been a great improvement in this respect before the end of
my time in the public service. It did not arise from any determination
"not to do it" as described in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit. The
office was most well-disposed towards both its home and colonial
correspondents. It arose, simply, from the wholly irrational theory
that it takes less time to write ten words a fortnight after they ought
to be written than to write them at once, and from incapacity to
imagine the fact that a fortnight hence there would be ten other
words to be written which may very likely claim to have precedence.
In the afternoons, exercise was provided in the large First-class
Clerk's room of the Eastern Department in the form of cricket.
played with a paper ball tightly lashed with string, and a long tin
map case for bat.
The general emptiness of my days and evenings I turned to account
y pursuing all London opportunities of studying music and art,
NOT MUCH 35
and by tutoring sons of friends in Latin and Greek. I lived with my
brother, an art student, in a dingy little square in Paddington, and
for some time the earlier part of my mornings was occupied in the
work of a Sanitary Aid Committee organised by Miss Gertrude
Toynbee at the instigation of the Medical Officer of Health for
West Marylebone. At that time, where the Great Central Railway
line and its station and the hotel now stand, there was a ghastly block
of slums known generally as the Lisson Grove district. My duties
were to inspect and report on the condition of the latrines, the stairs,
floors, and wallpapers. (The houses were let in single rooms or small
tenements, many df them to indigent prostitutes.) My interviews
with the people who opened the doors, or whose doors I had to go
upstairs to knock at, were sometimes embarrassing. A tall, clean-
shaven young man in a high hat and black morning coat usually
means some mischief connected with claims for cash to tenants of
such habitations. The condition of the houses and sanitary arrange-
ments was generally horrible, but no one wanted their landlord to
be compelled to spend money to improve them and most certainly
come upon them for increased rent. Various filthy minor home-
industries were carried on by the married women, but the ingenious
resource of the tenants in Whitechapel, where I also lodged for some
months, of smoking haddocks in the latrines by burning newspapers
under them had not extended itself so far from Billingsgate Market.
The single women were usually still in bed, sometimes with a client
dressing. It was difficult to explain to them why I came. On one
occasion, when I was investigating the wallpaper and asked if bugs
were troublesome, the young artilleryman from the Albany Barracks
who was shaving himself at the window, had the wit to suggest that
I might take a lodging there for a night and see for myself, which
put us all at our ease.
I thus acquired a capacity for appreciating George Bernard Shaw's
first play, Widowers' Houses. On my walk down to the office, I often
took a detour through Soho and called on G.B.S. in Fitzroy Street.
He was then writing musical criticisms on The Star, an evening
paper demanding early morning attendance, and I used to share his
vegetarian breakfast of luscious cocoa and Hill's wholemeal bread
and butter. That food was delicious. I also enjoyed the delight of
36 SYDNEY OLIVIER
meeting his admirable and astonishing mother, and hearing her
comments on Shaw's (and my own) associates and political interests,
for at that time we were both engaged, in concert with SidneyWebb,
one of my fellowjunior clerks in the office, in organising the founda-
tions of the Socialist Revolution, frequenting anarchist communist
clubs in Clerkenwell (where I heard Frank Harris deliver a most
impassioned incitement to arson and bombing), while at the same
time we were engaged in Land Reform propaganda, inspired by
Henry George and producing, in association with the Reverend
Stewart Headlam, a monthly journal entitled The Christian Socialist,
the humour of which was that none of us was at that time either
Christian or socialist. But we imbued it with plenty of unction.
After about eight years in the office, I found lack of contact with
the realities and the people with whose affairs I was dealing becoming
rather flat, and with increasing perception that most Governors were
exceedingly stupid and that many things could be much better
managed in their administrations by intelligent service, I took the
first opportunity that presented itself of getting sent out to a colony.
That was at that time an unprecedented proceeding for a Colonial
Office junior clerk. It arose out of the peculiar vagaries of a Governor
of British Honduras, whose proper vocation, as the Permanent
Under Secretary above referred to observed, was irregular warfare,
he having served with distinction in West African fighting and as a
He had got at loggerheads with the unofficial members of his
Legislative Council. Full of energy, he had set himself to improve
the foreshore of the town of Belize, upon which a Dutch engineer
had reported that it should be embanked and drained. Major G.,
acting under instructions to carry out these suggestions, had dug
trenches and thrown up long banks of stinking mud. A slight
epidemic of yellow fever ensued, which was attributed locally, I
believe not wholly with scientific justification, to these operations.
The actual origins of yellow fever and malaria had not at that time
been discovered: in Belize they were constantly present because the
only water supply of the town was rain-water stored in tanks and
NOT MUCH 37
butts and collected in gutters which bred in thousands the stegomyia
fasciata mosquito, which is the host of yellow fever and has only to
bite a casual immigrant from some yellow fever port, of which there
were then still plenty around the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, to diffuse
an epidemic. The Governor, already in difficulties with his councillors
by reason of minor blunders in administration, financial and other,
now became the subject of popular fury, which he did not take lying
down. The unofficial councillors sent home protests and refused any
sort of reasonable co-operation with him. At his dinner-table in
King's House he declared that he would ask them to dinner and make
them eat cat-fish.
The cat-fish at Belize was, and perhaps still is, a providential
self-acting substitute for any sewer system, the creatures assembling
in banks in the small canals which intersected the town, and along the
foreshore and consuming entirely all organic remainders eliminated
from the adjacent houses. This agreeable threat was listened to by
the Collector of Customs and he repeated it in his family circle.
His daughter, it is reputed, repeated it to one ofher lovers, who passed
it on to his colleagues among the recalcitrant councillors. The threat
got abroad and a song was made about it. The unofficial members
of the Council resigned in a body and sent home a petition for the
warrior's removal. It was manifest to me that administrative griev-
ances could be remedied, and it was thought that a change of air
might be good for the Governor's temper and that the sentimental
grievances of the councillors might be mitigated by agreeable tact-
fulness. It was pleasant to find that it was considered I might be
capable of exercising both remedial agencies and I went out as
Acting Colonial Secretary to serve under a pleasant and sleepy
gentleman with whom I happened to be on very good terms.
I approached Belize via New Orleans, on the most sickening little
steamer I ever travelled on, a small paddle-wheeled cockle-shell
about 250 tons burden. The immediate approach to Belize appeared
to me repulsive. The eastern coast of that part of Central America is
protected from the Atlantic by a long barrier reef, with only one
passage through it, leading into a large lagoon of shallow water,
studded with barren cays. The little steamer was piloted cautiously
along the winding channel that threaded the mud, until it reached the
38 SYDNEY OLIVIER
anchorage about half a mile from the town frontage in a dense and
Smuggy fog, out of which there appeared presently a whale boat
pulled by four Custom-house officers and steered by the Acting
Governor's Private Secretary in a white uniform. Embarking in
this I approached the long, low bank of dark mangrove bushes,
fronted with mud, and we were beached against the garden palisade
of King's House. The town of Belize itself is built on mud flats, laid
down by the Belize River about nine miles from solid land. The
Private Secretary promptly took me for a walk through the town,
showing, as I thought, an amazing cheerfulness at the most depressing
surroundings I had ever seen. I was really frightened. This was worse
than any tropical place I had ever imagined and all tropical places
had, at that time, a deadly reputation. Besides, this particular place
was supposed to be rotten with yellow fever. The main street of the
town ran between wide ditches filled with black swamp water, over
which, on each side, the houses were balanced on piles. All the people
appeared very poverty-stricken and squalid. A strong acrid odour
hung in the fog. I had still to learn that this acrid odour was reassuring,
for the salt-water swamps and the extract of the mangroves which
grew in them do not breed mosquitos, which must have clean, fresh
water to live in and give them an appetite.
The house assigned to me as Acting Colonial Secretary stood on
dry land, a patch of sand and ballast discharged from the timber ships,
which called there, light, for mahogany, but this advantage was
modified by the fact that the ground harboured millions ofsandflies.
The only worse place for sandflies (for which Belize is about the
worst place in the world), was in the barracks enclosure at the north
end of the town, now occupied by the local police and a few white
officers, with whom one occasionally suffered the torment of dining,
returning with ankles inflamed and burning, until one had learnt
to protect one's self with puttees under one's trousers made of strips
of brown paper soaked in kerosene oil. Ladies asserted that oil of
lavender was equally efficacious and less offensive, which gave one
the opportunity ofpresenting them with bottles ofit. At the southern
end of the town the sole promenade was a strip of made ground used
as a cemetery, from which what was called the Circular Road ran
round the mangrove swamps to rejoin dry land at the north of the
NOT MUCH 39
barracks. Here, anyhow, one could ride: there were plenty of ponies
and the ponies were very sure-footed, as they certainly needed to be
if one broke them out of a walk through the mangrove roots and
bog-holes. Inland, one road led up along, or near, the Belize River
to the border of Guatemala, but this whole part of the country was
rather deserted. The blight on British Honduras was then, and still is,
the monopoly of the land by the British Honduras Company, then
called the Belize Estate and Produce Company, exporters of mahog-
any and logwood. The history of this monopoly is peculiar. The
settlement ofBritish Honduras arose out of the visits of British trading
captains to cut these timbers under licences. Along the rivers, down
which the timber was floated, concessions, known as "banks," were
rented at very low rates. The standard size of these banks was three
miles along the river and eight miles back, twenty-four square miles
in all. The privilege of occupying them under the Crown used to
change hands at ridiculous prices, sometimes, it is said, for a bottle
of rum. This untidy arrangement was modified by an Act of the
local Legislature which converted these leasehold banks into freehold
of their occupiers, who sold out most of them to the above-
mentioned Company, to the extent of about two-thirds of the
All the able-bodied labouring population in the central part of
the Colony being engaged in wood-cutting, spent most of their
time up-country in the forest. Just before Christmas they used to
return to Belize, coming down the river in pit pans and dories, the
pit pans being wonderful long canoes hewn out of a single tree trunk,
in which twenty or thirty men sat one behind the other to propel it
with paddles. At Christmas time, there was a great regatta in which
these vessels raced. Other men and women walked down in strings
from the forest, the women carrying the babies born in the forest,
or sometimes a small deer slung up on a pole with its feet tied together
and its head hanging down, for the Christmas dinner, or wild turkeys
similarly carried, or great iguana lizards with their fore-paws twisted
back and tied together behind their necks. Christmas, accordingly,
was a rowdy and festive period at which such songs became popular in
the streets as were stimulated by the Governor's threat of the cat-fish.
Contracts were entered into at this time for the eight or nine months'
40 SYDNEY OLIVIER
work in the bush, and the principal subject of interest was, how great
a proportion of the whole sum expected to be earned could be
obtained in advance beforehand, the mahogany contractors bidding
against each other. As all the money advanced had to be spent by the
wood-cutters before they left Belize, either in drink or immediate
entertainments, or at the end of the holidays in buying salt pork and
flour to eat in the bush, this custom was a constant topic of contro-
versy; the hirers endeavouring to combine to keep down the advances;
the liquor sellers and provision dealers desiring to keep them up; and
the labourers fitfully threatening to organise strikes unless they got
the average rate they wanted-one-half or two-thirds of the whole.
After two or three months the labourers disappeared into the bush
with such consorts and children as they had remained responsible for
since the previous Christmas, or with fresh engagements for house-
keeping. At Christmas, the Belize roadstead looked cheerful: there
were generally nearly a score of Norwegian and French barques
riding at anchor in a long line, waiting to load, all dressed in varie-
gated coloured bunting. On the foreshore there were piles of mahog-
any logs, floated down the Belize River or towed in from the north
or south of the Colony. These lay on the beach being squared with
broad-axes by mahogany cutters, an extremely beautiful sight. The
men, stripped to the waist, showed enormous triangular masses of
muscle from shoulder-blade to waist, shining bronze against the red
of the newly exposed wood and the white and blue of the harbour.
Their skill was astonishing: with the broad-axe, an implement with
a blade about eighteen inches long by nine inches, with a curved
razor-sharp edge, they would slice thin flakes of mahogany from
the logs with amazing precision. When squared, the logs were towed
out in rafts and slung into the holds of the barques, which presently
started home on their tedious journey to French or English ports.
Most of the central parts of the Colony remained uncultivated and
exploited only for mahogany and logwood cutting. In the northern
and southern districts there was some planting and a certain amount
of residence by American families who left the Southern States after
the Civil War, or English and Scotch overseers who were looking
after sugar and fruit plantations, but at Belize there was practically no
English society and the residents were Scotch, German, and Spanish
NOT MUCH 41
storekeepers. Office and shop work closed at four p.m., and as soon
after that as possible was the usual hour for dinner, the daily servants
all disappearing home at five o'clock. After dinner there was nothing
to do except go on drinking whisky and smoking, or pursue the
local species of love affairs. In that respect, Belize was the most
dissolute place that I have ever lived in. I could elaborate a good
many of what are called in Colonial travellers' books "romances,"
with comic, tragic and sentimental embroideries, but I cannot
compete in that technique with the purveyors of present-day tales of
that character. As acting head of the public services, I was, in a man-
ner, responsible for the control of aberrations from the standards of
British puritanism, but I could not preserve the Second-Class clerk
in my office from succumbing to the fascinations of the aforesaid
daughter of the Controller of Customs, who used to send notes to
him at the office by the hand of the coxswain of the Customs boats,
and completely destroyed his utility. I had pleasure in presenting a
prize for -school elocution to a pretty little boy who was called
Vivian Grey, who was the son of a former Private Secretary, whose
proper name the young lady-mother had thought not distinguished
enough, though it rose afterwards to considerable eminence in the
Colonial Service. On another occasion I had to take notice of an
extravagance on the part of a young Sub-Inspector of Constabulary
in the Northern District, who, on his return from a visit in the course
of his duties to an Indian Maya village, had returned in a dinghy by
river, complacently sculling between the fronts of the principal
houses of the headquarters town a young Indian girl whom he had
chosen to be his housekeeper. He had outraged official etiquette and
prestige by this mode of conveyance. He ought to have sent a police-
man or some recognized professional in such matters as the Controller
of Customs' coxswain, but he was a simple-minded boy and he saw
no harm in it, and had the courage of his intentions. Most of the
subordinate white men in this district established similar households.
These Indian girls were graceful, Chinese-looking creatures, and
being domestically faithful and very prolific soon established their
masters in squalid households in which the mother trailed about in
long, dirty, cotton wrappers, obese and flabby, through dusty rooms
infested with poultry and fleas. On the only occasion on which I
42 SYDNEY OLIVIER
lunched in one of these places, arriving unexpectedly with the Over-
seer, a fowlwas hastily chivied about the yard and stoned to death, after
which it was torn to pieces and hastily stewed in the Spanish manner
with onions and peppers. The meat of this hastily slaughtered pullet
was deliciously tender, not having had time to congeal into the
consistency of a London spring chicken. But I have always specu-
lated whether the manner of its preparation was the origin of the
title "pulled chicken" appearing in restaurant menus.
I had to transfer the young Sub-Inspector to another district, and
he and the clever Irish girl who came out soon after to marry him
remained, for many years, friends, grateful and affectionate to me
for having delivered him from such a future. His senior Inspector in
the same district had managed more comfortably. He used to spend
his evenings and week-ends with a fairly well-to-do Spanish widow,
who, at a dance to which I went at her house, took me upstairs to
exhibit proudly her English baby, cradled immediately under the
portrait of her late husband, a very handsome, black-bearded
Spaniard, and compared the infant's waxen complexion compla-
cently with the rosy brilliancy of the exquisite flappers who had
been teaching me Spanish dancing downstairs, to the music of
guitars and a shak-shak, an instrument constructed of a biscuit tin
filled with beans, with which the conductor of the musicians
emphasised the rhythm of the dance music.
SYDNEY Olivier (he dropped his second name, Haldane, after he
grew up) was born on April i6th, 1859, at Colchester.
He was the second son of the Rev. Arnold Olivier and of Ann
Elizabeth Hardcastle Arnould, and the fourth of their eight children.
The Oliviers were descended from a French Huguenot family.
When the persecution of the Huguenots began after the revocation
of the Edict of Nantes, they were deprived of their wealth and their
title "Sieur d'Olivier" and fled from France-some to Holland and
some to England. My husband, referring to his ancestors on one
occasion, said that they had all been rebels and revolutionaries and
that he had inherited their revolutionary spirit.
His grandfather was Henry Stephen Olivier, who had been a
lieutenant-colonel in the army and had afterwards settled at Potterne
Manor in Wiltshire. His father, the Rev. Arnold Olivier was curate
or rector in several parishes in succession-Colchester, Ham, Fren-
sham, Havant, Poulshot. He was not strong and after a time he found
it advisable to spend the winters abroad.
The family went several times to the Riviera and S.O. joined
them at Bordighera the first winter after he had left Oxford in 1881.
His first Continental journey must have been when he was six years
old, when all the family went to Lausanne for two years. He was
sent to a little school there. His father took him for walks and taught
him to recognize the flowers and plants in the neighbourhood and
at Les Avants, in the mountains, where they sometimes stayed. His
mother, who was an artist and a clever painter in water colours,
taught him to draw.
After they returned to England he was sent to a Preparatory
School at Kineton where he was not very happy and when he was
about twelve years old he entered Tonbridge School.
Dr. Weldon was at that time the headmaster. He was succeeded
after a few years by Theo. B. Rowe, a man for whom S.O. grew to
have a very great admiration. The head mathematical master was
Henry Hilary, whom he also appreciated and liked very much.
46 SYDNEY OLIVIER
It was at Tonbridge School about the year 1877 that I saw him
for the first time. He was Head Boy then and President of the School
Debating Society. This was the only occasion on which I went to
hear a debate at the school. The second of my two elder brothers,
Harold1, who was still at school, was bringing in a motion in favour
of phonetic spelling and had persuaded me to come. And there, in
the big schoolroom, I found myself facing this tall, authoritative
person who was presiding. I remember how I was impressed by his
calm and decided manner and by the way in which he kept order
quietly, without any fuss. It seemed to me he was a most efficient
When I met him again a few years later, I thought him a very serious
and alarmingly silent young man, but I soon found he could, on
occasion, be quite a different sort of person. He was really very
sociable. He could throw himself into any fun or festivity that was
going on and contribute to it. Also he could write limericks and
comic verse and he talked readily enough if there were anything he
wanted to say, though he was never inclined to superfluous talk; in
serious matters, if he were much concerned about anything, he
frequently preferred to write about it rather than to talk about it.
The capacity for fooling and fun lasted him through most of his
life. I remember how, in his middle years, he entered into the spirit
of the play-acting and charades with which H. G. Wells and Mrs.
Wells used to entertain their guests at week-ends at their house at
Dunmow, surpassing himself on one occasion when he made a very
successful "Moses in the bulrushes."
That was one side of him, contrasting with my early impressions.
About the year 1878 he left Tonbridge and went to Oxford, to
Corpus Christi College. There he first met GrahamWallas and with
him he formed a friendship which lasted throughout Wallas' life.
They were together, not only in Oxford, but afterwards when they
lived in London; where they had frequent opportunities of meeting.
They both became Socialists and were on the executive committee
of the Fabian Society for some years.
Their closest companionship, however, was during their Oxford
'Harold Cox, afterwards President of the Cambridge Union, Secretary of the
Cobden Club, M.P. for Preston and Editor of The Edinburgh Rview.
EARLY YEARS 47
days and that ended when Wallas, who was a year older than my
husband, went down.
S.O. writes to him from Corpus Christi College, Oxon.
April 2nd, 1881.
My dear Wallas,
I can't take the trouble to write out of an armchair as this is my recreation
hour, so excuse pencil-The tennis matches come off, the All-England
Double Championship at least, on Tuesday, May 10th. I don't think there
is a single. You'd better go in with your friend by way of "clearing your
brains"for the Schools. I'm afraid you are idle, I am not.
"Ah me while thee the cuts, the veering serves Drive far away
where'er thy balls are hurled, etc., etc.-one who much more deserves is
fain to take solitary walks up to Shotover and the Parks and Bot. Gardens.
I feel like Enoch Arden -'The morning's visit to the Pre., the Quads,
the frowsy stairs far up like paths to Heaven-So straight and so untrodden.
Porters' cats that prowl melodious uncoated by night-Strange cacklings of
promiscuous Bantam fowls-The lightning wit ofNewton and ofKing, the
lustre of that long Evangelist's talk-The myriad shriek of bone-cart-
wheeling cads-All these I hear, but what Ifain had heard I cannot hear-
the kindly human curse-Nor voice ofjovial Bilge-but every day, The
grind at the Republic-ten till one-the grind from four at Plato up till
seven-The grind at the Republic after Hall-the'well-earned slumber on
the virtuous couch-The odious voice of Allen-and again-The crimson
steaks of breakfast-but no Bilge.'!
"The Pre. runs riot over me. Three times since you went down I have
gone to him to be viva'd. He is a dear old man and we are the best offriends,
but none the less it's a confounded bore. I am astonished at my reading.
Since Collections I have read two vols. Mill's Logic, Hume's Enquiry,
Hamilton's Logic, Chaps. I-VI, Comte's Phil. Pos: I-II, Spencer's
Genesis of Science, Trendelenburg's Elements with Fowler's notes,
Wallace's Philosophy of Ar. (Aristotle), Poste's Post-Analytics,
Courtenay on Mill, Bacon, Nov. Org. with T. Case's notes, Schwegler's
Hist. Phil., 200 pages, Uberweg ditto 40, Ritter & Preller ad lib.,
Jowett's Symposium, Theaetetus and Parmenides, also his Republic-
and part of Timacus, Bend's four books of the Republic in the Greek-
48 SYDNEY OLIVIER
with copious notes, also Carwreth-Read's Introduction and Punch, which
is very good this week.
"Much learning doth make me somewhat mad I think-I have really
read all this pretty thoroughly-
"I dined on Thursday with Tommyl and the Bursar, and breakfasted
this morning with the latter. Tomorrow I lunch with the Donnells. Bully !
"There is a blackguard gale on tonight which comes in thro' my north
"Goodbye, please remember me to Mr. and Mrs. Wallas, and in all
lenten mortification to my fellow-sufferers, whilom in that apple tart-
and believe me,
"King, even in the vac. brings strangers into hall. Godly youths, very
bold and silly."
Another undergraduate of whom he saw a great deal was Hubert
Campion, who had been with him at Tonbridge School. Campion
was the other of the "Two undergrads" who together wrote the
volume of verse, Poems and Parodies, which they published while at
Oxford. His family lived in Tonbridge and S.O. stayed with them
sometimes in vacation.
During his last year at Oxford, his sister Maud came to stay and
to attend lectures at Somerville College, he having persuaded his
parents that her education was incomplete. He enjoyed having her
there, and the long walks they took. Although there was little talk,
and she describes him as generally striding some paces ahead, they
were very happy together.
He did a good deal of riding about the country at this time and he
also rowed for his College.
Besides the undergraduate friends there was the Herschel family,
where S.O. and his sister were very much at home.
Miss Hardcastle, who presided over it, was the sister of Lady
Herschel, who had died while they were in India, and a first cousin
to Mrs. Olivier, S.O.'s mother.
He had been apt, even in his schooldays, to make friends with
1Thomas Case, his tutor, always familiarly known as Tommy Case. He became
President of Corpus in 19o4 and remained in office till his death in x924.
At Lausanne age 6 years
EARLY YEARS 49
and enjoy the society of men a good deal older than himself, and one
of his greatest friendships at Oxford was with Sir William Herschel.
They had many long walks and talks together.
When I met this old friend many years later I realized why my
husband had so valued him. His quick understanding and wisdom
must have made him a stimulating companion. One of his interests
in his old age was colour photography, in which he was making
experiments, and he still frequently used his big telescope.
S.O. took Greats and left Oxford in 1881, and began to prepare
for the examination for entry into the Civil Service. For this exami-
nation one of the subjects he had to study was the German language,
and that summer he went to Dresden and stayed with the Sonntag
family. He read with Hedwig, the eldest daughter, and talked with
them all, and by dint of the reading and talking, became fairly
On his return he was with his family at Poulshot and writes from
there to Wallas, who had recently become a schoolmaster.
Many thanksfor your letter. I am glad you have found a resting-place-
Maidenhead should be a pleasant neighbourhood and the Philbred establish-
ment, by its orthography and what I have heard of it, nothing if not
With regard to our last letters to one another, they remind me, who am
now full of newly-acquired German, of an epigram of Schiller's on a
philosophical poet, which translated extempore might run, "Yes, we men
are contemptible" (or pitiful) "wights-I knew that, and therefore came I,
Oh, how I rue it, to thee."
. . It happened yesterday that my reiterated absence from Holy
Communion produced, as I intended, an explanation with my mother on
the subject of my religious condition. She has a higher opinion of me than I
thought, as she did not reproach me with more than having neglected the
means ofgrace. It is, however, impossible to convince her that this is more
than a phase of darkness, a temporary obfuscation produced by reading Mill.
. .. I have had no interview yet on the subject with my governor. He
also, I think, has had his confidence in me raised by a collection of testi-
monials from Teddy P. the Pre., etc., which I made about a week ago-
extravagant belaudings, nothing too good to say of me .. .. Tommy's
50 SYDNEY OLIVIER
verges on burlesque. I had appliedfor a Classical Professorship at Sheffield,
which was vacant only till Christmas and would have suited me very well,
but it wasfilled up when I wrote.
So I am going back to Oxford on the 10th instant-to pipe to the wily
pup. if by any means he may be induced to dance to my instrument of straw.
Also to read for Cultchah-that is to grind up History, to venture on the
writing of essays for 'Varsity prizes (this is a dead secret)-to go in for the
Chemistry prelim.-anything else in a small way ? I really don't know.
Ifthese whoreson Commissioners would only fix the Civil Service Exami-
nations for some settled time, or even season, I should know what to do.
As it is, if I get no pups. I shall pretend, at any rate for this term, to be
reading History-go perhaps to the lectures of Plummer if they won't
continue my exhibition without ; at any rate, I shall so add to my knowledge.
I read most of the day here. German, Carlyle's F.R., which I hadn't
read for long. The man annoys me rather by his style, I must say. It is not
English, of course, but Carlyle. I know that and yet cannot excuse it as I
read. I have a great impulse to work: really born, I think, of a spell I did
last Easter vacation. I never had it before a year or so ago ....
The family migration takes place tomorrow week ; they go to Bordighera
.... I want to get back to Oxford badly, that is my prominent idea just
now, so I reiterate it ....
I havefound .... a gentle Keble man named Smythe with whom I take
walks .... I am going to explore Plummer if I read history. Plummer is
not well known to me. I will make him love me, too ....
He did not, however, get back to Oxford just then. His family
were going abroad and his parents, who were uneasy about his
attitude towards the Christian faith, persuaded him that the next
months should be spent with them in discussing and studying the
He went, unwilling to refuse his mother, but troubled at the
upsetting of his plans. There were probably compensations during
the next months, in the lovely country, the pleasant life with his
family, and new friends. He writes from Casa Bianca, Bordighera :
EARLY YEARS 51
Dear Wallas, B.A.,
When are you going to awake to the fact that you owe me a letter?
Perhaps you are afraid ofgetting any more from me of the length of the last;
you needn't be.
I have recovered my mental serenity to a considerable extent since then.
In my disputations with my father we have passed beyond the stage of
discussion, he having come to a practical acknowledgment of the proposition
of Paul, that the natural man accepteth not the things of God, and having
also, I grieve to say, apostatised from that rash belief in the doctrine of
evolution which he at first confidently admitted, has modified his view so
that we judge evidence by different canons. We now read the works of a
seventeenth century theologian, one Smith, a neo-Platonist in learning,
capital stuff, really almost as good as Bacon, and we discuss him and enjoy
him scarcely controversially. An old boy of vast erudition and genial style.
I shan't be sorry to come back to England, which I shall probably do in
March, when I expect the preliminary examination for the C.S. comes off
Are you going in for it ? Pray God not as I want most deucedly to get in
then .... How do you like Maidenhead ? .... I see a great deal of the
MacDonald family, G.M'D.1 is a very fine specimen of the species
prophet, a religious orator, superinduced on a poet.
On February ioth, 1882, he was again in England. Writing to
Wallas from his lodging in London, he says :
I am come home on a week's notice to try for the Civil Service. God send
I be notploughed in my prelim., which came offday before yesterday. I never
was in such a funk about anything. Forty arithmetic questions to do in
three hours and ten enormous "tots" of twenty rows of ten figures each to
add up in half an hour. Beside this, we had on the same day two dictations,
one English essay, and one Board of Control return offigures to carry out.
Should like to come to you Sunday. Will you give me lunch ?
He was placed at the head of the list of successful candidates, and
in the spring of 1882 he entered the Colonial Office in the 2nd class
of the Upper Division.
1George MacDonald, the novelist.
52 SYDNEY OLIVIER
The following letters to Wallas were written during the next years,
generally from Porchester Place, where he lodged with his brother,
Herbert, or from the Colonial Office.
May 10th, 1882.
I like the work here very well. It is almost entirely correspondence. I have
to draft despatches, etc.. I am in the West Indian department and there is
plenty of interest and variety in the subjects that we have to deal with. I am
intending to read for the Bar. I shall enter at Gray's Inn and am up for a
studentship which are to be had cheap there and rather good . .. I have
gone into Napier's diggings, as you see. I left my dress bags at Shobrooke,
I believe ; if you have them please send them up to 4 Porchester Place as
soon as you can, as I want to go out to dinner on Friday and have missed
one dance already in their absence . .. I went to the Grosvenor yesterday,
which is not good and took a preliminary canter through the Academy this
morning, which is not bad. Good-bye; give my respects to the staff
When I draw my pay I will come down and rook them at whist.
In the summer of that year he was at Holme House, Bardon,
Skipton, with my brother, and wrote :
Me voici in company of S. Brearley, Esq., U.S.A., and Harold Cox.
.... I came up here on Sunday morning, having travelled all night. The
never-sufficiently-to-be-execrated Midland Railway lost my port tncnlea
on this most simple and straightforward journey. Consequently, I have had
all this week no clothes but those I stand in, no books but those I can borrow,
which, as I started to come up here with a carefully assorted library for
particular reading, is most annoying. H. Cox, having got an University
Extension lectureship, which he is to take up in October at Hull and York,
has a fne assortment of Political Economy literature which I am turning to
account to some extent. I suppose you break up soon. I shall be here, I hope,
for rather over three weeks-longer if my portmanteau turns up. We are
among the moors, in a farmhouse, about six miles from Skipton, whither
I have twice walked to stir up the railway folk, which is a grind, as there
is an enormous hill between here and there ....
EARLY YEARS 53
What are you going to do in your holidays ? I have been frittering away
my princely salary in the payment of Oxford bills.
I shall now also have to exercise economy with a view to stumping up my
caution money at some Inn of Court, which I propose to enter next term.
I am commencing to study law. Have you any idea ofgetting away from the
Philbred's ? .... Have you done anything in the way of looking out for a
public school mastership ? I don't suppose that, as a matter of fact, the
actual educational work would be so interesting, but you can't stay where
you are much longer, and I think the atmosphere is a little narrow. Ifind
being in town I have plenty of room-rather too much, in fact. I am
seriously thinking of joining a working men's political club which exists
near my diggings, for the purpose of furthering my political education. I
don't suppose it will be very pleasant just atfirst. I regret having passed the
summer without seeing the coming young woman of the age, your sister,
but I was prevented by my natural shyness and my dread ofoffending against
the proprieties from calling at Bedford College .... Brearley desires me to
convey to you the assurance of his continued regard, perform the same office
for myself with yourfamily when you go home. Harold Cox goes home on
Monday for a dance at his house, I, pro mea virtute, have refused to
accompany him, which I think is perhaps foolish on my part, though
prompted by a sense ofduty, seeing I came up here to read.
November 3rd, 1882.
I have made two pleasant acquaintances in Town. One of family named
Mallet .... at whose house I went to a musical evening last night, where
I had to sing lest I should appear to have come on false pretences. The other
is of the Westlakes; Mrs. Westlake is a great friend of all the people one
would like to know, Leslie Stephen, Frederic Harrison, Mrs. Garrett
Anderson, etc., etc., not to mention Dilke and others . . I live in a
wholesome atmosphere. The house I lodge in belongs to Frederic Harrison's
uncle, and the old boy who lived and died here before Napier appears to have
been a good steadfast atheist. Hoping to see you Sunday.
Your affectionate friend,
54 SYDNEY OLIVIER
4 Porchester Place,
November 15th, 1882.
I went to the Haymarket on Friday night with the Cox's. You had better
go to the Globe, where Tennyson has been posing in the Mallock line,
apparently. I wonder where my friend Mr. H. Bickersteth Ottley and all
these others get their idea of the modern free-thinker from. I think there must
be some book about which has escaped our notice, exposing him.
Poor old Tennyson; the world has gone past him; he was a generation
ago pre-eminently the young man's poet. Thank goodness we grow. But
does it ever strike you what a ludicrously small number of men approxi-
mately sane there are in the world .... of course, the special points of one's
own insanity one doesn't see.
Igot this evening a Pall Mall Gazette in which Ifind a second article on
Progress and Poverty. Thank youfor the first..... I would remark with
respect to the main thesis of the book that it is all very well to poke fun at
Henry George and his deduction ofthe immortality of the soulfr6m the sound
theory of property in land, in which I do not think you will have any fear
that I shallfollow him-indeed he does not himselfpoint out the connection,
but I am anxious to see, what I have never yet seen, some other argu-
ment than the pooh-pooh one, which is all one is generally treated to, except
when the "whatever is, is best" is assumed, against the main doctrine which
the book is intended to illustrate, a doctrine to devising the means for realising
which, Mill devoted a considerable deal of thought in his later years, and
which Herbert Spencer habitually treats as a foregone conclusion. It will
will not do to say that government would be sure to mismanage the land if
it had the dealing with it. That doesn't touch the matter, but I should not be
surprised if that is the line in part taken by the reviewer.
I have no wish to champion George, who has a rhapsodical and un-
chastened style, strongly suggestive of the pulpit, and who starts with ideas
of the Divine purpose and Final Causes exceedingly incongruous in such a
treatise, but inasmuch as his book has brought the question into general
notice of others than readers ofMill and Spencer, I think he is to be thanked.
.... Good-bye, let me know when you propose to come up.
EARLY YEARS 55
4 Porchester Place.
.... I have been having a good deal of dissipation lately, dancing
principally ; I am getting to be a pretty good dancer .... I went to a lecture
on Thursday at Toynbee's1, who did not so much criticise George as
propose to supersede his panacea by a more comprehensive gospel according
to Toynbee, which he is to promulgate this week. I wish you lived in Town
or near; it is the best place in England .... I have a considerable surplus of
foolscap in one of my drawers, whereon I recorded most bitter and perfectly
true criticisms of the Positivist Catechism after first reading it. I shall be
interested to see whether you object to it from the same points of view.
Ifyou do you will be wrong. I was talking the other day to Henry Crompton,
who is Congreve's chief lieutenant in London, and he told me that when he
first read it, he thought it the most preposterous thing he had ever come
across, though he had come to it with a good deal of hope, having been
immensely struck by reading H. Martineau's two volumes. The fact is that
unless one studies the system one is not competent to discuss it-only what
impresses me is that the more one knows of it, the more obvious most of it
I apologise hereinforformer ignorant speaking.
Efictetus, by the way, did not propose to show men the way to Happiness.
He only looked at the "evils" of life with a view to saving men pain by
showing them what was really to be regarded as evil and what not. It does
not detract from the merits of the book in that department that it does not
undertake any other.
With best wishes,
Tonbridge, April 16th, 1883.
... I suppose you are again in the mill by this time. I am having a
fortnight's leave; last week I spent chiefly at York, which is a splendid old
town with the old walls still standing almost the whole way round. It is a
place which has been taken more care of than most which are rich in
56 SYDNEY OIVIER
antiquities, although the Minster has not escaped the ravages of restorers
with no sense of congruity.
I am at the Cox's today .. .. I spent most of yesterday afternoon reading
Browning aloud, which is fine exercise-you bet. Good-bye.
Ever your affectionate friend,
From Stratford St. Mary,
April 20th, 1883.
... I had forgotten that your sister would be about this time at Girton;
I hope she likes her start there.
I have been having a pleasant enough fortnight, which comes to an end
on Monday .... We had splendid weather down at Tonbridge and made
the most of it in the matter of walks, the river, etc.
We devised a method of escape from old Cox, who had stayed at home
. . instead of going off on circuit-by the institution of eight o'clock
breakfast, which enabled us to clear out and disintegrate before the elders
appeared : a plan I should recommend to you if I thought your elders likely
to acquiesce in it.
We became engaged early in the month of July, 1883. He
announced our engagement to his friend, writing from:
4 Porchester Place,
10th July, 1883.
If you are anxious to see a really inspiriting batch of letters, I should
recommend you to write and inform your parents and your eldest sister that
you have engaged yourselffor marriage with a young lady of unorthodox
religious opinions. That is what has happened to me, and having got
through the receipt of that budget, I allow myselfthe indulgence of expecting
a letterfrom you, who I know will be glad to hear of my happiness, without
any reservations. Of course the family, though, thank goodness, human
EARLY YEARS 57
nature is stronger than any religious formula, regard the step-at least my
father avowedly does-as a wanton burning of my ships. Anyhow, you
and I and some others are in the same land, to go wherever we are to go.
As to my father, it is very sad to me to perceive that I am having the effect
of making him a somewhat bitter religious bigot : his letters lately have
become much worse. Why do these people plague and torment themselves-
with their infernal religion or perversion thereof? But this last letter beats
anything : and it is very difficult to keep to my rule and ignore its mis-
conceptions. Otherwise Ifeel like Gilead P. Beck when his ile was running
down the creek for want of barrels to hold it, there is such a lot of happiness&
getting wasted for want offixing. I rushed my fence on Thursday last at
From 4 Porchester Place, the same summer.
. I perceive my future father-in-law has excited the ire of the wild
Welsh; I opine that he has rather the best of the position .... I hope you
had a very pleasant holiday ; I have come across a book (it was given me
by G. C. M. Smith the other day) which I shall send you a copy of (don't
thank me just yet, because it may be weeks before I get it). By name,
"Towards Democracy," an imitation or following of Walt Whitman, by
one Carpenter, who from beginning as a 'Varsity man has elected to become
an artisan. I don't know that I quite understand what he is thinking of all
the time, but one of the main keys is the stoical doctrine offreedom and
equality which is taken up in a most striking manner.
Adieu; yours ever,
Part of his time now was given to teaching Latin to young pupils.
He had two pupils; one of them, Paul, was the eldest son of our
Positivist friends the Henry Cromptons. The lessons were generally
given in the early part of the morning before he went to the Colonial
58 SYDNEY OLVIER
14th October, 1883.
I have just come down from Saturday to Monday to this new location of
my family, which is situate in Surrey, about three miles from Farnham, in
the midst of most lovely country.
We are at the edge of the great tract of heath andfir trees of Aldershot
.... we are on the edge of a hill and command a splendid view .... I have
started a pup. in the mornings who necessitates my returning by early train
whenever I take advantage of the Sabbath to escape into the country. So I
have to be up betimes tomorrow. I should have been at Tonbridge today
only I was given to understand that Mr. Cox desired to enjoy his privacy
undisturbed by the presence of Thornycroft and myself.
.... My sister1 will be married soon after Christmas; her young man'
has started his school with six boys. I am going to take my B.A. shortly
and shall probably sleep at his house on that occasion.
iHis sister Julia.
I was very early impressed by his keen observation of the people
and things about him, by his noticing things not especially noticeable,
even when apparently absorbed in something else.
In this he was a great contrast to my eldest brother", under whose
influence I had grown up. Homersham was a mathematician and was
often profoundly absorbed in thought, and in his frequent abstractions
seemed quite unconscious of his surroundings ; even people talking
in the same room hardly disturbed him.
S.O. was always wideawake and observant, and more especially
when we were out of doors.
Before our marriage and afterwards during our early life together
we used to walk a great deal and explore the country. Our early
walks were in the district of Tonbridge, where my family lived.
We would start off on a Sunday morning making for Penshurst or
Bidborough or Hever or Chiddingstone, or else Wateringbury or
some other place near the river Medway. S.O. always knew where
he wanted to go. We frequently set out with my sister Agatha and
Hamo Thornycroft2, to whom she was engaged. At the end of the
long drive from our house, while we others stood hesitating, S.O.
would at once decide which way we should go and we made the
programme for the day. The party would soon divide, and we would
meet for lunch at some villagesinn agreed on.
When I stayed at Seaford with an old aunt' whom I often used to
visit there, S.O. came for weekends, and we explored all that Down
country pretty thoroughly: Firle Beacon, Alfriston, and, on the
coast, Cuckmere and Beachy Head. He loved that country and on
the ordnance map he carried he wrote in coloured ink, "Map of the
'Homersham Cox was Fourth Wrangler in i880, the year in which Sir J. J. Thomson
was Senior Wrangler. He became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1882.
2Hamo Thomycroft, the sculptor.
aMrs. Felton Mathew, whose husband was the first Surveyor General for New Zealand
60 SYDNEY OLIVIER
On those walks, as far as I remember, we did not talk about any-
thing unconnected with the country we were in; no problems nor
anything more abstruse than the trees, the flowers, and the birds
concerned us. He noticed the soil, the crops, and all that was being
done on the land. Often I was disconcerted by his habit of taking
short cuts across farms and fields. He had no respect for notice boards,
where he said our trespassing could do no harm. His early life in
Wiltshire had made him familiar with farming operations.
When later in Jamaica he began to concentrate on West Indian
problems it was natural enough that agricultural questions should
come first, that the soil, the whole land, should be considered in
relation to these. But in every country he visited it was the same, the
soil and the configuration of the earth were his first interest. This is
noticeable in many of his later writings and articles, Praise ofAargau,
written during a visit to Switzerland, and others. His book, Jamaica,
the Blessed Island, begins with a description of the geology of the
island, the structure of the earth there.
At the time when his first letters, from which I quote, were
written to me, he was greatly absorbed in social questions. He was
not at first a convinced socialist.
At the end of the year 1883 he was resident clerk in the Colonial
Office, together with his friend, Sidney Webb. Early in 1884 he got
to know Bernard Shaw and he frequently met Graham Wallas when
the latter came to live in Highgate. These four, with Edward R.
Pease, became the nucleus of the Fabian Society. Before that Society
was formed they were already looking for some form of social
organization which would remedy the deplorable conditions of the
time. They discussed Positivism. The Positivist system seemed then
to be a hopeful solution. S.O. had read and studied some of Comte's
principal works and he went frequently to the Positivist meetings.
About the year 1880 and for some time afterwards, the Positivists
in England were a small inconspicuous group, or rather there were
two London groups, one under the leadership of Frederic Harrison,
and the other under Dr. Congreve.
These last held their Sunday morning meetings or services in a
small hall in Chapel Street, Bloomsbury.
S.O. writes :
28th October, 1883.
I went down to Chapel Street this morning. Dr. Congreve was there ....
Whether one considers Comte's ideal Capitalist system or a Socialist
system of industry as ultimately the most desirable (and both are, it seems to
me, so far off and postulate such an advance in our morality that one can
scarcely judge by reasoning from present materials which would work best,
Force myself to suspend judgment on that point), it does appear to me that
a great advance in the direction of Socialism must be the next move, if only
for the purpose of educating future controllers of labour. And on purely
economic grounds it seems to me advisable as the only means of organising
production. There is now so much waste, so many fluctuations in employ-
ment of labour owing to there being no concert between employers, each
trying to make his own fortune.
Among his activities at that time were the gymnasium and a class
at the Working Men's College. Also he was reading for a law
examination in the mornings before the Colonial Office work began.
I generally read all the mornings at my law, which includes Roman Law,
Jurisprudence, and International Law, all of which I find interesting
enough. I don't flatter myself I have much chance this time of getting the
I went to Paddington gymnasium today, it was very empty and cold. I
could hardly get warm with the most violent exercise. Then I went to my
pupil and then got some tea and looked in at a committee meeting of the
Land Reform Union, after which I went to my Latin class at the Working
Men's Collegefor two hours, after which I thought I had had about enough.
Ifind that two hours there generally has that effect on me.
3rd March, 1884.
Yesterday I went down to Whitechapel to lunch at Gardiner's where
Harold' is staying. We went to tea at Mr. Barnett's, the clergyman of the
parish, who is very nice, perhaps you have heard of him.
At 8-30 we went to a service they have there every Sunday evening,
consisting of singing and some prayer and reading. The singing was very
"My brother, Harold Cox.
02 SYDNEY OLIVIER
good. I liked the service but it distressed me. One lady sang Gounod's There
is a green hill far away," a very lovely setting of words which, so far as the
ideas expressed admit of it, strikes me as one of the most perfect pieces of
simple poetry that could be written, equal to Blake or Wordsworth. The
service, I say, distressed me because here was the universal language, music,
beautifully rendered, to a scanty congregation, in a district of London to all
appearance utterly dead and hopeless in most respects, and giving itself in all
earnestness to forms which never-more, it seems to me, having lost as they
have their hold on the hearts of the many and the intellects of the thinkers,
can supply what is wanted for these people.
It seemed like some madness, the eternal "truth" of music, and the
strength which simple bare expression in adequate language of conviction
really felt gives to poetry, chained to this corpse ....
I saw the moon and Venus the other night and thought ofyou and whether
you would remember that I told you last Sunday that in a night or two you
ought to see the moon close to Venus . .. I never saw them quite in that
position before. It ought to have been a good omen for the Mahdi as repre-
sentative of Islam.
22nd January, 1884.
Your criticism of Comte's "Omniscience" is very just. No man can
anticipate the combined outcome offorces for all time. But Comte is, to my
mind, after all, very much the most comprehensive thinker we have had
since Aristotle. I have a good acquaintance with the English schools of
philosophy whose followers pooh-pooh Comte, and I am convinced that he
is even now very much ahead of them.
I think the reason why there are so few Positivists is that there are so few
people who read Comte's writings. A great many people have an idea that
they know something about him, but, of them, not one in a hundred has
ever looked into his books.
I think it is fair to say this of Comte, that though he dogmatizes continu-
ally with what appears to be offensive arrogance, he never dogmatizes
unless he has in some other place of his writings reasoned out his point to his
own satisfaction, and his reasoning are very reasonable and wide-viewed.
I must have criticised his reserve and caution in expression, for
he writes :
7th February, 1884.
I have very much ofa kind ofconceit which prevents me speaking openly
on many things about which I think a good deal, and have a fairly definite
conviction, simply for fear of (what is quite probable) saying something
from which later I shall see reason to dissent. Also I have a rather fatal
facility of seeing several sides to many questions at the same time. That is
the result, I expect, of my being such a mixture of French, Irish, and
Puritan-Saxon blood. I have two or three brains, and one is always criti-
cising the other. I shall never be a single-minded bigot. That brings me
funnily enough to the question of my health.1
I am all right really. Perhaps I sit up too late, and rather racket about,
but I have only this period of my life for seeing all sides of things and I like
to make the most of it.
It is not enough for me that men can find perfect satisfaction for their
nature in one line and religion, say Christianity, the Salvation Army,
Socialism, Art. What I want to know is what is the common element in all
these? Hence I am full of desire to investigate all forms of religion and
thought and feeling. What is enough for a man, or men must have some-
thing in it of that which is the real life of humanity. So I make the most of
my time for smattering in all ways.
That entails sitting up late talking and reading, etc.
Besides the racketingg" and "smattering" there were social
meetings. This was one of many with which he filled his evenings in
London, for he was now working on the Sanitary Aid Committee
started by Miss Toynbee, in connection with which he visited slums
and dealt with the shortcomings of landlords two or three mornings
8th February, 1884.
On Wednesday evening I went up to Hampstead to attend a drawing-
room meeting at which the nucleus of a Sanitary Aid Committee for that
district was to be formed. They are forming these all over London now,
having had a meeting at the Mansion House some weeks ago at which a
1I had asked him, I suppose, about this.
04 SYDNEY OLIVIER
central committee was formed with the Lord Mayor and other dignitaries
at the top, so we are having quite a formidable organisation and shall stir
up the vestries pretty thoroughly.
As Miss Toynbee's was the first which set to work, and indeed gave the
idea to all the others, which have practically adopted its rules and methods,
she sends me occasionally to tell the newly forming committees what work
we have done in our six or seven months of existence.
Last night I was exemplary and went to bed at eleven punctual. But then
I had sat up till one the night before, talking on all manner of subjects with
Webb and a man named Shaw, a very clever and amusing man, who
defends the most atrocious paradoxes with much ability.
After which I read a novel of Henry James in bed till three-fifteen, and
finished it, which was fairly quick work. You see the more one reads the
quicker one can read. I can read much quicker now than I could when I was
at Oxford .... I won't sit up, or lie up so late again, I hardly ever do so
. . To continue my yesterday's remarks I eat quite enough, though
perhaps I don't eat comfortably enough. We'll set that all right some day ;
at present I really don't think I am much the worse for the hurry.
18th February, 1884.
I went up on Saturday night to see Hamo' whom I found modelling
at his "Mower," and commenced to make him waste his time by fencing, etc.
We had some good exercise.
I paid a lot of calls yesterday (Sunday) and can go out of town now for
the next few Sundays with a clear conscience.
I have just been reading Hyndman's new book The Historical Basis of
Socialism, which is good, and which you should read. He confines himself
a good deal to showing the history of the growth of the Capitalist system,
and its evils. What he does not do justice to, in my opinion, is the possi-
bilities for good in that system, while he ignores the inevitable evils of a
Socialist system, organised without as thorough a revolution in morality as
would suffice to obviate the evils ofthe Capitalist system, which ifmoralised,
I am not sure is not-economically superior.
18th March, 1884.
There never was such a March in London. I walked back through
Kensington Gardens this morning along the "Flower Walk" and all the
thorn trees were quite green on either side and the ground was a blaze of
hyacinths and crocuses and other spring flowers, and the almond trees in full
bloom above. Most beautiful.
I had a note yesterday from Mr. Barnett of Whitechapel asking me to
come down there this evening to a debate on State Socialism, but as it is
Miss Toynbee's committee night and I rather want to go there I shan't be
able to go to Whitechapel.
25th March, 1884.
I dined with the Barnetts yesterday and went to a committee meeting
about the arrangements for the picture exhibition afterwards. I improved my
acquaintance with Mrs. Barnett. She is a most energetic little woman and
rather clever ; both she and her husband have an immense amount of "go"
in them, and a great faculty of making other people useful ....
Apropos of lines which stick in one's head, one doesn't know why except
that there is something exceptional in their style and cadence, you remember
I said the other day that the earliest line of Shakespeare I remember doing
so with me, was that spoken of Duncan :
"After life'sfitful fever he sleeps well,"
which I was delighted to find Matthew Arnold also quote; well, another
line of Shakespeare's that I remember in the same way is that spoken by
"I have ventured like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, this
many summers on a sea of glory."
I am not sure what there is especially in that line ; I think the suggestion
of warmth and calm and lightness given by the word "summers," as well as
the sound of it, has a good deal to do with it. Fancy if it had been "this
many years upon a sea of glory" and one sees the difference.
The Papacy is no doubt the nearest approach ever made to the ideal
despotism. I do not know quite from what point of view De Maistre glorifies:
it apart from Catholicism. I cannot imagine anyone ever again occupying
an analogous position. No man's mind is great enough for what would now
be required. With the Pope as Vicar of Christ and direct confidant of God
the difficulty was blinked till the human incompetency of the Papacy
evidenced itself by the actual break-up of Catholicism.
00 SYDNEY OLIVIER
13th June, 1884.
I was amused at your scepticism yesterday respecting the correctness of
George Eliot's analysis of Dr. Cumming, though I was surprised at the
ignorance which it shewed on your part of the mental attitude of so large a
body of your fellow-countrymen as is formed by the Low Church party and
the Nonconformists generally, and indeed of the majority of those who
are even now the chief guarantors of morality in England .... As I
say I was astonished at your scepticism in the matter almost as much as I
should have been at your questioning the fact of people's believing in a
particular Providence or the efficacy of prayer for the sick.
It must make you miss, for instance, a great deal of the significance of
George Eliot's own writings, in every one of which one can feel the protest
of humanism against dogmatism. It is because so many have felt the same
pain that she has been such a power in the younger generation of the middle
class. It must make you miss a great deal of the significance of Matthew
Arnold's protests against "Philistinism."
It is not enough to say, "It will be all right in a couple of hundred years."
You might say that in the presence of any evil, and nothing is more certain
than that if people did, few things would ever get mended. Truth will not
prevail, nor enlightenment, any more than justice or love, except through
every man doing his best for them ....
His estimate and appreciation of the Nonconformists was con-
firmed many years later when he came in contact with them in
Jamaica, and when he learned about the work of their churches for
the negro population through all the years subsequent to Emanci-
pation. His admiration for these men was very great. He writes about
them in his book on Jamaica.
His parents were both orthodox Christians, and very religious
people. The fact that he did not share their faith distressed them very
much. They wrote to him constantly deploring this, and their attitude
was a great trouble to him for many years. He writes, commenting
on one of his mother's letters :
7th August, 1884.
I cannot tell you how much the evidence of such a mental attitude
depresses me .... I have never settled in my mind whether it is worse for a
child nowadays for its parents to be too "religious" or "irreligious." I know
in my own case that the never having really the same standards of right and
wrong as my parents, and the having in later years consciously to recast
entirely those standards for myself, has not been good, the former part
especially, and I should have been better under equally moral but more
secular parents. On the other hand, the morality is undoubtedly high in such
families, at least the standard is, although the result may not be so very much
different to elsewhere. Your own family, for instance, is nearer the best that
is conceivable in some points than my own. I suppose however that no one
is quite fairly treated, except the very fortunate ones in their bringing up ;
very few made the best of that which can be made; I can think of hardly
anyone that I know of that has been.
And I have been well-off in much ....
I was trying at that time to teach my youngest sister French and
had, I suppose, confessed to getting impatient with her. I had asked
him, too, about his pupil. He writes :
2nd October, 1884.
I don't think my pupil ever seems duller at one time than another. He is
always quite dull. But he doesn't even kiss me when I am cross with him, so
I am worse off than you with Dora .... How do you teach her French ?
I have come to the conclusion that the best way to learn any modern language
(and to a great extent Latin and Greek too) is to begin with nothing but
reading, and to go on with nothing but reading and repetition till the learner
can read and learn without difficulty. Wallas, who is a school-master and
who has tried the method with much success in Greek, agrees with me ....
The grammar and exercise book are the least useful in teaching. They are
simply an instrument to enable lazy and stupid teachers to grind task-work
out ofclasses for the most part. The difficulty is to find a book that will hold
and interest a child in foreign language.
5th July, 1884.
I wonder whether my geological section was correct ? I did it out of my
head, so can't be sure, and have doubts whether the Upper Green Sand and
Gault don't both come in between Knockholt and Sevenoaks, and whether
Sevenoaks itself is not on the edge or corner of the Lower Green Sand, and
all between that and Tonbridge Weald clay and Weald sand instead of
Gault and Lower Green sand. Anyhow, it is a very easily understood bit
68 SYDNEY OLIVIER
of classification and gives as good an idea of the tertiary system as can be.
Of course all the strata recur in reverse order as you go south till you get
to the Chalk South Downs, in which the steep side faces north as at
KNOCKHOLT----- TO-NBRifD-G E -- -FILE
there having been a great upheaval of all the land along the middle of
Kent and Sussex, of which the top has been worn off by ice and water and
channelled into a big valley.
27th October, 1884.
Yesterday was very fine up here but very cold. I went up into the Park
in the afternoon .... In the Park there was a biggish crowd and I presently
discovered Harold- riding in a van with C. A. V. Conybears and other
Radicals. So I climbed in and sat while they made speeches. Harold pro-
posed the resolution, "That the House ofLords ought to be abolished," and
made a very nice little speech, all about Socialism and Second Chambers,
etc., which the crowd knew very little about (except that I think some of
them thought he was referring to the luxurious habits of those who live in
more than one room) and very little about the House of Lords. Then afew
other people spoke and the resolution was passed pretty unanimously. The
meeting as a meeting rather depressed me,for all its unanimity. The London
crowd is in no way august or imposing and generally consists chiefly of shop
boys. Beyond the members of the clubs in the waggons and close to the
banners there was hardly a bearded man in the crowd. Harold was quite
right in impressing on them that the mere abolition of the House of Lords
wouldn't do much for them, and that's just what I don't think they
When we had carried the resolution and were descending from our chariot,
xHarold Cox, my second brother.
who should appear out of the crowd but Agatha', looking most refreshing,
and Hamo with her.
Then Harold and I walked home with them and had tea and talked on all
kinds of unpleasant subjects, foods, pigsticking, etc., till I had to go.
6th November, 1884.
Being in town earlier enabled me to get away to dinner at Gray's Inn at
six, which I was rather glad to do .... Yesterday I didn't get anything done
in the evening except a letter to Miss Toynbee on the subject of some
proposals she made for a branch of our Marylebone work.
As to the punishment question : we have no "penal code" in the strictest
sense of the word code, but the punishments inflicted under our Criminal
Law differ in their origin from those of the Civil Law in that while the latter
have grown out of and always embody the idea ofsimpje reparation ofinjury
done by one person to another, without punishment in the proper sense of
the offender, whether deterrent or expiatory ; the former does embody the
idea of deterrent punishment, and is always looked on as founded on the
necessity of maintaining the "King's Peace" in the country.
Our common Civil Law is the direct descendant of the old English law.
When one man was injured the injury of whatever kind might always be
compensated by a money payment, and the law of retaliation, i.e., the eye
for an eye principle, was only an alternative not often resorted to and which
died out immediately on the establishment of any settled government.
Our idea of expiatory punishment, which was quite absent, I believe,
from our heathen (Teuton) ancestors' minds, comes to us through Christi-
anity and from the Hebrew idea, or perhaps I should say Oriental idea, it is
also perhaps Celtic, but not, I think, Teutonic.
You will notice that the most important doctrine of Christianity, that of
the Redemption, the Atonement for and expiation of the sins of all the
world by one particularly divine and sensitive victim, is founded upon this
savage notion. That, of course, is familiar fact to you, but when we reflect
that to millions in this country the idea of Atonement is not only quite
untroubled by such reflections, but is the greatest comfort of their lives, and
that Penance is one of the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and how much
that means, can we wonder at the strength of the common notion that a
child must be punished if it happens to have been naughty.
'My sister, who had recently married Hamo Thomycroft.
70 SYDNEY OLVIER
15th November, 1884.
I have just got rid of my mails, after a very busy day and a very busy
week .... but I have still two or three heavy jobs to dispose of. Among
others, I contemplate making a somewhat important contribution to the
destinies of British Honduras by an exhaustive review, combined with
recommendations for the future of the questions of currency and exchange
.... I have to thoroughly get up the subject of the trade of the Colony in
order to deal with the other matter properly, because the question of the
auses of the low value of money in the Colony breaks up into two branches,
one having to do with the coinage used which is very bad, the other with
the rate of exchange between the Colony and other countries which depends
on the course of trade .... anyhow I think I see an opportunity to write a
good minute and get things seen as clearly as possible.
This question of currency is one that I have only recently got back into
the hands of the Depirtment. All papers on the subject used to go to one
man in another Department .... I have managed to convince Meade that
I had better deal with these things for the future whenever such questions
arise in our colonies.
Yesterday evening I went up to Allen Street andfound Hamo and Agatha
eating their dinner. They fed me with roly-poly pudding with currants in it
and bread and butter and champagne.
The next letter to Wallas was to congratulate him on the prospect
of an appointment in a Highgate School :
17th November, 1884.
Indeed, I do wish you luck. No movement of yours could rejoice me
more on your account and on my own than one which should bring you
within the Metropolitan area .... Highgate is a pleasant place ; a certain
distance from the centre, certainly, stillfairly accessible .... I am sure you
willfind the advantages great in intellectual life .... I really should advise
you to close if you get a chance. I haven't read Tyndall's paper ; I shall be
glad if you will send it. Yours ever,
P.S.-Webb, who knows Highgate, says he thinks you would do well
to go there if you can. The school is not a bad one to have been a master in.
To Wallas on the death of his mother:
Stratford St. Mary,
26th February, 1885.
My dear Boy,
Your sad little bulletins have been forwarded to me as I am on leave just
now ... I need not tell you I am very sad on account of you all .... your
mother was, with my aunt at Oxford, to whom I am bound by very deep
ties, one of the two women whom I specially looked forward to my wife's
coming to know whenever we might find an'opportunity for it. Good-bye;
my thoughts are much with you and with your sister Kate.
Always your friend,
9th April, 1885.
Tomorrow morning I am going to Mr. Barnett's picture exhibition' to
show people round for a couple of hours.
I wonder what the great many things were of which you wanted to talk
to me the other night . . I always feel defrauded if I think we miss
speaking of the things in your mind ....
With respect to unhappiness I feel that the way to put the matter is not
so much that our "personal unhappinesses are irrational," but that personal
unhappiness will not exist for any one who takes life in the right direction.
That is my firm conviction; it is a matter of everyone's experience. The
other kind of unhappiness is different, that which comes from a perception
of the wretchedness of most of the world and one's own small will or ability
to help it ....
In the May of 1885 he spent a few days in looking for a place from
which we might begin our wedding holiday. He writes :
Steyning, May 17th.
Here I am, and here is the pen of the provincial hotel .... Steyning is
perfectly lovely to my mind, fulfilling my brightest anticipations. Every-
thing is so green here and the lilacs are coming out. I thought this must be a
beautiful place from the way it lay.
'At Tonybee Hall.
72 SYDNEY OLVIER
Eastbourne, May 19th.
Yesterday I walkedfrom Steyning to Brighton. This morning I went by
train to Lewes, walked to Seaford and then walked on here.
I have concluded that we had better go to Bramber (close to Steyning) on
Thursday. From Bramber we will go to Arundel.
I am very happy in these beautiful downs. I walked over Firle Beacon.
We were married on May 21st. He brought Graham Wallas and
his brother, Herbert Olivier, to the dinner party of old friends which
we had at my father's house on the previous evening. Wallas was
obliged to return to town early the next morning.
From Bridge Hotel, Arundel, May 25th, 1885, after our marriage,
he wrote to Wallas :
We had an inoffensive service at the Registry Office and drove back
immediately thereafter .... We went off after lunch and got to Bramber at
5-30. On Friday we walked, in spite of tempestuous weather, to Chancton-
bury Ring, a hill, one of the highest in Sussex, about five miles from
Bramber : on Saturday we came hither by train .... Arundel is a most
lovely place. We went yesterday, morning and evening, to the Catholic
Church here, a very fine one, built not long ago by the Duke of Norfolk.
The music was very good. In the afternoon we walked in the park which is
upwards of two miles long and nearly as broad, with really the finest timber
I have ever seen (barring oaks) on rolling chalk hills ....
Altogether, I do not think we could have better chosen our localities so
far as we have gone .... We go on to Chichester on Wednesday ; I desire
to make the journey by road if only it be fine enough for driving, and to go
thence to Ryde and afterwards to Paris.
I was shown the notice of our marriage copied into the D.T. I do not
know whether our landlady also observed it . .. We had intended to take
a boat up the river tomorrow morning, starting with the tide, but I don't
know what to hope for from the weather.
AFTER our marriage we lived in London for six years except for
holiday intervals. We were- at first in rooms in West Kensington.
While we were there S.O. used frequently to walk home from the
Colonial Office through the Park and Kensington Gardens, and I
came to meet him in the Gardens. In the evenings when we were
not going out he would read aloud to me. The book at that time,
I remember, was Morris's Sigurd the Volsung. For Morris he had a
great admiration and we named our second child Brynhild after the
heroine of that epic. We went to a great many evening meetings.
Besides the fortnightly Fabian meetings, there were Sunday evening
meetings at Morris's Kelmscott House room, an adjunct to his
Hammersmith home. It was rather a desolate room, but glorified
by Morris, who presided on the platform, a picturesque and inspiring
chairman. And I remember being thrilled on one occasion by seeing
Mrs. Morris's beautiful head as she sat a few rows in front of me.
In an article in the Spectator1 on the centenary of Morris's birth
in 1834, my husband alludes to one of these meetings. He writes :
"William Morris was an Aesthete-a name which, the Industrial
Revolution having well nigh destroyed the thing, had to be borrowed
from Greek and can only be translated, not quite exactly, in Latin-
one capable of perception, or sensitive to his own perceptions. The
nearest predecessor of the word in the same connexion was Con-
noisseur, current among the cultured of Morris's youth and those
who had the means to buy works of Art, to designate one who, if
he did not himself perceive, at any rate had acquired a knowledge of
what was what in that province, and could tell you where the Brown
Tree should be in a picture. The aesthetes whom Morris called into
being were duly served with the critical half-bricks appropriate to
such foreigners ; their fraternity becoming a more popular Philistine
scoffing-stock than had been the mildly-ridiculed Connoisseur. Its
challenge was more widely affronting to countless parlours. Morris
himself declared that anyone who had not been "connoisseured out
'Spectator, March 23rd, 1934-William Morris.
74 SYDNEY OLIVIER
of his senses" was naturally aesthetic. Morris, however, was half a
"Celt," and his hybridism made his Celtic endowment acutely self-
conscious and antipathetically savage against the beef-wittedness of
his other kin.
"The perception of art is sensational, not intellectual or rational,
however dogmatic a system of canons of beauty critical and reflective
intelligence may ingeniously formulate. Morris, if anyone, could
have propounded such formulas, but Morris, when discussing old
manuscripts in his study at Kelmscott House, merely told us, 'I always
know when a thing is really good, by its making me feel warm across
here,'-rubbing with both hands that part of his waistcoat that
covered the seat of his diaphragm. But unless a like movement of
feeling has prompted and guided the artist or workman in his own
intuitive handling of his materials the product will not be Art nor
produce the impression of beauty. If it has been so prompted it will
be undeniable art in the teeth of all classical canons.
"Morris, having received his most stimulating clue from Ruskin's
chapter 'The Nature of Gothic,' and having improved on Ruskin's
formulation of it-broadening it from the insistence that Art must
copy Nature to the perception that art is actually the expression of
Nature through the temperament of a human producer-was able
to amplify and give profounder significance than even Ruskin did
to the relevance of this clue to the ghastly scene of modern com-
mercial and industrial society. It became obvious why it was that
capitalist civilization should have been making the whole world
hideous. First, the mechanization of industry, within the scope of the
functioning of the machine, simply gutted production of all vital
ingredient whatever-substituting, for flesh, potted meat; and,
secondly, the capitalist purpose of profit-making superseding the
purpose of production for use, combined with the transformation of
the free master-craftsman or cultivator into an employee at wages,
had converted the workers into undifferentiated batches of 'labour
force,' making they know not what for they know not whom, and
knowing not why they make it except that by 'working' they earn
precariously a weekly dole of cash to feed themselves, and for their
employer's rent, interest and profits.
"Morris' name is familiar chiefly in connexion with Art and crafts-
manship, with the workmanship of men's hands, with productions,
therefore, commonly, with ominous significance, called 'artificial,'
or regarded perhaps as creations of Humanism rather than Nature.
But his own most profound and insistently-emphasized faith and
conviction were that all work and production permissibly describable
as Art, all beauty in the achievements of Man, are manifestations in
Man of the vital force and influence of the Earth and Nature-'the
earth, and the seasons, and weather... and all that grows out of it;
as this' (the North Oxfordshire building he loved) 'has done . .
The earth, and the growth of it, and the life of it; ... If I could but
say or slbw how I love it !'
"As to the blight of capitalism and wage-slavery-'I must say,'
he told the Burslem Potters in 1881, 'my imagination will stretch no
further than to suggest rebellion in general as a remedy.' To that
conviction he held, and devoted unsparing energy to the preaching
of Socialism. Meanwhile, however, and first of all, 'the cleaning of
England.' The natural beauty of England must be rescued, preserved
and restored ; what remained of her authentic architecture and art
saved from destruction-as that of Burford Church from the vagaries
of that astonishing vicar who concluded his battle with Morris with
the triumphant crow-'The Church, sir is mine : and if I choose to
I shall stand on my head in it.' Had Morris been Henry II, the brains
of that 'arrogant priest' would no doubt have besprent the encaustic
tiles he had substituted for the Shilstone pavement (including the
gravestone of Speaker Lenthall).
"Not that Morris, any more than his most absorbent disciple,
Bernard Shaw, considered that a parasitic dilettante society that can
create no beauty itself has any right to whimper over the destruction
of beautiful things produced under conditions which it has itself
destroyed, while it obstinately strives to maintain the system that has
destroyed them. But, for the sake of educational contrast, and because,
if anyone is to make beautiful things he must live in a beautiful place,
what can be saved must be fought for (as, indeed, it is being fought
for, largely thanks to Morris, today).
"Next, he demanded 'Education on all sides'-if only because
'knowledge means aspiration or discontent-call it what you will.'
He was an aesthete ; but he did not desire the revival of art for the
70 SYDNEY OLIVIER
sake of making life more agreeable for cultured people. He wanted it
as the evidence of a liberation of the producer from servitude to the
machine and the balance-sheet, and of his doing his job because he
enjoyed the technics of it and because he wished it to serve and give
joy to the men and women that were to use it. Only thus could he
have pleasure in his own work and himself appreciate art, knowing
himself what it was.
"There must be authentic, original vital activity of the worker in
producing his work, or it can have no beauty-beauty being the
message of living feeling between the living. Style is conveyed
through the hand, the voice, the ear, in writing. Standing Mongside
Morris' broad blue shoulder, on the platform of the long, ill-lighted
lecture-shed at his Hammersmith house, I used to realize, as he
elaborated the intricate pattern of one of those superb Aes or Esses
that herald, as with a sudden brunt of harmonious brass, the pleasant
melodies of his pages-why he wanted the written word to be
beautiful in the type as the uttered sentences in the ear. Art flowed
out of him as he sat with his ruddy neck and big grizzled poll bent
forward beside the lamp on the chairman's table.
"I had been speaking on Zola, and we were discussing realism in
fiction. In the far gloom of the tunnel-hall a slender, dusky figure
uplifted a spectral visage, hung with raven locks. It swayed, unfurled
black wings of an immense bardic cloak, and, swaying, wailed like
a Banshee against Realism and in praise of Romance. But Morris
took Zola's part against Yeats' protest : for, he said-he is perfectly
right : a great part of our people are like that : it has to be recognized.
But, as he said at Burslem after speaking of hooliganism: . 'Do
not think, I beg you, that I am speaking rhetorically in saying that
when I think of all this, I feel that the one great thing I desire is that
this great country should... turn that mighty force of her respectable
people, the greatest power the world has ever seen, to giving the
children of these poor folk the pleasures and the hopes of men. Is that
really impossible ? Is there no hope of it ? If so, I can only say that
civilization is a delusion and a lie ; there is no such thing and no hope
of such a thing'."
S.O. had joined the Fabian Society with his friend Sidney Webb
in the spring of 1885. From about this time, for at least the next ten
years, socialism and the activities of the Fabian Society were his main
interest outside of his official work. Later, after he began to go
abroad, his special work in the West Indies absorbed him and he
had no opportunity, except for short intervals, for socialist activities
in England. But his connection with the Society remained and he
never lost touch with his socialist friends. He was honorary secretary
from 1886 to 1889, when he went to British Honduras, and he was
on the executive committee for twelve years, up to the time when
he first went to Jamaica in 1899.
While he was in England again between the years 1904 and 1907
there occurred the controversy with Mr. H. G. Wells about the scope
of the Society's work, and S.O. was one of the members elected to
consider revisions of the "basis." He remained a socialist through-
out his life, convinced that the root of the economic evils in our
society was the capitalist system.
The "Hampstead Historic" meetings at the time I began to go to
them were to a certain extent presided over by Mrs. Charlotte
Wilson and were held at her home in a cottage on Hampstead Heath
called Wildwood Farm. Arthur Wilson, her husband, kept in the
background, but Mrs. Wilson, who called herself an Anarchist, was
a clever speaker besides being a kind and gracious hostess. She seemed
to me a very peaceful sort of Anarchist, so did all the others who
came to the meetings, some of them Russians. Mrs. Dryhurst, who
also called herself an Anarchist, came and with her the young lady
who afterwards became Mrs. Edward R. Pease. There were also the
Fabian Socialists, Webb, Wallas, Shaw, and others. Someone read a
paper and this was followed by discussion, often very vigorous and
exciting and lasting till Mrs. Wilson interrupted it with sandwiches
and drinks, after which we all turned out on to the Heath.
After some months in West Kensington we went for a short
holiday to Germany, and of all that delightful tour I remember best
the beautiful city of Prague, its river and great bridge. We went on
through Weimar to Jena, where the Sonntags, old friends of S.O's,
were living. These were the family with whom he had studied
German in Dresden before he went in for the Civil Service examina-
tion. That summer we met Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas there
learning German with Friulein Hedwig Sonntag, and we made
78 SYDNEY OLIVIER
many expeditions with them and went together one evening to hear
"The Flying Dutchman" in Weimar. On our way back, in Dresden,
we heard a performance of the "Walkiire," the first to be given at
the Opera House there.
This was the first of our continental journeys together. It was
typical of many others. S.O. loved travelling, the planning it
involved, the local maps, even the timetables interested him. He
was always pleased to be starting on a journey and whistled or sang
cheerfully while he packed his bag.
In all the practical details of our life he took, at all events at first,
more than his share of the work. It was he who superintended our
moves from one dwelling to another.
This was the sort of thing. He wrote to me to Tonbridge where I
was staying for a few days :
1st January, 1886.
I hope I shall be able to get the things in by Saturday, I will take a day,
or as much of one as I want, and receive all the things together. I felt quite
solidly possessive when I contemplated the entire mass of the van filled with
3rd February, 1886.
This morning I arranged for fitting the stove and the construction of the
patent coalhole. . and I measured out the matting for the passages, it
works in very well. It is awfully dirty work. We shall have to do some
scrubbing our first week I think before wefix the carpets.
This was in preparation for our move into a small flat in Maida
Vale, where our first child was born. Later we moved into a house
in the same road. It had a pleasant outlook over recreation grounds,
also a good nursery and a sooty little garden where S.O. planted
tulips, and the babies got very dirty whenever they were allowed
to play there. On Sundays he often helped to wheel them up to
It was at this time that he became secretary to the Fabian Society.
Writing of this later, he said :
As I grew up I became Secretary to the Fabian Society, being designed
to pull the lynch pin out of the capitalist system on which my class depended.
The revolution did not come from the direction promised by Karl Marx,
and has not yet taken form.
The work took up a good deal of his time. He generally did it
before starting for the Colonial Office in the morning. Office hours
were not early but he was frequently kept till late in the evenings.
All his days were full, and as I remember him then he always seemed
eager for more and more active work and for new interests. He was
sociable and liked to meet fresh people of all sorts, but his main
preoccupation at that time was the socialist movement and his most
intimate friends were among the Fabian socialists, especially Wallas,
Shaw and Webb.
When we were living in London, Sidney Webb often came to our
house. He sometimes went for Sunday walks with us, and once he
stayed with us at Tilford, at the little village inn where we had gone
for a summer holiday, and where we all rode tricycles on our longer
expeditions, bicycles having not yet become general. Jim Joynes was
in the neighbourhood at the time, and also the Henry Salts.1
I always remember Webb as especially kind and patient in answer-
ing my questions about Socialism.
It was a grim world for many people at that time. There was
horrible poverty. There was restlessness and fear. Processions of
unemployed marched through London. There were meetings in
Hyde Park, riots and strikes. The disturbance that occurred on
November i3th, 1887, the ostensible issue of which was the right of
public meeting in Trafalgar Square, was also an outcome of the
general atmosphere, the misery of great numbers of people, the
mistrust and anxiety of others.
On that Sunday afternoon, S.O. said he was going down to the
Square to see what was going on. He had intended to go alone, but
I went with him. When we arrived there was already an immense
crowd and people were pouring in from all sides. The inner square
round the monument was guarded by a fence of policemen. Outside
1Henry Salt and Jim Joynes, his brother-in-law, had been masters at Eton. They
had given up their positions there and were leading the "simple life" in the country.
Salt later founded the Humanitarian League. He was the author of Seventy Years among
Savages, The Creed of Kinship, Our Vanmiing Wild Flowers, Translations from Lucretius
into English Verse, Translation of the Aeneid into English Verse, and other writings.
rate Salt, Henry's wife, was one of our greatest friends from the time of our marriage.
80 SYDNEY OLIVIER
of this in the roadway mounted police were riding round and round.
We were soon jammed up on the pavement with the mass of people.
Some of these had obviously, like ourselves, come to see what was
going on, and were just watching, but many were shouting angrily
and the noise was deafening. Every now and then the mounted
police charged up on to the pavement, pushing us all back; a few
people were knocked down.
S.O. got restless as we stood penned in there. He wanted to see
what was happening to the organised processions which it had been
arranged should enter the Square at different points. However, there
was no moving in that crowd. The tumult increased. The Riot Act
was read, and the immediate effect seemed to be more angry roaring.
Then all at once there was a change, the noise diminished, and the
people were turning and straining to look in one direction. When
I was able to look too I saw, entering the Square from the south side,
mounted soldiers in scarlet uniforms. Very slowly, on their beautiful
horses, these brilliant figures proceeded to ride round. People in the
road made way for them. Presently I heard cheering. Obviously the
crowd admired the uniforms. As the soldiers passed more and more
people started to cheer. Then there was more movement among the
crowd in the Square and on the packed pavement. Many were going
away, and not long afterwards, while we still lingered, watching,
the whole multitude began to disperse.
However, nearly all the tragedies of that afternoon happened
outside the Square. The violent encounters took place where the
converging processions were met by the police.
Following on the scare caused by these disturbances a number of
nice respectable young men got themselves enrolled as special
constables and on the following Sunday took up their positions in
Hyde Park and elsewhere and waited for further trouble. But nothing
happened. S.O. remarked, "They must have had a dull day."
IN the autumn of 1890, near the end of our time in London, S.O.
was appointed Colonial Secretary to British Honduras. It was the
first of the official positions he held overseas. In speaking of the
appointment1 in his evidence to the Royal Commission to the
West Indies, in September, 1938, he said:
"I was sent out to try to keep things pleasant" [the Governor had
become involved in a dispute with his Legislative Council] "and to
look after the finance."
He travelled via New York, then south via New Orleans and the
Mississippi, and remained in Belize until the spring of 1891. I received
many letters from British Honduras and some describing his journey.
He writes at the end of his first voyage across the Atlantic :
Off Long Island,
Sunday, 11-30 a.m.,
.... I have just had my hair cut as a votive offering to the sea-gods for
my safe passage. I don't think it was ever so short before, my hair I mean,
not the passage, as the ship's barber is of a nautical turn of mind in hair-
dressing. The passage has not seemed very long, because one does absolutely
nothing all the time . As we steamed into the harbour of New York it
impressed me as a splendid site for a commercial city ....
We got in at last and were turned out into a vast shed, very grubby and
uncomfortable. Here we were imprisoned until our baggage was off the ship
and passed by the Customs, which in my case did not take long. Emerging
from the shed one comes into a wide street, quite surprisingly dirty and ill-
paved .... The most humorous thing I have seen in America is the placard
of Grant, the present Mayor, claiming as a ground for his re-election that
he has improved the street pavements. What must they have been before!...
As regards the elevated railroads, if only they ran between the backs of the
houses instead of in the thoroughfares I should wish we had them in London.
No doubt we should have had them had the subsoil there been solid rock,
'Royal Commission under the Chairmanship of Lord Moyne.
82 SYDNEY OLIVIER
as in New York, instead of clay through which an Underground could be
run .... Yesterday I went into the Central Park and walked southwards.
Found the Park very beautiful, quite the most beautiful thing about the city,
except perhaps the approach to the harbour. I got out of my way a good
deal, as the New Yorkers, having nothing but straight streets at right angles
elsewhere, here make all their footpaths circular and tortuous, and as one is
not allowed to walk on the grass, the drives or the rides (as I discovered by
successive encounters with the New York police), one is taken a good deal
out of one's way. There was a splendid sunset and the full moon was rising
opposite, and the effect on the autumnal trees and the great sheet of water in
the reservoir was very delightful. . Besides hot rooms the Americans are
addicted to hot bread. One can never get anything else, as far as my experi-
ence goes, for breakfast. I went to another restaurant for lunch. Here, as in
most restaurants, the waiters were coloured men. The coloured waiter is
douce and persuasive in his manners, and does not treat you as a person of
inferior social position to himself, as does the white waiter; on the whole
I like the coloured waiter. Moreover, he is grateful for a dime (ten cents)
or even a nickel, whereas one does not offer to a white waiter less than a
quarter dollar . .
For some distance after leaving New York we ran through the dreariest
imaginable marshes covered with brown leaves and tangle .... to the eye
,of an agriculturist a wretchedly cultivated district. So many weeds I never
saw before in my life; on my so remarking to an American he said it was
owing to the extreme fertility of the soil. Virginia and North Carolina are
the States I would go to if I wanted to become a farmer. The woodland
colours all along are wonderful, but especially in these States, where there
is all the scale from pale gold through orange to brown, scarlet, crimson like
red-hot metal, purple, bronze, in all possible combinations. All this under
a cloudless sky and bright sunshine.
But I am a little anticipating,for before we reached Virginia we had passed
Philadelphia and Baltimore, and left the train at Washington, where we
supped and spent a few hours by moonlight. Washington is a fine city. It
has really fine public buildings and a very handsome main street, very broad,
fifty or sixty yards, planted with trees and well paved. At Washington, too,
the railway station was very fair though inferior to any London terminus.
We embarked in a Pullman car at Washington and the next day were
passing through Virginia and South Carolina .... Where the ground is
BRITISH HONDURAS 83
cultivated it is rendered hideous by Indian corn, the most ghastly-looking
crop at this season of the year, when the tops of the stalks have been cut off
and the lower part stands stiffly with its projecting cob wrapped in brown
dead leaves. In Carolina we began to see cotton-fields. The cotton plant is
very much like a raspberry bush, but the leaves are shaped like black-
currant leaves. Just now the leaves were turning bronze coloured and the
little white puffs of cottonwool were hanging out on all the plants. The
fields were full of negroes picking, the women and children in shawls and
sun bonnets of all colours. One thing struck me very much, I saw so few
birds, until we came into Carolina no birds at all, and then only crows.
Later on a few which looked like thrushes, but no little singing birds such
as we should have seen so many of in England.
Nearing New Orleans we passed through great swamps and lagoons on
the most rickety and temporary-looking bridges. New Orleans is very
foreign-looking, but the streets very dusty and dirty and ill-smelling. I was
not sorry to get out of it.
We are now steaming down the Mississippi : as to which I am not sure
whether it has two p's or one in its name ; but as it is a big stream I allow
it two for safety's sake lest its divinity should be offended. We shall not get
out of the river till sunset. All the land on each side is mud delta. The
country is perfectly flat for miles .... along the banks here between wood-
lands and the river are sugar-cane plantations with their mills : the sugar-
cane fields are just now nearly mature and are a picture of luxuriant vege-
tation, the most delicious green imaginable .... I have not yet tasted sugar-
cane, I missed an opportunity in New Orleans when I might have bought a
bundle of six-foot canes in the market. On the flats were several egrets,
white herons, which I had never seen out ofglass cases or in the Zoo before.
We got out at the extreme mouth about six o'clock, by which time it was
nearly dark. We are getting into the tropical'short twilight ....
We are now (Friday morning) in the regular trade-wind of the tropics.
The sea is a most splendid sapphire blue. Our run across the Gulf of
Mexico will be about eight hundred miles and we shall get in on Sunday
afternoon if this good weather continues.
84 SYDNEY OLIVIER
7th November, 1890.
We got here on Sunday midday . . I have been so busy with the
great lot there is to be done here that I have been too lazy after my day's
work to write anything to you .... I am living at Government House for
the present with Melville,1 so I am not keeping house myself
Belize is a mixture ofprettiness and neglect. The street from here to my
office is lined with oleanders and palms, and the shipping and many sailing
boats in the harbour are lovely. But there are some very ugly, dirty places
in the poorer streets.
14th November, 1890.
I find it considerably simplifies life to have a change like this to a place
where one gets no daily papers and has not one's daily correspondence and
odd jobs. Here I get up at six and have a cup of tea and bread and butter
and an egg, and do my work till nine. Between nine and nine forty-five we
have breakfast .... We look out through the coco palms over the sea. ...
At night the palms are full offireflies, an ineffectual and disappointing
insect which flashes for a second and goes out, not burning continuously like
an English glowworm ....
For the proletariat, and indeed for everyone doing business here, this is a
very prosperous place. The merchants and exporters make fortune after
fortune out of logwood and mahogany and retailing. The amount of goods
brought in and sold through Belize is surprising. There are no poor; only
halfa dozen infirm old paupers in the poor house .... A man can earn one
dollar fifty to one dollar seventy-five a day if he lives as a mahogany or
log-cutter, i.e., equivalent to thirty-five shillings or forty shillings a week,
and he will live on plantains and fish, which cost next to nothing, and pork
and rum by way of luxuries.
The harbour simply swarms with excellent fish of all kinds. If a man is
hard up all he has to do is to borrow a canoe and he will catch enough to
bring him a dollar or two in the market, or he can earn a dollar a trip at
lightering three or four dollars a day, so he naturally takes three or four
days' holiday a week. By taking up land down the coast, he can grow
bananas enough to enable him to pile up dollars. The people who do not
prosper here are the planters of fruit and sugar on a large scale. Naturally,
in such a state of the labour market they cannot command labour.
xThe Administrator of British Honduras.
BRITISH HONDURAS 85
At about the same time he wrote to Sidney Webb :
Belize, British Honduras,
Dear Webb, 21st November, 1890.
I will tell you my opinion of the tropics when I have seen some rather
less low-down specimens of the district than this place, which nevertheless
I enjoy pretty well, though there are no interests whatever. You would be
kind to send me a paper occasionally if anything strikes you as likely to
interest me. I see Lloyd's Weekly News and that is about all.
However, I have plenty of work here and by four p.m. I am glad to be
This place is a nigger's paradise. He won't take his hands out of his
pocketsfor less than six shillings a day, having no reason to do so ; there
are no poor. The mahogany and logwood cutters get a good margin ofprofit,
the planters fail-one after another, as anyone can plant fruit for himself
and manage it better than a hirer of labour, whereas the wood industries
require considerable plant and organisation of labour.
The woodcutters get about two dollars a day, mostly paid in advance
when they hire for the year.
The general tone is gemiithlich, with a general tendency to slackness.
Belize is a sandbank six miles from the coast and could be a very pleasant
port to a residential settlement connected by railway through the swamps.
At present one cannot get away from it with decent facility except by sea.
America strikes me as a country in its first infancy ; it has never been
seriously consolidated and exploited as any European country has, the
whole tone is childish and niif. Farewell.
P.S.-I tried to find Chubb in New York but he lives out in the State
somewhere and was not in town.
To M.O.] Belize,
28th November, 1890.
Last Saturday I went for my first ride, Marshall took me out, the man
with whom I travelled down from New Orleans, and lent me a horse.
The horses here are quite small but they are very strong, although they
cannot have very good feeding as no hay or grass is grown here and the
grass looks very uninviting. Hay is sold like tea, by the pound.
Macdonald, my chief clerk in the Treasury (did I tell you that I am
86 SYDNEY OLIVIER
acting as Treasurer, as well as Colonial Secretary ?) used to feed his pony
on bananas, this being the cheapest kind of provender, but he found it too
heating a diet. The Colonial horse is not trained to trot, but mostly goes
along in a sort of ambling canter with a catch in the middle, different to
anything I have experienced in an English horse. However, I did not fall
off. We explored the surrounding country which is unfortunately nothing
but swamps for four or five miles about Belize. The roads are all grass
tracks, very good to ride on, and in some places the swamp has been cleared
to improve the pasturage. The town is built on what is really a sandbank
some way out at sea like the other cays now in front of it, but with the
intervening space silted up by the river. It is most tantalising to look down the
coast and see the beautiful blue hills, with outlines almost like those of
Exmoor, and not be able to get to them for want of roads. This colony can
never be a place where people will care to make their home and create a
progressive community until they have a railway up to the hills so that
people can live up there .... This would perhaps have been done long ago
but for the fact that by some freak of nature Belize, which has all the signs
of being an unhealthy place, is in reality naturally very healthy, the swamps
not seeming to do anyone much harm ....
One of the effects of the muggy weather of the past week has been that
my boots and portmanteau are all overblossomed with blue mould: this,
I am told, is one of the common amenities of tropical life.
The town is now filling up for the Christmas season when all the hiring
for next year's woodcutting campaign takes place. All yesterday, small
boatloads of men were being landed at the wharf in front of my office. For
the next month the town will be very full, the employers will be busy
negotiating with these masters of the position, who will not hire without an
advance of wages and generally book with the master who gives the greatest
number of months' advances. These advances are spent in festivity during
Christmas time, to the great advantage to the revenue from rum duty. The
market square is always crowded with conversational groups. At night one
hears much blowing of conches, which have afine sound like a steamer's
whistle. I am anxious to get one and try if I can make it sound.
.... I am glad this place is not my permanent abode as the lack of
variety must become demoralising after a little time. At present, after I have
done my day's work and had tea, I generally go out a walk with Melville
or Young. But I never read anything and feel very lazy after dinner. The
fact is that about eight hours' office work, which is my-average, is about
as much as one has in one here.
BRITISH HONDURAS 87
He had wished to explore the Northern district and found an
opportunity after some weeks.
21st January, 1891.
.... I am up here in the North .... as I have not got through the work
I came to do here, the accounts being in great confusion and the Magistrate
sick withfever the two days I have been here, I have changed my plans and
shall ride down to Belize, starting the day after tomorrow, Friday, and
riding to Orange Walk, another magistracy, that day (about 36 miles),
and on Saturday and Sunday down to Belize, about 70 miles through the
bush and pine-ridges.
Up here it is most delightful. I arrived yesterday morning by steamer ...
Corosal is at the bottom of a bay into which the Hondo and the New River
flow, close to the mouth of the latter. It faces East and is a nice clean little
town with streets of chalky marl, most of them grown over with grass ....
The people are chiefly Indian and Spanish; the language chiefly the latter,
which I wish I could speak ....
This morning I was up at six and found the air delicious. I could not get
my early breakfast as the old lady who waits on Pickwoald (the Magistrate
with whom I am staying and whose wife and children have just gone home
to get schooling) was sick or lazy. So I went out to the end of the town to
get hold of the Magistrate's clerk, and to go into accounts with him. I crossed
lovely clear streams, like English chalk streams, in the town and found
Bell's (the clerk's) house at the end of the town, with a garden of roses and
honeysuckle . .
When I came back from Bell's (who gave me roses and has sent me down
a lot of oranges this evening) Igot some early breakfast and went to work.
Had solid breakfast at ten and worked till two-thirty, when I went a ride
with Bagley (one of the sub-inspectors) to another Indian village called
Patehakan, about eight miles off. The ride out of the town was lovely. We
came along a wide grasZ lane with hedges full of clematis and the service
tree with bright red flowers and suddenly saw in front of us a grassy slope
with trees growing free on it like an English park-the first thing like a
meadow I have seen for months. Haystacks (apparently) and large buildings
about a large stone house. This is a sugar estate-alas, the only large sugar
estate still working in the colony and its owner has just died, and the place
will probably be shut up in a few years. We had a perfectly lovely ride
with sweet scents and hedge flowers all the way and a good wide road.
88 SYDNEY OLIVIER
6th February, 1891.
Your last mail was very important and welcome, bringing as it did the
children's photos. I think the photo. is lovely and a great success. It is very
jolly to see the babies'faces again, even on paper. You must tell them I have
all their dear little heads on my table to say "good-morning" to me and
In my description of the northern district... I don't think I had got as
far as Orange Walk. We rode from Corosal, starting at seven-thirty and
travelled eighteen miles to a place called Caledonia, a settlement on the river
where we had breakfast in a very dirty shanty belonging to a banana grower.
The turkeys and poultry perambulated the floor, and a duck was sitting on
her nest in a hole in the same at one side. The floor was of white marl.
Riding from Caledonia we had a rougher road, as there were no more
habitations and we were riding through high bush, full of splendid palms,
but not many other fine timber trees, most of the valuable wood having been
cut out long ago. The track we rode on was a good deal grown up with
growing bush that had not been cut out for a year, and the bushes were
consequently six or seven feet high; that being a moderate rate of growth
here. In other places the track was filled with Coleus plants, that variegated-
leaved plant something like a nettle in habit, which is cultivated for its
bright foliage. One sees some splendid ones in gardens here, dark maroon
leaves with gold borders. The wild ones in this bush are rather blotchy and
ugly. After about ten miles ride we came to a swamp, now mostly dry, and
to a lagoon, which goes by the ominous name of "Pull-trousers" : which,
however, as there is a bridge, there was no necessity to do. The bridge was
very rickety and rotten, and the flooring was all askew. These native
bridges are made of bhotans, which are a very tall palm tree about six or
eight inches thick, with a very hard bark, and the bridges are just made of
these round logs laid across girders or sapodille or bullet-tree trunks.
On Sunday morning I set out on horseback with Luscombe, the sub-
inspector and a police scout as guide. The ferry boat had broken down and
the horses could not get out over the bank at the other side if we swam them
across there, so we had to swim them at another place half a mile above
and work through small footpaths in the bush towards the road, in doing
which we lost our way. After wefound it again we-had to walk through a
terrible road for about eight miles, all stif wet clay, in which the horses'
BRITISH HONDURAS 89
feet sank and stuck. Every now and then when the bush had been cleared
by Indians for growing their corn it was better, but mostly very bad. Then
we came to a lagoon, the bridge over which was broken down. There is a
small village at this bank, mostly Spaniards and Indians and as the boats
were all on the other side we had to try to induce one of them to swim over
and bring one back. This they would not do, but we found a black logwood-
gang captain, who went across for us. The black creoles here are very good
fellows, and most obliging, as was seen in this instance; the morning was
cold, or rather the night had been, and the water too. This man had an
extraordinary development of muscle; all these woodcutters who work alt
their lives in the bush have, but this man more than most. They broaden
out from the waist like a woman and their shoulders are abnormally
developed; they have two great triangular masses of muscle running down:
from their shoulder blades to their loins. Their breast muscles stand out inr
two great square blocks two inches and more deep.
After swimming our horses across the lagoon we rode for twenty miles-
through forest intersected with logwood swamps which came up to our
saddles. There were many mahogany stumps where wood had been cut out,
and a good many little piles of logwood where it is still being cut, but we
did not meet a soul for twenty miles. The mahogany tree is a splendid
product. It is a great timber tree like an oak, with bark like an oak which
goes straight up from buttress roots for fifty or sixty feet without a branch..
They cut them with axes, about six feet from the ground, and leave the
stump, though the fine mottled wood is got from the stump and the buttress
roots. The wood exported from this colony is all straight-grained from the-
trunk, though the wood of the stumps is very fine. Apparently the extra
labour ofcutting through the roots is not worth while incurring. At the end
of this twenty miles we came to a creek, and a mahogany bank, or settlement
to which the men and their families had just returned after their Christmas
holiday. We had lunch there in the house of the contractor who was cutting
wood and logwood. Then we rode on, mostly over pine ridges to another-
village on the northern river, where Ifound another contractor, a magistrate,
waiting for me, to take me down the river. We went down in a pitpan and
when we reached the lagoon, after dark, transhipped into a large dorey,
and sailed to Belize, in wind and pelting rain, forty miles, arriving at-
three a.m. on Monday morning.
As I had travelled forty-five miles on horseback and rather more by water-
since the morning, I was glad to get to bed ....
90 SYDNEY OLIVIER
Our fleet of sailing vessels is gradually melting away. They are getting
filled up with their wood, and by ones and twos they shake out their white
wings in the morning and drop down the channel to the south and turn
eastwards and out through the narrow opening in the Barrier Reef, and
reach out for the Florida Channel up the wind, little chips of feathered
matchwood beating across five thousand miles of open ocean ....
There is quite a pretence of spring observable in the trees and shrubs,
though they put on their leaves so suddenly and quickly that one hardly
observes the process. The most extraordinary revolution is that of the
mahogany tree. There are three of these in Government House grounds;
about a fortnight ago the leaves of one suddenly turned yellow altogether
within about twenty-four hours; in three days more the tree was perfectly
bare except for the large seed-pods which still clung to the naked boughs
shedding great winged seeds. I didn't notice the tree for the next two days
and when next I looked to see the wintry tree, to.remind myself of English
vegetation, I couldn't see it. On closer inspection I discovered it covered
with thick fresh green foliage, as if nothing had happened; it was the most
extraordinary vegetable tour de force I ever witnessed; the whole process
was completed within a week. I'm watching the other two to see if they do
the same; one turned yellow yesterday and I expect by Sunday it will
My mahogany trees of which I wrote last week have got through their
change of leaves, they had shed all the old ones by Monday or Tuesday
morning and are already quite green again. I am told it is the moon which
turns and brings off the leaves. It was full moon Tuesday or Wednesday.
I am not sure whether the first one which lost its leaves did so last full moon,
but I think it must have been about then. The indiarubber tree does the same
thing at full moon, it suddenly turns yellow and in one night rolls up its
long leaves and sheds the whole .... Whether it unrolls its new ones as
quickly as the mahogany don't know. I expect it is a slower process in so
stiff a leaf.
BRITISH HONDURAS 91
I spent last night on a sofa at the Attorney General's house at the
barracks where I had been to dine. I have just returned through the town in
my evening clothes looking very dissipated. There has been a man-of-war
in the harbour. It is annoying that she should have come too early to bring
me away. I am afraid there is not very much chance of another coming
within the next month. Since these fellows have been here the town has
waked up wonderfully and there have been jinks of all kinds for their
delectation. The captain has been staying at Government House. There
have been concerts, a scratch dance, and a picnic up the river. The last I
did not partake in as I could not spare the time. Tonight wefinish them off
with a dance and they depart tomorrow.
The places of the resigned members of the Council have now been filled,
as a temporary measure, by the appointment ofcertain heads ofDepartments.
The Law Oficers of the Crown at home have advised that it may lawfully
be done, and it is so far better than the alternative of abolishing the seats
altogether that it leaves an opening for the return of the protesters when
matters shall have smoothed themselves again. Meanwhile, we govern in
the Bismarckian method, Melville and I, and everybody is quite contented,
because we are both quite popular, and I have acquired a reputation of being
an able and conscientious officer, though I was rather an object of suspicion
at first, as they didn't quite know what the S. of S.' little game might be in
sending me out.
I think I may still get a gunboat to take me down to Jamaica, but if I
don't I shall have to go back to that detestable New Orleans up the hideous
Mississippi channel and then back down to Jamaica ... If I found myself
at New York I don't know whether I should resist the temptation to come
straight home, but it would be a sinful waste of my sole probable opportunity
of seeing the West Indies.
He came straight home from New York. His first visit to the
West Indian Islands was in 1895, and it was with the Norman Com-
mission in 1897 that he first visited Jamaica.