Sydney Olivier, the second son and the sixth of the ten children of Henry Arnold Olivier, the curate of All Saints Church, and his wife, Anne Elizabeth Hardcastle, was born at Colchester on 16th April 1859. Olivier was educated at Tonbridge School and Corpus Christi College. At Oxford University Olivier met Graham Wallas who became a life long friend.
In the spring of 1882 Olivier became a clerk at the Colonial Office. That year he married Margaret Cox (1862-1953). Over the next few years they had four daughters. After being inspired by the work of Henry George, Olivier joined the Land Reform League. Another influence was the Rev. Stewart Headlam. Olivier also contributed articles to the Christian Socialist, a journal run by Henry Hyde Champion.
At the Colonial Office, Olivier became friends with Sidney Webb, and the two men joined the Hampstead Historic Club where they met George Bernard Shaw. In the spring of 1885, Shaw encouraged both Webb and Olivier to join the Fabian Society. The following year Olivier was elected to Fabian Society Executive Committee and in 1886 was appointed Secretary of the organisation. Olivier also contributed to the Fabian journal Today, wrote the Fabian pamphlet Capital and Land (1888) and provided the article, The Moral Basis of Socialism, to the book Essays in Fabian Socialism (1889).
In 1890 Sydney Olivier was appointed Colonial Secretary to the government of the British Honduras. Over the next twenty years, overseas postings restricted him involvement in the Fabian Society. This included posts as Auditor General of the Leeward Islands and Secretary of the Sugar Commission in the West Indies. His biographer, George Mariz, has pointed out: "In 1907 he was appointed captain-general and governor-in-chief of Jamaica and advanced to KCMG. His most urgent task was to repair the havoc caused by earthquake and fire a few months earlier, the work including the reconstruction of Kingston on a new plan, in which he obtained the services of his brother-in-law Sir Charles Nicholson. He was a highly popular governor. His six years of office formed a memorable period of development in the island's history, one of his many reforms being the introduction of Jamaica's first comprehensive sanitary code."
Olivier retired from the Civil Service in 1918 and once again played an important role in the Fabian Society. His biographer, Herbert Tracey pointed out: "Sydney Olivier... has a clear and penetrating mind, and, in spite of his customary gravity, a delightful sense of humour which appeals irresistibly to an educated audience. His approach to Socialism was by way of religion and philosophy... He had no sympathy with the view, at that time rather prevalent in Socialist circles, that slipshod methods in the practical affairs of life were an appropriate and useful method of expressing contempt for the soulless routine of the capitalist system. His contention was that the more efficient a Socialist was in the work at which he obtained his living, the more valuable he would be for the cause of Socialism."
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. MacDonald had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. MacDonald granted Olivier a peerage and appointed him as Secretary of State for India.
In October 1924 the MI5 intercepted a letter written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union. The Zinoviev Letter urged British communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Vernon Kell, head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson head of Special Branch, told MacDonald that they were convinced that the letter was genuine. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail. The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government.
Sydney Olivier wrote several books on colonialism including The Anatomy of African Misery (1927) and White Capital and Coloured Labour (1929). Following the 1929 General Election, MacDonald appointed Olivier as Chairman of the Royal Commission that investigated conditions in the sugar industry.
Sydney Olivier died at his home, Wychwood, Selsey Avenue, Bognor Regis, on 15th February 1943.