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Alexander Oliver (1832–1904)

by M. F. Hardie

This article was published:

Alexander Oliver (1832-1904), public servant, was born on 30 September 1832 in Sydney, son of Andrew Oliver, silk mercer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Kenyon. About 1830 his parents had left Manchester for the Swan River settlement, moved to New Zealand then settled in Sydney. His father died in 1841 and his mother married T. W. Smart. Educated at W. T. Cape's, Henry Cary's and George Taylor's schools, Alexander's career was interrupted when he lost his left arm in a shooting accident. In 1852 he matriculated and was one of the first twenty-four students at the University of Sydney (M.A., 1869). He worked as an articled clerk to Holden & McCarthy, solicitors. At 21 he went with his family to England and entered Exeter College, Oxford (B.A., 1860). Admitted to the Inner Temple in 1856 and called to the Bar on 17 November 1862, he practised as a barrister in England. On 30 June he had married Adelaide Beresford Gwyn. In 1864 they went to Sydney where in June she died; they had no children.

On 12 December Oliver was appointed examiner to the Council of Education and from 1 August 1865 was one of two parliamentary draftsmen at a salary of £250. He was secretary to the Law Reform Commission in 1870-72 and in 1883 with Sir Alfred Stephen published the Criminal Law Manual, Comprising the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1883. In 1871 he joined Lieutenant Thomas Gowlland in the Governor Blackall on a successful search for the survivors of the shipwrecked brig Maria. Later he presented Gowlland with a testimonial in verse from the volunteers in the expedition. At St Mark's Church, Darling Point, he married Gowlland's sister, Eliza Celia, on 30 January 1875.

In 1873 Oliver became an elective trustee of the Australian Museum and from 1874 was examiner of titles under the Real Property Act at £800 a year as well as fees of about £100 as registrar of the Friendly Societies. On 1 June 1878 he was reappointed sole parliamentary draftsman at a salary of £1000. He served on the royal commission into the fisheries in 1880, presided over the Great International Fisheries Exhibition Commission in 1882 and was a commissioner of fisheries from 1885. He was also registrar of trade unions from 1882, a trustee of the Free Public Library from 1885, a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney, presided over the intoxicating drink inquiry commission in 1886 and was a member of the Civil Service Board in 1888-89.

A close friend and correspondent of leading figures, Oliver contributed many articles and letters to the newspapers, particularly the Sydney Morning Herald and Australasian, and spent most of his literary earnings on his library, reputed 'one of the best in private hands'. His catholic taste included the classics, theology, history, political economy, philosophy, science, sea poetry, novels and works by contemporary Australian writers. In 1887 he strongly supported Sir Henry Parkes's proposed state house to commemorate the colony's centenary and was a member of the state house design board. Among many legal manuals he published three volumes of Collection of Statutes of Practical Utility, Colonial and Imperial, in Force in New South Wales (Sydney, 1879-81).

In 1892-1904 Oliver was president of the Land Appeal Court at a salary of £2000. In addition to questions of land tenure and problems arising out of the Land Acts of 1884 and 1889, his tribunal also dealt with cases arising under legislation anent water rights and rabbit extermination. In (James) Wilson v. Minister for Lands which lasted from 1896 to 1901, the Land Appeal Court upheld the decision of the Local Land Board but the New South Wales Supreme Court reversed the decision and severely criticized the handling of the case. However, the Privy Council upheld the decision of the Land Appeal Court. Oliver's experience and travels helped him as royal commissioner on the federal capital; he published several reports on possible sites. Late in 1903 he was appointed royal commissioner to inquire into land holdings and land use in Norfolk Island, but never completed his report. On returning with his daughter the Overlau caught fire near Lord Howe Island; all the passengers were put ashore on 19 October and saw the ship explode. Oliver got 'rather tired of the monotony' while awaiting rescue because 'all our books have been devoured & nothing unread is available'.

A keen yachtsman, Oliver was a member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in the 1860s and sailed the 11-ton cutter Vivandiere; in 1897-1900 he was rear-commodore of the squadron and owned the auxiliary yacht Antidote. He was also interested in shooting. He died on 2 June 1904 at his home Shelcote, Neutral Bay. After a service at Christ Church St Laurence he was buried in the cemetery of St Thomas's Church, North Sydney. He was survived by his second wife, four sons and three of their five daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £5552; his library was sold and an art union of some of his possessions with 2500 one guinea tickets was held for the benefit of his widow. The prizes included the Antidote, piano, engravings and pictures, two of them by Julian Ashton.

Select Bibliography

  • Land Appeal Court Cases New South Wales, vols 3-14 (1893-1904)
  • New South Wales Law Reports, 20 (1899), 104
  • New South Wales State Reports, 1 (1901), 177
  • A. Oliver papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

M. F. Hardie, 'Oliver, Alexander (1832–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 September, 1832
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


2 June, 1904 (aged 71)
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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