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Charles Nicholson Jewel Oliver (1848–1920)

by J. D. Walker

This article was published:

Charles Nicholson Jewel Oliver (1848-1920), by unknown photographer, 1913

Charles Nicholson Jewel Oliver (1848-1920), by unknown photographer, 1913

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17211

Charles Nicholson Jewel Oliver (1848-1920), civil servant, was born on 24 April 1848 in Hobart Town, son of Thomas Jewell Oliver, civil servant, and his wife Phoebe, née Nicholson. He was educated by Rev. David Boyd before moving in 1857 with his family to Sydney, where he attended the academies of Alfred Cane and Rev. Robert Boag. When 15 Oliver started work with the law stationer William Hemming. On 27 March 1866 he joined the Department of Lands as a junior clerk in the occupation of lands office. After rapid promotion he became inspector of lands offices in 1877 and acting under-secretary of lands in July 1880. Confirmed in office on 7 November, he prepared Sir John Robertson's unsuccessful crown lands bill of 1882 and J. S. Farnell's Crown Lands Act of 1884 for which W. B. Dalley commended him. At the Wesleyan parsonage, Benalla, Victoria, he married Selina Phoebe Pigott on 24 August 1887.

When Sir Henry Parkes handed over day to day control of the colony's railways to a commission of three in 1888, it was considered that a proven senior civil servant was needed. A somewhat reluctant Oliver was appointed third commissioner under Chief Commissioner E. M. G. Eddy and W. M. Fehon. A heavy programme of upgrading facilities and rolling stock was undertaken and the expansion of the system continued. Oliver's administrative abilities and wide experience of the colony contributed to the commissioners' achievements, made in the face of considerable hostility and obstruction, much of it directed against Eddy. It was Oliver who persuaded him not to resign in January 1895.

Upon Eddy's death in 1897 Oliver, with the concurrence of Fehon, became chief commissioner and David Kirkcaldie was appointed third commissioner. In April-December 1900 Oliver visited North America and Europe to negotiate the supply of electrical appliances and attended the International Railway Congress. In Sydney, meeting the same animosity as Eddy, he allowed himself to become isolated and 'impatient of opposition'. The picture of the chief commissioner eating his sandwiches at his desk, as he had done throughout his career, while his two colleagues lunched at their club, is illuminating, while his desire to have the same informal power as Eddy aggravated matters.

The growing difficulties resulted in the 1906 royal commission on railway administration. E. W. Knox, in his minority report before resigning, vindicated Oliver's opposition to the Western Collieries' Association contracts, and described as 'fatal to all rule, to all authority' the provision in the Railways Act that allowed two commissioners to set aside the opinion of the chief commissioner. However the other royal commissioners made Oliver the scapegoat for 'the inharmonious relations' between the railway commissioners. Next April the three-man commission was abolished and Oliver's long public service ended: both his 'opponents' Fehon and Kirkcaldie expressed disapproval of his going, and its manner.

In his youth Oliver had been a successful oarsman and a first-class cricketer who played regularly for New South Wales in 1865-74. From 1882 he was a trustee and was sometime chairman of the Sydney Cricket Ground. In 1896 he visited Norfolk Island in H.M.S. Royalist to report privately on the 'reign of misrule' there to the secretary for lands (Sir) Joseph Carruthers. He was a member of the Union Club from 1899.

A photograph of Oliver later in life shows heavy, dark eyebrows, a handlebar moustache and pointed beard. He became involved in various business interests in his retirement when for some years he was chairman of the Electric Light and Power Supply Corporation Ltd. Oliver died of heart disease at his Manly home on 14 June 1920 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. His wife and two of their four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1906, 4, p 294
  • New South Wales Railway and Tramway Magazine, 1 Dec 1920
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1920
  • Carruthers correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. D. Walker, 'Oliver, Charles Nicholson Jewel (1848–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Nicholson Jewel Oliver (1848-1920), by unknown photographer, 1913

Charles Nicholson Jewel Oliver (1848-1920), by unknown photographer, 1913

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17211

Life Summary [details]


24 April, 1848
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


14 June, 1920 (aged 72)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.