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Harold James Oliver (1916–1982)

by Alan Ventress

Harold James Oliver (1916-1982) professor of English, was born on 17 September 1916, at Waverley, NSW.  He was a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and was Chair of English at the University of New South Wales.   

Oliver was educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and was dux in 1932.  He studied Arts at the University of Sydney and graduated with First Class Honours in 1936.  Initially he was attracted to the law but chose English instead and became a tutor in that subject at the School of English, University of Sydney.   

In 1939 he graduated with a Master of Arts in English and received the University medal for his thesis on Izaak Walton.  

Harold Oliver and Joyce Edwards were married at Randwick in 1943.

In 1946-47 he made his first appearance at the Shakespeare Conference in Stratford on Avon and his attendance at this conference was a regular event throughout his life.  In 1955 Melbourne University Press published his work The Problem with John Ford which led to an invitation to prepare a volume for the Arden Shakespeare series, in all, Oliver edited four Shakespeare plays during his career. The last one was The Taming of the Shrew in the Oxford Shakespeare Series which received critical acclaim and was published just after he died in July 1982.   

In 1959 Oliver was promoted to a Readership at the University of Sydney and in 1960 he was appointed the foundation Professor of English at the University of New South Wales.  

The University of New South Wales had only been established in 1949 and had a distinct focus on science and technology.  Oliver as Professor of English had to fight for recognition of Arts in the university curriculum and at times it was an uphill battle. However, this did not deter him and he set about trying to make the School of English a worthy, if not superior school to his alma mater.   

Professor Oliver was very well known for his exceptionally high standards by both students and staff at the University of New South Wales and it was reputed he had a policy of failing 50% of students in first year English. In addition it was almost impossible for students to be awarded a distinction in the School of English. This naturally had an effect on enrolments and many veered away from the hardships of English to the more benign environment and marking regime at the School of History. Oliver never reduced the standards he set for himself and others and in the process made many enemies in the University through his outspoken and unrelenting criticism of other schools, particularly the Schools of Sociology and Drama whom he regarded as having very low standards of marking.  

Professor Oliver was a good administrator, a punctilious bureaucrat and a gifted politician who understood the inner workings of academic life.  He was polite and well presented but forthright in his views and he rarely lost an argument. He was also an interesting lecturer who often spoke without notes.  

His main publishing output related to Elizabethan and Jacobean studies with an emphasis on Shakespeare, however,  Oliver was also interested in American and Australian literature, though Australian literature was overlooked in first year studies during the 1970s.    

Oliver was regarded as a world authority on Shakespeare and his two most influential books are a biography of Sir Robert Howard and a critical biography of John Ford.   

His main interest outside of the academy was horse racing and he had an office in the Morven Brown Building at the University of New South Wales that overlooked Randwick Race Course where he regularly watched races through a powerful set of binoculars on a tripod.  

Professor Oliver died suddenly at his home in Kensington on 26 July 1982 and was cremated.   

O’Farrell, Patrick UNSW. A Portrait. The University of New South Wales 1949-1999. Sydney, UNSW Press, 1999 p 203; Professor Harold James Oliver papers.  University of New South Wales Archives unpublished material; Wilkes, G. A (1982). Harold James Oliver (1916-1982) [Obituary]. In Proceedings (Australian Academy of the Humanities). 12  (1982-1983), 92-95.  

Original Publication

Citation details

Alan Ventress, 'Oliver, Harold James (1916–1982)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

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