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OLIPHANT. Laurence, author of "Piccadilly"

OLIPHANT, Laurence (1829—88) author of, "Piccadilly", only child of (Sir) Anthony Oliphant (1793 - 1859) by his wife Maria, daughter of Colonel Campbell of the 72nd Highlanders, was born at Capetown in 1829. Thomas Oliphant, the musician was his uncle.

His father who was third son of Ebenezer Olphant, of Condie and Newton, Perthshire, by Mary daughter of Sir William Stirling of Ardoch, had been called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1821, and practised for a time in London as an equity draughtsman, but just before his son’s birth he was appointed Attorney-General at the Cape. Laurence’s father and mother were both fervent evangelicals. The mother returned to Europe on account of her health and took her son with her. He was sent to the school of a Mr. Parr at Durnford Manon, Salisbury. He spent part of his holidays with his mother at Condie, an ancestral home of the Oliphant family. His father was in 1830 made Chief of Ceylon and was knighted. Lady Oliphant rejoined him in Ceylon in 1841.

Laurence was sent out in the winter of the same year in charge of a private tutor who continued to teach him in Ceylon: but his education was much interrupted. His father returned on two years leave about 1846, and spent the time in a continental tour. Laurence was allowed to accompany his parents instead of going to Cambridge as had been intended. The family spent the winter of 1846---7 at Paris, travelled through Germany and the Tyrol during 1847, and at the end of the year crossed the Alps to Italy. Here young Oliphant was present at some of the popular disturbances at the beginning of 1848.

He went with his parents to Greece, and then accompanied them to Ceylon, where he acted as his father’s private secretary, and was called to the colonial bar. At the age of 22, he says, he had been engaged in 23 murder cases. In December 1851 he was invited by Jung Bahadur, who had touched at Ceylon on a return voyage from England, to join a hunting excursion in Nepaul. After reaching Khatmundu, he returned to Ceylon. A few months later he came to England with his mother, and at the end of 1851 began to keep terms at Lincoln’s Inn. Besides studying law he took an interest in various labours undertaken by Lord Shaftesbury and others among the London poor.

In the spring of 1852 he published an account of his tour in Nepaul, called "A Journey to Khatmandu". He resolved to be called to the Scottish, as well as the English bar, and began his studies in Edinburgh in the summer of 1852.

In August 1852 he started with Mr. Oswald Smith for a visit to St. Petersburg, thence of Nyni-Novgorod, and ultimately to the Crimea. He published an account of part of the journey "The Russian Shores of the Black Sea" in the autumn of 1852, and "A tour through The Country of the Don Cossacks" at the end of 1853. The approach of the Crimean War gave special interest to this book, which soon reached a fourth edition. Lord Raglan applied to him for information, and he was engaged to write for the "Daily News". While keenly interested in this he received an offer of an appointment from James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, then Governor-General of Canada, with whose family Lady Oliphant was intimate.

Oliphant acted as Secretary to Lord Elgin during the negotiation at Washington of the reciprocity treaty with Canada. The treaty "floated through on champagne" was signed in June, and Oliphant then accompanied Lord Elgin to Quebec. There he was soon appointed "Superintendent of Indian Affairs", and made a journey to Lake Superior and back by the Mississippi and Chicago, described soon afterwards in "Minnesota and the Far West" in 1855. Dancing, travelling, and political business filled up his time agreeably: but on Lord Elgin’s retirement at the end of 1854, he declined offers of an appointment under Sir Edmund Head, Elgin’s successor.

He came back to England. whither his father had finally returned. He put forward a plan suggested by his previous journeys, which is described in a pamphlet called "The Trans-Caucasian Provinces the proper Field of Operation for a Christian Army" 1855. He succeeded in obtaining from Lord Clarendon a recommendation to Lord Stratford de Redcliffe. He wished to be sent as an envoy to Schamyl with a view to a diversion against the Russians. His father accompanied him to Constantinople. They found Lord Stratford about to visit the Crimea, and accompanied him thither. Oliphant had a glimpse of the Siege of Sebastopol: and, though he could not obtain an authorisation for his scheme, was invited by the Duke of Newcastle to join him on a visit to the Circassian coasts. He sailed at the end of August, and made a short rush into the country. He afterwards joined the force under Omar Pasha, and was present at the battle of the Ingour. The fall of Kars made the expedition fruitless: and after much suffering and a consequent illness during the retreat, he returned to England at the end of 1855. "The TransCaucasian Campaign . . . under Omar Pasha: A. Personal Narrative" 1856, describes his experiences.

He had been acting as correspondent of "The Times" during this expedition and in 1856 he was invited by the editor, Delane, to accompany him on a visit to the United States. He travelled through the Southern States to New Orleans, and there joined the filibuster Walker. His motive, he says, was partly the fun of the thing, and in some degree an offer of confiscated estates if the expedition should succeed. The expedition fell in with H. M. S. "Cossack" at the mouth of the St. Juan river. Her captain. Cockburn, came on board, declared his determination to prevent a fight, and carried off Olipliant, who had admitted himself to be a British subject. Oliphant was made welcome as a guest on board the "Cossack". and, after a few excursions, returned to England. An account of his first trip in the "Circassia", and of this adventure, is given in his "Patriots and Filibusters: Incidents of Political and Exploratory Travel" 1860.

In 1857 Oliphant became private secretary to Lord Elgin on his visit to China. He went with Elgin to Calcutta when the outbreak of the Mutiny made it necessary to change the destination of the Chinese force. He then accompanied Elgin to Hong Kong, was present at the bombardment of Canton, and helped to storm Tientsin. He was employed in several minor missions, and visited Japan with the expedition. He published a "Narrative of the Earl of Elgin’s Mission to China and Japan in the years 1857-8-9" in 1859; translated into French in 1860, with an introductory letter from Guizot. His father, with whom he was always upon the most affectionate terms, had died just before his return. Oliphant was without employment for a time, but in 1860 amused himself by a visit to Italy, where he saw Cavour, and formed a plot with Garabaldi for breaking up the ballot boxes at Nice on occasion of the vote for annexation to France. He gave his view of the value of a plebiscite in a pamphlet called "Universal Suffrage and Napoleon the Third" 1860. Garabaldi’s expedition to Sicily broke up the Nice scheme.

In 1861 Oliphant travelled in Montenegro and elsewhere and soon afterwards accepted an appointment as First Secretary of Legation to Japan. He arrived at Yeddo at the end of June 1861. On the evening of 5 July a night attack was made on the Embassy. Oliphant rushed out with a hunting-whip, and was attacked by a Japanese with a heavy two-handed sword. A beam, invisible in the darkness, interfered with the blows, but Oliphant was severely wounded, and sent on board ship to recover. He had to return to England after a visit to the Corea, where he discovered a Russian force, occupying a retired bay, and obtained their retirement.

Visits to Corfu with the Prince of Wales, then on his way to Palestine, and afterwards to the Herzegavina and the Abruzzi, were his only occupations in 1862. He was now compelled by "family considerations" to retire from the Diplomatic Service. Early in 1863 he ran over to look at the insurrection in Poland and later in the year, made another attempt, but was turned back. He then travelled in Moldavia, and went northwards to see a little of the Schleswig-Holstein war. He was now disposed to settle down. He had already once or twice canvassed the Stirling Burghs, and made himself popular with the electors.

In 1864 he joined Sir Algernon Borthwick and some other friends in starting a journal called "The Owl", of which Thomas Onwhyn was the publisher. It was suggested at a dinner party in fun, and was intended to be partly a mystification, supported by an affected knowledge of profound political secrets. Sir Algernon Borthwick undertook to print it, and it caused much amusement to the initiated. Oliphant contributed only to the first ten numbers, retiring when it was taken up more seriously. In the following year he published "Piccadilly": "A Fragment of Contemporary Biography", in "Blackwood’s Magazine" (republished, with illustrations by R. Doyle, in 1870).

In 1865 Oliphant was returned at the General Election for the Stirling Burghs. He did little in Parliament, and was not much edified, it appears, by the manoeuvres which attended the passage of the Reform Bill of 1867. A singular change now took place in his life.

His rambling and adventurous career had given him much experience, but had not made up for a desultory education. He loved excitement, was a universal favourite in society, and had had flirtations in every quarter of the globe. He was a. clear-headed man of business, had seen the mysteries of official life, and was a brilliant journalist. From his earliest years, however, he had also strong religious impressions, and in his letters to his mother speculations upon his own state of mind and the various phenomena of religions of all varieties had alternated with sparkling descriptions of adventure and society. He had been interested successively in many of the books which reflect contemporary movements of thought. He had read Theodore Parker, W. Smith’s "Thorndale". Maurice’s writings, and Morell’s "History of Philosophy". His want of intellectual ballast, however, left him at the mercy of any pretender to inspiration. His official and social experience had dispersed many illusions, and his "Piccadilly" very brightly written, is not a novel proper, but a satire directed against the various hypocrisies and corruptions of society. He had come, he says, to think that the world at large was a ‘‘lunatic asylum’’, a common opinion among persons not themselves conspicuous for sanity. He mentions in it "the greatest poet of the age. Thomas Lake Harris" author of "The Great Republic: a Poem of the Sun". Harris is also typified in a mysterious prophet who meets the hero and was in fact the head of a community in America. The creed appears to have been the usual mixture of scraps of misunderstood philosophy and science, with peculiar views about ‘physical sensations’’ caused by the life of Christ in man and a theory that marriage, should be a platonic relation. Oliphant had also some belief in ‘‘spiritualism’’ though he came to regard it as a rather diabolical than divine.

In 1867 he resigned his seat in Parliament., and joined Harris’ community at Brocton, or ‘‘Salem-on-Erie’’. Harris was in the habit of casting out devils and forming magnetic-circles among his disciples. Oliphant became his spiritual slave. He was set to work on the farm, was ordered to drive teams and ‘‘cadge strawberries on the railway’’ and, after walking all day, was sent out at night to draw water ‘‘till his fingers were almost frostbitten". He made over all his money to the community. Oliphant’s mother also joined the community in 1868, and, though living at the same place, was not allowed to hold any confidential communication with him. After going through this probation the disciples were to regenerate the world, and mother and son are said to have ‘‘found perfect peace and contentment’’.

In 1870 Oliphant returned under Harris’s orders and was supported by a small allowance. He resumed his former occupation by becoming ‘‘Times’’ correspondent in the Franco-German war. He was with the French and afterwards with the German armies, and suddenly returned to America, in obedience, it is said, to a sign prescribed by Harris, namely by a bullet grazing his hair. He soon came back, however, and was again ‘‘Times" correspondent at Paris towards the end of 1871. His mother was permitted to join him there. There he met Alice, daughter of Mr. Henry le Strange of Hunstanton, Norfolk. and step-daughter of Mr. Wynne-Finch. All who knew her speak of her wonderful fascination. She was 26 and had been much admired in society, but shared some of Oliphant's dissatisfaction with the world. She adopted his creed, and they were engaged at the beginning of 1872. The consent of Harris, however, was required, and the genuine ‘‘human sentiment’’ was to be considered as an ‘‘abstract and spiritual passion’,. a text upon which Oliphant discourses in letters quoted by his biographer. Her family were naturally displeased at the pecuniary arrangements as the ‘‘whole of  her property was placed unreservedly in the hands’’ of Harris. (1) Oliphant appears (2) to have equivocated upon this occasion in a rather painful way, though the details are not very clear. He was married in June 1872 at St. George’s Hanover Square, though it would seem the relation was regulated in some way by the spiritual authorities. (3)

In 1873 Oliphant with his wife and mother returned to Brocton by Harris’s orders. The wife and mother were employed in menial offices. Oliphant himself was directed to take part in various commercial enterprises for the benefit apparently of the community. He was in New York and Canada and occasionally sent over to England. In 1874 he joined the ‘‘Direct United States Cable Company" and was ‘‘coaching a bill through the Dominion Legislature’’. He learnt the secrets of commercial ‘‘ring’s’’, and was kindly treated by the great Jay Gould, upon whose mercy he threw himself. In 1876 he contributed to ‘‘ Blackwood’s Magazine’’ the ‘‘Autobiography of a Joint Stock Company‘‘, revealing some mysteries of’ commercial jugglery. He is said to have show much financial ability in these transactions.

Meanwhile Harris had migrated to Santa Rosa, near San Francisco, and taken Mrs. Oliphant with him. In the beginning of 1878 Oliphant went to San Francisco, to the office of Mr. J. D. Walker of San Rafael, whose friendship he had won by an act at kindness. His purpose was to see his wife, but permission was refused and he returned to Brocton. In the following autumn Mrs. Oliphant left Santa Rosa, though still under Harris’s rule, and supported herself for a time, first at Vallego and then at Penecia, by keeping a school. She was warmly appreciated by the Californians, and Mrs. Walker was able to see her occasionally. It seems that about this time Harris had discovered not only that the marriage was not a marriage of "counterparts", but that Oliphant had a spiritual ‘‘counterpart’’ in the other world who inspired him with rhymed communications and was therefore an obstacle to union with his earthly wife. His belief in these communications strikes his biographer as the "only sign of mental aberration" she ever noticed.

Meanwhile Oliphant took up a scheme for colonising Palestine with Jews, and early in 1879 went to the East to examine the country and endeavour to obtain a concession from the Turkish Government. An account of his journey was given in ‘‘The Land of Giliad with Excursions in the Lebanon’’ 1880. The attempt upon the Turkish Government failed and the scheme broke down. Oliphant returned to England and there, in the early winter of 1880, he was rejoined by his wife. She had obtained Harris’s permission to return by accepting ‘‘irritating conditions on the freedom of their intercourse’’. They made, however, a journey to Egypt in the winter, described by him in ‘‘The Land of Kheml, up and down the Middle Nile’’ 1882. An accidental difficulty at Cairo prevented them from formally making over to Harris their right in the land at Brocton.

In May 1881 Oliphant returned to America to see his mother who was still at Brocton. He found her both ill and troubled by doubts as to the Harris creed. They went to Santa Rosa, where the sight of a "valuable ring" of Lady Oliphant’s upon the finger of one of Harris’s household staggered their faith. Oliphant took his mother, in spite of order’s from Harris, to a village where was a woman with an infallible panacea. She there died in the presence of her son and their kind friend Mrs. Walker. Oliphant himself now became sceptical as to the prophet’s inspiration and with the help of Mrs. Walker recovered his lands at Brocton by legal proceedings. Harris and his disciples took a different view of these transactions. His wife had received a telegram from Santa Anna during his absence requesting her sanction to placing him in confinement. This appears to have ended her allegiance to the prophet.

Oliphant was again in England in January 1882 and prepared the volume called ‘‘Traits and Travesties" 1882, consisting chiefly of reprints from "Blackwood’s Magazine". Oliphant now took up the Palestine colonisation in the summer of 1882 and settled for some time at Therapia. At the end of the year they moved to Haifa in the Bay of Acre, in the neighbourhood of various Jewish colonies. He wrote there his story "Altiora Peto" 1883, in the "Piccadilly" style, the name being derived from a motto of his branch of the Oliphant family.

At Haifa they collected a number of sympathisers, though they did not form exactly a community. Oliphant, it seems, was now regarded as a "sort of head of affairs at Brocton", which was no longer in connection with Harris. Visitors from Brocton as well as natives and Jewish immigrants, gathered around them. They built a small house at Dalieh in the neighbourhood, and endeavoured to carry out their ideal of life. They gave expositions of thier views to various inquirers, and were not converted to "Esoteric Buddism". A strange book called "Sympneumata" was written by them in concert and, as they thought, by a kind of common inspiration. Some who had sympathized however, were alienated ‘‘in fear’’ and others ‘‘in disgust’’. Others regarded it as harmless nonsense. Oliphant also wrote ‘‘Massallam’’, 1886, which gives his final judgment of Harris.

During a trip to the Lake of Tiberias, at the end of 1886, Mrs. Oliphant caught a fever, and died on 2 January, 1887. Oliphant believed that she soon came back to him in spirit, and sent messages through him to her friends. Her presence was shown by strange convulsive movements. He returned to England to carry out a tour which they had planned to take together. He was much broken. though he could still often talk with his old brightness.

He wrote a series of papers in "Blackwood" published in 1887 as "Episodes in a Life of Adventure; or Moss from a Rolling Stone", which describes his early career with great spirit. He also published at Haifa a description of Palestine and "Fashionable Philosophy" 1887, a collection of various stories. In 1887 he returned to Haifai and wrote a pamphlet called "The Star in the East" for the benefit of Mahommedans. It is said to have made one Arab convert, who was not much credit to his leader. He returned to England and finished h is last book. "Scientific Religion: or "Evolutionary Forces now Active in Man" 1888. It helped to bring about him a crowd of ‘‘spiritualists’’ and people capable of mistaking twaddle about the masculine - feminine principle for philosophy.

He visited America in 1888 and returned with Miss Rosamond Dale Owen daughter of Robert Dale Owen, to whom he was married at Malvern on l6 August. A few days later he was seized with a dangerous illness at the house of his old friends, the Walkers, at Surbiton. Thence he was moved to York House, Twickenham, to be the guest of his friend Sir Mount-Stuart Grant Duff. The illness was hopeless from the first, though he was flattered by hopes of a miraculous cure. He was still cheerful. and even witty to the last, and died peacefully on 23 December, 1888.

The charm of Oliphant’s alert and versatile intellect and sympathetic character was recognised by a wide circle of friends. It was felt not least by those who most regretted the strange religious developments which led to the waste of his powers and his enslavement to such a prophet as Harris. He was beloved for his boyish symplicity and the warmth of heart which appeared through all his illusions. Suggestions of insanity were, of course, made but apparently without definite reasons. Remarkable talents without thorough training have thrown many minds off their balance, and Oliphant’s case is only exceptional for the singular combination of two apparently inconsistent careers. Till his last years, at any rate his religious mysticism did not disqualify him for being also a shrewd financier, a charming man of the world, and a brilliant writer. His works have been mentioned above. He also contributed many articles to "Blackwood's Magazine" and "The Times!.

Dict. of Nat. Biog. Vol. 12 Leslie Stephen. 1895.


(1) Life p. 115
(2) ib. pp. 120-2
(3) ib. p. 125

Memoir of the Life of Laurence Oliphant and of Alice Oliphant, his wife, by Margaret Oliphant. W Oliphant, 2 Volumes 1891.

Oliphant’s writings give many details of his early travels and adventures.

See also Personal Reminiscences of I Oliphant by Louis Leesching. ii. d.

and, for some account of the Broeton community , from the other side, Brotherhood of the New Life: a letter from Thomas Lake Harris. 1893. and the Brotherhood of the New Life by Richard MacCully, Glasgow, 1893, pp. 146-61.

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