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William Philip Schreiner

William Philip Schreiner (1857 - 1919) was a Cape politician and Olive Schreiner's younger brother. Will Schreiner was educated first at schools in the Eastern Cape and then at the South African College in Cape Town. He went on to win a scholarship to study at Cambridge, and in 1882 he was admitted to the English and Cape Bars. In 1884 he married Francis (Fan) Reitz, and they had four children, two girls and two boys. In 1885 Schreiner became Cape parliamentary draughtsman and between 1889 and 1893 he assisted the British High Commissioner and the Cape government in discussions with the Transvaal about the future of Swaziland. This role and also his retainer work for De Beers brought Schreiner into increasing public and political prominence, and in 1893 he was appointed as Cape attorney-general in Cecil Rhodes's second Ministry. However, in the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, Schreiner broke his ties with Rhodes, and he chaired the Cape parliamentary select committee which found Rhodes guilty of complicity in the Raid. Schreiner also gave evidence to the British parliamentary enquiry into the Raid in 1897.

In the changed political landscape following the Raid, Schreiner and other Cape liberals who were eager to oppose Rhodes?s influence entered into a tentative co-operation with the Afrikaner Bond. The Bond supported a Schreiner-led ministry after the elections of 1898, and Schreiner then became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. However, Schreiner struggled not only to balance the tensions in his government but also to manage the increasing hostilities between the British government and the Transvaal. His attempts to stave off conflict were stymied at every turn by Milner, who was working hard behind the scenes to stir up the conflict which would result in the outbreak of the South African War in 1899. During the war Schreiner faced more difficulties as he sought to manage the situation regarding the Cape rebels who joined the war on the side of the Republics. While Schreiner tried to limit the scope of rebel activities, he was also forced by the imperial government to impose the penalty of five years disenfranchisement on captured Cape rebels, and the Afrikaner Bond's opposition to this action led to the downfall of Schreiner's government on 17 June 1900.

In the aftermath of ending his period as Prime Minister, Schreiner also resigned as an MP, lost an election and did not enter parliament again until 1908. In this period he focused on his legal practice in Cape Town and also travelled to many areas of the country he had not seen before, which seems to have been a turning-point politically through his meeting many educated black people organising for change. Although he was offered a place on the National Convention set up to prepare for the Union of South Africa, Schreiner turned this down, deciding instead to put his liberal principles into practice in defending the Zulu king Dinuzulu, who was being tried in Natal on trumped up charges. In the end Schreiner was successful in clearing Dinuzulu of most of the charges against him. In 1909 Schreiner played a key role opposing the colour bar elements of the Draft South Africa Act, and in defending the non-racial Cape franchise, when at their request he led the so-called 'black delegation' which travelled to London to protest the Act. In London Schreiner worked closely to oppose the Act along with several prominent political figures to whom he had originally been introduced by Olive Schreiner, including W.T. Stead and Sir Charles Dilke (for further discussion, see Stanley and Dampier 2012). While Schreiner's delegation was unsuccessful in altering the Draft South Africa Act's central clauses, it was able to ensure that the British Protectorates in southern Africa could not be simply transferred to the control of the Union of South Africa.

From 1910 to 1914 Schreiner sat in the Union parliament as one of the four senators nominated to protect 'native' interests. In mid-1914 Schreiner spent time recuperating his shaky health and heart problems in Europe, including a period at the spa resort of Nauheim in Germany with Olive Schreiner. Here they were almost caught up in the outbreak of the First World War but managed, separately, to return to Britain. Will Schreiner remained in Britain as South Africa's High Commissioner, a position he retained until his death in 1919. His biographer, Eric Walker, suggests that during his period in London as High Commissioner Schreiner virtually worked himself to death, and Olive Schreiner's letters from this period, in which she constantly urged Will to rest and take breaks, corroborate this. By the beginning of 1919 his health had broken down and Fan Schreiner took him to the home-cum-sanatorium of Freddy and May Murray Parker in Llandrindod Wells in Wales, in a last-ditch attempt to help him recover. He died there on 28 June 1919, the day the peace marking the end of the First World War was signed, and just a few weeks after the birth of his first grandchild (Ursula's son).

There are c450 extant letters from Olive Schreiner to Will Schreiner. Given the large number, it is difficult to summarise these or give an overall sense of their concerns and flavour. However, the letters certainly change over time and have a number of distinctive features as a set. Schreiner?s earliest extant letters to Will date from the mid-1880s and these read a bit like 'duty' letters, although they are certainly not wooden or formulaic in the way that some of Schreiner?s letters to her sister Katie are, which is understandable given that Schreiner and Will grew up together at home, while Katie and Alice left home when Schreiner was very young. However, the extant early letters to Will are sporadic and predominantly focused on 'news'. Once Schreiner returned to South Africa at the end of 1889 her letters to Will became more frequent and also increasingly informal, and by 1891 she had started addressing him as 'Dear Laddie' or variants on this (later this sometimes became 'Dear Old Man' or even 'Dear O.M.').

From the 1890s, Schreiner's letters to Will engage more frequently and more directly with political concerns, in particular the political situation in South Africa and Will's increasing involvement in public life. In fact Schreiner's letters to Will show that she played a vital role in advising him politically, although this was often done in subtle and indirect ways. As Schreiner commented in a letter to Betty Molteno regarding her political influence over Will, 'I just express my views and leave them to work'. Even Will Schreiner's biographer, Eric Walker, suggests that his political instincts were not very keen, whereas Schreiner herself had keenly developed and widely recognised, if not always welcomed, political skills. Indeed, Walker?s biography emphasises Olive Schreiner's political shrewdness and her influence on Will at important junctures in his political life. Walker has no doubt about this, stating for instance that 'If he went with Rhodes and the Bond, Schreiner knew that Olive would be grieved. And her grief would hurt him, since he had long regarded her as a kind of detached and most eloquent conscience reinforcing the still, small voice he always found so insistent. It was no light matter for him to go against her.' (Stanley & Dampier 2012). 

Schreiner's use of her letters as a way of achieving political influence on Will can be readily and interested mapped out in relation to a number of key events in which he was involved. During the early 1890s she cautioned him about his involvement with Rhodes, and after the Jameson Raid was concerned that he break all ties with Rhodes, for example suggesting in 1897, 'Why don't you and Hofmeyer and your party try and unseat Rhodes for bribery in the Barkly districts as soon as he is elected?' During the build-up to the South African War she worked behind the scenes with a number of key politicians (Smuts and Hofmeyr in particular) to attempt to avoid the outbreak of the war, but also provided Will with updates on the situation unfolding in Johannesburg where she was living at the time. There seems to be a gap in Schreiner's letters to Will for the period 1900 to 1905, where there are certainly far fewer extant letters. This may in part be the result of wartime censorship during the South African War, when all Schreiner's letters were censored under Martial Law, and it is likely that her letters to Will would have come under particular scrutiny.

In the period after the war, Schreiner?s politically-focused letters to Will concern two crucially important political events: his legal defence in 1908 of the Zulu king Dinuzulu against trumped up charges brought by the imperial government, and his activities in 1909 around opposing the Union of South Africa and in particular the Draft South Africa Act. In both these actions Schreiner supported and encouraged Will, with her remark in a July 1909 letter to F.S. Malan that 'My dear old brother is only finding his true direction near the end of his life' a clear sign of her approval.  Nonetheless, after witnessing Will Schreiner's increasingly leftwards political movement in relation to South African politics, for Schreiner the First World War signalled a major political gulf between her and Will. Schreiner was an absolute pacifist and condemned the war utterly, and she was shocked to discover that Will did not share her views. Unlike in relation to South African political affairs, Schreiner did not attempt to persuade Will to her point of view, instead commenting in 1914, 'Now I know you really approve of the the Governments action in backing Russia and France I shall never mention it to you again. I have thought all along from the letter you wrote me from Berlin about the evils of England's taking part in it, that you disapproved even more than I did!' Certainly it seems that here and elsewhere Schreiner used her letters to Will to address matters that she might not have addressed in face-to-face meetings. In relation to this, in an earlier period she sometimes sent his letters to his legal chambers rather than his home address, with some of these letters, or parts of them, marked 'private', thereby excluding the wider Schreiner family circle as readers of them.

Apart from their fascinating political commentary and demonstration of Schreiner's use of her letters as a way of exerting political influence, her letters to Will also suggest the importance of their relationship in other ways. Certainly of all her siblings, Schreiner was closest to Will. In some of her letters to him she looks back at their shared childhood, for example writing in 1895 about her visit to the Witteberg mission station where they had both been born: 'It was a curious feeling when I stood in that little bedroom in Witteberg in which both of us were born, and there flashed on me the thought of that long curious life which those two little creatures who raised their first cry here, were to be lead.' Many of Schreiner's letters to Will are peppered with teasing and jokes, some at his expense and some at her own. At times too Schreiner confided in Will about her financial concerns, in particular in 1913 on the eve of her departure for Europe, when she accepted some financial help from Will on the condition that he would inherit the copyright to certain of her manuscripts.

Clearly Schreiner was not merely close to Will but also heavily involved with his family, especially his children, to whom she sometimes referred as 'our children'. Many of her letters to Will discuss the children's futures, their education and careers and how these should best be planned for and managed. In spite of their political differences around the First World War, Schreiner saw a good deal of Will and Fan Schreiner in London over this time, and of Ursula, Oliver and Edna Schreiner in the period immediately after the war. By early 1919 it seems Schreiner realised that Will was dying, and acknowledged this in a short, incredibly powerful and sad note to him 'My old Brother / Your face haunts me. Your dear eyes. My poor old Will. / I know, dear. / Olive'. Will's death in 1919 seems, from the comments she made in letters to others, to have fundamentally broken Schreiner. As she commented in a letter to her friend Lucy Molteno, 'My brother's death has been the hardest blow I have ever had in my life. It seems to have ended everything for me.' When she returned to South Africa in 1920, Schreiner wrote, again to Lucy Molteno, 'I think that what I dread in coming out to South Africa is that I won't find my brother Will here. His was always the first voice I heard when I landed the first face that looked smiling in at my cabin, and I've got a curious feeling as if I ought to see him when I go there. All my life he was so good to me, such a strength and help.'

For further information see:
John Benyon (2004) 'Schreiner, William Philip (1857-1919)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35973
Liz Stanley (2012, in progress) ''The Tone Of Things There I Fear Rather Hopeless': Olive Schreiner, Will Schreiner, Charles Dilke and the 1909 Protest Against The Draft South Africa Act' Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa
Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2012, in press) 'I just express my views and leave them to work': Olive Schreiner as a feminist protagonist in a masculine political landscape with figures' Gender and History
Eric Walker (1937) W.P. Schreiner: A South African Oxford: Oxford University Press
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collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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collection icon British Library, London: The British Library, London, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers across many periods of time, countries... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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collection icon Macfarlane-Muirhead Family: Schreiner’s letters to Robert Muirhead are part of Macfarlane-Muirhead family collection and can be accessed at the Mui... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Sheffield City Libraries, Archives & Local Studies: Edward Carpenter Collection, Archives & Local Studies, Sheffield City Libraries: The Edward Carpenter Collection is held ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University College London: Special Collections at UCL is one of the leading university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. It... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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