Olive Schreiner was born on March 24, 1855 in Wittebergen, Cape Colony (present-day Lesotho). She was the ninth of twelve children born to a missionary couple, Gottlob and Rebecca (Lyndall) Schreiner, married in England in 1837. Her German father and English mother, both missionaries in South Africa, provided a household grounded in a strict Calvinist tradition.
She was named after her three older brothers, Oliver (1848-1854), Albert (1843-1843) and Emile (1852-1852), who died before she was born. Her childhood was a harsh one as her father was loving and gentle, though impractical, which led to difficulties for the family; but her mother Rebecca was intent on teaching her children the same restraint and self-discipline that had been a part of her upbringing.
When Olive was six, her father transferred to Healdtown in the Eastern Cape to run the Wesleyan training institute there. As with so many of his other projects, he simply was not up to the task and was expelled in disgrace for trading against missionary regulations. He was forced to make his own living for the first time in his life, and tried a business venture. Again, he failed and was insolvent within a year. The family lived in abject poverty as a result.
However, Olive was not to remain with her parents for long. When her older brother Theophilus (1844-1920) was appointed headmaster in Cradock in 1867, she went to live with him along with two of her siblings.