A. P. Herbert

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Sir A. P. Herbert
Member of Parliament for Oxford University
In office
14 November 1935 – 23 February 1950
Serving with Lord Hugh Cecil (1910–1937)
Sir Arthur Salter (1937–1950)
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Preceded by Sir Charles Oman
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Personal details
Born 24 September 1890
Ashtead, Surrey, England
Died 11 November 1971
Nationality British
Political party Independent
Spouse(s) Lady Gwendolyn Herbert (née Quilter)
Alma mater New College, Oxford
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service 1914-1918
Rank Sub-Lieutenant (WWI)
Petty Officer (WWII)
Unit Royal Naval Division
Battles/wars First World War, Second World War

Sir Alan Patrick Herbert CH (24 September 1890 – 11 November 1971), also known as A. P. Herbert or simply A. P. H., was an English humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist who served as an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Oxford University from the 1935 general election to the 1950 general election, when university constituencies were abolished.

Herbert was born in Ashtead, Surrey, the son of a civil servant and maternal grandson of Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn. He attended The Grange, Folkestone, before attending Winchester College. He received an exhibition to New College, Oxford, where he originally studied the classics before changing degree and receiving a first in jurisprudence.

Early life and education

Herbert was born in Ashtead, Surrey on 24 September 1890. His father, Patrick Herbert, was a civil servant in the India Office, and his mother, and Beatrice Herbert (née Selwyn), was the daughter of Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn, a Lord Justice of Appeal.[1] He had two younger brothers; both were killed in battle—one in 1914 and the other in 1941. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was eight years old, shortly before he left to attend The Grange in Folkestone, a preparatory school.[2]

Herbert then attended Winchester College, where he won the King's Medal for English Verse and the King's Medal for English Speech, which was awarded by Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister at the time. He took an active part in the College's debating society and Shakespeare society. As a student at Winchester, Herbert sent verses to the offices of Punch, and received notes of encouragements and suggestions from the editor, Owen Seaman. Herbert was also Captain of Houses, one of the College's three football divisions.[3]

When at Winchester, Herbert received an exhibition to New College, Oxford. He made his first public speech at the Kensington branch of the Tariff Reform League, speaking extempore on home rule. His first contribution to Punch was printed on 24 August 1910, being a set of verses with the title Stones of Venus. Herbert went down to Oxford in October, and made his first speech at the Oxford Union in November. Apart from Punch, his work began appearing in The Observer, the Pall Mall Gazette and Vanity Fair.[4]

Herbert received a "not very good Second" in Honour Moderations, and, apparently disenchanted with the classics, changed his degree to law. He went into lodgings with Walter Monckton and others and was also good friends with notables Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and Philip Guedalla. Herbert finished at Oxford in 1914, with "a very good First" in jurisprudence. He then decided to join his friend Jack Parr as a volunteer at Oxford House in Bethnal Green for a year. He spent the time "doing what I could", washing dishes, sweeping floors, running errands and collecting money.[5]

First World War service

On 5 September 1914, Herbert enlisted at Lambeth Pier as an Ordinary Seaman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, which later became one of the constituent bodies of the Royal Naval Division. In early October, the news reached Herbert that his brother, Owen Herbert, had been was "missing, believed killed" in the retreat from Mons. Herbert reached the rank of Acting Leading Seaman before being commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in early 1915, when he was posted to Hawke Battalion of the Royal Naval Division (later to come under army command as part of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division).[6]

'C' and 'D' companies of Hawke Battalion departed for Gallipoli in early 1915, briefly stopping in Malta before arriving at the Moudros on 17 May. The battalion finally arrived at Gallipoli on 27 May. Herbert was put in command of No. 11 Platoon, 'C' Company, which was composed mostly of Tynesiders and also two men from a remote Durham mining town. A week after arrival, the battalion suffered heavy casualties at the Third Battle of Krithia. In July 1915, Herbert went down with an illness and had to spend time recovering in a military hospital. When he was passed "fit for light duty", he was seconded to the Naval Intelligence Division at Whitehall. It was at this time that he decided to begin renting 12 Hammersmith Terrace.[7][8]

In summer 1916, when passed fit for duty, Herbert returned to Hawke Battalion at their base camp in Abbeville, where he was made assistant adjutant. The battalion moved to the front line at Souchez in July 1916, and in mid-November the battalion took part in an attack on Beaucourt during the Battle of the Ancre that saw almost the entire battalion wiped out. Herbert was only one of two officers that came out unscathed from the attack. When the battalion returned to the front line at Pozières in February 1917, Herbert was made the battalion's adjutant, but he was later injured from shrapnel during an attack on Gavrelle.[8][9]

On medical leave following the injury, Herbert began writing his first book, The Secret Battle, which was finished "in a few weeks."

Post-war career

Herbert was called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1919 and entered the chambers of Leslie Scott. He was joined by two of his Oxford friends, Walter Monckton and Henry Strauss, who were called on the same day. Although he spent some time at Inner Temple, he never practiced law and did not enter a legal career.[10]

In January 1924, Owen Seaman, the editor of Punch, invited Herbert to join their staff. Herbert accepted and his accession to the staff meant he would receive a salary of £50 a week. In 1925, Herbert attended the Third Imperial Press Conference on behalf of Punch, where he made his first speech in front of a large audience in Melbourne, that was described as "delectably witty" by Sir Harry Brittain.

In 1926, Herbert was invited by Nigel Playfair to write "an entertainment" for the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The result was Riverside Nights, performed at the Lyric in April 1926. His next play, The White Witch, was performed at Haymarket Theatre in September 1926.

Early parliamentary career (1935–39)

Herbert first encountered Parliament in 1934, when he brought the Kitchen Committee of the House of Commons for court for selling liquor without a license. Lord Chief Justice Hewart ruled that the court would not hear the complaint because the matter fell within parliamentary privilege. Since the decision was never challenged in a higher court, this has led to the unique situation where there has been uncertainty as to "the extent to which statute law applies to either House of Parliament."[11]

Herbert first entertained the thought of running for parliament a few weeks before the 1935 general election, when he ran into Frederick Lindemann, who had just been rejected as the Conservative candidate for Oxford University. Herbert decided to run as an Independent candidate, aided by Frank Pakenham who served as his election agent. Herbert wrote an "unconventional" 5,000 word-long election address, that included: "Agriculture: I know nothing about agriculture.".[12]

He was elected as an Independent supporter of the National Government.[13] Defying the advice of more experienced members, including Austin Chamberlain, he made his maiden speech on 4 December 1935, the second day of the opening session of the new parliament. He protested to the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, on a motion that would give precedence to government bills over private member's bills. He went into the 'No' lobby alongside the members of the Independent Labour Party and fellow university member Eleanor Rathbone, but the motion was passed by 232 to 5.[14] Winston Churchill praised Herbert for his "composure and aplomb", and also famously said: "Call that a maiden speech? It was a brazen hussy of a speech. Never did such a painted lady of a speech parade itself before a modest Parliament."[15] During his speech, Herbert promised to introduce his Matrimonial Causes Bill into law by the end of the parliament.[12]

In 1936, Herbert failed to get drawn in the private member's ballot, but managed to get the Conservative Rupert De la Bère to sponsor the bill. On 20 November, Herbert made a speech in favour of the bill and it passed its second reading 78 votes to 12. It was given a third reading in the House of Lords on 19 July 1937, and was passed by 79 votes to 28. It was passed, somewhat strengthened by the House of Lords, in 1938 as the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. This allowed divorce without requiring proof of adultery, although fake adulteries and the bizarre rules about collusion persisted until the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into force in 1971.

During the pre-war period, Herbert drafted a number of bills that were printed on the Order Paper, including a Betting and Bookmakers Bill, a Public Refreshment Bill and a Spring (Arrangements) Bill, which was written in verse.[16] Herbert made numerous attacks on the Entertainments Duty, which had been introduced as a "temporary, war-time tax" in 1916.[17] In his campaign against the duty, Herbert worked closely with William Mabane, and they made some headway when in 1939 the Chancellor John Simon reduced the duty.[18] Herbert also spoke out against the proposed Population (Statistics) Bill in 1937, making a speech that was received with "loud laughter" in the Commons chamber, making it, according to Punch, "an astonishing occasion". Herbert and others brought in several amendments to the bill before it reached the statute in 1938.[19]

Herbert was also a fervent opponent of the Oxford Group and their leader, Frank Buchman. In particular, he opposed the use of "Oxford" in their name, and their supposed association with the University of Oxford. He was supported by the University in his endeavors, particularly by the Oxford Union that unanimously passed a resolution in support of Herbert. H. A. L. Fisher, the warden of New College, Oxford, and Douglas Veale, the Registrar of the University of Oxford, also expressed their support to Herbert.[20]

Second World War service (1939–45)

On 3 November 1938, Herbert enrolled himself and his boat, the Water Gispy, in the River Emergency Service, which was under the control of the Port of London Authority.[21] Over the summer of 1939, he had taken part in exercises involving simulated air raid and casualty retrieval. In early September 1939, the River Emergency Service reported to their war stations, and Herbert's own crew consisted of Darcy Braddell, vice-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Victor Pasmore, Magnus Pyke and John Pudney. At the sounding of the first air raid siren in London in 1939, the Water Gipsy was anchored off Speaker's Steps by Westminster Bridge. A number of MPs left the Commons following the sirens and cheered the Water Gipsy as the only naval vessel in sight, before saluting it.[22]

He was sent to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1943 with Derrick Gunston and Charles Ammon as part of a parliamentary commission to investigate the future of the dominion. Of the alternatives, he supported independence rather than confederation.

Later parliamentary career (1945–50)

Herbert was re-elected in the 1945 general election and continued as an MP until the University seats were abolished in 1950. Herbert's last speech, on 23 November 1949, was in favour of the Festival of Britain, a cause he strongly supported.[12] He was knighted in 1945 in Winston Churchill's Resignation Honours.[23] The Times noted "his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member's rights, including not least the right to legislate."[24]

University constituencies, including Oxford University, were, following the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1948, to be abolished after the conclusion of the Parliament of 1945.[25]

Herbet was the subject of a This Is Your Life TV programme in 1961, when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.

Personal life

File:Hammersmith Terrace 07.JPG
12 Hammersmith Terrace

In the summer of 1914, Herbert first met his future wife, Gwendolyn Harriet Quilter, the daughter of Harry Quilter.[26] They became engaged in December 1914 and were married in the first week of 1915 by Frederic Iremonger, the vicar of St James the Great in Bethnal Green. Herbert wore his formal dress uniform of an Acting Leading Seaman during the wedding. They spent their honeymoon in room in Fulham Road.[27] Gwendolyn lived to the age of 97, and died in 1986. They had four children Crystal, Lavender, Jocelyn and John.

The Labour Party Member of Parliament for Chesterfield, Toby Perkins, is his great-grandson.

The Thames

Herbert loved the River Thames. He lived beside it at Hammersmith, West London. He was a Conservator (a member of the Thames Conservancy Board) and a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. In 1966 he wrote The Thames (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) in which he explored the "machinery" of the river in all its aspects.

References by other authors

In his 1957 article "Over Seventy", lamenting the decline of the humorist, P. G. Wodehouse wrote: "I want to see an A. P. Herbert on every street corner, an Alex Atkinson in every local."

The title of Alexandra Fuller's 2001 memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood is taken from a Herbert quote, "Don't let's go to the dogs tonight, for Mother will be there."[28]

"Misleading cases"

Uncommon Law, collecting Misleading Cases in the Common Law

Starting in 1910, he contributed regularly to Punch. One series of his it took was Misleading Cases in the Common Law – the work for which he is best remembered. These were satirical pieces in the form of "law reports" or "judgements" on various aspects of the English legal and judicial system. Many featured the exploits of Albert Haddock, a tireless and veteran litigant. One of the best-known and most colourful is Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock, also known as "The Negotiable Cow". Even the title is a humorous allusion to the entirely serious "Smith's Leading Cases". Herbert often referred to himself as "A. P. Haddock" in skits in Punch magazine, whether or not these had a courtroom setting.

Thanks to their realism, they were on several occasions mistakenly reported by newspapers both in Britain and elsewhere as factual. One of the "cases", supposedly establishing a novel crime of "doing what you like", was sharply criticized by an American law review article, whose author failed to note its entire absurdity.[29] As such they are examples of the literary technique known as false document. And while in these fictitious law reports, the fictitious judges and lawyers regularly cited various real and venerable authorities, such as Henry de Bracton, they were prone also to citing texts of Herbert's own imagination such as "Wedderburn on Water Courses" and "A. Capone's Handbook for Bootleggers".

More importantly, these cases were Herbert's vehicles for his law-reform work. Beneath their satire, they often carried cogent and sharp legal or political points that tied into his personal crusades against obsolescent legislation. Although fictional, they are, consequently, sometimes quoted in judicial decisions,[30] and are also the subject of academic research.[31][32]

Over his lifetime Herbert published five collections, entitled Misleading Cases in the Common Law, More Misleading Cases, Still More Misleading Cases, Codd's Last Case and Bardot M.P.?. Stray cases also appear in his collections of miscellaneous humorous essays, such as General Cargo. Virtually all the cases were assembled into two omnibus volumes, Uncommon Law in 1935 and More Uncommon Law in 1982. A shorter selection, Wigs At Work, appeared in 1966.

The BBC successfully adapted them for television as three series of A P Herbert's Misleading Cases (1967, 1968 and 1971), with Roy Dotrice as Haddock and Alastair Sim as the judge, Mr Justice Swallow.

Novels and other writings

Herbert wrote eight novels, including The Water Gipsies (1930), and 15 plays, including the light operas Tantivy Towers (1931) and Big Ben (1946), and the comedy Bless the Bride (1947), which ran for two-and-a-quarter years in London.

In addition to his fiction, Herbert wrote What a Word! in 1935, continuing his campaign in Punch for better use of English, including a section on 'Plain English' more than a decade ahead of Sir Ernest Gowers' more celebrated work. Characteristically, Herbert uses humour to make his serious points about good writing. He was the author of the lyrics of the patriotic song Song of Liberty, set in 1940 to the music of Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4. After the war he wrote a small booklet called 'The War Story of Southend Pier' detailing an account of when the pier was taken over by the Royal Navy in WW2.

In 1967, Herbert published Sundials Old and New; or, Fun with the Sun; a book describing in detail his long fascination with, and experiments in sundial technology. In the book, he describes all manner of sundials, and recounts many of his experiments in designing and building a number of different models, including a few that could be used to tell your position on the earth as well as the local time.

In 1970 Herbert published A.P.H., His Life and Times, dedicated to My dear wife, for our 56th anniversary.

Selected filmography





  • ATI 'There is no need for alarm(1944) drawings by John Nicolson
  • Play Hours with Pegasus (1912)
  • Half-hours at Helles (1916)
  • The Bomber Gypsy, and Other Poems (1919)
  • The Wherefore and the Why; Some New Rhymes for Old Children (1921)
  • Laughing Ann, and Other Poems (1925)
  • Plain Jane (1927) Poems and plays in verse.
  • Ballads for Broadbrows (1930)
  • A Book of Ballads, Being the Collected Light Verse of A. P. Herbert (1931)
  • Let Us be Glum [1941]
  • Siren Song (1941)
  • "Well, Anyhow ... " Or, Little Talks (1942)
  • Bring Back the Bells (1943)
  • Less Nonsense! (1944)
  • Light the Lights (1945)
  • Leave my Old Morale Alone (1948) Includes: Siren song / Let us be glum / Bring back the bells / "Well, anyhow..." or, Little talks / "Less nonsense!" / Light the lights
  • "Full Enjoyment": And Other Verses (1952)
  • Silver Stream: A Beautiful Tale of Hare & Hound for Young & Old (1962)
  • The Spider



  1. Pound, pp. 16-17
  2. Pound, pp. 21-22
  3. Pound, pp. 22-26
  4. Pound, pp. 25-33
  5. Pound, pp.33-36
  6. Pound, pp. 40-43
  7. Pound, pp. 43-39
  8. 8.0 8.1 "British war poetry: The Bathe". The Daily Telegraph. 31 December 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Pound, pp. 50-53
  10. Pound, pp. 65-66
  11. "Parliamentary Privilege - Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege". Parliament. Retrieved 28 September 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Seatrobe, J. B. "They were also MPs: AP Herbert". Total Politics. Retrieved 18 September 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Pound, p. 135
  14. Pound, pp. 135-136
  15. Herbert, p. 38
  16. Herbert, pp. 41-42
  17. Herbert, p. 91
  18. Herbert, p. 95
  19. Pound, pp. 151-153
  20. Pound, pp. 155-156
  21. Herbert, p. 113
  22. Pound, pp. 158-159
  23. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37227. pp. 4183–4184. 14 August 1945. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  24. "none", The Times, p. 5, 14 August 1945<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Herbert, p. 31
  26. Pound, p. 37
  27. Pound, pp. 42-43
  28. [Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight] Cited from epigraph
  29. Uncommon Law, Rex v Haddock: Is it a free country?, 5, pp. 24-29. Haddock is arrested for jumping into the River Thames from Hammersmith Bridge. When questioned to motive, Haddock replies, "For fun". The judge sums up: "The appellant made the general answer that this was a free country and a man can do what he likes if he does nobody any harm.... It cannot be too clearly understood that this is not a free country, and it will be an evil day for the legal profession when it is... and least of all may they do unusual actions 'for fun'. People must not do things for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament."
  30. See for example Messing v Bank of America(2002) at paragraph 1, and Victor Chandler International Ltd v The Commissioners of Custom and Excise and Teletext Limited 1999 EWHC Ch 214, para 11, where Mr Justice Lightman stated that a document, in the context of the Betting and Gaming Duties Act 1981, "must be inanimate: neither a person nor A. P. Herbert's 'negotiable cow' can constitute a document."
  31. Sweeney, Joseph C. (October 2000), "Rumpelheimer v. Haddock: Port to Port", J. Maritime Law & Commerce, University of Texas, 31 (4), retrieved 2009-05-01<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Uncommon Law, Rumpelheimer v Haddock: Port to Port, 37, pp.237-242. A misleading case hangs on the question of right of way when a car collides with Haddock's dinghy on a flooded road. The English use left-hand traffic but the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea dictate right-hand traffic.


  • Pound, Reginald (1976). A. P. Herbert: A Biography. London: Michael Joseph.
  • Herbert, A. P. (1950). Independent Member. London: Methuen.

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Lord Hugh Cecil and
Sir Charles Oman
Member of Parliament for Oxford University
With: Lord Hugh Cecil, 1910–1937
Sir Arthur Salter, from 1937
University constituencies abolished