Alan P. Herbert

Alan P. Herbert

Alan Patrick Herbert was born in Elstead, Surrey in 1890. After studying law at Oxford University he served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. After the war he published the novel The Secret Battle (1919).

In 1924 Herbert joined Punch Magazine and two years later had his first theatrical success with the production of Riverside Nights. He also wrote the lyrics for Tantivy Towers (1930) and Helen (1932) and published the novels The Water Gipsies (1930), Holy Deadlock and What a Word (1935).

Herbert became the Independent MP for Oxford University in 1935. A campaigner for reform of the marriage and divorce laws, played an important role in the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1938. He was also a strong supporter of Neville Chamberlain and his Appeasement Policy.

Herbert retired from the House of Commons in 1950. Other books by Herbert included two volumes of autobiography, Independent Member (1950) and My Life and Times (1970).

Alan Herbert died in 1971.

Primary Sources

(1) Alan P. Herbert, speech, House of Commons (1935)

I have in my hand a Bill which I am ready to introduce next Friday, or on the Friday after, or on all the Fridays, until it is passed into law; and I swear that it shall be passed before this Parliament is over. But I must remind them that all the serious politicians laughed when I disclosed my obscene designs upon my almost virgin University. They said that with my extraordinary opinions I ought to go to Hoxton, to the taverns, to the racecourses of our land, and hope perhaps to scramble together a discreditable vote or two, but that to go to Oxford, the citadel of Christian enlightenment and the stronghold of orthodoxy, a constituency with more parsons to the square vote than any other constituency besides - this was lunacy. However, I went on, and the walls of Jericho fell down. Therefore, I would ask honourary Members in the north-east corner of the House to consider again before they laugh at my intentions.

At all events, here is this Bill, and it is not a feeble little Bill. It is called the Matrimonial Causes Bill. It is a Bill to reform the indecent, hypocritical, cruel, and unjust marriage laws of this country. It is a Bill which carries out or is based upon the recommendations of the Majority Report of the Royal Commission which reported twenty-three years ago, and I am ready, as I say, to introduce it next Friday.

In your wise advice to us the other day, Mr. Speaker, you mentioned the decline of public interest in the proceedings of this House. I was wondering then whether some part of that decline might not be due to the fact that so many high and great problems are discussed in the House which are not understood or understandable by the common people, and that simple human problems such as are dealt with in this Bill, and which the common man does think he understands, are so seldom mentioned here, and when they are mentioned are dismissed as frivolities.

(2) Alan P. Herbert, Independent Member (1950)

At Westminster, through everything, the Mother of Parliaments remained, a prime target, easily distinguishable, beside the river. The House of Commons Chamber was destroyed: a bomb fell the same night (10 May 1941) through the roof of the Lords, not far from their Chamber. The Palace of Westminster and precincts were hit by ten high explosive bombs, one oil bomb, and many hundreds of incendiaries. St. Thomas's Hospital, across the river, was hit many rimes. Almost every building in sight beside the river was wounded. One morning I left Westminster Pier and saw large holes in the eastern face of Big Ben. But the Speaker was still in his fine house by the Bridge. For the most part, true, they sat during the hours of daylight only: but the doodle-bugs were not afraid of daylight.

It was a pretty grim place to work in, too, during the war. The 'black-out', in such a building, was an almost impossible problem. A few hurricane-lamps on the floor were the only lighting of the great Central Hall, and they made it a lofty tomb of gloom. All the windows went in the early blitzes: the east side was all cardboard and sandbags, and you could not see the river from the Smoking Room. On the terrace was a Guards machine-gun post (of which I went in fear many nights on patrol, in the early days, when E-boats were expected in the Strand). Our favourite pictures and tapestries were taken away, and left depressing gaps. The Harcourt Room was full of beds for the A.R.P.: the lower corridors were anti-gas refuges. The Smoking Room closed earlier - very rightly - to let the staff get home before the blitz. And all the time there was the feeling that the things that mattered were happening elsewhere - a strange sad feeling for the proud M.P. and law-giver. It was pleasant enough for me, after a long voyage up the river from Canvey Island, to pop into the Smoking Room in the evening, hear the gossip and have a drink (if there was any one left), to dart in now and then, with special leave from the Navy, and make a speech about this or that. But I could not have endured to be there all the time: and I honoured those who were.

(3) Alan P. Herbert, Memories of the Forties (1965)

As far as Vauxhall there was the light of early dusk, and after Lambeth it was nearly the light of day ... The Temple and its lawns were brilliant and beautiful... The Pool, below London Bridge, was a lake of light. I saw a stupendous spectacle. Half a mile or more of the Surrey shore was burning ... The wind was westerly, and the accumulated smoke and sparks of all the fires swept in a high wall across the river. The scene was like a lake in Hell. Burning barges were drifting everywhere... We could hear the hiss and roar of the conflagration, a formidable noise, but we could not see it, so dense was the smoke. Nor could we see the eastern shore.

There were pepper fires, loading the surrounding air heavily with stinging particles so that when the firemen took a deep breath it felt like breathing fire itself. There were rum fires, with torrents of blazing liquid pouring from the warehouse doors (nor any drop to drink) and barrels exploding like bombs themselves. There was a paint fire, another cascade of white hot flame, coating the pumps with varnish that could not be cleaned for weeks. A rubber fire gave forth black clouds of smoke so asphyxiating that it could only be fought from a distance, and was always threatening to choke the attackers.