A. P. Herbert

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Sir Alan Patrick Herbert
Member of Parliament for Oxford University
In office
14 November 1935 – 23 February 1950
Preceded by Sir Charles Oman
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Personal details
Born 24 September 1890
Ashtead, Surrey, England
Died 11 November 1971
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Gwendolyn Quilter
Alma mater University of Oxford
Winchester College
Blue plaque, 12 Hammersmith Terrace
12 Hammersmith Terrace

Sir Alan Patrick Herbert CH (24 September 1890 – 11 November 1971), usually writing as A. P. Herbert or A. P. H., was an English humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist. He was an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Oxford University for 15 years, five of which he combined with service in the Royal Navy.

Personal life[edit]

Herbert was born in Ashtead, Surrey, to Patrick Herbert, a civil servant, and Beatrice Herbert, née Selwyn.[1] His mother died when he was seven years old. He had two younger brothers; both were killed in battle—one in 1914 and the other in 1941.[2]

Herbert married Gwendolyn Harriet Quilter on New Year's Eve 1914, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1971. Gwendolyn lived to the age of 97, and died in 1986. They had four children Crystal, Lavender, Jocelyn Herbert and John. He lived on Hammersmith Terrace in Hammersmith, London.

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

Education and public career[edit]

Herbert was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, gaining a First-Class Honours Degree in Jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1919,[3] but never practised.

Herbert served in the Royal Naval Division during the First World War. He was mentioned in dispatches after Gallipoli, and drew on that experience for his novel The Secret Battle, published in 1919. During the Second World War he combined his parliamentary duties with service in the Royal Navy on patrol boats in the Thames. He may have been the first serving Member of Parliament to have served in the Royal Navy without a commission: he was Petty Officer Herbert from 1940 to 1945.

In 1935, with the aid of Frank Pakenham, he became an Independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University, from where he was returned until the University seats were abolished in 1950. 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.

He was knighted in 1945 in Winston Churchill's Resignation Honours.[4] 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."[5]

Reforming the laws[edit]

Throughout his career Herbert lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be outdated, including those on divorce and obscenity. In this he used his satirical skills to great effect.

A popular topic of his was the remarkably complex British licensing laws of the time, and in 1935, as a protest, he was the first person to lay criminal information against the House of Commons for selling alcohol without a licence.[6] (The High Court ruled that it was exempt through parliamentary privilege.)

Giving his maiden speech on his second day in the House, Herbert declared rashly that he planned to introduce the Matrimonial Causes Bill, to reform divorce, and that he would have it passed before that Parliament was over, publishing the novel Holy Deadlock in 1934 to make his points humorously. 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. He also advocated reform of the gambling laws and the repeal of the entertainments tax, among other causes.

"Misleading cases"[edit]

Uncommon Law, collecting Misleading Cases in the Common Law
For more details on this topic, see Uncommon 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.[7] 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,[8] and are also the subject of academic research.[9][10]

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[edit]

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.

The Thames[edit]

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[edit]

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."[11]

Selected filmography[edit]





  • 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. ^ Beatrice was the daughter of Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn, a Lord of Appeal, the brother of Bishop George Selwyn
  2. ^ Sir Alan Herbert, A.P.H.: His Life and Times (1970), p. 6.
  3. ^ The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple: Famous members
  4. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37227. pp. 4183–4184. 14 August 1945. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  5. ^ The Times, 14 August 1945: 5 
  6. ^ R. v. Graham-Campbell; Ex parte Herbert, [1935] 1 K.B. 594
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ 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."
  9. ^ Sweeney, Joseph C. (October 2000), "Rumpelheimer v. Haddock: Port to Port]", J. Maritime Law & Commerce (University of Texas) 31 (4), retrieved 2009-05-01 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ [Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight] Cited from epigraph


  • Reginald Pound, "Herbert, Sir Alan Patrick (1890–1971)", rev. Katherine Mullin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 accessed 25 August 2006

External links[edit]

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