Monday, September 01, 2008

Sir Alfred Herbert 1866 - 1957

Sir Alfred Herbert KBE

Alfred Herbert was born in 1866, the son of a farmer, William Herbert. His father, in addition to farming at Whetstone Gorse, owned a town house in Leicester, to which the family retired in winter.

Alfred Herbert was educated at Stoneygate, a local private school where he excelled at English, science and divinity, and was expected to go on to university or into the church until he met up with an old school friend William Hubbard, who worked on a lathe at Joseph Jessop's Engineering Co in Leicester. Herbert was fascinated by what the small lathe produced, so he persuaded his father to let him follow his friend's example. Subsequently he became an apprentice at Jessops and thereafter joined Coles and Mathews, a firm of engineers in The Butts, Coventry. When Matthews retired, Herbert and Hubbard bought the company in partnership with help from their fathers. The partnership was dissolved in two years and Alfred founded the company which bore his name, Alfred Herbert Ltd which he ran until his death in 1957.

Alfred’s older brother William Henry Herbert joined forces with William Hillman in 1875 as Hillman and Herbert and formed the Premier Cycle Company to make bicycles. Later they formed the Automachinery Company which included Alfred on the Board of Directors.

Sir Alfred was married three times, first to Ellen Ryley, who bore him four daughters, but died in 1918. He then married Florence Pepper, who had a been matron at Coventry Hospital. Sadly, she too died in 1930, and in 1933 he married for the third time, Nina Pugh (nee Arundel), my grandmother. Hence we called him 'Step'.

Sir Alfred's life was divided between his factory in Coventry and his estate at Dunley, which he acquired in 1917. A brilliant and kindly man, he and the two successive Lady Herberts used to travel up to Coventry every week and stay in a flat over the works (except for a time during the Second World War when he and Nina were persuaded to stay with his granddaughter June Vapenik at her flat in Leamington Spa).

He worked to the end of his life, never formally retiring, until he died taking sherry at his friend Tommy Sopwith's house in Hampshire on 26th May 1957, at the age of 90. He was buried at Litchfield, the church which he attended from Dunley, and a memorial service was held for him in Coventry Cathedral, attended by over 2000 people.

Click the heading for some photos of Sir Alfred

The following is extracted from the brochure produced for the opening of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in 1960.

Alfred Herbert was born on 5th September 1866, the son of a Leicestershire farmer. After attending Stoneygate School in Leicester, he was apprenticed to Jessop and Sons after which he came to Coventry to take up the position of works manager in a firm of jobbing and general engineers, Coles & Matthews, in The Butts.

A year later the partnership was dissolved and the business was offered to Alfred, who was 22 years of age at the time. He went into partnership with an old school-friend, WS Hubbard and with their fathers' supplying the necessary capital, formed the firm of Herbert and Hubbard.

Hubbard was a clever mechanic with considerable inventive genius, so they decided to make machine tools, the first of which was a very ingenious machine for picking, sorting and storing pills. Machine tools suitable for use in the rapidly expanding bicycle industry were produced and quickly added to the firm's growing reputation. After two or three years Herbert and Hubbard dissolved their partnership and in 1894 a small company, Alfred Herbert Ltd was formed in which Alfred Herbert held the majority of shares. The new firm rapidly forged ahead with the production of machine tools of all kinds; agencies were taken on and foreign branches established all over the world.

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Alfred Herbert was appointed Deputy Director and then Controller of Machine Tools at the Ministry of Munitions, for which service he was awarded a knighthood.

During his lifetime Sir Alfred Herbert developed from very small beginnings, the largest machine tool works in the world.

Not that he is only remembered as one of the greatest industrialists of his day; he was also great in another sphere, as benefactor to his adopted city of Coventry.

Among his many gifts to the city were £2000 in 1934 to equip a ward in the Warwickshire and Coventry Hospital for wounded soldiers, two acres of land in The Butts for a park and playground; Lady Herbert's Homes and Garden as a memorial to Lady Florence Herbert in the centre of the city, Tower Thorpe Manor [sp], which he gave to Coventry as a childrens' home, £10,000 to the hospital and the loan of a like sum free of interest; a covenant with the Cathedral Reconstruction Committee whereby it received £25,000 over seven years; and £200,000 for the provision of the Art Gallery and Museum which is being opened today. This latter sum, with the accumulation of interest, has meant a contribution of nearly £275,000 to the cost of the buildings.

In addition to his public gifts, his private gifts were also many; such as the £25,000 he disbursed amongst his employees to celebrate his 90th birthday.

His death on 2nd May 1957 brought to a close a life of immense achievement and generosity. He was a natural leader of men and carried to the present age the Victorian virtues of thrift and industry.

He will long be remembered not only for his public gifts for which the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum will stand as a most fitting monument, but also for the unfailing courtesy and kindness he extended to all those who worked for him.

The world lost one of its greatest engineering geniuses, Coventry lost a true and loyal friend and Alfred Herbert Ltd its founder and father.'

Return to the Archive Index
Return to Dunley 1917-1957
Return to Nina, Lady Herbert
Return to The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Return to Sir Alfred Herbert's Memorial Service 1957
Return to Litchfield Church Memorial

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