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Sidney Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Lea (1810-1861)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1891.

HerbertSidney Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Lea, born at Richmond, Surrey, 16 September 1810, was second son of George Augustus, eleventh earl of Pembroke, by his second wife, the Countess Catherine, only daughter of Simon, count Woronzoff, formerly Russian ambassador at the court of St. James, and long resident in England. He was educated at Harrow School under Dr. Butler, and matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, 17 May 1828. There he proved himself an elegant scholar, and was admired as a speaker at the Union Debating Society even by the side of Mr. Gladstone, Roundell Palmer, and others. In his final schools in 1831 he went in for a pass degree. He was invited by the examiners upon his first papers to seek honours, but declined, and received an honorary fourth class. As half-brother and heir presumptive to the twelfth Earl of Pembroke he had great influence in Wiltshire, and possessing a handsome person and winning manners, was returned in the conservative interest to the first reformed parliament for the southern division of Wiltshire, a seat which he held till he quitted the House of Commons. He at once attracted the attention of Peel. His first speech was made in June 1834, when he seconded Estcourt's amendment to Wood's bill for admitting dissenters to the universities. He is said to have shown himself at first a hesitating speaker. Greville calls his speech ‘one of those pretty first speeches which prove little or nothing.’ Nevertheless Peel, on taking office in December 1834, offered Herbert a lordship of the treasury, which he refused because sufficient duties were not attached to it. He then accepted the offer of the laborious post of secretary to the board of control, which he held during Peel's short administration. In 1838 he led the opposition to Grote's motion in favour of the ballot. He returned to office with Peel in 1841 as secretary to the admiralty, and in that capacity reformed the naval school at Greenwich. He was at this time a strong protectionist, and not yet aware of the change which was coming over Peel's opinions. When on 12 March 1845 Cobden was making his motion for a select committee to inquire into the effect of protection upon the landed interest, Peel, who was sitting next to Herbert, said, ‘You must answer this, for I cannot.’ In his reply he expressed dislike of members coming to parliament ‘whining for protection.’ Disraeli afterwards said that Peel had ‘sent down his valet, a well-behaved person, to make it known that we are to have no whining here’. In the same year he was transferred to the office of secretary at war, with a seat in the cabinet. This was very rapid but well-deserved promotion. As secretary at war he reformed the system of regimental schools by the creation of a post of enhanced importance, that of ‘schoolmaster-sergeant,’ the regimental schoolmasters having previously possessed no qualifications for the post. This was just before he quitted office with Peel, whom he had followed in his conversion to free trade, and defended with much warmth. He remained out of office for six years. About this time he and Lord Lincoln, afterwards Duke of Newcastle, become interested in the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ a paper by which they lost heavily, and in 1852 he wrote articles in it attacking the members of the Derby administration for their inexperience.

In December 1852 Herbert took office under Lord Aberdeen as secretary at war. In 1854 the organisation of the army sent out to the Crimea broke down. Lord Palmerston in consequence succeeded Lord Aberdeen as premier in January 1855, and Herbert became colonial secretary in the new government. Roebuck, however, was allowed by Palmerston to nominate the members of the committee which had been appointed on his motion to examine into the conduct of the war, and Herbert at once resigned office, considering himself one of the ministers to be charged before the committee. In a speech on 23 February 1855 he explained his reasons for the step. His Russian family connections had exposed him to suspicion from the outbreak of the war, and the responsibility for the official shortcomings at first sight appeared to rest upon him, but upon inquiry it was universally admitted that he was not to blame for the breakdown of the military organisation. He had been particularly energetic in seeking to remedy the condition of the hospitals at Scutari, and gave to Miss Florence Nightingale, who was his personal friend, the fullest official support, although, as the war office was then constituted, this department was not strictly within his official obligations. ‘I wish,’ wrote Mr. Gladstone to R. M. Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton (15 October 1855), ‘some one of the thousand who in prose justly celebrate Miss Nightingale would say a single word for the man of “routine” who devised and projected her going — Sidney Herbert’. He had also dealt with the subject of military education in 1854, constituting three classes of schoolmasters, establishing regimental industrial and infant schools, and formulating a plan for the examination of officers. A speech of his on the education of officers, 5 June 1856, was printed. In bringing up the report of the Sebastopol Committee, 17 July 1855, Mr. Roebuck said of him ‘no man could have been more intent upon the honour of his country and on performing the duties of his office. He was conscientiously endeavouring to perform his duty, and was always at his post.’

During the session of 1856 he gained more in parliamentary estimation than did any other member. Though nominally only one of the ‘Peelites,’ and anxious to maintain the separate existence of that party, he was already talked of as a possible prime minister. He took the lead in the movement for army reform which succeeded the Crimean war, and was the mainspring of the royal commission on the sanitary condition of the army. He drafted its report, and wrote an article upon it in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ No. 105, p. 155. At his suggestion and with his assistance, four supplementary commissions were issued, namely on hospitals and barracks, on the army medical department, on army medical statistics, and on the medical school at Chatham, and he drafted the code of regulations for the army medical department which appeared in October 1859. When Lord Palmerston returned to power in June 1859 Herbert took office as secretary for war. It now fell to him to complete the reorganisation of that office, and especially to work out the transfer of the Indian army to the crown, to develope and encourage the volunteer movement, and to deal with the necessity for adopting rifled ordnance. This triple task involved immense labour, which rapidly told upon his health. Bright's disease made its appearance, and although advised that only rest could save him, he refused to quit his post.

In 1860 he was persuaded to accept a peerage as some step towards relieving the strain of his office, and he was raised to the House of Lords as Baron Herbert of Lea. The relief came too late. In July he was compelled to resign his office. He visited Spa in vain, was brought home to Wilton House, Salisbury, and died three days after his return on 2 August 1861. ‘He was just the man to rule England,’ wrote Lord Houghton, on hearing the news; ‘birth, wealth, grace, tact, and not too much principle’. The last words are scarcely just. With every advantage of wealth, mental cultivation, a generous and sanguine temper combined with strong natural caution, fine appearance and manners, considerable eloquence and great industry, Herbert would certainly have achieved the highest political dignity, had not his determination to retrieve during his second administration of the army the misfortunes of his first sacrificed his health to unremitting devotion to duty. In private life he was munificently charitable. He and his wife erected a model lodging-house at Wilton for agricultural labourers, and took a personal share in promoting emigration. Both on his Wiltshire estates and at Donnybrook, near Dublin, he laid out large sums in improvements, and built or contributed to build many churches, especially that at Wilton, upon which he spent £30,000, and one at Sandymount, near Dublin. He published in 1849, privately, a pamphlet on the ‘Better Application of Cathedral Institutions.’ He married, on 12 August 1846, Elizabeth, daughter of General Ashe A'Court, by whom he had seven children, of whom George Robert Charles, born 1850, succeeded him.

A statue of him by J. H. Foley, R.A., was unveiled in front of the old war office, Pall Mall, 1 June 1867, and was removed to the new war office in Whitehall in 1907. Exhibitions were also founded in his memory at the Army Medical School, Chatham, which was established under his auspices.

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