The name ‘Herbert’ is woven into the fabric of modern Coventry. As well as being a key player in the development of the industrial city, Sir Alfred Herbert was at the forefront of Coventry’s war effort in both world wars and became one of its greatest and most loved philanthropists during a difficult time for the city.
Alfred Herbert was born in Leicester in 1866. To start his career, he became an apprentice at Joseph Jessop’s Engineering Company, before becoming the manager of machine tools manufacturer Coles & Matthews in Coventry three years later. After Matthews retired the following year, Alfred Herbert and William Hubbard, a school friend and fellow apprentice at Jessops, bought the company. In 1894, Herbert bought out Hubbard, and Alfred Herbert Ltd was incorporated. By 1914, Herbert’s machine tools manufacturing company had 2000 employees, one of the biggest employers and most successful businesses in Coventry.
Alfred married his first wife Ellen Ryley in 1899, and they had four daughters together before separating and then divorcing in 1913. Alfred and Florence met at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, where Alfred was chairman of the board and Florence was matron. Then Florence Lucas, she was widowed, having been married to Lieutenant Colonel H E E Lucas. Alfred and Florence married in 1913, and letters from Alfred’s daughter reveal that ‘their marriage was the happiest imaginable’.
Alfred Herbert Limited had grown to become one of world’s leading manufacturers of machine tools by the outbreak of the First World War. Due to its well-developed industries, the city of Coventry was well placed to play a central role in the country’s war effort. Coventry companies such as Maudslay, Daimler and Standard made vehicles and aircraft, and Riley and Humber also produced shells and bombs. Alfred was made controller of machine tools for the Ministry of Munitions in 1915, work for which he was knighted. Florence went with Alfred to London during the war, remaining ‘by his side, constantly supporting and encouraging him’. After the war, Florence moved to Sir Alfred’s estate at Dunley in Hampshire that he had purchased in 1917 with her mother and sisters, where the couple lived happily for the next 12 years. Together they participated in Alfred’s favourite pastimes of fishing and shooting at the estate.
In 1918 we came to my present home – Dunley near Whitchurch. Another beat on the Lower Test at Compton, above Romsey, I have rented for a good many years. Here the river is wide and deep and the trout run larger (the limit is a pound and a half) but they are not very numerous. Compton holds many happy memories for me of days when with Florence, Haig, Downing, Price, my sister-in-law Margaret Pepper, or other friends, we have fished through the long summer days, often staying for the evening rise, and have driven home tired but very content. My wife’s best trout was three pounds. once I had a four pounder, and Miss Pepper had many good fish including a grayling of three pounds and a half.
Between the wars, Coventry added more housing for the city as part of a national drive to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’ and to cater for the ever-increasing population. During the period, philanthropists funded and oversaw improvements to local health care and amenities. Among them, Sir Alfred and Florence were great benefactors, supporting various public institutions to help the sick and less fortunate.
Sadly, Florence passed away in May 1930. During the final year of her life, Sir Alfred had begun the process of negotiating land purchases in the city centre, surrounding the remaining section of city wall and the two gatehouses, in order to develop the site. Florence died the day before the agreement was reached to acquire the land, and never the resulting garden completed. Sir Alfred named it Lady Herbert’s Garden in her memory, and her initials feature on all original railings and bronze gates, and the weathervane on top of Swanswell Gate. Sir Alfred also built ‘Lady Herbert’s Homes’, a set of almshouses in the garden for use by Coventry’s elderly women.
The late Lady Herbert, to whose memory the gardens will be devoted, and whose kindly thought was the mainspring of her husband’s generous offer to the city
The Lady Herbert Memorial Fund was set up in Florence’s name, raising £500 for the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. Sir Alfred also funded the building of a new Lady Chapel at St Barbara’s Church in Earlsdon and an endowment for St Paul’s Church in Foleshill, near Alfred’s largest factory site, in Florence’s memory. Her mother and sisters commissioned a lychgate at St James the Less church in Lichfield where she was buried, near the estate at Dunley, and Alfred funded extensive improvements to the churchyard.
In 1933 Sir Alfred was awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City of Coventry for his industrial and public service for his adopted city. He was well known for his acts of charity, which included supporting injured servicemen, children’s charities and public health initiatives. He was involved with the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital for many years, first as chairman and later as president, and donated a large sum of £20,000 for reconstruction work after the Coventry Blitz in 1940. He also assisted in funding the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He was much loved by his work force, with his step-grandson remembering how:
Above Sir Alfred’s great talent as an engineer, he was probably an even greater manager and leader of men, and treated every man as an equal. He would go down onto the works floor at all hours and especially on the night shift, cigarette in hand, and chat to whoever was there.
Sir Alfred never formally retired, working up until the end of his life. He died at the age of 90 in May 1957, and is buried with Florence.