Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert (1831–1905)

by B. A. Knox

This article was published:

Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert (1831-1905), politician and public servant, was born on 12 June 1831 in Brighton, Sussex, England, only son of Algernon Herbert and his wife Marianne, née Lempriere. His father was a barrister, author, antiquarian, sometime fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and fifth son of the first Earl of Carnarvon. Robert was thus second cousin to Henry Herbert, fourth Earl of Carnarvon and his exact contemporary, a connexion of the first importance in his life. Privately tutored he went in 1844 to Rev. Edward Coleridge's house at Eton where he and Carnarvon were constant companions. Despite reputed laziness at Eton he won the Newcastle scholarship in 1849 and entered Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1854; B.C.L., 1856; D.C.L., 1862), taking in 1852 a first in classical moderations and in 1853 a second in literae humaniores; in 1854, having won literary and legal prizes, he was elected a fellow of All Souls. In December W. E. Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, asked Coleridge to recommend a suitable private secretary. Herbert was approached, accepted the post and held it from 1 January 1855 until either the fall of Lord Aberdeen's coalition in February or earlier after an alleged 'divergence of opinions' with his chief. Herbert turned to legal studies. After his father died in June 1855, he inherited the family house and some copyhold property in Ickleton, Cambridgeshire, but the legacy yielded little income for all his father's capital was left to his mother and two younger sisters. He lingered over his legal studies and was not called to the Bar of the Inner Temple until 30 April 1858.

Herbert's political and public prospects had been diminished by the fall of the Aberdeen ministry, but hopes revived when the Conservatives were returned in February 1858. Prompted by Carnarvon, under-secretary at the Colonial Office, Gladstone offered Herbert a private secretaryship but it carried no salary and was refused. Herbert's career then took a decisive and unusual twist. Sir George Bowen was appointed governor of the new colony of Queensland in June 1859. In July the Duke of Newcastle authorized him to select a private secretary who could also become colonial secretary of Queensland, 'independent of local influences'. Advised by 'friends in the Colonial Office', he eventually chose Herbert who accepted because he wanted a public appointment, was not anxious to practise law and no longer had high-placed political friends. Perhaps some of his cousin's new-found interests rubbed off on him.

Herbert had been appointed to no sinecure. He was part of a Colonial Office experiment, for Queensland began as a strict Crown colony with the prospect of immediate responsible government. Commissioned as colonial secretary on 12 December 1859, Herbert was told that he would hold the post only if he secured election to the Legislative Assembly and sufficient votes in the House. He had disadvantages: he was young and book-learned, a 'new-chum' and interloper, an aristocrat and careful dresser, who had yet to prove that he could run a government. In his favour he had intellectual strength, great administrative ability and a personality which enabled him to win 'the goodwill of all persons, especially of the ladies'. In the brief Crown colony government he drew on Bowen's experience and personally negotiated the financial settlement with New South Wales. When parliament met on 22 May 1860 his potential rivals, such as Arthur Macalister, could find no complaint against him. Since he was already in office, warmly approved by the press and known to have the governor's favour, only a candidate with outstanding claims could have challenged him. None existed in Queensland. Herbert's own political strength was shown in his unopposed return for three constituencies. He chose to sit for Leichhardt in the north. Thus Bowen's original Executive Council became the colony's first responsible ministry.

As premier, Herbert cannot be understood without reference to his political ancestry. He was a product of nineteenth-century English conservatism, and a touch of the eighteenth century was manifested in his political methods. The factions and individualism of Queensland politics and parliament and its lack of a party system help to account for Herbert's success. He made no attempt to create a party, although he sedulously fostered conservatism. He relied first on Bowen's wish to have him as premier, with the necessary corollary that he always emphasized the governor's power of decision. This tactic was eventually noticed and not altogether approved, yet it helped him to command votes in the Legislative Assembly. Just as pertinently, Herbert cultivated a range of groups and individuals. He was also helped by his detachment and 'appearance of polite candour and friendly frankness'. Though long unable to overcome the jealousy of William Henry Walsh, he persuaded the Brisbane lawyer, Macalister, to join his ministry in July 1861, a favour which led the original treasurer, (Sir) Robert Mackenzie, to resign in September 1862. Anxious to retain the support of squatters, Herbert filled the post first with T. de Lacy Moffat and then (Sir) Joshua Bell. In contrast, when the first attorney-general, Ratcliffe Pring, had to resign for drunkenness in the House, Herbert replaced him with (Sir) Charles Lilley, an urban radical. Political calculation seems to have been absent from Herbert's appointments of such key civil servants as surveyor-general, police magistrates and commissioners of crown lands, but he made rather more justices of the peace than necessary and critics detected political purpose in some of his expenditure on public works. These exercises in political management matched Herbert's performance in parliament. Aware of his reserved, dry manner, he never attempted oratory and never gave anything away. He used mannerisms to disconcert opposing speakers while his own speeches carried into the legislature the administrative ability which was his main strength. Clear, concise and fluent, they persuaded by their content rather than by his slightly halting delivery.

With a secure majority Herbert favoured strong executive government promoting measures carefully planned and drawing on the warnings and examples of other places; one illustration was his comprehensive land policy of 1860. Despite his conservatism in constitutional matters, he adjusted carefully to progressive public opinion; though a staunch Anglican, he ended state aid to religion and introduced National education against the strong opposition of Bishop Edward Tufnell. He was much concerned, like Peel, for national credit and for economy and efficiency in the civil service. In the absence of income tax, his main source of revenue was the tariff while loan funds were devoted to such developmental works as railways, telegraphs and harbours. His leading objects were to extend settlement especially on the north coast, encourage immigration, diversify the economy and establish a firm basis for stable government. He sought to extend Queensland's trade to Asian markets and to introduce 'Malays and other black labour' for plantation work. In all these aims he had some personal as well as public interest for he invested heavily, though not profitably, in cotton-planting and in the Valley of Lagoons, a large sheep station on the Burdekin.

Before Herbert visited England in July 1862 some of his qualities were beginning to lose effect. In June he had even withdrawn an electoral reform measure for fear of defeat. His conservatism had drawn fire from the Courier, Brisbane's most influential newspaper, and he was deemed too anxious to accommodate opinions in the legislature merely to stay in power. His low view of ordinary colonists caused critics to remind him that he had been appointed to office in a very special way and now had to cultivate popular opinion. His ability and integrity were respected, and in London his Australian reputation was enhanced by such things as his public remonstrance against a proposal to renew convict transportation. In his absence Macalister had acted as premier and, though the Courier had found Herbert's colleagues even less acceptable, it suggested to the traveller that he was no longer indispensable. On his return in April 1863 the assembly reproached him for going to England without leave and only his cool tact saved the motion from becoming a censure. Soon afterwards a popular railway bill was passed only by the Speaker's casting vote. The colony's first parliament was dissolved and at the general election in May a determined attempt was made to defeat him. He sought local credit by standing for North Brisbane and lost, but won the rural electorate of West Moreton after a bitter contest.

The new parliament confirmed Herbert's power. He anticipated and received better majorities than ever in the assembly, and the leadership of the Legislative Council went to his friend, (Sir) John Bramston. To Herbert the official Opposition, led by Mackenzie and later joined by Walsh, was 'feeble'. He passed the measures he wanted and indulged his preference for the office work of government over that of parliament, but by 1865 he was 'weary and sick and disgusted with colonial politics'. For two years he had withdrawn increasingly from colonial society, except for such pastimes as horse-racing, yachting and seabathing. His circle of friends was restricted and when not at his office or Government House, where Bowen required him more often than he liked, his greatest pleasure was Herston, his and Bramston's stone house in a well-stocked seventy acres (28 ha) about three miles (4.8 km) from town. He decided that he must have another 'taste of civilization' and in November told his ministers of his decision. In February 1866 he turned the premiership over to Macalister and when parliament met in April he sat as a private member.

The pleasure of many members at his 'political decease' and Macalister's first term in office were short. In July a crisis was precipitated by the failure of Agra & Masterman's Bank in London. To replace funds borrowed from this source, the ministry proposed to issue inconvertible government notes, 'greenbacks', but Bowen insisted that his Instructions required him to reserve any such measure for consideration by the British government. Macalister resigned as premier and Bowen instantly recalled Herbert, commissioning him on 20 July a member of the Executive Council without portfolio to avoid any ministerial re-election. In the assembly Herbert steered the legislation for securing loans from local and southern banks to tide the government over its troubles. Both Bowen's Instructions and Herbert's Peelite mind prescribed no more than these 'ordinary remedies'. Macalister had panicked and the mobs were loud in Brisbane, but the governor and his minister imposed orthodoxy with a margin of 18 votes in a House of 32. Herbert's electors in West Moreton sent him a glowing memorial but he resigned on 7 August. He sailed on the 20th with some unfriendly press but also with power of attorney from Macalister's new ministry to supervise the sale of colonial debentures in London.

A career in England was always thought in Queensland to be available to Herbert. He was now fairly done with politics and little else remained for him in the colony, even though he told Carnarvon of his probable intention to return 'to look after … sheep and cattle'. Carnarvon, then secretary of state, tried but failed to arrange his cousin's employment in the Colonial Office. Instead, Herbert accepted an assistant secretaryship at the Board of Trade. In 1870 he became an assistant under-secretary in the Colonial Office and in May 1871 permanent under-secretary. His experience and aristocratic connexions had served him well. He brought to the Colonial Office some of the empire-mindedness which Carnarvon was issuing from the opposition side of the House of Lords. With Carnarvon's return to the Colonial Office in February 1874, there began a remarkable partnership in policy making for the colonies. By seeking to strengthen the upper echelons of the Colonial Office, by promoting co-operation between Britain and the larger colonies, by attempting to reorganize military relations with those colonies and by asserting British claims to the south-west Pacific, the cousins were responsible in the colonial sphere for earning the label of 'imperialist' for Disraeli's second ministry. Carnarvon's enthusiasms were partially discredited when he fell out with his colleagues in January 1878 and Herbert's reputation suffered also. However, he was a fixture in the office and carried through into the era when the 'scramble for Africa' transformed the nature of European imperial activity. Although this process was chiefly the concern of the Foreign Office, Herbert constantly advised his chiefs, emphasizing the need for Britain to maintain her or her colonies' supremacy especially in Africa and the Pacific. He retired in 1892.

After Carnarvon died in 1890 Herbert undertook the general editorship of his cousin's speeches and writings, including several volumes on colonial and imperial affairs. Among other duties he served in 1893-96 as agent-general for Tasmania, advised the sultan of Johore, chaired meetings of the Royal Colonial Institute and helped to found the British Empire League. He approved Joseph Chamberlain's strong policies and in 1900 he consented to return briefly to the Colonial Office as permanent under-secretary. In 1903 he accepted the chairmanship of Chamberlain's tariff 'Commission' where he exhibited the qualities which had won him the name of 'the perfect civil servant', imperturbable and efficient, with an outwardly gracious manner which, as in Queensland, was tempered by occasional acidity and intolerance of fools. He was made K.C.B. in 1882 and G.C.B. in 1892. He was also chancellor of the order of St Michael and St George. Unmarried he died on 6 May 1905 at Ickleton, his death attended by the comparative obscurity which he had chosen since 1867. Perhaps it was his dedication to the civil service which led the Saturday Review to proclaim him 'a solid rather than a brilliant member of a singularly interesting family'.

Select Bibliography

  • Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol 3 (Cambridge, 1959)
  • J. Farnfield, Frontiersman (Melb, 1968)
  • Queensland Heritage, 1 (1967) no 6, and for bibliography
  • B. R. Kingston, Land Legislation and Administration in Queensland, 1859-1876 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1970)
  • Sir Everard im Thurn papers (Royal Anthropological Society Library, London).

Citation details

B. A. Knox, 'Herbert, Sir Robert George Wyndham (1831–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 June, 1831
Brighton, Sussex, England


6 May, 1905 (aged 73)
Ickleton, Cambridgeshire, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.