September’s MP of the Month is Sidney Herbert, who was born on this day (16 September) in 1810 and widely expected to become a Victorian prime minister. Fate, however, cruelly intervened, as Dr Ruscombe Foster, the author of an important new biography of Herbert, explains in this guest post…
Sidney Herbert (1810-61) is probably best remembered today as the Secretary at War who, in October 1854, invited his ‘intimate friend’ Florence Nightingale to head a party of nurses to Scutari, where wounded soldiers from the Crimean War were being hospitalised. Within months Nightingale was being immortalised for her work as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’. Herbert meanwhile, organised the Nightingale Fund, arguably the first national charity appeal in Britain. The £48,000 raised went towards funding the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, opened next to St Thomas’s Hospital in June 1860. Herbert also collaborated with Nightingale on the 1857-8 royal commission on the sanitary state of the army. According to popular legend Nightingale worked Herbert to his premature death.
There are innumerable biographies of Nightingale but until recently there was none of Herbert, other than a memoir commissioned by his widow. Tellingly, it would not be until 1915 that Herbert’s statue was eventually shifted to sit alongside that of Nightingale in Waterloo Place.
Sidney Herbert was, according to the great social reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, ‘born with a silver spoon’. Intelligent, handsome and personable, he inherited a vast personal fortune from his father, the 11th Earl of Pembroke, and was heir presumptive to the 40,000 acre Wilton estate in Wiltshire which had been inherited by his half-brother.
Having studied at Oxford University, where he was president of the Union, he entered Parliament for South Wiltshire aged 21 in 1832. Sir Robert Peel, who tipped him as a possible future prime minister, gave him junior office at the Admiralty in 1841. He promoted him to the Cabinet as Secretary at War in 1845. Herbert was one of his closest confidantes during the crisis over the repeal of the corn laws. That political drama would see Disraeli dismissively describe Herbert as Peel’s valet. Herbert, unsurprisingly, thereafter loathed the man he dubbed ‘the Jew.’
By the early 1850s, however, even Disraeli was happy to acknowledge that Herbert was one of the leading experts in the House on army matters. Herbert’s obsession became how to keep the nation safe. This led to his investigating how best to increase the strength of home forces should the French attempt an invasion. He also wanted to improve the army’s proficiency. He became increasingly convinced that there should be more promotion on merit, and that the existing system whereby most officers purchased their commissions should be phased out. By the same token he wanted to see an extension of what he called military instruction. The Crimean War broke out before his ideas could be implemented.
Herbert’s reputation survived the blame game and charges of political incompetence created by the war. His work with Nightingale from the mid-1850s complemented that which he had already been doing: if fewer soldiers were lost to illness and disease, fewer new recruits would need to be found. Nightingale’s biographers characterise her as the driving force in their work. It is arguably truer to say that theirs was a partnership in which she was the solicitor and he the barrister. And it is certainly the case that without Herbert history would not have heard of Nightingale.
Herbert was more than just an army sanitary reformer during the 1850s. He was never far from the drama of high politics. He helped bring down Derby’s government in 1852, assisted in forming Aberdeen’s coalition ministry which followed it, rejected taking the Home Office under Palmerston in 1855, helped mend the Liberals’ differences in June 1859, and became Secretary for War the same month. His return to office confronted him with a familiar spectre: how to deal with a France led by Napoleon III, who seemed keen to revive the glories of his uncle.
Herbert’s fate, as he told Palmerston, was to suffer from a weak constitution. He died on 2 August 1861, killed not by overwork (still less by Nightingale’s demands), but by chronic nephritis, then only recently diagnosed as Bright’s disease. There was a remarkable outpouring of grief at the news of his passing, manifested in poetry as well as prose. Thomas Sotheron Estcourt, a former Home Secretary and another Wiltshire man, wrote of his ‘playful Wit; the rich inventive Thought.’ There was something of a consensus that Herbert might have followed Palmerston as Liberal leader – a more palatable successor than the unpredictable Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone. On this basis Herbert was one of England’s lost prime ministers. At the very least, he merits recognition, alongside the Duke of York and Edward Cardwell, as the most important army reformer of the 19th century.
R. E. Foster, Sidney Herbert. Too Short a Life (2019)