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Sir Alan Patrick Herbert, CH (usually writing as A. P. Herbert or A. P. H.) (24 September 1890 – 11 November 1971) was an Englishmarker humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist. He was Member of Parliament for Oxford University for 15 years, five of which he combined with service in the Royal Navy.

Early life

He was born in Ashteadmarker, Surreymarker, to Patrick Herbert, a civil servant, and Beatrice Herbert, née Selwyn. His mother died at an early age.

Education and public career

He was educated at Winchester Collegemarker and New College, Oxfordmarker, obtaining a first class honours degree in jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the inner Templemarker in 1919, but never practised.

He served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. He survived Gallipoli and was mentioned in dispatches. He drew on that experience for his novel The Secret Battle, published in 1919. During the Second World War, in addition to his parliamentary duties he served in the Royal Navy on patrol-boats in the Thames. He may have been the first serving Member of Parliament to serve in the Royal Navy without being an officer: he was Petty Officer Herbert from 1940 to 1945.

In 1935, with the aid of Frank Pakenham, he became an Independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University, from where he was returned until the University seats were abolished in 1950.

He was sent to Newfoundland and Labradormarker in 1943 with Derrick Gunston and Charles Ammon as part of a Parliamentary Commission to investigate the future of the dominion, and supported the cause of independence over confederation as a result.

He was knighted in 1945 in Winston Churchill's Resignation Honours. The Times noted "his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member's rights, including not least the right to legislate."

Reforming the laws

Throughout his career he lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be outdated, including those on divorce and obscenity, using his satirical skills to great effect.

A popular topic of his was the remarkably complex British licensing laws of the time, and in 1935, as a protest, he was the first person to lay a criminal information against the House of Commonsmarker for selling alcohol without a licence. (The High Court ruled that it was exempt through Parliamentary privilege.)

Giving his maiden speech on his second day in the House, he declared rashly that he planned to introduce the Matrimonial Causes Bill, to reform divorce, and that he would have it passed before that Parliament was over, publishing the novel Holy Deadlock in 1934 to make his points humorously. It was passed, somewhat strengthened by the House of Lords, in 1938 as the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. This allowed divorce without requiring proof of adultery. He also advocated reform of the gambling laws and the repeal of the entertainments tax, among other causes.

"Misleading Cases"

His humorous writing appeared often in Punch Magazine starting in 1910, where the work for which he is best remembered, his series of Misleading Cases in the Common Law was first published. These were satirical pieces, in the form of "law reports" or "judgment", on various aspects of the British legal and judicial system. They often had a sharp political point beneath their satire, and tied into his personal crusades against obsolescent legislation. Many of them featured the exploits of Albert Haddock, a tireless and veteran litigant; Herbert often referred to himself as "A. P. Haddock" in Punch magazine skits, whether or not these had a courtroom setting.

Although entirely fictional, they are sometimes quoted in judicial decisions, and are also the subject of academic research.

Due to their realism they were on several occasions mistakenly reported by newspapers both in Britain and elsewhere as factual. One of the "cases", supposedly establishing a novel crime of "doing what you like", was sharply criticized by an Americanmarker law review article, whose author failed to note its entire absurdity.

Over his lifetime Herbert published five collections of the Misleading Cases, titled Misleading Cases in the Common Law, More Misleading Cases, Still More Misleading Cases, Codd's Last Case and Bardot M.P.?. Stray cases also appear in his collections of miscellaneous humorous essays, such as General Cargo. Virtually all the cases were assembled into two omnibus volumes, Uncommon Law in 1935 and More Uncommon Law in 1982. A shorter selection, Wigs At Work, appeared in 1966. The BBC successfully adapted them for television as three series of A P Herbert's Misleading Cases (1967, 1968 and 1971), with Roy Dotrice as Haddock and Alastair Sim as the judge, Mr. Justice Swallow.

Novels and other writings

He wrote eight novels, including The Water Gypsies (1930), and 15 plays, including the light opera Tantivy Towers, and the comedy Bless the Bride(1947), which ran for two and a quarter years in London.

In addition to his fiction, Herbert wrote What a Word! in 1935, continuing his campaign in Punch for better use of English, including a section on 'Plain English' more than a decade ahead of Sir Ernest Gowers' more celebrated work. Characteristically, Herbert uses humour to make his serious points about good writing.

He was the author of the lyrics of the patriotic song Song of Liberty, set in 1940 to the music of Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4.

In 1967, Herbert published Sundials Old and New; or, Fun with the Sun; a book describing in detail his long fascination with, and experiments in sundial technology. In the book, he describes all manner of sundials, and recounts many of his experiments in designing and building a number of different models, including a few that could be used to tell your position on the earth as well as the local time.

In 1970 Herbert published A.P.H., His Life and Times, dedicated to My dear wife, for our 56th anniversary.

The Thames

Herbert loved the River Thames. He lived beside it at Hammersmith, West Londonmarker. He was a Conservator (a member of the Thames Conservancy Boardmarker) and a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. In 1966 he wrote The Thames (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) in which he explored the "machinery" of the river in all its aspects.

References by other authors

In his 1957 article "Over Seventy", lamenting the decline of the humorist, P. G. Wodehouse wrote: "I want to see an A. P. Herbert on every street corner, an Alex Atkinson in every local."

The title of Alexandra Fuller's 2001 memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, An African Childhood is taken from a Herbert quote, "Don't let's go to the dogs tonight, for Mother will be there."


  1. Beatrice was the daughter of Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn, a Lord of Appeal, the brother of Bishop George Selwyn
  2. The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple: Famous members
  3. R. v. Graham-Campbell; Ex parte Herbert, [1935] 1 K.B. 594
  4. See for example, Messing v Bank of America(2002) at paragraph 1, and Victor Chandler International Ltd v The Commissioners of Custom and Excise and Teletext Limited 1999 EWHC Ch 214, para 11, where Mr Justice Lightman stated that a document, in the context of the Betting and Gaming Duties Act 1981, "must be inanimate: neither a person nor A. P. Herbert's 'negotiable cow' can constitute a document."
  5. Uncommon Law, Rumpelheimer v Haddock: Port to Port, 37, pp237-242. A misleading case hinging on an argument over right-of-way when a car collides with Haddock's dinghy on a flooded road. The English use left-hand traffic but the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea dictate right-hand traffic.
  6. Uncommon Law, Rex v Haddock: Is it a free country?, 5, pp24-29. A misleading case when Haddock is arrested for jumping into the River Thames from Hammersmith Bridge. When questioned to motive, Haddock replies "For fun". The judge sums up: "The appellant made the general answer that this was a free country and a man can do what he likes if he does nobody any harm.... It cannot be too clearly understood that this is not a free country, and it will be an evil day for the legal profession when it is... and least of all may they do unusual actions "for fun". People must not do things for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament."


  • Reginald Pound, "Herbert, Sir Alan Patrick (1890–1971)", rev. Katherine Mullin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 accessed 25 August 2006

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