Born in Ashtead, Surrey, Herbert attended Winchester College and New College, Oxford, graduating with a first in Jurisprudence in 1914. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman after the outbreak of World War I, later serving as an officer with the Royal Naval Division. He fought in the Gallipoli campaign and on the Western Front, becoming his battalion's adjutant in 1917, following which he was injured and did not return to the frontline before the end of the war. Following the war, he published The Secret Battle and joined the permanent staff of Punch in 1924. He also wrote the librettos for several musicals.
Herbert was elected as the Independent MP for Oxford University in the 1935 general election. Before the outbreak of World War II, Herbert campaigned for private member's rights, piloted the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 through Parliament, opposed the Entertainments Duty and campaigned against the Oxford Group. He enlisted in the River Emergency Service in 1938 and served in World War II as a Petty Officer in the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol. He captained his river boat, the Water Gipsy, assigned to the River Thames. In 1943, he was part of a parliamentary commission sent to investigate the future of the Dominion of Newfoundland.
Herbert was born in Ashtead, Surrey on 24 September 1890. His father, Patrick Herbert, was a civil servant in the India Office, and his mother, Beatrice (née Selwyn), was the daughter of Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn, a Lord Justice of Appeal. He had two younger brothers; both were killed in battle — one in 1914 and the other in 1941. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was eight years old, shortly before he left to attend The Grange in Folkestone, a preparatory school.
Herbert then attended Winchester College, where he won the King's Medal for English Verse and the King's Medal for English Speech, which was presented by H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister at the time. He took an active part in the College's debating society and Shakespeare society. As a student at Winchester, Herbert sent verses to the offices of Punch, and received notes of encouragement and suggestions from the editor, Owen Seaman. Herbert was also Captain of Houses, one of the College's three football divisions.
From Winchester, Herbert went to New College, Oxford as an Exhibitioner. He made his first public speech at the Kensington branch of the Tariff Reform League, speaking extempore on home rule. His first contribution to Punch was printed on 24 August 1910, being a set of verses with the title Stones of Venus. Herbert went up to Oxford in October, and made his first speech at the Oxford Union in November. Apart from Punch, his work began appearing in The Observer, the Pall Mall Gazette and Vanity Fair.
Herbert received a "not very good Second" in Honour Moderations, and, apparently disenchanted with Classics, changed his degree to Law. He went into lodgings with Walter Monckton and others and was also good friends with notables Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and Philip Guedalla. Herbert finished at Oxford in 1914, with "a very good First" in Jurisprudence. He then decided to join his friend Jack Parr as a volunteer at Oxford House in Bethnal Green for a year. He spent the time "doing what I could:" washing dishes, sweeping floors, running errands and collecting money.
On 5 September 1914, Herbert enlisted at Lambeth Pier as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, which later became one of the constituent bodies of the Royal Naval Division. In early October, the news reached Herbert that his brother, Owen Herbert, had been posted "missing, believed killed" in the retreat from Mons. Herbert reached the rank of acting leading seaman before being commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in early 1915, when he was posted to Hawke Battalion of the Royal Naval Division (later to come under army command as part of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division).
"C" and "D" companies of Hawke Battalion departed for Gallipoli in early 1915, briefly stopping in Malta before arriving at the Moudros on 17 May. The battalion finally arrived at Gallipoli on 27 May. Herbert was put in command of No. 11 Platoon, "C" Company, which was composed mostly of Tynesiders and also two men from a remote Durham mining town. A week after arrival, the battalion suffered heavy casualties at the Third Battle of Krithia. In July 1915, Herbert went down with an illness and had to spend time recovering in a military hospital. When he was passed "fit for light duty", he was seconded to the Naval Intelligence Division at Whitehall. It was at this time that he decided to begin renting 12 Hammersmith Terrace.
In summer 1916, when passed fit for duty, Herbert returned to Hawke Battalion at their base camp in Abbeville, where he was made assistant adjutant. The battalion moved to the front line at Souchez in July 1916, and in mid-November the battalion took part in an attack on Beaucourt during the Battle of the Ancre that saw almost the entire battalion wiped out. Herbert was one of only two officers that came out unscathed from the attack. When the battalion returned to the front line at Pozières in February 1917, Herbert was made the battalion's adjutant, but he was later injured from shrapnel during an attack on Gavrelle, west of Arras.
On medical leave back in England following the injury, Herbert began writing his first book, The Secret Battle, which was finished "in a few weeks". He was also elected a member of the Savage Club, and was raised by Punch to the "exclusive group of its contributors who were allowed to attach their initials to their work." On 2 October 1918, Herbert sailed out of Liverpool in a convoy bound for Alexandria. His role was as assistant to the Commodore. After arriving at Port Said, he was given a free pass to Cairo and was allowed to make a number of unaccompanied incursions inland. He was able to visit a number of places on the North African coast, and from Tunis, he took a train to Constantine, and then to Algiers. On 11 November, he went by train from Oran to Tlemcen. Exactly at 11 am, he heard that the Armistice had been signed. He wrote that "I must have been the only Englishman for at least 80 miles."
He was granted shore leave at Gibraltar and took the opportunity to travel to Seville and then to Córdoba. He arrived in Madrid on 22 November and dined with the embassy's naval attache, Captain John Harvey, as well as Filson Young and others before making the return journey to Gibraltar.
The Secret Battle was recommended to Methuen Publishing by E. V. Lucas and was announced in their spring list in 1919. The book was "read all night" by Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, who also brought it to the attention of Churchill, then Secretary of State for War. Montgomery considered it "the best story of front line war", and Herbert himself believed that court martial arrangements were subsequently "altered in some way" as a result of the book. However, the book was not a great commercial success, which his biographer Reginald Pound puts down to the fact that "Readers, it seems, were tired of war as a dramatic theme."
Herbert was called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1919 and entered the chambers of Leslie Scott. He was joined by two of his Oxford friends, Walter Monckton and Henry Strauss, who were called on the same day. Although he spent some time at Inner Temple, he never practised law and did not enter a legal career. He later declared himself "forever sorry" that he was "not of the proud and faithful brotherhood who serve the laws of England."
Unable to sustain himself on Punch's "eccentric rates of payment", Herbert wrote his second book, The House by the River, in two months, and it was published in 1920. He handed his literary business to A. P. Watt, who sold the American rights to The House by the River and also published a collection of his prose submissions to Punch under the title Light Articles Only.
In January 1924, Owen Seaman, the editor of Punch, invited Herbert to join their staff. Herbert accepted and his accession to the staff meant he would receive a salary of £50 a week. In 1925, Herbert attended the Third Imperial Press Conference on behalf of Punch, where he made his first speech in front of a large audience in Melbourne, where it was described as "delectably witty" by Sir Harry Brittain.
In 1926, Herbert was invited by Nigel Playfair to write "an entertainment" for the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The result was Riverside Nights, performed at the Lyric in April 1926. His next play, The White Witch, was performed at Haymarket Theatre in September 1926.
Herbert first encountered Parliament in 1934, when he brought the Kitchen Committee of the House of Commons to court for selling liquor without a licence. Hewart, LCJ, ruled that the court would not hear the complaint because the matter fell within parliamentary privilege. Since the decision was never challenged in a higher court, this has led to the unique situation where there has been uncertainty as to "the extent to which statute law applies to either House of Parliament." When, the next year, Herbert published Uncommon Law, Hewart contributed a generous introduction.
Herbert first entertained the thought of standing for Parliament a few weeks before the 1935 general election, when he ran into Frederick Lindemann, who had just been rejected as the Conservative candidate for Oxford University. Herbert decided to stand as an Independent candidate, aided by Frank Pakenham who served as his election agent. Herbert wrote an "unconventional", 5,000-word-long election address, which included: "Agriculture: I know nothing about agriculture."
He was elected as an Independent supporter of the National Government. Defying the advice of more experienced members, including Austen Chamberlain, he made his maiden speech on 4 December 1935, the second day of the opening session of the new Parliament. He protested to the Prime Minister, Baldwin, on a motion that would give precedence to government bills over private member's bills. He went into the "No" lobby alongside the members of the Independent Labour Party and fellow university member Eleanor Rathbone, but the motion was passed by 232 to 5. Churchill praised Herbert for his "composure and aplomb", and also famously said: "Call that a maiden speech? It was a brazen hussy of a speech. Never did such a painted lady of a speech parade itself before a modest Parliament." During his speech, Herbert promised to introduce his Matrimonial Causes Bill into law by the end of the parliament.
In 1936, Herbert failed to get drawn in the private members' ballot but managed to get the Conservative Rupert De la Bère to sponsor the bill. On 20 November, Herbert made a speech in its favour and it passed its second reading by 78 votes to 12. It was given a third reading in the House of Lords on 19 July 1937 and was passed by 79 votes to 28. 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, although fake adulteries and the bizarre rules about collusion persisted until the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into force in 1971.
During the pre-war period, Herbert drafted a number of bills that were printed on the Order Paper, including a Betting and Bookmakers Bill, a Public Refreshment Bill and a Spring (Arrangements) Bill, which was written in verse. Herbert made numerous attacks on the Entertainments Duty, which had been introduced as a "temporary, war-time tax" in 1916. In his campaign against the duty, Herbert worked closely with William Mabane, and they made some headway when in 1939 the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon reduced the duty. Herbert also spoke out against the proposed Population (Statistics) Bill in 1937, making a speech that was received with "loud laughter" in the Commons chamber, making it, according to Punch, "an astonishing occasion". Herbert and others brought in several amendments to the bill before it reached the statute book in 1938.
Herbert was also a fervent opponent of the Oxford Group and its leader, Frank Buchman. In particular, he opposed the use of "Oxford" in their name and their supposed association with the University of Oxford. He was supported by the University in his endeavours, particularly by the Oxford Union, which unanimously passed a resolution in support of Herbert. H. A. L. Fisher, the warden of New College, Oxford, and Douglas Veale, the Registrar of the University of Oxford, also expressed their support to Herbert.
On 3 November 1938, Herbert enrolled himself and his boat, the Water Gipsy, in the River Emergency Service, which was under the control of the Port of London Authority. Over the summer of 1939, he had taken part in exercises involving simulated air raid and casualty retrieval. In early September 1939, the River Emergency Service reported to their war stations, and Herbert's own crew consisted of Darcy Braddell, vice-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Victor Pasmore, Magnus Pyke and John Pudney. At the sounding of the first air raid siren in London in 1939, the Water Gipsy was anchored off Speaker's Steps by Westminster Bridge. A number of MPs left the Commons following the sirens and cheered the Water Gipsy as the only naval vessel in sight, before saluting it.
During the Second World War, Herbert was the only non-commissioned officer in the House of Commons and wore his uniform on any and every occasion during the war years. He turned down efforts to persuade him to apply for a commission, despite once appearing before a selection board against his will. He also turned down the offer of a role in Churchill's war cabinet when asked, saying "No, thank you, sir. I'm quite happy where I am."
He was sent to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1943 with Derrick Gunston and Charles Ammon as part of a parliamentary commission to investigate the future of the dominion. Of the alternatives, he supported independence rather than a confederation.
Following his re-election in the 1945 general election on 5 July, Herbert noted of the new Parliament that "the surge of Socialism into the House of Commons was something to see." The Labour Party, under Clement Attlee, had won 393 seats, and the Conservatives had won only 197. Herbert said of the newly elected Labour MPs that "Arrogance, I am sorry to say, remained. There was such a concerto of nastiness and hate and imbecile yelling, that I thanked God, many times, that I was an Independent and could be silent without disloyalty." Herbert campaigned to ensure that the newly elected MPs realised the significance of private members' time. He prepared a number of private member's bills, including on betting reform, legal aid for the poor, a fairer voting system, and the abolition of decree nisi, among other things. However, was unsuccessful in his first attempt to guarantee private members' time – later in the Parliament, it would be restored.
In autumn 1945, George Orwell had the essay Notes on Nationalism published in the magazine Polemic. In it, he named Herbert as one of the followers of "neo-Toryism", who, according to Orwell, are marked by a "desire not to recognise that British power and influence have declined". Herbert's biographer, Reginald Pound, notes that "APH would have rejected the Tory affiliation, though his inclinations were with the Right."
From July 1945 through to 1946, Herbert worked on the libretto for Charles B. Cochran's new musical, Big Ben. It opened at the Adelphi Theatre on 17 July 1946 and was watched on its opening night by Churchill, Montgomery, Attlee and Herbert, but Cochran was too ill to attend. During its first three months, it took an average of £4,000 a week at the box office, but the running costs were also high so there was no fortune for Cochran or Herbert. The show ended its run at the end of 1946, after 172 performances. Cochran commissioned Herbert to write another musical, Bless the Bride, which opened at the Adelphi on 26 April 1947. It ran for two and a quarter years, and was the source of "an accretion of cash" for Herbert as well as being Cochran's most successful musical.
Herbert sat on the Supreme Court Committee on Practice and Procedures, chaired by Raymond Evershed, which was investigating the cost of litigation. He also chaired the Literary Sub-Committee of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, which judged the literary compositions of 29 nations in their own languages. He also accepted an invitation to serve on the Council of the Festival of Britain, to be held in 1951. At this time, he was already a member of the Thames Conservancy Board, a trustee of the National Maritime Museum, president of the Inland Waterways Association and a vice president of the Pedestrians' Association for Road Safety. He also authored a critical study of royal commissions for the Institute of Economic Affairs, which was dismissed for its "light touch". Herbert commented that "Had it included graphs and tables and been written in a heavy style it would have been accepted as a major contribution to the practice of sound administration."
Herbert was re-elected in the 1945 general election and continued as an MP until the University seats were abolished in 1950 as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1948. Herbert's last speech, on 23 November 1949, was in favour of the Festival of Britain, a cause he strongly supported. 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."
In 1951, Herbert published a memoir of his service in the House of Commons, Independent Member (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951).
Herbert was the subject of a This Is Your Life TV programme in 1961 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.
In the summer of 1914, Herbert first met his future wife, Gwendolyn Harriet Quilter, the daughter of Harry Quilter. They became engaged in December 1914 and were married in the first week of 1915 by Frederic Iremonger, the vicar of St James the Great in Bethnal Green. Herbert wore his formal dress uniform of an Acting Leading Seaman during the wedding. They spent their honeymoon in a room in Fulham Road. Gwendolyn lived to the age of 97, dying in 1986. Lady Herbert was elected as the first President of Hammersmith Chess Club in 1966 and was a well-known face on the chess circuit at that time. They had four children Crystal, Lavender, Jocelyn and John.
The Labour Party Member of Parliament for Chesterfield, Toby Perkins, is his great-grandson.
Herbert loved the River Thames. He lived beside it at Hammersmith, West London. He was a Conservator (a member of the Thames Conservancy Board) 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.
In the last days of 1970, Herbert was taken to Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia, following a seizure that affected his left side and arm. Within six weeks, he was home again, and over many months his physical powers waned. In August 1971, he wrote his last letter to The Times, an appeal for parliamentary good manners in refraining from "witty derision of the literary exertions of Mr Harold Wilson" and of the "marine activities" of Edward Heath. By then, he was describing himself as "a recumbent nuisance." He died on 11 November 1971, and obituaries were published in both The Times and Punch. The Times supplemented their obituary notice with a leading article. They described him as having done "more than any man of his day to add to the gaiety of the nation."
A memorial service was held on 6 December in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which was "crowded to overflowing". On 7 December, the Congressional Record of the US House of Representatives appeared with four pages of tributes to Herbert, by congressmen from Ohio, Missouri, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Robert H. Land, chief of the Reference Department of the Library of Congress, later said that "[there is no] record or recollection of a similar tribute to another English writer in the proceedings of Congress."
Starting in 1910, he contributed regularly to Punch. One series of his it took was Misleading Cases in the Common Law – the work for which he is best remembered. These were satirical pieces in the form of "law reports" or "judgements" on various aspects of the English legal and judicial system. Many featured the exploits of Albert Haddock, a tireless and veteran litigant. One of the best-known and most colourful is Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock, also known as "The Negotiable Cow". Even the title is a humorous allusion to the entirely serious "Smith's Leading Cases". Herbert often referred to himself as "A. P. Haddock" in skits in Punch magazine, whether or not these had a courtroom setting.
Thanks 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 criticised by an American law review article, whose author failed to note its entire absurdity. As such they are examples of the literary technique known as false document. And while in these fictitious law reports, the fictitious judges and lawyers regularly cited various real and venerable authorities, such as Henry de Bracton, they were prone also to citing texts of Herbert's own imagination such as "Wedderburn on Water Courses" and "A. Capone's Handbook for Bootleggers".
More importantly, these cases were Herbert's vehicles for his law-reform work. Beneath their satire, they often carried cogent and sharp legal or political points that tied into his personal crusades against obsolescent legislation. Although fictional, they are, consequently, sometimes quoted in judicial decisions, and are also the subject of academic research.
Over his lifetime Herbert published five collections, entitled 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.
Herbert wrote eight novels, including The Water Gipsies (1930), and 15 plays, including the light operas Tantivy Towers (1931) and Big Ben (1946), 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's 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. After the war he wrote a small booklet called 'The War Story of Southend Pier' detailing an account of when the pier was taken over by the Royal Navy in World War II.
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.Tell England (1931)
Waltz Time (1933)
The Secret Battle, 1919, Methuen (A novel about a soldier executed for cowardice.)
The House by the River, 1921, Methuen (A novel about a war poet who commits a murder.)
Little Rays of Moonshine (1921) AKA Light articles only (1922)
The Man About Town (1923)
The Old Flame 
The Red Pen, an Opera, Broadcast by the BBC, 7 February 1927
Misleading Cases in the Common Law 1927
Honeybubble & Co. (1928)
Topsy, M.P., 1929, Ernest Benn
The Water Gipsies, 1930, Methuen
What a Word!, 1935, Methuen
Holy Deadlock, 1934, Methuen
Uncommon Law, 1935, Methuen; 1969 (new edition) Methuen
Herbert, A. P. (1936). Mild and Bitter. London: Methuen.
The Ayes Have It: The Story of the Marriage Bill, 1937, Methuen
Sip!: Swallow! (1938)
General Cargo (1940)
A Better Sky: Or, Name This Star (1944) Astronomy.
The War Story of Southend Pier, 1945, County Borough of Southend-on-Sea
The Point of Parliament (1946)
Topsy Turvy (1947)
The Topsy Omnibus, 1949, Ernest Benn
Independent Member, 1950, Methuen; republished October 1970 (ISBN 0-09-308880-9)
Codd's Last Case, 1952, Methuen
Why Waterloo?, 1952, Methuen
Made for Man (1958) Novel.
Look Back and Laugh (1960)
Bardot, M.P., 1964, Methuen
Sundials Old and New: Or, Fun with the Sun (1964)
The Thames (1966), Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Wigs at Work, 1966
Sundials Old and New: Or, Fun with the Sun, 1967, Methuen
*The Singing Swan: A Yachtsman's Yarn (1968) Novel.
In The Dark; The Summer Time Story and The Painless Plan, 1970, The Bodley Head
A.P.H., His Life and Times, 1970, Heinemann
More Uncommon Law, 1982
Double Demon, an Absurdity in One Act (1926)
Fat King Melon and Princess Caraway: A Drama in Five Scenes (1927)
Derby Day: A Comic Opera in Three Acts 
Tantivy Towers: A Light Opera in Three Acts (1931)
Big Ben: A Light Opera in Two Acts (1946)
Bless the Bride: A Light Opera in Two Acts (play), 1947, London, 887 performances
ATI 'There is no need for alarm(1944) drawings by John Nicolson
Play Hours with Pegasus (1912)
Half-hours at Helles (1916)
The Bomber Gypsy, and Other Poems (1919)
The Wherefore and the Why; Some New Rhymes for Old Children (1921)
Laughing Ann, and Other Poems (1925)
Plain Jane (1927) Poems and plays in verse.
Ballads for Broadbrows (1930)
A Book of Ballads, Being the Collected Light Verse of A. P. Herbert (1931)
Let Us be Glum 
Siren Song (1941)
"Well, Anyhow ... " Or, Little Talks (1942)
Bring Back the Bells (1943)
Less Nonsense! (1944)
Light the Lights (1945)
Leave my Old Morale Alone (1948) Includes: Siren song / Let us be glum / Bring back the bells / "Well, anyhow..." or, Little talks / "Less nonsense!" / Light the lights
"Full Enjoyment": And Other Verses (1952)
Silver Stream: A Beautiful Tale of Hare & Hound for Young & Old (1962)
A. P. Herbert (1890–1914)
Ordinary Seaman A. P. Herbert (1914)
Able Seaman A. P. Herbert (1914)
Acting Leading Seaman A. P. Herbert (1914–15)
Sub-Lieutenant A. P. Herbert RNVR (1915–18)
A. P. Herbert (1918–1935)
A. P. Herbert MP (1935–45)
Sir Alan Herbert MP (1945–50)
Sir Alan Herbert (1950–71)