Robert Herbert was the first Premier of Queensland, but what sort of chap was he?
He was an Englishman and a gentleman. His father The Hon. Algernon Herbert was the fifth son of the 1st Earl of Carnarvon. Being a younger son and having no great expectations of inheritance, he became a barrister. When he inherited the house and modest estate of Caldrees Manor, Ickleton, Cambridgeshire, in 1834, he retired and subsequently developed a reputation for somewhat eccentric literary and antiquarian interests. His first child Robert George Wyndham Herbert was born in 1831. Robert Herbert attended Eton, where one of his classmates was his second cousin, Henry Howard Molyneux Herbert, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. Robert’s connection to his influential cousin was an important influence on his later career. Robert went on to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he won several prizes including the Chancellor’s Latin verse Prize. He studied law, being admitted to the Bar in 1858.
Herbert had no interest in practicing law, however, and looked for a position in public administration. He secured an appointment, in 1855, as private secretary to William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would later serve four terms as Prime Minister. Gladstone’s political position was unstable at the time and as a result Herbert’s position was short lived and he returned to his legal studies. In 1859 new opportunities arose. New colonies were to be created in British Columbia and Moreton Bay, re-named Queensland. Sir George Ferguson Bowen, K.C.M.G., formerly Chief Secretary of the Ionian Islands, was appointed first Governor of Queensland and was authorized to select a private secretary who could also be commissioned as Colonial Secretary, the government having decided that the first Colonial Secretary of Queensland should be “independent of local influences”. Robert Herbert secured the position and traveled to Queensland with Governor Bowen.
Herbert’s position as Colonial Secretary was by no means secure as the colonial authorities had decided that ‘responsible government’ was to be established in Queensland and if Herbert was to continue his role he would have to be elected. Working closely with Governor Bowen, Herbert set up the initial mechanisms of government, had electoral rolls prepared, and negotiated the difficult relationship with the government of New South Wales. Had Herbert not successfully sought election to the Queensland parliament he would have reverted to the position of private secretary to the Governor but he chose to seek election and was successful in becoming the first Premier of Queensland and in holding on to the position for six years. Herbert was only 28 when he became Premier of Queensland.
It was probably helpful that Herbert had become a foundation member of the Queensland Club and also accepted chairmanship of the Brisbane Hospital Board. He was known for his charm of manner and conversation and his considerate reception of all comers. He was an aristocratic outsider in a new colony, who dressed carefully and spoke quietly but also enjoyed an active, outdoor existence. Herbert was not a charismatic speaker. He was quite short, his forehead was high and his head noticeably large in proportion to his body. Being short sighted, he sometimes used a monocle, which looked to some like an affectation. His voice was soft and his manner invariably smooth and polite. He prevailed in the Queensland Parliament because of his intellect and administrative ability and also because of the lack of any significant opposition.
The John Oxley Library holds some of Robert Herbert’s original letters and papers and Herbert family papers and photographs. Transcriptions of many of the letters and papers from Herbert’s time in Queensland are reproduced in The Queensland years of Robert Herbert, Premier : letters and papers edited by Bruce Knox. The letters were written to members of his family, his mother, sisters, an uncle and an aunt and give a good indication of his life and interests in Queensland. They date from 1863 when Herbert was returning from a visit to England through to 1866 when he was preparing to return to England for good. In 1860 Herbert and his old school friend John Bramston purchased fifty acres of land between Victoria Park and Breakfast Creek, to which they gave the name of ‘Herston’, being a combination of their surnames. The area is still called Herston and includes the site of the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Herbert and Bramston built a fine stone house with a wide varandah and this property became Herbert’s refuge from the pressures of government.
The letters contain many descriptions of Herston, the produce of its gardens and fruit trees and the animals they kept there.
We have lately been catching quantities of magnificent prawns, in the Creek which surrounds Herston. We have boxes covered with canvass, with a funnel shaped entrance, into which they walk, splendid large fellows 4 or 5 inches long, and most delicate in flavour. We have also caught some fish. We have improved the paddock by clearing away much timber. It is really very pretty now, with fine grassy slopes, and peeps of the creek, with brilliant shrub foliage on its banks. Land near Herston is becoming very valuable for purpose of sale. …
One of my imported fowls got a prize at the show. The others had not sufficiently good plumage after the voyage. The peacocks cause us some anxiety by roaming. They fly across the river and remain absent for a whole day. I fear the blackfellows or some white savages will get hold of them. September 15th 1863
Herbert also liked to get away camping or sailing on Moreton Bay in his boat ‘Nina’.
I returned yesterday from a most successful cruize in the “Nina” with Walter Scott and two others. We went up to Point Wickham at the north end of Bribie’s Island, through the Pumicestone Channel. We agreed that this was the most beautiful part of the Bay, and much coveted some green headlands, looking like an English park, at the very point, over the breakers in which we bathed. The glass houses, conical mountains rising abruptly out of the plain, look very magnificent from the channel, which passes within seven miles of them. Their detailed exploration is deferred to a future day. We must have rowed and sailed 160 miles in the four days, not bad work. Yesterday on our return, we had to row partly against the tide, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and wonderful to say – we are none of us tired today. It is very melancholy returning to dust (knee deep) and muggy climate, after a taste of liberty. April 16th 1865
One of the treasures held in the State Library is this magnificent silver cup, currently on display in the Talbot Family Treasures Wall in the John Oxley Library. The story of this cup is revealed in letters from July and August 1865.
We have a grand excitement coming off. A race meeting is to take place next week, a “Corinthian cup” is to be presented by the Honble. John Bramston to be competed for by horses owned and ridden by members of the club. Algernon is to ride my favourite grey horse Grasshopper, Bramston rides his horse Doubtful. About 8 other gentlemen will start horses. I think Grasshopper has a fair chance of winning. Lady Bowen is getting our colours made for us – mine (which Algernon wears) are blue with scarlet sleeves and cap. Bramston’s are black and yellow. July 17th 1865
We have had capital races and Herston has been most triumphant, my old favourite Grasshopper having won the chief race in great style, ridden by Algernon, and Bramston on his Doubtful having come in 2nd. As we trained our horses quietly at home, nobody believed we should do so well. The cup is really a handsome one, with a cover, making a considerable show on a table or sideboard.
I wish you could see Grasshopper. He is a very handsome thoroughbred grey horse, with a small neat head, and is distinguished looking. Doubtful is a plain bay horse with some good points, and a plucky little fellow. Seeing the 8 horses go by the stand, all in new and very pretty colours, created intense excitement among the ladies etc. It was a very pretty sight. The first three horses were owned and ridden by their favourites. There was an immense cheering for Grasshopper. Alg. of course rode him exceedingly well. August 18th 1865
Algernon Thomas Lempriere, the rider of Grasshopper, was Herbert’s cousin on his mother’s side and another old school friend from Eton and Oxford. Another reference to Algernon Lempriere provides a glimpse of the early days of South Sea Islander labour in Queensland. The State Library is marking the 150th anniversary of the first arrival of South Sea Islander labour in Queensland in cooperation with the Queensland Museum and Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art with a dedicated Australian South Sea Islander blog and a series of special events.
Algernon is gone off to the South Sea Islands. The people with whom he sails, propose to bring back some natives to work the sugar plantation. They like Australia provided they are faithfully taken home again after a year or two. They almost always enlist to return again. Oct. 19th 1865
Robert Herbert left Queensland in 1866. He was happy to get out of politics and went on to forge a successful career in the British civil service, eventually becoming Permanent Secretary of the Colonial Office. Many of his last letters from Queensland talk about the animals he would be leaving behind, particularly his favourite dog, Skip and a magpie he hoped to bring with him.
I don’t at all see how to bring home Skip and the magpie. It will be dreadful to leave them behind ; but it is manifest that I can’t take them through America, where our luggage must be restricted to a small “Vaylise”.
We have begun fires, as much on account of the wet as the cold ; there never was such a warm winter, taken altogether. The mosquitoes instead of being penitent are as rampant as ever – and all the fruit trees are putting forth untimely blooms, for which they will suffer hereafter.
We shall soon meet again D.V. I am glad to get away from Parliament & office & Sir G. B. but sorry to leave many good people, & places & animals that I am fond of. 17th June 1866
Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland