Sir Alfred Herbert

Sir Alfred Herbert on his 90th birthday.
Image courtesy of Herry Lawford, and originally uploaded to Flickr

Sir Alfred Herbert loved the city of Coventry, and in particular the many who worked with him and for him building up his highly respected machine tools business which was for a time, the largest in the world.

The centre of his working life

He was born and brought up in Leicester, but from the time that he persuaded his father to allow him become an engineering apprentice – an unusual career in those days for a public schoolboy from a wealthy background – he made Coventry the centre of his working life.

His first joined the firm of Coles and Matthews in the Butts, but by 1888 he had bought the business in partnership with a school friend and by 1894 had formed the firm that bore his name – running it until his death in 1957 at the age of 90.


In 1889 he married Ellen Ryley, the daughter of the manager of Lloyd’s Bank, who was born in Little Park St, very close to where the Herbert Gallery and Museum stands today. She bore him four children – all daughters. Sadly she died in 1918, just after he received his knighthood for his services to the country as Controller of Machine Tools during the First World War and also just after he bought his estate at Dunley in Hampshire, which was his country home until he died.

Thereafter he married Florence Pepper, a matron at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. Very sadly she too died, in 1930, but not before he had begun the negotiations to create Lady Herbert’s Homes and Garden, which are still much valued today.

His final marriage was to our grandmother Nina, herself a widow, in 1933.

They maintained a simple flat ‘over the works’ at Edgewick and used to stay there in the week. However during the war when bombing was expected, they were persuaded to stay with his granddaughter June Vapenik and her husband at Leamington Spa. On the awful night of 14th / 15th November 1940 they were there, and she can remember him watching in agony from the windows, pacing up and down saying ‘My poor men, my poor men’. His granddaughter later took in five refugees from the city, as many did.

Treated men as equal

Alfred’s skills saw his business be enormously successful up until the time of his death, and he was a great benefactor to the city. Above Sir Alfred’s great talent as an engineer, he was probably an even greater manager and leader of men, and treated every man as an equal. He would go down onto the works floor at all hours and especially on the night shift, cigarette in hand, and chat to whoever was there. As the Bishop of Coventry said at the memorial service for Sir Alfred in the shell of the cathedral in 1957, ‘he thought and cared and planned and suffered ….. with those men with whom he had worked so long. He did not regard them as his employees as much as his friends.’

And the Coventry Standard ‘s headline put it beautifully: ‘The Humble and Eminent Unite in a Tribute to a Man Who Was Both’

This is an abridged version of a post originally uploaded to the author’s blog, and is reproduced with their permission.

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