Auberon Thomas Herbert, Lord Lucas and DingwallAuberon Thomas Lucas

What connects a peer of the realm, a winning Boat Race competitor, a cabinet minister, an agriculturalist, a Times war correspondent, a disabled amputee and a Royal Flying Corps pilot with the Lord of the Manor of Burbage?

Well, it is slightly a trick question, as all these characteristics and occupations are really one person. Burbage has a connection of course with George Canning, the Prime Minister who lived in the village from 1808-1814, but our later statesman in question is Auberon Thomas Herbert (1876-1917), later Baron Lucas of Crudwell and Lord Dingwall – English and Scottish titles.

Lord Lucas’ connection with Burbage is that his ancestors – the De Greys, the Cowpers and latterly the Lucas family – were Lords of the Manor of Burbage and as such held the advowson of the parish of Aston Flamville with Burbage within their gift. The advowson was the right to nominate the rector to the living. The family owned a considerable amount of land within the village and its environs, known as demesne lands, although the later Lucas family members were never resident in the village.

The title Lord Lucas had been created in 1663, or rather purchased from Charles II. As part of the sale negotiations a rather unusual clause was added to the arrangement – that the title could be passed through female line of descent rather than the traditional primogeniture – through male line only. Thus, it was that the first holder of the title was a Baroness Lucas, Mary, the wife of Anthony de Grey, 11th Earl of Kent. This line of succession makes it the only title to do so in this way apart from the monarchy.

Through marriages different families became cleft to this branch – the Cowpers and the Herberts, for instance. There is a beautiful monument in St Catherine’s church to Anthony de Grey and his wife, situated in the chancel. Auberon Herbert was related through his maternal side to the Cowpers and on his paternal side to the Herberts, the latter were from a Welsh family, who were Earls of Pembroke and Caernarvon.

Such a pedigree, steeped in the aristocracy of the land, would easily have set Auberon Herbert apart. Yet, looking back in hindsight, we can see that for “Bron”, as he was known to his intimates, a large slice of fate would also intervene.Anthony de Grey  Monument, St Catherine's Church

Living in such surrounds, it was hardly surprising that his prime interests became hunting, shooting and fishing – a bucolic childhood. Educated at Bedford Grammar School and then Balliol College, Oxford, Bron Lucas rowed twice in the Oxford boat, at number 7, that defeated the Cambridge crew in the annual Boat Race in 1898 and again in 1899, when they lost to Cambridge. He also rowed in a Balliol eight that contained five Blues. The Balliol College War Memorial Book Vol II, records, in the usual elegiac terms, that Bron’s was not a starry academic career, he took a Third in Modern History, but that: “…his tastes were rather those of the gipsy and he had an astonishing knowledge of birds and beasts and every wild thing. Far better than the ritual of games he loved his private adventures in the byways of the countryside”. A picture exists of Bron in his Oxford boating blazer and cap.

What we know about Bron’s life can be divined not from what he wrote about it himself but from the lives of others to whom he was connected. His cousin was the socialite and hostess, Ettie Priscilla Grenfell, Lady Desborough (1867-1952), with whom he was extremely close and a virtual brother to her sons Julian and Billy Grenfell. In her biography, Ettie – The intimate life of the Dauntless Spirit of Lady Desborough by Richard Davenport-Hines, a picture of a rather diffident to circumstance Bron appears. He was a friend of Lord Tweedsmuir (1875-1940), the author John Buchan, who wrote a reminiscence of him in These for Remembrance.Auberon Herbert whilst at Oxford

What threads can we pull together from such sources to maketh the man? Bron had wanted to serve in the Boer War but his father would not let him. There was always a difficult relationship between father and son. So much so that in 1893, Bron’s sister Claire, committed suicide as a protest against the treatment of the boy – a remarkable circumstance. Bron did go off to the war against the Boers in South Africa and at the relief of Ladysmith, went too far forward, and was shot in the foot. The wound was not treated properly, gangrene set in and after a prolonged battle against the gangrene, the leg had to be amputated from below the knee. Therefore, for the rest of his life he was disabled but this never held him back. People who came to know Bron were often amazed to find out that he was disabled in this way for his zest for life was totally undiminished. Indeed, Raymond Asquith would say of him that he brimmed with the “joy of life” and conquered his disability by “sheer vital force”.

The Desborough’s hospitality at their Saturday to Monday gatherings, where the emphasis was on relaxation and fun combined with serious conversation were legendary. These provided a setting where leading politicians of both persuasions, and even some more radical thinkers like Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice Webb (1888-1943) could mingle, away from the Westminster babble. It would not be uncommon for A J Balfour (1843 – 1930) and Herbert Asquith (1852 – 1928) to be at the same dinner table at Taplow Court.

The chronicle of this family life was encapsulated by Ettie in Pages from a Family Journal 1888-1915. Bron features heavily throughout the book, being treated as elder brother to Julian and Billy.  The book was a memorial to her two sons, who both died within months of each other in 1915. Julian, in the photograph, died of wounds at Boulogne on May 26th 1915. A day later his famous poem Into Battle was published posthumously and lifted him into the pantheon of war poets although his was not the vitriol of Sassoon or Owen, more a patriotic call to action.Julian Grenfell (1888 - 1915)

Billy Grenfell was killed near Hooge, in the Ypres Salient on July 30th 1915. There is a letter written by Bron to Ettie, shortly after the death of Julian, which captures his humanity:

“You know that I was fonder of Julian than of any other living man and never can anyone else be the same to me that he was. It was not merely that we had so many things in common and that I was never so happy as when I was riding, shooting or fishing with him. I think his personality counted for more…I think of all the happy times we had, and of his spirits, his keenness, his skill, his intense enjoyment of everything that boy or man, sportsman or poet, loves; of the way he made everyone adore him, of the way he was the centre of all he did; and it seems that a great part of my life is torn from me….”.

Bron found male company easier and indeed in Davenport-Hines book he is described as a misogynist. Ettie, Lady Desborough, in the photo, and his sister Nan Ino were the only women with whom he found easy company. He later wrote to Ettie:” you have filled a place that has been vacant ever since Claire’s death and if you knew what that meant to me you would know what a sheet anchor it is…. you and she are the only women I have ever looked up to for sympathy and help and encouragement and the great gifts that a woman can give a man”.

In 1905, his Uncle Francis Thomas de Grey Cowper, the 8th Baron Lucas and 4th Lord Dingwall died, and the titles passed to Bron. Not only the titles but a substantial house in Bedfordshire – Wrest Park – which still stands today. The unwanted magnificence of Wrest was dealt with by leasing the house to the United States Ambassador, Whitelaw Reid. The pick of the art treasures, garnered over years by the de Greys, were given to the National Gallery.Lady Ette Grenfell, Baroness Desborough (1867 - 1952)

There was also a London property, 4 St James’s Square, which today houses the In and Out Club, the Military and Naval Club. In the Square the houses are numbered consecutively. Number 5, next door, is infamous as in the 1980s it was the Libyan Embassy, from which, allegedly, WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot and murdered, a few yards away in the road on 17th April 1984.

The Webbs, socialist to the core, dined with Lord Lucas at 4 St James Square. They were eager to see if there was an opportunity to influence an incoming Liberal administration. Beatrice Webb wrote the following in her diary:” the new baron seemed an attractive creature, dreary and vague, with a charming veracity and gentleness of nature, with (for a grand seigneur) simple tastes and ways and public spirited and philanthropic impulses”. She found him “a mere child in knowledge and thought on social and economic questions”, with no “notion of work” and therefore “useless but not dangerous to the cause of reform”.

Despite a life in town, Bron was very much a countryman and enjoyed the amenities that some of his inherited possessions afforded him. Properties in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire provided the perfect backdrop for the pursuit of his country interests around the villages of Sawley, Grindleton and Wigglesworth. He was an agriculturalist and he established a fine herd of Shorthorns that won prizes at Dairy Shows and Smithfield.Shooting Party at Whiteslea

He also bred Yorkshire White Pigs. Lord Lucas also bought a house, Whiteslea, on the Norfolk Broads, which was really a shooting lodge and accumulated through purchase, 3,000 acres of the Norfolk Broads. The photo shows a typical shooting party at Whiteslea.

On succession to the title, Bron was confirmed as a member of the House of Lords. A Liberal in politics, as one of the few peers of the realm of that persuasion, he found that he had a political career almost by default. He became Private Secretary to Mr. Haldane at the War Office in 1907 and in 1908 Under Secretary for War. In 1911 he was Under Secretary for the Colonies and later in the year Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture. In 1912 he became a Privy Councillor – The Right Honourable Lord Lucas. In 1914 he entered the Cabinet as the Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Food (President of the Board of Agriculture). His New Forest upbringing and interests suited him for the role.

In Asquith’s cabinet, he sat next to Winston Churchill, the latter commenting in his book World Crisis of Bron that: “…his pleasing presence, his compulsive smile, made him much courted by his friends, of whom he had many and of whom I was one. Young for the Cabinet, heir to splendid possessions, happy in all that surrounded him, he seemed to have captivated Fortune”Ismalia Egypt - Bron Herbert, left

Thus Bron was part of the war cabinet who prosecuted the war with Germany and the war was to come even closer for him. The formation of a Coalition Cabinet in May 1915 brought forward his resignation and a desire, despite his age, to serve on the Western Front. Since 1903 he had been part of the volunteer military movement in the Hampshire Yeomanry but in leaving Parliament he undertook flying training at Gosport and began as an instructor to other recruits in this country and then he was stationed in Ismalia in Egypt with 14 Squadron. He is far left in the photograph. In common with others he had grown a moustache to add gravitas to his presence. He was mentioned in dispatches in September 1916 but in October was transferred to 22 Squadron as Flight Commander and got his wish of a transfer to France.

On 3rd November 1916, at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme, he went up in an FE2b aircraft to escort a reconnaissance flight and in a strong tail wind was blown over enemy lines. Having completed the necessary task his plane turned for home but a strong headwind made progress more difficult. At that moment his group were attacked by a number of German fighters. Bron was shot in the back of the head and leg and lost consciousness. His Observer, Lieutenant Anderson, tried to stop the plane from side slipping but the engine gave out and the plane crash landed behind German lines. Bron never regained consciousness. Anderson was thrown from the wreckage and survived the war.

Captain Auberon Herbert - Baron LucasBron died on the same day, his body having been extricated from the wreckage and was buried in the local communal cemetery by the Germans at Barastre. Initially, Bron was reported as Missing in Action but then news was received of his death in captivity. Four other members of 22 Squadron had been lost on the same day.

Lieutenant Anderson wrote a note after the war to the distraught family, which is in the Desborough archives in Hertford Record Office: “an enemy machine came through the clouds on our tail. We had turned to meet him but as we were firing at him, two more dropped onto our tail…..our machine was simply riddled with bullets…Looking down I saw that Lucas was bending down in his seat and thinking that he was working the switches, I put out my hand to shake him, but then I discovered that he was hit through the back of the head and unconscious”.

Eventually, as the British advanced during 1918 and territory fell to the allies, Lucas’s grave was identified along with several others and the bodies exhumed and placed in the HAC Cemetery at Ecoust -St-Mein, where it lies today in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. The exhumation report states that one of the identifying features of the corpse was officer’s clothing, an RFC Pilot’s badge, a badge of rank and a DSO ribbon. The latter is mistaken for Bron was never decorated with this type of medal. He would have worn a medal ribbon for South Africa. He would posthumously receive in February 1917 The Order of Karageorge (4th Class) (with swords) from the Serbian government. A close friend, the diplomat Maurice Baring, wrote and published an “In Memoriam” eulogy to him.Nan Ino Herbert Cooper (1880 - 1958) 10th Baroness Lucas and 6th Lady Dingwall

Whilst Bron had been away from Wrest Park, his sister Nan Ino Herbert (1880 –1958) had managed his affairs. The house was given over to be a military hospital for convalescing soldiers in April 1916 – the first country house in the whole of the land to be given over to such purposes. She now had to deal with an estate worth £100,000 (over £6 million in today’s currency). Wrest Park was sold privately to brewing interests.

The estate started to divest itself of assets. Prints, for instance were donated to the British Library in Bron’s memory. It was thus that one of the assets – the advowson for Aston Flamville and Burbage – was given to Balliol College – as a memorial to Bron at his alma mater. So, the Rectorship of Burbage, can now be considered something of a war memorial itself in the village. A memorial to one man and his family, who had connections with the village, stretching back over centuries.Unveiling of Burbage War Memorial 26th February 1921

This was part of a process already underway in the family. Bron had sold 337 acres of the Outwoods estate in 1907. In 1938, Nan Ino Herbert gave by way of gift, 74 acres of Burbage Common and the ownership of the manorial rights of Burbage Common to be maintained forever as an open space or Public Park. More significantly, but of less size, was the small area of green in the centre of the village which Nan gave over from the estate to be the site of the village War Memorial.

Bron is commemorated on several war memorials – Bedford Grammar School, Balliol College, Burley in the New Forest (see photos from Stan Rooney), Sawley, Grindleton and Wigglesworth in the Ribble Valley, in the House of Lords and Silsoe, the village close to Wrest Park.

In Burbage, Cowper Road and Lucas Road are so fittingly named, but I suspect that you would be hard pressed to find but a few people who realised the connection and significance of those road names.

Greg Drozdz (2022)