It is one thing for an author to write about fictional characters, much harder to write about people who really lived. The characters in Chapter 18 of Remembering Babylon combine the fictional Frazer with the real-life Sir George and Lady Bowen, after whom the town in the novel was named. Also a real historical figure was Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert (1831-1905), the first premier of Queensland.
Herbert was born on 12 June 1831 at Brighton in England. He was educated at Eton from 1844-49. He then studied law at Oxford, graduating in 1856.
He was briefly a private secretary to later Prime Minister William Gladstone. In 1859 Sir George Bowen was appointed Governor of the new crown colony of Queensland. He appointed Herbert as Colonial Secretary (later premier) in 1859, which was approved by parliament in 1860.
Malouf describes Herbert as “a very young man with soft fair hair and a large head”. Certainly he was only 28 when appointed to this position and inexperienced. He was not a great speaker, but he became a good administrator. At this stage, there was not much opposition in local Queensland parliament, which re-elected him in 1863.
He was well liked by many people, but not popular with some in politics and also in the Courier newspaper. He encouraged secular education, taking on the Anglican Church. He also encouraged agriculture and immigration and settlement in the new colony. He also enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as swimming, boating and was an early member of the Queensland Turf Club.
Lady Bowen commented: “We are very gay when we go to Herston”. This double entendre could be the innocent Victorian meaning of “light-hearted and carefree”. However, Malouf was referring to Herbert’s private life; he was almost certainly homosexual.
Herbert lived with an Oxford friend, John Bramston (1832-1921), who became the Attorney General. They had a property called Herston House, currently the site of the Royal Brisbane Hospital and a suburb. The name is an amalgamation of Herbert and Bramston, which sounds like a modern same-sex marriage. Herbert never did walk down the aisle, which only adds to the speculation.
In Robert Herbert’s own words, from a letter to his sister: “’It does not seem to me reasonable to tell a man who is happy and content, to marry a woman who may turn out a great disappointment.”
He resigned as Premier in 1866, replaced by Arthur Macalister. Herbert would sail back to England on 20 August of that year. Although he would never return to Australia, his later career was tied in with various colonies of the British Empire.
Herbert joined the Colonial Office in 1870, the next year he was appointed Under-Secretary for the Colonies. He would work in this role until 1892. From 1893-96, he was Agent General for Tasmania.
Robert Herbert died on 6 May 1905; at Ickleton, Cambridgeshire.