12 Mar 2021

In December last year, a collection of royal items once belonging to Ranavalona III, the last Queen of Madagascar, who was deposed and exiled by the French colonial government in 1897, were sold at auction in England. They were purchased by the Madagascan government, to be returned to Madagascar and placed on display in a new restoration of the Queen's former palace.

Amidst news of the sale, Katie Amos, Local Studies Lead at Reading Borough Libraries, recognised a surprising connection to our town. The initial collector of the objects was a lady named Clara Herbert, one of the Queen's most loyal companions, who settled in Reading after the Queen's death in 1917.

In this blog, join Katie as she explores the life of Clara Herbert: from forty years of accompanying the Madagascan royalty, to her life in Reading.

The life of Clara Herbert

I first spotted Miss Herbert's name in an article in the Guardian last year.

The Guardian article described the history of the last Queen, and mentioned that the items up for sale that had belonged to her came from the descendants of her loyal companion, Clara Herbert.

According to the article, Miss Herbert was a lady of genteel upbringing, who was a talented linguist, fluent in French, Malagasy and numerous Chinese dialects.

She was believed to have been born in 1871 and her family descended from the Herberts of Muckross House, County Kerry, Ireland.

Photograph of Madagscan royalty.
This portrait of the Madagascan royal family was taken during their exile in Réunion. (Kerry Taylor Auctions)

The Reading connection

Having read the Guardian article, I was curious as to what Clara’s connection to Reading might have been, and so set to find out more using my subscriptions to Find My Past and the British Newspaper Archive, along with general searches through an assortment of websites. I also contacted the auctioneers to see if they had any further information, as the results I was getting strongly suggested that the 1871 birthdate ascribed to Clara was incorrect.

This proved to be the case. Clara had actually been born in 1853, to Jesse and Jane Herbert, one of the youngest of eight children born to the couple. Jesse worked as a boot and shoe maker, employing a few men and boys, and was also a local Methodist preacher. He later became the rate collector for St Giles’ Parish. The 1871 census shows her living at home, age 17, and teaching at the British School.

The 1881 census sees Clara, and her 4-year-old niece, Elsie Herbert, visiting the Richards household in Hackney. Head of the house is a 34-year-old widow, Margaret Richards, described as an annuitant (living on payments from a pension or investment).

The following year, a book called ‘A Man in Shining Armour’ by A.J and G. Crosfield, detailing the life of William Wilson, a missionary in Madagascar, shows that Miss Herbert travelled with Mr Wilson, and his new bride, out to Madagascar, leaving in May 1882 and arriving in July a couple of months later. It includes a description of their journey up-country by Miss Herbert herself.

Miss Herbert seems to have travelled back and forth between Madagascar and the UK – in 1890 she is found giving talks to various groups in the south of England, about her experiences over there, and in 1901 she is resident at 70 London Road: age 47; occupation - a missionary. 

Reading Mercury image, from the 29th November 1890, mentioning Clara Herbert.
An image from the Reading Mercury, 29th November 1890 edition, containing a reference to Clara Herbert.

Settling in Reading

Part of the auction lot is a large number of postcards, and some of the addresses on these proved rather helpful in confirming Clara’s identity, in particular one that was re-directed to Epworth House, Sidmouth Street, Reading. This was where her father lived, whilst employed as a rate collector, and later her brother, James, took over in the same role from the same address.

Two of her other siblings, Jesse junior, and Sarah Kate also had interesting lives. Jesse got into politics (no doubt inspired by his father, Jesse senior, who was treasurer to the Reading Working Men’s Liberal Association) and worked his way up to become political secretary to the Chief Liberal Whip and was knighted for his services in 1911. His son Jesse Basil Herbert was one of the administrators of Clara’s will following her death on 22nd February 1932.

Elmhurst Road in 1910. Clara lived here towards the end of her life. (Reading Library Illustrations Collection)
Elmhurst Road in 1910. Clara lived here towards the end of her life. (Reading Library Illustrations Collection)

Clara’s death was registered in the Huddersfield area, a long way from her home at 58 Elmhurst Road, Reading, but it is likely that she was there visiting her younger sister, Sarah Kate.

Sarah had married Rev. Arthur Sharman, who came from a missionary family, and whose brother, James Sharman, also spent time in Madagascar. Arthur and Sarah undertook their missionary work in China, as did Clara in later years.

Finally, I haven’t been able to prove as yet that there really was a connection to the Irish Herberts, but there was a connection to Muckross House: it was the name of her brother John’s house at 4 Kendrick Road!

Thank you!

Our enormous thanks to Katie for undertaking this research and writing such a fantastic piece about one of Reading's people.

For more information about the history of the local area and its people, keep reading the Reading Museum blog, check out our online collections, or visit the online resources shared by Reading Borough Libraries.