The business was founded in 1888 when Alfred Herbert and William Hubbard purchased for £2,375 a small engineering business in Coventry. Herbert & Hubbard initially made boilers and steam engines. The firm, in Roderick Floud's paraphrasing of Herbert, "came into machine tool production by accident when Alfred Herbert secured the agency for a French patent of great value in the manufacture of tubes for the fast expanding cycle trade in Coventry. On the basis of his profits from this patent the company began to make machine tools for the cycle trade."
Regarding the differences (real or supposed) between American and British practice in the latter half of the 19th century, Floud said that Herbert was "the [British] firm often held up as an example of the use of American techniques" [which sometimes emphasised focus on a narrow range of machines by any one builder] but that even Herbert "rejected the idea that the firm should specialize in a few types of machinery" [to the exclusion of a diverse mix of products]. He quoted Herbert as saying that "the cycle business, which was our principal customer, required in those days a variety of machines, and not many of them of one kind."
By the 1930s Alfred Herbert Limited was making profits around £600,000 (2011: £29,820,000) . The company was listed on the London Stock Exchange in March 1944 and the following year described its business as "Machine Tool Makers, Importers and Factors, and Mechanical Engineers etc". The main works covered 22 acres in Coventry and the company had operations in Argentina, France, India, Australia and "in normal times", Italy. It acquired Sigma Instruments in 1948.
In 1975, following sustained losses, the company asked the National Enterprise Board to invest £25 million in the business to provide for modernisation and to reduce borrowings. The Company was then renamed Herbert Ltd. In the late 1970s there was an escalation of machine tool imports into the United Kingdom that left the Company behind.