Lowther Family History
Or, six annulets sable – the arms of the Lowther family whose crest and family tree is among the earliest recorded in England. Dolfin is the earliest known Lowther ancestor, living around 1150, a descendant of a Viking settler. Dolfin it was who is said to have named the river Lowth-a and thence the dynasty.
Knights and Earls, members of Parliament, industrialists, agriculturalists, businessmen, visionary designers of houses and gardens, soldiers, adventurers, collectors and sportsmen – the Lowther dynasty boasts legion high achievers among its ranks. They have been getters and spenders throughout the generations and to read their history is to chart the triumphs and trials of the kingdom at large. Pitt the Younger and Wordsworth were protégés, the Kaiser was a friend, Kings and Queens have been their allies. Coal and iron have frequently lined their breadbasket and today the descendants of Dolfin remain largely where they began, servants and guardians of one of the most beautiful regions in the UK.
The first to take the name Lonsdale, Sir John Lowther of Lowther was a remarkable man. He was a vegetarian, a conservationist, a prodigious memoir-keeper, a father of 12 and the man who rebuilt Lowther Hall in palatial style. For his support in the Glorious Revolution and his services as first Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons, he had conferred on him by William III in 1696 the title of 1st Viscount Lonsdale.
The 2nd Viscount died young; the 3rd, who lived in the wing of Lowther Hall that had not been destroyed by fire, took part in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions. He too died without issue in 1751 and the title became extinct. The estates passed to Sir James Lowther, of the Maulds Meaburn branch. The Lowther estate was among several fortunes inherited by Sir James – he also inherited from another cousin the town of Whitehaven. For his gloomy and even maniacal temperament, his prodigious taste in mistresses and his manipulation of nine rotten boroughs, Sir James – who was created the first Earl of Lonsdale – became known as ‘Wicked Jimmy’. He was an astute businessman nevertheless and left the iron-ore fields of West Cumberland the most technically advanced of their time.
Yet again, a title fell out of use as Wicked Jimmy had no heirs. His distant cousin William assumed the mantle of Viscount Lowther and was re-created Earl of Lonsdale in1807. Where Wicked Jimmy was mean, ‘William the good’ was generous and on inheriting, one of the first things he did was to pay off a debt of £5000 owed to the Wordsworth family. (John Wordsworth was Wicked Jimmy’s agent.) One of the next things he did was to commission the young architect Robert Smirke to build Lowther Castle. Smirke went on to design the British Museum.
The 2nd Earl of Lonsdale was William’s eldest, also William. He promoted railways, invented land drainage systems, co-founded the Westmorland Gazette (with his father) and owned the Derby winner, Spaniel. He was an active politician and an equally active lothario, his taste in opera singers leaving him several illegitimate children but once again no heirs. His nephew Henry was the 3rd Earl, short-lived; Henry’s son St George, a yachtsman and scientist, the 4th.
In 1892, it became the turn of Hugh Cecil Lowther, St George’s younger brother, to assume the title. Hugh remains perhaps the most celebrated Lowther, renowned for his flamboyance, his exuberance, his devil-may-care. The Yellow Earl – as he became known – sported a yellow gardenia in his lapel, dressed in yellow, dressed his staff in yellow, kept only chestnut horses and golden dogs. His extravagance was the stuff of legends and his adventures – as a circus rider, a buffalo hunter, a romancer, a friend of the Kaiser, a patron of racing, boxing and fox-hunting, an arctic explorer – kept Edwardian England gripped. By 1936, however, the patience of the Yellow Earl’s trustees, along with the trust itself, had run dry. Estates were sold and the castle was closed. In 1944 Hugh Cecil died and it was left to Hugh’s younger brother and heir Lancelot, 6th Earl, to try and retrieve what he could – which he did by holding a great sale of the family collections in 1947. The sale lasted four weeks.
James, 7th Earl of Lonsdale, unexpectedly inherited in 1953, following the premature death of his father and, four years later, his grandfather. At Cambridge University he had read mechanical engineering. He joined the army which sent him to Oxford to study electricity and magnetism. His regiment put the first allied tanks ashore in the D-Day landings on Normandy beaches in June 1944. Subsequently James Lonsdale ran steel and heavy industry in the north east.
James’s first problem on inheritance was the crippling debt bequeathed to the family by his great uncle, the Yellow Earl. Another problem was Lowther Castle, which he disliked intensely. James Lonsdale would have completely demolished the castle, but after receiving representations from the townspeople of Penrith, in 1957 he compromised and removed just the roof. The forecourt became pig pens, the south lawns home to a broiler chicken factory farm. The rest of the gardens were overplanted for timber. With his passion for the land, for forestry and farming, James Lonsdale saved the Lowther Estate. A short Latin epitaph on his headstone in Lowther churchyard includes the words ‘agri lowtheriana servator’, meaning ‘preserver of the lands of Lowther’.
In 2006, James was succeeded by his eldest son Hugh Clayton, the present and 8th Earl of Lonsdale.