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Lowther, James, earl of Lonsdalelocked

  • J. V. Beckett

James Lowther, earl of Lonsdale (1736–1802)

by Thomas Hudson, c. 1755

private collection

Lowther, James, earl of Lonsdale (1736–1802), politician and landowner, was born on 5 August 1736 at Maulds Meaburn, Westmorland, the fourth child and eldest surviving son of Robert Lowther (1681–1745), landowner, of Maulds Meaburn and Katherine Pennington (1712–1764), only daughter of Sir Joseph Pennington, second baronet, of Muncaster, Cumberland. His father, sometime governor of Barbados, came from a junior branch of the Lowthers of Lowther, who were the most powerful aristocratic proprietors in Cumberland. The Maulds Meaburn family properties lay in a compact area south of Appleby. In addition to the manor of Maulds Meaburn they included property in Crosby Ravensworth and Asby Grange. Part of the property was already encumbered when Robert Lowther succeeded his father in 1703, and financial considerations seem to have dictated his marriage the following year to an elderly widow whose inheritance included an estate in Barbados. As a result of this windfall Lowther was gradually able to turn his fortunes around. His wife died in 1722 and in 1731 he married Katherine Pennington; they had five children. James Lowther was just nine when his father died in 1745.

The creation of the Lowther interest

Lowther was educated at schools in London and Hertfordshire, and in 1752 at Peterhouse, Cambridge. By 1757, when he came of age, he was one of the wealthiest men in northern England, largely because several senior branches of his family were childless. On 6 March 1751 he inherited estates worth more than £6000 annually from the third Viscount Lonsdale of Lowther Hall. The title lapsed, but he succeeded to Lonsdale's baronetcy. Four years later, on the death of Sir James Lowther of Whitehaven, he inherited estates in Westmorland and Middlesex with an annual rental value of £1200. On 15 April 1756 Sir William Lowther of Holker Hall died aged only twenty-nine, and Lowther inherited by the terms of Sir James Lowther's will extensive land and colliery interests in west Cumberland. As a result of these various inheritances the young man now had an income of about £45,000 per annum. Horace Walpole claimed that 'though not of age [he] becomes master of one or two and forty thousand pounds a year' (Walpole, Corr., 9.185). The duke of Newcastle told George II that he was 'perhaps the richest subject that His Majesty has' (Owen, 283).

Lowther was not frightened of spending this fortune, notably in the pursuit of electoral success. While still a teenager, in 1754 he contested with the earl of Thanet the right to control the parliamentary borough of Appleby. When subsequently his candidates were defeated in the borough, he challenged the result in the Commons and backed down only after the king had suggested a compromise with Thanet. As a result, the original election was declared void and at the by-election in 1756 Thanet and Lowther duly returned one member each. In 1756 Lowther spent £58,000 buying up the burgage borough of Cockermouth, and in April 1757, still a few months short of his twenty-first birthday, he was returned on the whig interest for Cumberland at a by-election. These activities did not make him popular. Joseph Waugh, dean of Worcester, wrote of him in 1759:

I should think from what I hear in the country this young gentleman carries matters so imperiously, without any pretence but having money, that at the general election he will meet with some stand against the career he at present runs.

HoP, Commons, 1754–90, 3.56

Waugh predicted correctly, because, although in 1761 Lowther secured the return of eight MPs—two each for Cumberland, Westmorland, and Cockermouth, and one each for Appleby and Carlisle—he was unsuccessful in the second seat at Carlisle. One of his nominees was forced to withdraw when it was clear that there was to be a revolt against 'the all-grasping and monopolizing spirit of the baronet'.

Marriage and ministerial ambitions

In 1755 Henry Fox had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate for Lowther a marriage with the duke of Marlborough's daughter—she turned him down—but potentially Lowther made an even better match when on 7 September 1761 he married Lady Mary Stuart (1740–1824), daughter of George III's prime minister John Stuart, third earl of Bute, and Mary Wortley Montagu. Bute subsequently agreed that Lowther should nominate to all Treasury appointments in Cumberland and Westmorland, and Sir James was annoyed when this arrangement was not automatically continued on George Grenville's appointment as prime minister in 1763. By then Lowther had extended his demands to include military and ecclesiastical appointments in Cumberland, and when he fell out with Grenville over the deanery of Carlisle, Bute refused to intervene on the grounds that he by now expected his son-in-law to make unreasonable claims. With the death of Lord Egremont in August 1763 Lowther recommended himself unsuccessfully for a position at the Board of Trade, despite both his lack of empathy with Grenville and his apparent lack of interest in the business of parliament. Subsequently, in 1765, on hearing that George III had offered the Treasury to Rockingham, Lowther threatened to break his political connection with Bute on the grounds that he had been neglected by the ministry, and to align himself with the opposition.

In 1765 the third duke of Portland, partly out of enmity towards Bute, and partly because of his political rivalry with Lowther in Cumberland, filed bills in chancery against Lowther and Carlisle corporation alleging that he was the owner of a fishery in the River Eden which had been rendered valueless by the mode of fishing adopted by the defendants. Lowther had been elected mayor of Carlisle, where he instituted a rigorous examination of the corporation's accounts, and subsequently endeavoured to swamp the constituency by creating honorary freemen. In response to Portland, Lowther's legal advisers subsequently found that in William III's original grant to the first earl of Portland of the honour of Penrith, the forest of Inglewood, and the socage manor of Carlisle had been expressly omitted. This put Portland's case in a new light since it was under the general wording of the grant that he claimed the socage manor of Carlisle, but since these places had been in the undisturbed possession of the Portland family for sixty years their title could be impeached only by the crown. On 9 July 1767 Lowther petitioned the Treasury for a grant of the crown interest in these two properties 'for three lives, on such terms as to their lordships should seem meet'. Portland protested, but the grant was made to Lowther on 18 December 1767.

The decision in this case was used by Portland and his friends to claim that no possessions were safe if the legal maxim nullum tempus occurrit regi was to be enforced. On 17 February 1768 Sir George Savile sought leave to introduce into the Commons a Nullum Tempus Bill, designed to abrogate the legal maxim and thereby deprive Lowther of his rights under the crown leases, but his motion was defeated by 134 votes to 114. The following year a compromise was found and Savile's bill passed with a provision excluding grants of the crown made prior to 1 January 1769 from the operation of the legislation as long as grantees prosecuted their claims within the year. Lowther immediately filed a bill against Portland, and served around 300 ejectments on his tenants. In February 1771 Sir William Meredith attempted to carry a bill in the Commons to repeal the clause. Subsequently the court of exchequer found against Lowther on the technical grounds that the original grant was unacceptable under the Civil List Act of 1702 because the rent reserved to the crown was insufficient. As a result, the question of Portland's title to the forest of Inglewood and the socage manor of Carlisle was never tested in the courts, and he sold the property in 1787 to the duke of Devonshire.

At the 1768 general election Lowther encountered unexpectedly firm opposition. He nominated two Scots at Carlisle, neither of whom had any connection with the borough and both of whom were defeated. In Cumberland the duke of Portland won one seat, and although Lowther was returned for the other he was unseated on petition and Portland's second nominee was declared duly elected. He did not stand in Westmorland where he lost one seat to a weak candidate who declared only a few days before the poll. Thus in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Carlisle, where he had secured five seats in 1761, he returned only one in 1768 and that was in Westmorland where his candidate, John Robinson, had a considerable interest of his own.

For three months Lowther was out of the house, and Grafton turned down his application for a peerage. He was returned as MP for Cockermouth in March 1769, but his position at Westminster was temporarily damaged and Grafton refused him the exclusive right to nominate to government places in Cumberland. Such was his annoyance that he briefly contemplated joining the opposition.

In 1773 Lowther reluctantly agreed with Thanet to continue the Appleby arrangement and divide the borough for their joint lives. The following year he negotiated a compromise with Portland whereby they were to divide Cumberland and Carlisle to avoid an expensive repetition of the events of 1768. At the 1774 general election Lowther won back the second Westmorland seat and returned a total of seven members. He himself was elected for both Cumberland and Westmorland and opted to sit for Cumberland. By the later 1770s he had joined the opposition to North's ministry, and in 1781–2 he opposed further prosecution of the war in America. After the change of administration Shelburne refused to promote with the king his claim to a peerage. During 1783 he was courted by both government and opposition, but he did not stand at the 1784 general election because he had by then been promised a peerage. On 24 May 1784 he was created Baron Lowther of Lowther, baron of the baronies of Kendal and Burgh, viscount of Lonsdale and of Lowther, and earl of Lonsdale. This was little short of a thank-offering by William Pitt the younger to a boroughmonger who had provided him with his first parliamentary seat at Appleby in 1781 and who had subsequently placed at the disposal of the prime minister the seats under his control. Lowther took his seat in the Lords on 2 June 1784, and normally thereafter supported Pitt's administration, although in 1792 he was said to be considering transferring his support to the opposition because the prime minister had refused him a dukedom.

Electoral dominance of the Lowther interest

Although the 1774 compromise had apparently blunted his strength in Cumberland and Westmorland, Lowther set out to restore his position by buying the estates of the duke of Portland and the earl of Egremont. He acquired neither, even though he offered Egremont £5000 above the price to be fixed by an independent referee, and the borough of Haslemere (which he had bought in 1780). Even so, at the 1784 election Lowther was at the height of his boroughmongering powers, returning both members for Cockermouth, Westmorland, and Haslemere, and single MPs for Cumberland, Carlisle, and Appleby—Sir James's Ninepins, as they were colloquially known. At a by-election in Carlisle in 1784 he sought to dominate the second seat through the creation of honorary freemen, a move which led to post-election petitioning. In both 1786 and 1790 he also tried expensively and unsuccessfully to return a member for Lancaster. Throughout his life Lowther lavished money on elections, including £15,000 at Appleby in 1754, at least £20,000 for Cumberland and Carlisle in 1768, and over £25,000 at Lancaster in 1786. In all he must have spent well in excess of £100,000 on contests.

Lowther chose the candidates himself, sometimes following the recommendations of friends, and once elected he expected them to follow his own political line. He even forced his brother in 1763 to resign his seat for Westmorland when he voted against Grenville's administration. In 1781 he told his cousin William Lowther, MP for Carlisle, that:

it will affect me very much that a person so nearly connected with me should not be present the first day of the meeting of Parliament. It has not happened to me before, and if you cannot give your attendance constantly in Parliament, which I must expect, you had better resign your seat that a person who will attend the duty may be chose to succeed to you.

HoP, Commons, 1754–90, 3.59

In January 1782 he wrote that his members were 'not accountable to any person but myself'. However, many of the MPs returned on his influence by the 1780s were men of no political standing, entirely dependent on him for patronage, and they seldom if ever spoke in the house. In 1788 he ordered all his ‘people’ in the Commons to oppose Pitt's regency resolutions, but his political voice was never as loud as his electoral control might have implied.

Lowther inherited a vast estate, but he extended it through land purchases, notably in coal-bearing west Cumberland where he spent £55,000 acquiring the Workington estate of Charles Pelham in 1758 as well as substantial sums on the manors of Millom, Whicham, Greysouthen, and Clifton. He was active in promoting his colliery interests, and annual profits were about £10,000 in the 1770s, doubling by the time of his death. Despite his wealth Lowther often failed to pay bills. As a landlord he had a reputation for meanness and ruthlessness, extracting every penny he could from tenants while maltreating his Whitehaven steward John Wordsworth whose fees he refused to pay. At the same time he built a ‘planned village’ at Lowther in Westmorland for his estate employees, and for a number of years provided additional employment in a carpet factory in the village. He spent little on his main seat, Lowther Hall, which had been rebuilt in 1718 following a fire, but he turned his Whitehaven residence, Flatt Hall, into Whitehaven Castle. By repute the plans, by Robert Adam, were never paid for.

Lowther held many other positions including custos rotulorum (3 August 1758) and lord lieutenant (14 August 1758) of Westmorland; lord lieutenant (13 December 1759) and custos rotulorum (18 October 1759) of Cumberland; brigadier-general of the Cumberland and Westmorland militia (25 June 1761), vice-admiral of Cumberland and Westmorland (15 April 1765), steward and bailiff of Inglewood forest (18 December 1767), steward of Lonsdale (23 November 1793), and colonel in the army during service (14 March 1794).

Reputation and death

Lowther was a man of mixed reputation, acquiring epithets such as the Bad Earl and 'Jimmy, Grasp-all, earl of Toadstool' (GEC, Peerage). According to Nathaniel Wraxall he was 'tyrannical, overbearing, violent, and frequently under no restraint of temper or of reason' (Wraxall, 378). Horace Walpole considered him to be 'equally unamiable in public and private' (Walpole, Memoirs, 3.195). Edward Knubley told James Boswell that Lowther 'had a most tyrannical temper and not a spark of gratitude' (HoP, Commons, 1754–90, 3.60). Boswell, who hoped Lowther would bring him into parliament, was grossly insulted by 'this brutal fellow' during 'a most shocking conversation' in June 1790 (Letters of James Boswell Addressed to the Rev. W. J. Temple, ed. P. Francis, 1857, 323–5). Richard Penn complained of Lowther's 'shocking ferocity and undignified manner of living', and according to Sir Edward Blackett he was 'one of the most worthless men in his Majesty's dominions … you never hear him spoken of but with the greatest abhorrence' (HoP, Commons, 1754–90, 3.60). To the Revd Alexander Carlyle he was 'more detested than any man alive as a shameless political sharper, a domestic bashaw, and an intolerant tyrant over his tenants and dependents'. In Carlyle's view he was 'truly a madman, though too rich to be confined' (Autobiography of the Rev Dr Alexander Carlyle, ed. J. H. Burton, 3rd edn, 1861, 418–19). Occasionally, Lowther's sense of humour made a better impression. When staying at Whitehaven, Boswell was pleased to discover that 'when he choses to pay a compliment nobody can do it more gracefully', and Walter Spencer-Stanhope believed him to possess the ability and mind 'that would have enabled him to have played a distinguished part on the theatre of the World' (Owen, 297, 301).

Lowther's marriage was not particularly happy. There were no children, and after about fifteen years he and his wife lived apart. He is known subsequently to have had a number of mistresses. With no son to whom he could pass the property, he obtained on 26 October 1797 the barony and viscountcy of Lowther of Whitehaven, with special remainder to the male heirs of his cousin the Revd Sir William Lowther, second baronet, of Swillington, Yorkshire. Lowther died at Lowther Hall on 24 May 1802 and was buried at Lowther on 9 June. He had been ill for some time and the cause of death was a 'mortification of the bowels'. His widow died at Broom House, Fulham, on 5 April 1824, aged eighty-four.


  • H. Owen, The Lowther family: eight hundred years of ‘A family of ancient gentry and worship’ (1990)
  • O. Wood, West Cumberland coal, 1660–1982/3 (1988)
  • B. Bonsall, Sir James Lowther and Cumberland and Westmorland elections, 1754–75 (1960)
  • J. V. Beckett, ‘Inheritance and fortune in the eighteenth century: the rise of Sir James Lowther, earl of Lonsdale’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, [new ser.,] 87 (1987), 171–8
  • J. V. Beckett, ‘The making of a pocket borough: Cockermouth, 1722–56’, Journal of British Studies, 20/1 (1980–81), 140–57
  • N. W. Wraxall, Historical memoirs of my own time, ed. R. Askham (1904), 378
  • H. Walpole, Memoirs of the reign of King George the Third, ed. G. F. R. Barker, 4 vols. (1894)
  • GM, 1st ser., 72 (1802), 586–8


  • Cumbria AS, Carlisle, corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with first earl of Liverpool, Add. MSS 38198–38310, 38458, 38469, 38570
  • Carlisle Public Library, corresp. with Henry Dundas
  • Cumbria AS, Whitehaven, letters to Humphry Senhouse
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. with James Boswell


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