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Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke (1811-1892)

This article was written by William Prideaux Courtney and was published in 1893.

LoweRobert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke 1811-1892, politician, born at Bingham, Nottinghamshire, 4 December 1811, was second son of Robert Lowe, rector of that parish, and prebendary of Southwell (died at Bingham, 23 January 1845, aged 65), who married in July 1805, Ellen, second daughter and coheiress of the Rev. Reginald Pyndar, rector of Madresfield in Worcestershire. She died at Great Malvern, 15 November 1852, aged 68.

In 1825 Lowe entered Winchester College as a commoner, and was contemporary there with Roundell Palmer, now lord Selborne, and Edward, afterwards lord Cardwell, both of whom were subsequently his colleagues in office. Dr. W. G. Ward, his subsequent antagonist at Oxford, was also a schoolfellow. Later in life he confessed that the last two years of his schooldays had been passed mainly in reading some ‘standard and sterling English books,’ a circumstance to which he attributed much of his success in life, but he made sufficient use of his classics to become the fourth prefect in the top form of the college, and to be worthy of immediate admission as a freshman to the most distinguished set of undergraduates at the university. On 16 June 1829 Lowe matriculated at University College, Oxford. During his undergraduate days he spoke often at the Union, and divided the palm of oratory with Ward. An amusing account is printed in Bishop Charles Wordsworth's ‘Annals of his Early Life’ of a debate which took place in May 1831, when Lowe and Tait, the future archbishop of Canterbury, defended the whig ministry, but were both promptly dismissed by the youthful chronicler as ‘Nobodies.’ Another debate at the Union, in which Lowe took part, is chronicled in Sir Francis Doyle's ‘Reminiscences'. Lowe graduated B.A. in 1833, taking a first class in classics and a second class in mathematics, and proceeded M.A. in 1836. For some years he remained at Oxford as a private tutor, and in 1835 he was elected to a fellowship at Magdalen College, but this he only held for a year, for on 26 March 1836 he married Georgiana, second daughter of George Orred, of Aigburth House, in Lancashire. Popular opinion picked him out as the most efficient coach at the university, but this tribute of praise was withheld from him as an examiner, as he was ‘too hasty in his decisions.’ Though his eyesight was defective he ‘might often be met with on the water, pulling a lusty stroke oar while his wife steered’. In 1838 he applied for the chair of Greek at the university of Glasgow, but Dr. Edmund L. Lushington was preferred to him, and this, as he told the citizens in a speech at Glasgow in 1872, was the greatest disappointment which he ever experienced. In the ecclesiastical dispute over Newman's tract, No. 90, which rent Oxford in twain, Lowe took keen interest. He issued in 1841 an anonymous pamphlet called ‘The Articles construed by themselves,’ in which he contended with great emphasis that the only legitimate interpretation of the Thirty-nine Articles must be found in the articles themselves. Ward, his old antagonist at the Union, replied with ‘A few more words in support of No. 90,’ and Lowe retorted with ‘Observations suggested by a few more words,’ and to this he put his name. While coaching others at the university, Lowe himself studied for the law. He was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 1 May 1835, and was called to the bar at that inn on 28 January 1842.

In the same year he went to Sydney in Australia, where he practised in the law courts for some time without much success. On the nomination of Sir George Gipps, he sat in the legislative council for New South Wales from November 1843, and, by the vigour of his speeches on financial and educational questions, soon became one of the leaders of opinion in the colony. His eloquence secured the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and the adoption in 1846, after he had pressed the matter in vain during several sessions, of a resolution for the formation of a national board of education. By this time Lowe had differed from Sir George Gipps on public and private grounds, and his sense of independence led him to resign his nomination seat. He was, however, again returned as the elected representative for the district of St. Vincent, and during the next session denounced with vehemence the monopoly by which tens of thousands of acres had passed into the hands of a few isolated squatters. At the general election of 1848 he was returned after a severe struggle for Sydney as the champion of popular views. The renewal of the system of convict transportation to the Australian colonies met with his determined opposition, and the most impressive portion of his chief speech on the famous protest against such proceedings is quoted in the ‘Fifty years of Australian History,’ of Sir Henry Parkes, who was one of the secretaries of Lowe's election committee. His prominence in public life had for many years brought him much practice in the Law Courts, and he was one of the politicians who set on foot and contributed to a weekly paper of much influence called ‘The Atlas.’ By this means he amassed a considerable capital, which he judiciously invested in the purchase of real property at Sydney. Several years later he announced from his place in the House of Commons that he entertained strong objections to the policy which was adopted in 1850 of establishing constituent assemblies in the Australian colonies.

Early in 1850 Lowe had determined upon leaving the colony for political life in the old country. On his return to England, he became a leader-writer in the ‘Times,’ and long after he had himself ceased to contribute to its columns, his opinions exercised great influence over the views which it advocated. At the general election of 1852 he was returned for Kidderminster, and sat for that borough until the dissolution in April 1859. His maiden speech was made on 29 November 1852, when he argued with much acuteness in favour of Mr. Whiteside's bill for reforming the courts of common law (Ireland), and the favourable impression caused by his arguments on this occasion was deepened by ‘an eloquent and able speech’ on Mr. Disraeli's budget, which led Cockburn to speak of his ‘admirable logic,’ and the chancellor of the exchequer to call him ‘an accession to our debates.’ In consequence of this success he held the appointment of joint secretary of the board of control under Sir Charles Wood's presidency, from December 1852 until the close of Lord Aberdeen's coalition ministry in January 1855. It was during this period that the India act was passed, under which all writerships were thrown open to public competition, and that Macaulay, in concert with several other prominent men in public life, drew up the scheme of examination. Twice during the progress of the Oxford University bill in May and June 1854, Lowe intervened in the debates to insist on the unfortunate results within his own experience of the action of Congregation in that university. In the ministry of Lord Palmerston as first constructed (February 1855), Lowe resumed his old place at the board of control, but on its reconstitution, after the withdrawal of Sir James Graham and Mr. Gladstone, he was without office. During the next few months of unofficial life, he supported, as a private member, the public libraries bill, opposed the introduction of decimal coinage, and resisted with vehemence the measures for the remodelling of the governments of New South Wales and Victoria. After a short interval he was again called to a place in the government. From August 1855 to March 1858 he held the post of vice-president of the board of trade and paymaster-general, and on 13 August 1855 he took the oath at Osborne as a privy councillor. In the session of 1856 he introduced a bill on joint-stock companies, under which all partnerships for gain or profit of more than twenty persons were to be incorporated, and his speech received great approval from the leading lawyers in the house, but the bill did not pass into law. At the dissolution of 1857, the Palmerstonian liberals of Manchester asked him to contest its representation against Bright and Milner Gibson, but he determined to remain at Kidderminster. Had he accepted the invitation, he would have been triumphantly returned, and his election for so important a constituency would have given him a seat in the cabinet. Meanwhile he became, at Kidderminster, the object of popular animosity, his appearance on the hustings provoked tumults, and he was brutally assaulted. He retired from the representation at the dissolution in April 1859, and became member for Calne through Lord Lansdowne's influence.

When Lord Palmerston was again called into office, Lowe accepted on 24 June 1859, the position of vice-president of the committee of council on education, and for some time took little part in general debate, as the work in his department, which was advancing by leaps and bounds, taxed all his energies. He contended for payment by result and for superiority of examination over inspection, always insisting that no assistance should be granted from state funds, except to schools under certificated masters. ‘Hitherto,’ he said, ‘we have been living under a system of bounties and protection, now we propose to have a little free trade.’ The advocates of the denominational system of education looked on Lowe's administration with great misgiving, and his demeanour in office provoked much criticism. He brought up to the house on 13 February 1862 the revised-code regulations, and a few weeks later congratulated himself that most of his critics were agreed in the simplification of all the grants into one, and in an examination of the scholars in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the regulations did not escape censure, and a compromise, not unfavourable to the interests of the advocates of church schools, was ultimately adopted. The reports of the school inspectors had long troubled him, and he laid down the principle that they should not be altered or mutilated by the department, to suit the department's views, but that they should be returned, if they contained objectionable matter, to the offending officers with an intimation to that effect. Mr. W. E. Forster, on 11 June 1863, brought before the house the question whether all such documents should not be printed as sent in, but Lowe successfully resisted the proposition. A more determined effort was made by Lord Robert Cecil, [later Marquis of Salisbury], on 12 April 1864, when he proposed a resolution that the ‘mutilation’ of the reports and the ‘exclusion from them of statements and opinions adverse to the educational views of the committee of the council,’ while matter favourable to them is admitted, are violations of the understanding under which the appointment of inspectors was sanctioned. This adverse motion was feebly resisted by the government, and Lowe's speech in defence of his actions set out very imperfectly the principles on which he had acted. It was carried against the government, through the defection of a few liberals and some Irish members, by 101 votes to 93, and, although Lord Palmerston endeavoured to dissuade him, Lowe tendered his resignation. On 18 April 1864 he announced this decision to the house, and after he had vindicated his good faith and explained his conduct in greater fulness, the members of his party who had voted against him on the previous occasion expressed their regret that they had not then been aware of the facts which he had now supplied, and acknowledged the conscientious motives which had regulated his acts. In the ministry formed by Lord Russell in October 1865, on Palmerston's death (February 1866) Lowe had no place, and he lost ground in the house during the debates over the Cattle Plague Bill, when he argued that the losses of farmers through the enforced destruction of their cattle for preventive purposes should be fully compensated out of the general public funds, and found himself opposed by Mill and Bright.

When Lord Russell's ministry introduced in 1866 their Reform Bill, the ground which Lowe had lost was far more than recovered. He was hostile to the bill, although he had been a party to the Marquis of Hartington's motion in favour of reform in 1859, which upset the Derby-Disraeli cabinet, and he was a member of the ministry in 1860, when Lord John Russell introduced a Reform Bill. But the charge of inconsistency did not daunt him from leading the opposition to this new bill. Its propositions, when considered in the light of present history, erred on the side of tameness, and they were far more moderate than those which ultimately passed into law. But Lowe's triumph at the moment was complete. No longer a subordinate, he used his freedom to express his innermost faith, and he had the success which attends those who believe all they are saying. At no other time did he attain to such a high level of perfection in speaking. He was in sympathy with the majority of his audience, an unwonted circumstance, which inspired his speeches with a wealth of thought and of felicitous illustration. Mr. Gladstone and he vied with each other in aptness of classical quotation, and the keenest partisan on the ministerial side could not fail to admire Lowe's courage and sincerity of purpose. Mr. Bright indeed might jeer at the liberal malcontents as dwelling in the ‘political cave of Adullam,’ and might liken the party of two, Horsman and Lowe, to the ‘Scotch terrier that was so covered with hair that they could not tell the head from the tail,’ but to unprejudiced minds there could be no doubt that to Lowe's eloquence the defeat of the bill should be attributed. The amendment which led to the downfall of the liberal government was the motion of Lord Dunkellin, that a rating franchise should be substituted for that of net rental as proposed in the bill (19 June 1866). In the tory ministry which was thereupon formed, Lowe declined a place. He had united with them in opposition to the Liberal Reform Bill, but on all other matters his views were those held by the large majority of the liberal party. The new government found itself unable to resist the influence of public opinion in favour of electoral reform, and among its measures was a new Reform Bill. Its original suggestions were of no immoderate character, and differed but little, if at all, from the propositions of the previous government, but under the pressure of political controversy, and through the ‘education’ by Mr. Disraeli of his party, the bill, when passed into law, was a sweeping one. It lowered the franchise in boroughs to a household franchise, and reduced the qualification in counties to a £12 limit. Mr. Lowe was forced into the confession that he had been ‘deceived and betrayed.’

The constituency of Calne was swept away by this bill, and Lowe entered the new House of Commons of 1868 as the first member for the University of London. The seat, said Mr. Disraeli at a later period, had been created expressly for his benefit, and with the additional inducement that from it he might be able to destroy any liberal ministry in which he might take part. In Mr. Gladstone's administration, Lowe took the oaths of office as chancellor of the exchequer, on 9 December 1868, and for the first time was admitted into the cabinet. His first two budgets showed great financial ingenuity, and were well received. In the earlier of them, at a period when the revenue was not marked by elasticity, he assimilated the English practice, as regards the payment of income tax, to that in force in Scotland, making it payable in one lump once at the beginning of the year. At the same time he reduced the amount of the tax by one penny in the pound, abolished the corn duty of one shilling the quarter, and the duty on fire insurance, while he adjusted the imposts on carriages and on hackney cabs. In 1870 when the revenue had recovered strength and nearly eight millions of debt had been paid off during the previous year, he consolidated the stamp duties, lowered the postage on printed matter, took another penny off the income tax, and reduced by one half the duty on sugar. He experienced his first fall over the budget of 1871. Borrowing the idea from the United States, he proposed a tax of one halfpenny on each box of lucifer matches, with the sportive suggestion that the motto for the new label should be ‘Ex luce lucellum, out of light a little gain.’ The match-makers of the East-end of London took fright at a suggestion which might prove fatal to their trade. They organised a procession, chiefly of women-workers, to Westminster Hall, which was dispersed by the police, but the demonstration was of sufficient weight to induce the House of Commons to become unfriendly to the proposition, and it was withdrawn. Next year the chancellor contented himself with reducing by one half the duties on chicory and coffee, raising the limit up to which each taxpayer should be allowed a deduction in the payment of income tax, and with remitting the temporary increase in income tax, which had been made in the previous year. In 1873 his chief propositions were a second reduction by one half of the duty on sugar, and a lowering of the income tax by one penny in the pound. The ministry had now been some years in office, and its popularity was waning. Lowe had also declined in popular estimation, partly through his brusqueness of manner, and partly by his refusal, as guardian of the public purse, to apply the nation's funds to the purchase of Epping Forest or the provision of gardens on the Thames Embankment. He resigned the chancellorship of the exchequer, and on 9 August 1873 was sworn in the office of home secretary, a position which he retained until the fall of the ministry early in 1874. One of his ablest speeches was delivered at Sheffield in 1873, when he set out the financial advantages which the nation had received during his administration of its revenue.

Lowe's official life ceased with the defeat of the Gladstone ministry at the dissolution in February 1874. For some years after this he continued to take an active interest in politics, but in a speech at East Retford in April 1876 he described the queen as personally responsible for the introduction of the Royal Titles Bill into the House of Commons. This insinuation was promptly denied on the queen's authority by Mr. Disraeli in the House of Commons (2 May), and on 4 May Lowe formally retracted his statement. This unfortunate incident hastened his withdrawal into private life. Even if he had not committed such a blunder, his eyesight, never good, and now all but gone, would have proved a sore hindrance, if not an actual bar, to his continuance in the strife of parties. In a speech which he made in parliament on 28 March 1879 he endeavoured in vain to find some memorandum in his notes, lost the thread of his discourse, and abruptly resumed his seat. When the liberals returned to power in the spring of 1880, he was raised to the House of Lords as Viscount Sherbrooke of Sherbrooke, in Warlingham, Surrey (25 May 1880). In this new sphere he rarely intervened in debate. The last honour which he received from the sovereign was that of G.C.B. conferred on him on 30 June 1885. His last appearance before the public was as a poet in the autumn of 1884, when a thin volume entitled ‘Poems of a Life,’ which was intended for private distribution only, was made public by an error. Lord Sherbrooke died at his house, Warlingham, Surrey, on the evening of 27 July 1892. For some weeks after his death a number of epigrams connected with his career appeared in the columns of the leading London papers.

Lord Sherbrooke died full of honours. He was created Hon. LL.D. of Edinburgh 1867, D.C.L. of Oxford 22 June 1870, and the freedom of the city of Glasgow was presented to him in its city hall on 26 September 1872. He was also on the senate of London University, a trustee of the British Museum, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a member of the Political Economy Club, where he took frequent part in the debates. His address before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh in November 1867, and his speeches to the Liverpool Philomathic Society attracted much attention from his censure of the excessive time spent in the study of the dead languages and the composition of Latin verse.

His best speeches were made during the Reform debates of 1866 and 1867, when he delivered a series of addresses resembling in substance and style the classical orations of Canning. Then, as throughout his life, he never stooped to flattery nor concealed the truth. In force of sarcasm he excelled all his contemporaries at St. Stephen's, but this gift was sometimes exercised out of season. He wielded great powers of epigram, and never shrank from expressing the scorn which he felt. A little more readiness to conciliate his critics on the revised education code would have averted the vote which crippled his action for some years, but nothing could induce him to ‘suffer fools gladly.’ There were many members of the House of Commons whom he could not abide, and to them he showed an ‘extraordinary faculty’ of dislike. Personally he was a favourite with the public, who were attracted by the handsomeness of his figure and by the peculiarity of his white hair and eyebrows. He was an ardent advocate of bicycling. Lowe was twice married. His first wife, after a decline in health of some months, died at 34 Lowndes Square, London, 3 November 1884. In the following year he married Caroline, daughter of Thomas Sneyd, of Ashcombe Park, Staffordshire, who survived him. He left no issue.

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