LOWTHER, Sir James, 5th Bt. (1736-1802), of Lowther, nr. Penrith, Westmld.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



27 Apr. 1757 - 1761
1761 - Dec. 1762
27 Dec. 1762 - 16 Dec. 1768
22 Mar. 1769 - 1774
1774 - 1784

Family and Education

b. 5 Aug. 1736, 1st surv. s. of Robert Lowther of Maulds Meaburn, Westmld., gov. of Barbados 1711-1720, by Katherine, da. of Sir Joseph Pennington, 2nd Bt., M.P., of Muncaster, Cumb.  educ. Peterhouse, Camb. 1752.  m.7 Sept. 1761, Lady Mary Stuart, da. of John, 3rd Earl of Bute [S], s.p.  suc. fa. 1745; to estates and btcy. of his gt.-uncle Henry, 3rd Visct. Lonsdale 6 Mar. 1751; on d. of Sir William Lowther, 3rd Bt., 15 Apr. 1756, to estates of his cos. Sir James Lowther, 4th Bt., of Whitehaven;  cr. Earl of Lonsdale 24 May 1784; Visct. Lowther 26 Oct. 1797, with sp. rem. to his cos. Sir William Lowther, 2nd Bt.

Offices Held

Ld. lt. Westmld. 1758- d., Cumb. 1759- d.


Sir James Lowther before he came of age was reckoned the richest commoner in England. From his father he inherited estates in Cumberland and Barbados; from Lord Lonsdale, large estates in Westmorland; and in 1756 the Cumberland property of the Lowthers of Whitehaven, including Whitehaven itself—a fortune estimated at over £2,000,000.

He was brought up by his mother, an intelligent and forceful woman, watchful over her son’s interests and concerned that he should make a figure in the world commensurate with his wealth. While yet a youth he set out to control the parliamentary representation of Cumberland and Westmorland, and with an obsessionist tenacity pursued this aim throughout life. Before he had entered Parliament he had contested with Lord Thanet the control of Appleby; and, at a cost of over £50,000, had made himself master of Cockermouth—henceforth a complete pocket borough. Lowther’s candidates were defeated at Appleby, and he prepared to renew the fight in the House of Commons; only after the King had expressed a wish for a compromise did he agree to divide the borough with Thanet, and even then would only make a temporary agreement.1

His first important political connexion was with Henry Fox, who managed for him the Appleby petition; and who in May and June 1755 had tried to negotiate a marriage between Lowther and Lady Elizabeth Spencer, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. Lowther himself was returned unopposed for Cumberland while still under age; he had secured the almost unanimous approbation of the county, but gave some offence by not attending on the election day. His appointment to the lord lieutenacies of Cumberland and Westmorland was almost a matter of course, and marked his ascendancy in the two counties. Already his character was becoming known. Dr. Joseph Waugh, dean of Worcester, wrote about him to Newcastle on 31 July 1759:2 ‘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.’

At the general election of 1761 Lowther secured the return of eight Members: two for Cumberland, two for Westmorland (after a contest), two for Cockermouth, and one each for Appleby and Carlisle. Only at Carlisle, a difficult constituency with a highly independent element among its electors, did he receive a check. He had tried for both seats, but a revolt was raised against ‘the all-grasping and monopolizing spirit of the baronet’; and one of his candidates was forced to withdraw.

His marriage to Bute’s daughter increased his influence at court, and from Bute he obtained the right to recommend to all Treasury appointments in Cumberland and Westmorland. Lowther expected that this would be continued by Grenville as a matter of course, and felt aggrieved if any of his recommendations were not immediately accepted. John Robinson, who at this time was merely Lowther’s man of business, wrote to Charles Jenkinson on 5 Apr. 1764:3

Mr. Grenville told Sir James that he would send down orders to that Board [of Customs] to prevent the opposition he met with there about the little small places, and every day shews more and more the necessity of them for it appears that in anything where Sir James is concerned not even the least indulgence will be shewn, but scarce the common course of business pursued.

Lowther extended his demands to include military and ecclesiastical appointments in the two counties, and in the spring of 1764 had a dispute with Grenville about his claim to recommend to the deanery of Carlisle (it seems that he went over Grenville’s head and applied direct to the King).4 About this dispute Jenkinson wrote:5

Mr. Grenville employed Mr. Jenkinson to desire Lord Bute to use his influence with Sir James so that this affair might be accommodated. Mr. J. did speak but without success. Lord B. thought that his son-in-law might be unreasonable, but did not choose to interfere.

Jenkinson, M.P. for Cockermouth and Grenville’s secretary to the Treasury, was expected to look after Lowther’s interests with Administration and to place them before his own loyalty to Grenville. He wrote to Robinson, 22 Aug. 1764, about a recommendation by Lowther which Grenville had refused to accept:6

I shall apply to Mr. Grenville, and do all I can that everything may succeed as Sir James could wish. But alas! my dear Sir, I have but little influence where I am always considered as a party. You must have observed this, and the difficulties I have on that account been under.

On the death of Lord Egremont in August 1763 Lowther wrote to Bute:7

I have hitherto been very unlucky in my requests where I most wished for marks of his Majesty’s favour. If changes should occasion a vacancy in the Board of Trade I would desire the trouble of your Lordship to offer my service to the King. My Whitehaven estate from its particular situation has acquainted me with most branches of trade, and I hope I may prove myself as serviceable to his Majesty in the Commons as Lord Shelburne ever can be in the Lords.

Nothing came of this. Hitherto Lowther had given no indication that he would prove ‘serviceable’ in the House of Commons. His first recorded speech, 29 Nov. 1763, was to second an address of congratulation to Princess Augusta on her marriage; then followed speeches on the motion for a committee on the public accounts, 27 Jan. 1764, and on the Regency bill, 7 May 1765. He is not known to have spoken again until 1771.

In the lists drawn up by Rockingham in July 1765 Lowther is always noted as ‘contra’—which was only to be expected in view of his connexion with Bute. He wrote to Jenkinson on 23 Sept. 1765:8

We ought all to be in Town a fortnight or three weeks before the meeting [of Parliament] in order to settle and fix our plan; see who are our friends and who we may depend upon and to know what the other sides are doing and upon what ground we stand.

He voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act, but was not prominent in the opposition; and seems to have had no connexion with Bedford or Grenville. He supported Chatham’s ministry, but did not vote in the divisions on the land tax or the nullum tempus bill.

By 1766 the opposition to him in Cumberland had become consolidated round the Duke of Portland, and at the general election of 1768 contests were expected both at Carlisle and in the county. At Carlisle Lowther had secured control of the corporation, and seems to have felt fairly sure of the borough. In the county he tried to cripple Portland’s interest by securing from the Crown a lease of estates, held by the Bentinck family on a hitherto undisputed title since the reign of William III. This stroke turned many hitherto uncommitted freeholders against Lowther and completely failed of its effect. After a lawsuit lasting nearly ten years Portland’s title was confirmed.

At this general election Lowther made mistake after mistake. At Carlisle he put up two Scotsmen, neither of whom had any connexion with the borough, and was soundly defeated. He took care that the sheriff of Cumberland should be in his interest, but chose a man unfitted for the duties of returning officer: Portland won one seat, and Lowther, returned only through the sheriff’s partiality, was unseated on petition. In Westmorland he made the mistake of not standing himself, and lost one seat to a weak candidate who started only a few days before the poll—an indication of Lowther’s intense unpopularity. In these three open constituencies, where in 1761 he had commanded the return of five Members, he now only secured one: John Robinson, elected for Westmorland, where he had a considerable interest of his own.

It was long before Lowther could bring himself to accept the fact—which the general election of 1768 had shown conclusively—that he could not hope to engross the representation of the two counties. He smarted at his defeats; and, to escape the indignity of being unseated, applied for a peerage.9 Grafton’s refusal, and his failure to give Lowther adequate support on the Cumberland petition, added to his annoyance. The motion to unseat him was carried without a division, and for three months he was out of the House.

After his return for Cockermouth he voted with the court over the Middlesex election (15 Apr. and 8 May 1769), and procured an address from Cumberland in support of Government—‘considering what had passed, Administration did not deserve it from me’, he wrote to Jenkinson, 28 May 1769.10 Grafton’s refusal to allow him the exclusive right to recommend to places in the two counties he construed as an hostile act—he was suspicious and distrustful of all who were not dependent upon him. ‘I think it is hard’, he wrote to Jenkinson, 20 Sept. 1769,11 ‘that every influence which Government has should be turned against me while I am acting in their support ... if not some change elsewhere, there will be an alteration of conduct in me.’ There is no evidence that he seriously contemplated going into opposition in 1769 or 1770, and on 27 Mar. 1771 he voted with Administration on Brass Crosby’s case. But on the royal marriage bill, March 1772, Robinson (who probably knew Lowther better than any man) classed him as ‘doubtful, sick, present’.

Lowther expected Robinson (now secretary to the Treasury) to continue his agent with Administration, and to put Lowther’s interests first. In February 1773 they quarrelled over the disposal of a place, which Robinson had asked for his brother but which Lowther demanded for a dependant of his. North tried to smooth the matter over, and Robinson was most deprecating and accommodating—in the end he waived his brother’s claim; but Lowther was bent on quarrelling, and the breach between him and Robinson was never healed.12 For some time after this Lowther’s political allegiance was uncertain: he voted with the court on the renewal of the Middlesex motion, 26 Apr. 1773, but against them on Grenville’s Election Act, 25 Feb. 1774; and in September was classed by Robinson as ‘doubtful’.

In 1773 Lowther had agreed with Thanet to divide the borough of Appleby for their joint lives, and in 1774 he concluded an agreement with Portland dividing the representation of Carlisle and Cumberland. At the general election of 1774 he won back the second seat for Westmorland, and henceforth held both seats without a contest. In all, in 1774 he secured the return of seven Members.

There is no evidence that Lowther opposed North’s American legislation of 1774, nor had he hitherto shown sympathy for the American cause. The first indication of his having gone over to the Opposition was in January 1775 when he returned James Adair, a prominent radical and pro-American for Cockermouth. On 26 Oct. 1775 Lowther seconded Lord John Cavendish’s amendment to the Address, and ‘attacked the whole system of colony government’;13 and on 3 Nov. moved a motion against the use of Hanoverian troops in America (which he repeated on 25 Apr. 1776). He now came into contact with the Rockinghams, who had hitherto regarded him with abhorrence: on 6 Feb. 1776 Rockingham invited him to dinner to talk over ‘some motions which are proposed’.14 But Lowther was much too aware of his own consequence to act under the aegis of any other politician, and the collaboration with Rockingham did not last long. On 18 Apr. 1777 he moved to address the King to make provision out of the civil list for the Duchesses of Cumberland and Gloucester—a motion not popular with the Rockinghams; and on 8 Mar. 1779 spoke against Fox’s motion for a vote of censure on Sandwich, ‘went away and would not vote’.15 ‘Does not the part taken by Sir James Lowther show he is not so adverse as formerly’, wrote the King to North, 9 Mar.,16 ‘he in himself is scarce worth gaining but his followers would swell our list.’ The idea of detaching Lowther from the Opposition was much in the minds of North and the King at this time, but nothing came of it.

In the five divisions, Feb.-Apr. 1780, Lowther voted each time with Opposition; and on 12 Dec. 1781, after the news of Yorktown had reached England, moved a motion against the further prosecution of the war. He was absent from the five divisions Feb.-Mar. 1782, preceding the fall of North: whatever the reason, it was not political, since the Members returned by him voted with Opposition.

After the change of Administration Shelburne wrote about Lowther to the King, 17 Apr. 1782:17

Sir James Lowther has been with me to tell me a great deal which has passed between him and Lord Rockingham, the upshot of which is that either Lord Rockingham has offered him, or he has asked Lord Rockingham, I rather think the first, to be made a viscount, and he has desired my interest with your Majesty to the same effect. I reminded him that I sent to him immediately after I was sent for by your Majesty ... with a full intention to include any wish of his among the terms that were to be stipulated, that I acquainted your Majesty that I had done so; that understanding him to desire nothing of the kind, and knowing that he had declined it formerly, the terms were closed ... that your Majesty would make no peers at present, and that great inconvenience must result to your Majesty’s government ... if he was made single.

Why he at first declined to ask a peerage, or when he had previously refused one, is uncertain; but there can be no question that his ambition was to become a peer.

Lowther voted for Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and in the months that followed was a good deal courted by both sides. The younger Pitt, who sat on Lowther’s interest at Appleby, hoped to win him for the opponents of the Coalition; but Lowther himself made an approach to Fox.

Mr. Fox presents his compliments to Sir James Lowther [Fox wrote on 22 Aug. 1783] and will be extremely happy to meet him ... when he does not doubt but that he shall be able to give him satisfaction upon the several public points alluded to in his letter.18

Fox however failed: Lowther voted against the East India bill, which he described, 3 Dec. 1783, as ‘the death warrant of the constitution’;19 and at the general election of 1784 Robinson counted the members for Lowther’s constituencies as ‘friends’. Lowther himself did not stand, having been promised a peerage. On 17 May 1784, the day before the new Parliament met, Lord Abergavenny, whose son Henry Nevill had married Robinson’s only child Mary, was created an Earl. Next day, Francis Baring wrote to Shelburne:20

I am told that Sir James Lowther is very much discontented and violent about his peerage on account of the precedence which John Robinson’s grandson will have over the Lowthers, they even apprehend that he may join Opposition on that account.

Six days later, Lowther received an earldom, although the peerage formerly possessed by his family was but a viscountcy.

In 1784 Lowther was at the height of his electoral influence, and returned nine Members to Parliament: one for Cumberland, one for Carlisle, two for Cockermouth, two for Westmorland, one for Appleby, and two for Haslemere (which borough he had purchased in 1780). Although the compromise of 1774 had seemed to mark the end of his attempt to engross the representation of Cumberland and Westmorland, it led to a change of methods rather than of aim. In the 1780s Lowther tried to buy the Cumberland estates of both Portland and Egremont, and made a renewed attempt to control both seats at Carlisle. In 1786 and 1790 he also tried for one seat at Lancaster.

His passion for electioneering was insatiable, a reflection of his drive for dominion. In 1786 he fought three elections in the space of nine months: two at Carlisle (an electorate of over 700), and one at Lancaster (an electorate of 2500). Although he had the reputation of a miser and a hard landlord, to purchase electoral influence he was ready to lavish his money. The Appleby election of 1754 cost him over £15,000; the Cumberland and Carlisle elections of 1768 at least £20,000 (and probably a good deal more); the Lancaster election of 1786 over £25,000. For Egremont’s estate he offered exceedingly generous terms—£5000 above the figure to be fixed by independent referees, and an option on the borough of Haslemere.

No sense of propriety or fair play marked his conduct of elections. In 1768 he tried by a legal trick to deprive Portland of part of his Cumberland estate; in 1773 to restore his interest in Westmorland he was prepared to settle 600 Irishmen in the county; in 1784 he instigated the corporation of Carlisle to create 1400 new freemen to swamp the electorate.

He never sold his seats, but chose his Members himself or at the recommendation of friends. As James Boswell found, he expected those whom he patronized to devote their time to his service, and his Members to follow implicitly his own political line. In 1763 he compelled his brother, who had voted against Grenville’s Administration, to resign his seat for Westmorland. The way he treated his Members is shown in a letter he wrote on 26 Nov. 1781 to William Lowther, his cousin and heir, M.P. for Carlisle:

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. This is a most critical time, but at all times I do expect the persons I bring into Parliament to attend constantly.

And on 26 Jan. 1782: ‘I would have you to know that the gentlemen who are brought into Parliament by me are not accountable to any person but myself for their conduct (when their constituents do not interfere).’21

Before 1784 Lowther returned some distinguished Members to Parliament. John Robinson, Sir Fletcher Norton, George Johnstone, Charles Jenkinson, Sir George Macartney, and the younger Pitt, were all first returned to Parliament for a Lowther constituency. All either quarrelled with him or at the first opportunity sought to break the connexion. But of the twelve Members returned by Lowther at the general election of 1784 or at by-elections before 1790, only two (William Lowther and Michael le Fleming) are known to have spoken in the House—Lowther twice and le Fleming once. Of these twelve, three were Lowther’s relations (William, John, and James Lowther); four (Penn, le Fleming, Senhouse, and Edward Norton) were personal friends; and the remaining five (Stephenson, Satterthwaite, Postlethewaite, Garforth, and Knubley), were small retainers, completely dependent on him. Not one of the twelve reached any sort of distinction in the Commons, and most could never have been returned without a patron.

As a peer Lonsdale supported Pitt, but left him over the Regency. ‘Lord Lonsdale is still uncertain’, wrote W. W. Grenville to Lord Buckingham, 9 Dec. 1788.22 Appeals for his support came from both Pitt and the Prince of Wales,23 and in the division of 16 Dec. Lonsdale’s Members voted with the Opposition. But by 1791 he was again supporting Pitt.

Wraxall described Lonsdale as ‘tyrannical, overbearing, violent, and frequently under no restraint of temper or of reason’24; and Walpole:25 ‘equally unamiable in public and private’. Those close to him were equally severe: Edward Knubley told Boswell that ‘Lonsdale had a most tyrannical temper and not a spark of gratitude’, and Richard Penn complained of his ‘shocking ferocity and undignified manner of living’.26 ‘One of the most worthless men in his Majesty’s dominions’, wrote Sir Edward Blackett,27 ‘... you never hear him spoken of but with the greatest abhorrence.’ It is a typical judgment.

Lonsdale died 24 May 1802.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. B. Bonsall, Sir James Lowther and Cumb. and Westmld. Elections, 1754-75.
  • 2. Add. 32893, ff. 397-8.
  • 3. Jenkinson prs. 280.
  • 4. Grenville Pprs. ii. 383, 385.
  • 5. ‘Memorandum on the relations between Bute and Grenville’, Jenkinson Pprs. 307.
  • 6. Ibid. 326.
  • 7. Lonsdale mss.
  • 8. Jenkinson Pprs. 386.
  • 9. Add. 38206, ff. 79-80.
  • 10. Ibid. f. 121.
  • 11. Ibid. ff. 136-7.
  • 12. There are letters about this from Robinson and North in the Lonsdale mss.
  • 13. Almon, iii. 8.
  • 14. Lonsdale mss.
  • 15. North to the King, 9 Mar. 1779, Fortescue, iv. 301.
  • 16. Ibid. 302.
  • 17. Ibid. v. 462.
  • 18. HMC Lonsdale, 140.
  • 19. Debrett, xii. 323.
  • 20. Lansdowne mss.
  • 21. Lonsdale mss.
  • 22. Courts and Cabinets of Geo. III, ii. 41.
  • 23. HMC Lonsdale, 142-143.
  • 24. Mems. ii. 80.
  • 25. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 195.
  • 26. Boswell Pprs. xviii. 54.
  • 27. To his son, 16 Feb. 1786, Blackett mss.