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Robert Lowe (1811–1892)

by R. L. Knight

This article was published:

Robert Lowe (1811-1892), politician, was born on 4 December 1811 at Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England, the second son of Rev. Robert Lowe, prebendary of Southwell and rector of Bingham, and his wife Ellen, née Pyndar. An albino with defective vision, he led a sheltered childhood. When at 14 he was sent to Winchester, he suffered deeply from boyish ridicule of his physical peculiarities. In June 1829 he matriculated at University College, Oxford (B.A., 1833; M.A., 1836), where he made a name for himself as a scholar and as a speaker in Union debates. In 1835 he was awarded a fellowship at Magdalen, and enrolled at Lincoln's Inn. On 26 March 1836 he married Georgiana, second daughter of George Orred of Tranmere, Cheshire, and Aigburth Hall, Lancashire, and relinquished both his fellowship and plans for a legal career. In the years that followed he became one of Oxford's most successful private tutors, but he willingly left the drudgery of teaching in 1840 to return to Lincoln's Inn. In January 1842, when at the Bar, his eyesight had become so poor that doctors warned he would go blind within seven years. He resolved thereupon that in the seven allotted years of light he would seek his fortune in Australia.

Lowe arrived in Sydney on 8 October 1842 and nine days later was admitted to practise in the New South Wales Supreme Court. During the court recess in December and January severe headaches and a painful nervous tic of the eyes caused him again to seek the advice of doctors, who told him to give his eyes absolute rest; otherwise he might not only go blind but endanger his life. For the next nine months Lowe restlessly toured country districts with his wife. In October 1843 he decided to risk his eyes by resuming practice, but in those days of deep economic depression briefs were few. Governor Sir George Gipps lent a sympathetic ear and early in November, when he needed support in the Legislative Council, named Lowe as an unofficial nominee. From that vantage point Lowe was able to defend the government's position by voicing his deepest convictions: his belief in a policy of laissez faire and his faith in the utilitarian tenet that the only innovations desirable were those that would bring about better government. His first speeches electrified the chamber as he attacked radical measures which Richard Windeyer and William Charles Wentworth had proposed to meet the economic crisis. Lowe himself proposed that imprisonment for debt be abolished, a suggestion that was adopted by the council in diluted form in December 1843.

His brief success in the council bore fruit and, although the depression had worsened, his voice was heard regularly in the courts. In February 1844 he undertook the defence of John Knatchbull, a convict who had senselessly murdered a young woman shopkeeper. Lowe's plea was novel for his time: that insanity of the will could exist apart from insanity of the intellect. He argued that Knatchbull had yielded to an irresistible impulse and could not be held responsible for his crime. The court, however, ruled otherwise. The Lowes subsequently adopted the murdered woman's two young children, Bobby and Polly Jamieson.

In March 1844 Gipps, confronted with large expenses for immigration, presented the Executive Council with a draft of squatting regulations that would raise the needed revenue. To Lowe, Gipps's move seemed incompatible with constitutional government. 'The power over the purse vested in the Legislature was perfectly useless', he was to declare, 'if the Government had at its entire command another resource derivable from the people, which it could raise without limit, and without reference to the assent or dissent of their representatives'. Simultaneous with his first major difference with the governor on public policy, there sprang up between them a private misunderstanding over the guest list at Government House, a dispute that contributed to the rupture of their friendship. In mid-March Lowe cast about for a constituency in Port Phillip, only to be rebuffed because, ironically, he was considered likely to support Gipps even from an elective seat.

Towards the end of April Lowe joined the Pastoral Association of New South Wales, which had been formed to combat the new squatting regulations. Gipps, angered by Lowe's desertion, sought to remove him from the council, but Lowe refused to relinquish his seat until he had completed a report on popular education, which recommended a state-supported, non-denominational system of schools. The council agreed to this suggestion, but Gipps, influenced by the strong protests of the Anglican bishop, by increasing ill health, and by personal bitterness towards his recalcitrant council, refused to carry out the council's recommendations. In the years that followed Lowe pursued the matter until, in 1847, Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy sanctioned the beginnings of a National school system.

After his resignation from the council in August 1844 Lowe, with the backing of the Pastoral Association, launched on 30 November a weekly journal, the Atlas, the declared purpose of which was to lobby for responsible government and for colonial control of colonial waste lands. 'This is the colony', Lowe wrote, 'that's under the Governor, that's under the Clerk, that's under the Lord, that's under the Commons, who are under the people, who know and care nothing about it'. During the first half year of publication he filled the pages of the Atlas with scathing articles and poems; as public duties came to occupy more of his time, he gradually relinquished control of the paper, until in 1847 he severed all connexion with it.

In April 1845 he returned to the Legislative Council. When news of the new land orders arrived in 1847, Lowe delivered five major speeches in which, with passionate sincerity, he disparaged the squatters' aims. In 1847 and 1849 he produced two masterful committee reports refuting the Wakefieldian theory of a high minimum price of land and advocating colonial control of colonial waste lands.

During his philippics on the land question in 1847 Lowe made his first direct appeal for popular support. In January 1848 when a Constitution involving indirect elections was proposed, he enhanced his popularity by an eloquent plea at a public meeting for passive resistance to any departure from the time-honoured principles of the British Constitution. At the general elections in June 1848 he was nominated by a committee of tradesmen for one of Sydney's two seats in the Legislative Council, and on 30 July was returned a close second to Wentworth in what the secretary of his election committee, (Sir) Henry Parkes, termed 'the birthday of Australian democracy'. In the following year, having come to believe that without convict labour the squatters could not succeed in their designs for land aggrandizement, Lowe was one of the leaders of popular resistance to an attempt of the British government to renew transportation. In June 1849, standing on the roof of an omnibus at Circular Quay, with the convict ship Hashemy anchored near by, he told the crowd: 'The injustice forced upon the Americans is not half so great as that forced upon this colony'. The British government made no further attempt to renew transportation to Sydney.

At the hustings in 1848 Lowe had expressed faith in the common people, provided they were educated, but he remained inalterably opposed either to class legislation or to manhood suffrage. He refused to join the Constitutional Association, a working class political organization which had grown out of the committee that had engineered his election. He also refused to help Sydney's unemployed to obtain relief from the government. But perhaps his crowning apostasy in the eyes of the working class was his support of the bounty immigration bill, which would have required assisted immigrants who subsequently left the colony to repay to the government the cost of their passage from Britain. When Lowe in November 1849, on account of his wife's increasing homesickness and ill health, unexpectedly announced his intended departure for England, there were few regrets, although his political supporters expressed annoyance at having to undergo the expense of another election. On 27 January 1850 the Lowes and the two Jamieson children sailed for home.

After a brief tour of the northern circuit Lowe, in August 1850, accepted an offer from a former pupil of his at Oxford, John Delane, editor of The Times, to join the paper's staff as a leader writer. For the next seventeen years, Lowe contributed an average of three leading articles a week, his last appearing in January 1868.

In July 1852 he entered parliament for the borough of Kidderminster. A series of appointments of increasing importance followed: joint secretary of the Board of Control, December 1852–January 1855; vice-president of the Board of Trade and paymaster-general August 1855–March 1858; vice-president of the committee of the Council on Education, June 1859–April 1864; chancellor of the Exchequer, December 1869–August 1873; Home secretary, August 1873–February 1874. While out of office in 1855, he strongly opposed the passing of the Australian Constitution bills as measures designed to help the squatters keep their monopoly of land. At the Board of Trade he brought in legislation that allowed joint stock companies to adopt the principle of limited liability. On the Education Committee, he introduced the revised code regulations in 1862 which provided for 'payment by results'. In 1864 he resigned office after charges that inspectors' reports had been unduly censored, charges of which the House subsequently exonerated him. Again out of office, in 1865 he led the opposition to extension of the borough franchise and next year to Lord John Russell's mild reform bill over which he managed to split his party and cause the fall of the government. As leader of what Bright called the political 'cave of Adullam', he was offered a post in the new Derby ministry, but refused. In 1867 he fought desperately to defeat the Tories' far-reaching reform bill. Although he failed, he so dominated the House of Commons by force of intellect, eloquence and conviction that he was spoken of as a future prime minister. After the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, he urged that greater attention be paid to the question of popular education. 'We must educate our masters' is a phrase attributed to him at this time. In 1868 he gave strenuous support towards the disestablishment of the Irish Church, and on 9 December 1868 entered Gladstone's cabinet as chancellor of the Exchequer. His first budgets were considered brilliant; in four years he took £12,000,000 off taxation and removed the last vestige of duty on corn, but after 1871 his finance came increasingly under criticism. In 1873 he was transferred to the Home Office where he remained until the Gladstone ministry fell in 1874. In 1876 in a speech at East Retford attacking the royal titles bill, Lowe tactlessly intimated that the Queen herself had been responsible for the bill's introduction. When the Liberals returned to power in 1880, Victoria made it clear that any ministry that included Lowe would be unacceptable to her. Lowe's active political life ended with his elevation to the House of Lords as Viscount Sherbrooke on 25 May 1880. Failing memory and near-blindness contributed to his political eclipse.

Georgiana Lowe, who had been ill for many years, died in November 1884; in February 1885, Lowe married Caroline, daughter of Thomas Sneyd of Ashcombe Park, Staffordshire. There were no children of either marriage. Lowe died at Warlingham, Surrey, on 27 July 1892. Among the honours he received were: Hon. LL.D. Edinburgh, 1867; Hon. D.C.L. Oxford, 1870; member of the senate of London University; trustee of the British Museum; fellow of the Royal Society; G.C.B., 30 June 1885.

A man of great intellect and integrity with a commanding power of eloquence, he was impatient of the lack of these qualities in others. Arrogant and inflexible, he did not bend to meet changing circumstances nor would he compromise with principle; conciliation was a word unknown to him. The effect of his efforts on the course of Australian political development was to broaden the base of its democracy, whereas in England he strove to maintain the narrow base of the reformed parliament of 1832. The seeming contradiction lay not in his attitude but in the differences in circumstances in the colony and the mother country. In the crucial decade of the 1840s in New South Wales no other single figure stands out more vividly both as antagonist to Gipps and the British government and as protagonist in the struggle for responsible government.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lowe (Viscount Sherbrooke), Speeches and Letters on Reform (Lond, 1867)
  • A. P. Martin, Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1892)
  • W. A. Gardner (Baroness Burghclere) ed., A Great Lady's Friendships (Lond, 1933)
  • The History of The Times, vol 2 (Lond, 1939)
  • A. Briggs, Victorian People (Lond, 1954)
  • R. L. Knight, Illiberal Liberal: Robert Lowe in New South Wales, 1842-1850 (Melb, 1966).

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Citation details

R. L. Knight, 'Lowe, Robert (1811–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Viscount Sherbrooke
  • Sherbrooke, Viscount

4 December, 1811
Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England


27 July, 1892 (aged 80)
Warlingham, Surrey, England

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