An Appreciation by Robert Jarman
In a lifetime of studying the habits and habitats, eccentricities and antics of the British Aristocracy, I have seldom come across any character as amusing, entertaining, eccentric, or as profligate as Hugh Lonsdale.
The best known of the Earls of Lonsdale, and perhaps the most famous English Lord in the world in his time, Hugh Cecil Lowther was born on 25th January, 1857.
The 2nd Earl was still alive when Hugh was born, and he was very much a part of Society.
His ancient lineage, high rank and his important political offices, and above all, his immense personal fortune made his position secure, and he was to live for another fifteen years after Hugh was born, to enjoy his two favourite sports, of hunting and entertaining actresses.
When he died, in the arms of a well-known opera singer, he was succeeded by his nephew, Hugh Lonsdale’s father – but Hugh and his two younger brothers, Charles and Lancelot, knew the likelihood of their ever succeeding to the spectacular family fortunes remained remote.
In fact, so unconsidered was Hugh’s chance of succession that his father could not be persuaded to bother to educate him properly, and whilst his elder brother, St George was being carefully groomed for a gilded future, Hugh spent most of his time in the stable yard of the family home at Asfordby, or running wild in the surrounding countryside.
As a penniless, wayward, younger son who had not expected to inherit, Hugh had joined a travelling circus for a year after leaving Eton, and travelled to America, spending months buffalo-hunting, and had pawned his birthright to make his fortune from cattle ranching in Wyoming. When the scheme failed, the family trustees bought back his inheritance rights, and allowed him to live at Lowther.
Hugh’s resentment of his incredibly rich elder brother became an obsession, and he desperately tried to outdo him, which led to a series of scandals which caused many of the desirable doors in Society, to be closed to him, and he was almost reduced to bankruptcy.
Hugh Lowther, who unexpectedly became the 5th Earl of Lonsdale and Lowther Castle which he inherited along with the title
Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, his elder brother, St George died, and Hugh, spurned by Society, and hounded by his creditors, became overnight one of the richest men in England. He was only 25 when he unexpectedly, inherited the title in 1882.
In addition to his many titles, he inherited a Kingdom in Cumberland and Westmorland, along with Lowther Castle, which was one of the largest houses in the country. It was built between 1806 and 1811 and had 365 rooms, one for each day of the year!
There was an agricultural estate of fifty thousand acres, and another fifty thousand acres of common land, over which he owned most of the sporting and mineral rights. There were the lakes of Windermere and Grasmere, and the ruggedly beautiful Hawes Water.
In West Cumberland, he owned the entire town of Whitehaven with the rich coalfields which stretched far under the Irish Sea, and another family seat, Whitehaven Castle.
In London two of the great Mansions in Carlton House Terrace were knocked into one, providing him with a huge townhouse. There was another house at Newmarket, and two, fully crewed Steam Yachts lying at anchor at Cowes. There were rich lands in the heart of hunting country in Rutland and the magnificent hunting box and stables at Barleythorpe.
Above all, from his own coal fields, iron mines, and agricultural lands, there flowed a prodigious tax-free income of almost £4000 a week then, which would now be worth £400,000 a week, or £20,000,000 (twenty million) a year.
Having been frustrated for so long, Hugh Lonsdale set about enjoying his good fortune with great enthusiasm, trumpeting like a thirsty bull elephant who suddenly scents water, he cut a swathe through Society.
His boyhood had made him shy and uneasy, with his social equals, and he covered this shyness in Society with a flamboyance, which, even in the ostentatious age of the Edwardians, people found hard to accept.
At the same time, his passionate devotion to sport, and his instinct for ‘fair play’ and his showman’s love of the spectacular earned him the adulation of the crowds and a reputation as England’s Greatest Sportsman which spread far beyond this green and pleasant land.
His Yellow Carriages, his colourful entourage and his feudal style of living made him one of the best known figures of his time; what the modern media would describe as a ‘celebrity’, but he was much more than that.
His huge cigars, immaculate clothes, and ever-fresh gardenia were the delight of the cartoonists of the day. His public appearances at sporting events were acclaimed with as much delight as if he had been Royalty.
As he drove down the course at Ascot behind the King, his yellow carriages and liveried postillions made the Royal Carriages look drab and dowdy by comparison, the cheers for ‘Lordy’ as the working classes called him, were at least as loud and prolonged as those for the King.
He was a founding member of the National Sporting Club and he donated the original Lonsdale Belts for boxing. His name was also given to a clothing brand of boxing garments, worn by Muhammad Ali, and many great athletes.
High profile affairs with the actresses Lillie Langtree, and Violet Cameron led to him being advised by Queen Victoria to leave the country until the scandal died down.
Heeding her advice, in 1888, he went to the Arctic, on a gruelling polar expedition in which over 100 guides died. Lonsdale set out to reach the North Pole, nearly dying before reaching Kodiak, Alaska in 1889, and in 1890 he returned to England, a hero and a celebrity.
Under the 5th Earl, Lowther enjoyed both a colourful heyday and an expensive swansong.
The Yellow Earl had his regiment of yellow-liveried servants. He had his fleet of yellow motor-cars, and his pack of yellow dogs, and a hot-house to grow yellow gardenias for his buttonhole.
He was known as the Yellow Earl for his penchant for the colour, and was a founder and first President of the Automobile Association (AA) which adopted his livery.
The Lowther coat-of-arms was reproduced every morning in the centre of the stable yard using coloured chalk powders on freshly laid sand.
He extended the estate – flattening 20 farms in the process in order to create the largest enclosed parkland in England, mainly to upstage the Royal Family at Windsor Great Park.
The Yellow Earl redecorated the house, and added to the gardens, as a setting for lavish entertainment and royal visits, which included the German Kaiser in 1895, when Hugh had made extravagant arrangements to entertain the Kaiser.
Dissatisfied with reports on the grouse on his own moor at Shap, Lonsdale had rented the Earl of Strathmore’s famous moor at Wemmergill, for the opening day of the grouse season, and in four drives they shot over 500 brace!
This was just one of the many elaborate entertainments arranged for the Kaiser’s visit, following which the Kaiser bestowed an honorary Title on Hugh Lowther, which is the German equivalent to ‘Master of the King’s Horse’.
Lonsdale was a keen sportsman, a talented horseman, and a ‘horse whisperer’ of his day, patron of hunting and racing, and founder of the Royal International Horse Show. He also supported local sports such as hound-trailing, fell-running and Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling and instigated the Lonsdale Belt for boxing.
Perhaps the most famous story of all which Hugh used to tell of his young days was of the time he went to New York to fight the then World Heavyweight Champion of the World, John L. Sullivan.
At the beginning of the eighteen nineties, the formidable figure of John J. Sullivan, dominated the boxing scene.
There may since have been more skilful fighters, and holders of the proud title, Heavyweight Champion of the World, but for sheer power and ferocity, John J. Sullivan still stands, head and shoulders above his successors.
Sullivan’s rise from a poverty stricken childhood was meteoric. He would fight everyone and anyone, and as World Champion, he toured the United States offering £300 to anyone who could knock him down, and he never had to pay out.
‘I’ll fight anyone except pigs, dogs, and niggers’ (sic) he would roar, sweeping all the glasses off the counter of the Saloon, and happily taking on anyone who objected to his conduct. He was a braggart and bully of the worst description, particularly when he had drunk too much which was very often.
In spite of his heavy drinking his massive frame stood up to all the punishment his opponents could hand out, until he was finally stopped by ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett after more than ten impregnable years.
The Champion of England at the time was Jem Smith and there was much talk of a match between Smith and Sullivan to take place in the presence of the Prince of Wales. Furious at the suggestion that Smith might have the better of him, Sullivan offered to fight him for nothing and pay him £200 into the bargain.
However, for whatever reason, this match never took place, but the general feeling was that, at the height of his career, Sullivan would have been to much for the gallant Jem Smith.
Hugh Lowther, typically, took the opposite view, and boasted one evening to a group of admiring friends that he himself would be quite prepared to put on the gloves with the great Sullivan.
One of the group was Haydn Coffin, the actor, who was leaving the following day to tour the US and, meeting Sullivan a few weeks later, Coffin remarked that there was a young aristocrat in England who was game to have a bout with him.
This news electrified Sullivan who said : ‘If he wants a fight he can have one, and that goes for any ‘Dooks’ and ‘Oils’ as he cares to bring with him’.
Eventually a Match was arranged in the greatest secrecy, and Hugh Lowther sailed for New York.
The match had been arranged at the Central Park Academy as to the fight itself Hugh Lowther himself wrote an account of it all in late years for The People.
The account was very detailed so I will not repeat it here but suffice to say that Hugh Lowther beat John L Sullivan after a vicious battle.
Hugh Lowther finished his account with the words, “I can look at my strong right hand and say with truth, this hand put to sleep John L. Sullivan!” Modesty was never one of Hugh Lowther’s weaknesses.
Because of the secrecy with which the whole affair was conducted, doubts were later raised as to whether the fight took place at all.
Whatever the real truth of the matter the effect of the reports on the fight on Hugh’s reputation with the sporting public was immense and further enhanced his celebrity status.
He was chairman of Arsenal Football Club for a brief period in 1936 (having previously been a club director), and later became the club’s Honorary President.
But in a long life he spent the family fortune, bankrupting his coal mines which were the source of his great wealth. This, the high taxes and the slump in farm incomes of the Great Depression of the 30s led to the closing of Lowther Castle in 1936.
His lavish entertainment of the Kaiser and other European Royalty, his vast stables of horses, his private Orchestra and the money he poured into equipping the private battalions he raised to fight in the Boer War, and the First World War, finally took its toll on his finances.
Step by step he retreated as the lights of his personal empire were snuffed out one by one.
Whitehaven Castle was sold, then Barleythorpe, and finally Carlton House Terrace and Lowther Castle had to be closed, although the latter still remains in the family’s ownership, and there have been half-hearted attempts to restore it to its former glory, but it has proved too big a project.
An Aerial View of a Derelict Lowther Castle
It is impossible to even begin to tell his story in so few words, but he was undoubtedly one of the greatest ‘characters’ the Peerage has ever produced, and his infamous antics are unlikely ever to be repeated.
Hugh Lowther was never quite accepted by Victorian Society, and was once described by Lord Ancaster as ‘almost an Emperor, but not quite a Gentleman’; something Hugh Lowther might have considered a compliment not a criticism!
The longest lived of the Earls of Lonsdale, the 5th Earl died in 1944 with no heir and with little concern for those who would be burdened by the Castle, the estate and his debts, which were inherited by his (by then aged) youngest brother Lancelot who sold the majority of the family collections in 1947. The 6th Earl died in 1953.
By contrast, the 7th Earl, whom I met, a year before he died in 2006, aged 82, was a conservationist, businessman and the saviour of his family estates in Westmoreland and Cumberland, and largely responsible for the preservation of the Lake District as we know it today.
Robert Jarman – Editor and Founder