LOWE, Robert, Viscount Sherbrooke (1811-1892)


LOWE, Robert, Viscount Sherbrooke (1811-1892)
politician
was the son of the Rev. Robert Lowe, rector of Bingham and prebendary of Southwell, Notts. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Reginald Pyndar. Lowe was born at Bingham in Nottinghamshire, on 4 December 1811. He was an albino, and his sight was so weak that at first it was thought he was unfit to be sent to school. In 1822 he went to a school at Southwell, then to one at Risley, and in 1825 to Winchester as a commoner. In his fragment of autobiography he gives an unpleasing picture of the under-feeding and other conditions of the school life of that time. Latin and Greek were then the main subjects of study and Lowe records that both were easy to him. In 1829 he went to University College, Oxford, and found the change delightful. Though he idled in his first year he graduated in 1833 with a first class in classics and a second class in mathematics, a remarkable feat for a man so hampered by his sight. The Union Debating Society at that time had many brilliant members, but Lowe more than held his own, and was considered one of the finest speakers in the union. In 1835 he was elected fellow of Magdalen, and on 29 March 1836 was married to Georgiana, daughter of George Orred, and became a very successful private tutor. His time was so taken up that J. A. Froude records that he had wished to become Lowe's pupil but there was no room for him. Lowe decided to go to London and practise law and was called to the bar in January 1842. His studies, however, had injured his already weak eyes, and he was advised by specialists that they would not last longer than seven years. Realizing the difficulties of obtaining an important position in London in so short a period, Lowe decided to emigrate to Sydney and practise as a conveyancer. He sailed on S June 1842 and arrived at Sydney exactly four months later.
Lowe and his wife both formed a good opinion of the colony and its future prospects, in spite of the severe financial depression through which it was passing. A few months later, however, Lowe's eyes became so bad he was forbidden to read, a great deprivation for a man of so active a mind. Much time was spent in visiting friends in the country but after being idle for nearly nine months Lowe in November 1843 began again to practise his profession. In the same month he was appointed to a vacancy in the legislative council, and at once made his mark as an orator. He had been nominated to the council by the governor, Sir Geo. Gipps (q.v.) who probably hoped to find in him a valuable ally. But Lowe was not the kind of man to be trammelled in this way and he subsequently became a bitter opponent of Gipps. How independent he could be was shown when Dr Lang (q.v.) as a representative of Port Phillip moved a motion for the separation of that district from New South Wales, for Lowe was his only supporter apart from the other representatives of the Port Phillip district. In August 1844, having completed the report of the Select Committee on Education of which he was chairman, Lowe resigned his seat as a nominee member of the legislative council. He had found the position untenable. As he afterwards described it: "If I voted with the Government I was in danger of being reproached as a mere tool; and if I voted with the opposition, as I did on most questions, I was reproached by the officials as a traitor to the Government."
Three months after his resignation from the council Lowe became associated with the founding of the Atlas newspaper, and was the principal of a brilliant band of contributors. He wrote most of the leading articles, and his satirical verses became a recognized feature of the journal. He was a member of the Pastoral Association of New South Wales and was a leading advocate of land reform. Gipps, though his powers were still great, was not in the position to be such a complete autocrat as the early governors, but he held firmly to the view that the colony must pay its way, and insisted on the collection of quit-rents which had been allowed to fall into abeyance. Lowe came forward for election to the council in opposition to this policy, and in April 1845 was elected unopposed. His practice as a barrister had been growing, and he was fortunate in being able to make investments in Sydney property which became very profitable. It was everywhere realized that he was one of the most gifted speakers in the council, and at a banquet given to W. C. Wentworth (q.v.) in January 1846, his speech was held to have far surpassed that of Wentworth. He never lost an opportunity for advocating the rights of the colonies. "If," he said, "the representative of Middlesex claims a right to control the destinies of New South Wales, the representative of New South Wales should have a corresponding influence on the destinies of Middlesex." Towards the end of 1846 he stopped contributing to the Atlas, and gave much time to the council. He had at first been on the side of the squatters who had been passing through a period of great difficulty, but when in September 1847 Earl Grey's orders in council arrived which practically handed over the country lands to a comparatively small number of crown tenants, Lowe threw his weight in the other scale. He was not opposed to the squatters. "I would give them every encouragement," he said . . . "but to give them a permanency of occupation of those lands—those lands to which they had no better right than that of any other colonist . . . I can never consent to."
Another burning question at this time was the proposed resumption of criminal transportation. The squatters were anxious to have the convicts as assigned servants, but there was a strong body of public opinion opposed to further transportation. Of this body Lowe was one of the leaders. He was also prominent in the agitation for land reform. His remedy was to reduce the upset price of land to five shillings an acre, leaving the squatters in possession until bona-fide settlers actually purchased the land. Lowe was not successful at the time, but continued efforts eventually brought about the much desired unlocking of the land of Australia many years later. At the general election of 1848 Lowe was again elected, and in May made a great speech in opposition to the new constitution that had been proposed by Earl Grey, and the scheme was abandoned. In the following year he made an eloquent speech at the public meeting held on Circular Quay when the convict ship Hashemy arrived, and was one of the deputation of six that waited on the governor, Sir Charles Fitzroy (q.v.). The protests of this meeting virtually made an end of the old convict system. In January 1850 Lowe and his wife sailed for England, and although he often spoke of revisiting Australia he never did so. His investments in real estate at Sydney made him financially independent for the rest of his life.
Arrived in England Lowe at first intended to practise at the bar, but in April 1851 he joined the staff of The Times for which he wrote a great number of articles on law reform and many other subjects. In July 1852 he was elected to the house of commons for Kidderminster which he represented for some years. In December he was appointed a joint secretary of the board of control for India, which position he held until January 1855. In August of that year he became vice-president of the board of trade in Palmerston's ministry, and his subsequent career was very distinguished. He was chancellor of the exchequer from 1868 to 1873, and home secretary in 1873-4. He was created Viscount Sherbrooke in 1880. In his last days his marvellous memory began to fail and he died on 27 July 1892. His first wife died on 3 November 1884. In 1885 he married Caroline, daughter of Thomas Sneyd, who survived him. There was no issue of either marriage. His Speeches and Letters on Reform, published in 1867, went into a second edition in the same year, and many of his other speeches were published separately. Poems of a Life, published in 1885, includes several of the verses written in Australia, some of which show his ability as a satirist and can still be read with interest.
Lowe was a great orator and had a brilliant intellect. He has been compared not unfavourably in these respects with both Disraeli and Gladstone. Handicapped by his eyesight, a mordant tongue, and a difficulty in being patient with people of little ability, he made some enemies and scarcely reached his full height in politics. At heart he was of a kindly nature, and while at Sydney adopted and brought up two orphan children. Sir William Windeyer (q.v.) has also told us that after his father's early death he found in Lowe a generous friend, and that he owed the continuance of his education to his kindness. Lowe came to Australia when she was just shaking herself free from the autocracy of the early governors, and with other distinguished men of the time fought a good fight and did valuable work for her.
A. Patchett Martin, Life and Letters of Viscount Sherbrooke, and Australia and the Empire; J. F. Hogan, Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke; James Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Biography; Walter Bagehot, Works, vol. V, 1915; Sir Henry Parkes, Fifty Years of Australian History; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. XXIII, XXV, XXVI; S. Elliott Napier, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XVIII, pp. 1-31.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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