Hugh Lowther epitomised fair play and sportsmanship.
With no direct heirs he lived for the moment, having "such lovely fun".
Hugh grew up thinking he would probably never be an Earl, so he enjoyed not having to practice. Life would always offer opportunities for adventure and he would always be glad to accept them.
As a boy of 10 he fought and knocked out the butcher’s son (who was a notorious local bully) and nearly drowned his tutor in a fishing prank. He left Eton at the age of 12 for a Swiss finishing school but lasted only a month before taking off to join a travelling circus.
In his youth he walked 100 miles in 17 hours & 21 minutes to win a footrace from Knightsbridge Barracks to the Ram Jam pub on the Great North Road. The £5 bet he won was nothing compared to the satisfaction of trouncing his rivals.
Just a few years later Hugh cashed in his inheritance and blew the money abroad on a disastrous cattle ranching venture. This setback did little to change his outlook because his compass was set for daring and adventure.
Lady Grace Gordon caught his eye and eventually the couple married against her parent’s wishes, then set off together to hunt bison in Wyoming. Hugh would say "I can tell everything I want to know about a man by the way he sits on horse" and, through this lens, Grace impressed.
Richest Man in England
When his brother died suddenly the Earldom passed to Hugh along with the temptations that went with it. More significantly this made him one of the richest men in England with possession of 150,000 acres of land, vast revenues from the Whitehaven coalfield, a six-figure annual income and the principal residence of Lowther Castle as well as Whitehaven Castle and a Nash-designed London townhouse at No 15 Carlton House Terrace.
The new 5th Earl of Lonsdale was six feet tall, blonde and athletic and, with the exception of the House of Lords, where he was seldom seen, he launched himself on London society with enthusiasm.
A Yellow Fellow
Hugh was flamboyant and exuberant, with a devil-may-care attitude to spending money. Dressing the part, he changed his clothes four times a day, usually into something yellow with no little thanks to his tailor and livery maker Henry Poole & Co.
To match his clothes, he sported a yellow gardenia in his lapel and gathered a regiment of yellow-liveried servants, a groom of the bedchamber, a chamberlain and a master of music to supervise the 24 musicians who travelled with him from house to house in a special train.
Hugh had a fleet of yellow motor-cars, bought chestnut horses, golden dogs and indulged many other extravagances including £3,000 of nine inch cigars each year. He required the family coat-of-arms to be reproduced in coloured chalk on fresh sand in the centre of the stable yard every single day and thought nothing of giving an order that 25,000 rose bushes at Lowther should be dug up and replanted in a more pleasing location.
He even ordered a yellow Rolls Royce with an unusually tall roof to accommodate his black, silk top hat.
'Almost an emperor, not quite a gentleman’ was King Edward VII’s hypocritical verdict upon the Earl as both dallied with the celebrated burlesque beauty Lily Langtrey.
However, Lily's affections were not reserved for this pair alone. She sparked a jealous love dispute between Hugh and Sir George Chetwynd which ended in a stand-up fist fight below the statue of Achilles in Hyde Park. Lily had inadvertently arranged to meet both of them at the same place and time. Starting the affray by striking each other with their horse whips they then dismounted and fought fist-to-fist until, after wrestling together on the floor, they were separated and taken home to salve their egos.
This did little to damage Hugh's reputation with an increasingly admiring public and less to arrest his infidelities.
Unfortunately, when the pregnant Lady Grace had a horse riding accident, she lost her baby and couldn’t produce an heir. The Earl’s affair with Violet Cameron, whose opera company he paid to appear in New York, resulted by contrast in at least one child.
Hugh admitted adultery and the commotion involving a jealous husband caused such a sensation that the Earl was sent away at the behest of an unamused Queen Victoria.
His trustees discovered to their delight that the Scottish Natural History Society wanted to engage someone to collect specimens for them from the Canadian Arctic wastes so in 1888 the Earl embarked on a gruelling expedition in which over 100 guides died.
Hugh made the year-long trek from Fort Chipewyan to Kodiak in the style of a thrill-seeking traveller rather than a Victorian explorer-scientist. Noting only those events and weather conditions that would enhance his reputation for hardiness and derring-do, his account of the journey was embellished with every re-telling. Never mind if he didn't really reach the North Pole or prompt the Yukon gold rush: an adoring audience found Hugh's version of events more believable than the reality.
While away Hugh took every opportunity for a bit of sport, returning with beaver, wolverine and seal skins to add to his collection.
Fourteen months after his departure Hugh returned triumphant to Penrith railway station. The collection of Inuit artefacts he brought back from the Arctic is now in the British Museum.
The Yellow Earl’s travels were secondary however, to his sporting prowess.
He loved horses and became the Senior Steward of the Jockey Club. He loved cars and was the first President of the Automobile Association. He loved hunting and was master of five hunts including The Cottesmore and the Quorn (1893-8). He loved shooting and was a famously good shot. He loved boxing and in 1880, while in New York, he defeated John L Sullivan the Boston Strong Boy, heavyweight boxing champion of the world in an illegal fight.
He was founder member and first President of the National Sporting Club, donating the original Lonsdale Belts in 1909. The sports clothing company named after him is still trading.
His proficiency as a yachtsman earned the 5th Earl some interesting friends. Hugh loved to entertain, especially royal guests and Kaiser Wilhem II first visited Lowther Castle in 1895 for a grouse shooting party. In 1896, the Earl raced the Kaiser’s yacht, Meteor, at Cowes Royal Regatta and took 17 out of 22 prizes.
Hugh also had the common touch, which was evident when, as President of the International Horse Show in London, he would rake the arena after each round of competition, while all the time smoking his ubiquitous cigars.
By contrast with Hugh's flamboyant extravagance, his wife Grace often wore brown and would reuse postage stamps, steaming them off envelopes.
However, her thriftiness was not sufficient to prevent the Estate from running dry. Production at the Whitehaven coalfield was hit by disastrous explosions and fires underground. Though this took some time to be felt at Lowther, eventually there was no option but to start selling off the family silver to maintain Hugh's lifestyle.
Other financial avenues were explored. Hugh's legendary stables provided 84 horses for an unprecedented sale. The audience gasped as buyers fought to secure one of Hugh's chestnut thoroughbreds. They went for astronomical sums, such that the Prince of Wales' representative dropped out of the bidding. When the auctioneers gavel fell for the last time the sale had raised an astounding 18,228 guineas.
The People newspaper paid the Earl £16,000 for his life story, which was greatly exaggerated in the telling. It was published over 28 weeks and resulted in the greatest recorded increase in circulation of any paper. Public subscription raised over £300,000 to celebrate his Golden Wedding.
In spite of these windfalls Hugh’s expenditure crippled the Estate's cashflow and, one by one, properties were sold.
Finally, in 1936 Hugh and Grace left Lowther Castle for the last time and it was closed. In 1944 Hugh Cecil died and it was left to his younger brother and heir, Lancelot, the 6th Earl, to try and retrieve what he could.
Today the restored gardens and facade of Lowther Castle are open to the public. Spend a day exploring the dramatic ruins, gardens within gardens, giant adventure playground, parkland and the family church. Click here for more information.
Penrith delicatessen J&J Graham's are hosting Hugh's automaton and have commemorated him in an exclusive hamper full of the finest Cumbrian food. Click here for their website.