Hugh Cecil Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale (1857-1944), was a sporting legend affectionately known as ‘Lordy’ who lived almost entirely for pleasure. As Lord Birkenhead mournfully wrote, ‘almost alone he preserves an atmosphere to which our grandchildren, alas, will be nothing but a dream’. Born a second son of the 3rd Earl of Lonsdale, Lord Lowther had little prospect of inheriting the family’s not inconsiderable fortune. He absconded from Eton to join a travelling circus before selling his claim to the Lowther estates for £40,000 to speculate on a cattle ranching venture in Wyoming.
The speculation collapsed and the Lowther family quietly bought back the young Lord’s squandered birthright. He married Lady Grace Gordon, daughter of the 10th Marquess of Huntley, against her parents’ wishes in 1878 and the newlyweds were granted Barleythorpe Hall in Rutland. While hunting on the estate Lady Grace fell losing a baby and leaving her invalided for the rest of her life. Time would tell that the accident ended Lady Grace’s hopes of bearing another child.
In 1882 Lord Lowther’s brother St George, 4th Earl of Lonsdale, died aged 27 leaving his brother, 25, in possession of 150,000 acres of land, a six-figure annual income, revenue from Cumbrian coal mines and principal residence Lowther Castle as well as Whitehaven Castle and a Nash-designed London townhouse at No 15 Carlton House Terrace. With the exception of the House of Lords where he was seldom seen, the Earl launched himself upon London society with all the enthusiasm of a man with unlimited funds at his disposal.
Six feet tall, blonde and with the athletic build of a skilled boxer, rider and yachtsman, the 5th Earl was an imposing figure. His nickname ‘the Yellow Earl’ was coined with no little thanks to his tailor and livery maker Henry Poole & Co. The 2005 biography of his friend Kaiser Wilhelm II describes the 5th Earl thus: ‘At Royal Ascot he took his yellow and black wagonette (horse box) with exactly matching chestnuts, grooms and postilions in yellow livery with every buckle and button shining. He drank white burgundy with breakfast and champagne at midmorning. He had his suits made of his own Lonsdale tweed and produced a different colour of home grown and woven tweed for his staff’.
The Earl grew yellow gardenias for his buttonhole in the hothouses at Lowther Castle and would later order 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 spectacularly hypocritical verdict on the 5th Earl of Lonsdale. Both dallied with the celebrated beauty Lillie Langtry. The Earl’s affair with Violet Cameron (whose opera company he paid to appear in New York) resulted in at least one illegitimate child.
In 1888 the Earl embarked on an expedition to explore the Arctic regions of Canada and nearly lost his life while exploring Alaska. His collection of Inuit artefacts is now in the British Museum. But his travels were secondary to his sporting prowess. While in New York the 5th Earl knocked-out reigning heavyweight champion of the world John L. Sullivan. He was founder member and first President of the National Sporting Club and donated the original Lonsdale Belts for the boxing trophy in 1909. The sports clothing company named after him still trades today.
As well as being master of five hunts including The Quorn (1893-8) and a famously good shot, his prowess as a yachtsman earned the 5th Earl interesting friends. Kaiser Wilhem II had 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. The friendship caused diplomatic incident when the Kaiser announced his intention to follow a State Visit to his uncle Edward VII at Windsor Castle with a visit to Lowther Castle in 1907.
The King wrote to Sir Charles Hardinge ‘it would in every sense of the word be a mistake’. Sir Frank Lascelles replied from the British Embassy in Berlin ‘Bulow has more than once expressed his regret at the Emperor’s friendship with Lonsdale who, he believes, has done a great deal of mischief, perhaps unintentionally, but unfortunately the Emperor looks upon him as the type of straightforward and honest English gentleman and believes every word he says’. The Kaiser awarded the 5th Earl a knighthood of the First Class Order of the Prussian Crown. With the outbreak of the First World War, the 5th Earl refused to remove a bust of Kasier Wilhelm II from the hall of Lowther Castle.
The 5th Earl had served as Assistant Adjutant-General for the Imperial Yeomanry in the Second Boer War but his activities in the Great War were limited to recruiting horses and men; a service he repeated in 1911 for George V’s Coronation Durbar in Delhi. The Earl’s enthusiasm and patronage for all things sporting saw him become a Senior Steward of the Jockey Club, first President of the International Horse Show at Olympia and Chairman then Honorary President of Arsenal football club. He was also President of the AA and a moderately successful racehorse owner whose ride Royal Lancer won the St Ledger in 1922.
In the reign of King George V the 5th Earl’s mutton chop whiskers, nine inch cigars named in his honour, yellow gardenia buttonholes and estate check tweed suits gave him the appearance of a rather heroic throwback to the flamboyance of the Edwardian era. He could no longer live in the grand manner of a pre-war ‘Lordy’. Whitehaven Castle was sold in 1921 and by 1935 the 5th Earl was forced to leave the Robert Smirke-designed Lowther Castle to live in more modest accommodation. A year later Carlton House Terrace was shut-up and the contents removed for storage at Lowther Castle.
In short the 5th Earl had all but exhausted his vast inheritance. He died without an heir at Stud House, Barleythorpe, in 1944 aged 87. His tombstone was inscribed ‘a great English sportsman’. The Earldom passed to the 5th Earl’s brother Lancelot who was forced to sell the contents of Lowther Castle in 1947. The roof was removed and the castle left to gently decay. In 2012 the ruined facade of Lowther Castle was shored up, the surrounding buildings restored and the landscape brought back to its former glory after a £9 million restoration project.