William Lowther (1753-1833)

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupation: Judge

Family Background

Sir Christopher Lowther of Lowther (1557-1617) had 11 children. From his eldest son Sir John Lowther are descended the lineage of which Hugh Lowther, the 8th Earl of Lonsdale, is now the present owner of the Lowther Estates. Sir Christopher’s seventh son however was the Reverend Lancelot Lowther (1592-1661) who became Rector of Addingham in Cumberland then Long Marton in Westmorland and from him are descended the Lowthers of Colby Leathes and Aikton. Like Lancelot many of them became clergymen in Cumbrian parishes of which the main family held the advowson or right to present to the living. Three generations later one of these, the Reverend Henry Lowther, Rector of Bowness-on-Solway, on 23rd February 1753 had a son, James Lowther, born and baptised in his father’s parish. James chose a career in Parliament under the same Lowther patronage and at the age of only 22 was returned without opposition as one of the two members for Westmorland. In 1812 he became MP for Appleby, in total serving as an MP for 43 years. He commanded the Cumberland Militia and then the Westmorland Militia of which he became Colonel and also between 1782-1790 he served as Equerry to the Duke of Gloucester, a younger brother of King George III. In addition he acted as chief of staff to Sir James Lowther, the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, with whom he forged a strong bond, acting as his second in at least two of his duels. Colonel James Lowther died in Caen in Normandy in 1837, aged 84

In 1780 James Lowther had married a society beauty Mary Forsyth Codrington (1755-1830) who was twice painted by Romney. Since James Lowther never faced a contest for election as an MP and rarely spoke in the House of Commons, their life was mostly spent in fashionable London society, aided no doubt by substantial legacies upon the death in 1802 of the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, who left £2,000 each to James and Mary and £1,000 to each of their eight children then living. The eldest of these children was William Lowther who was born in Tottenham in London on 2nd November 1782 and baptised there 5 weeks later on 8th December. As their fortunes improved, James and Mary moved to a more prestigious part of the capital, although their actual address of Kensington Gravel Pits sounds less salubrious than it undoubtedly was. In due course they had nine further children, four sons and five daughters, of whom the second son Henry (1787-1874) followed in the family tradition by becoming Rector of Distington in Cumberland, a position he held for the remarkable period of 61 years. His younger sister Catherine (1792-1867) married Rev. Richard Musgrave, a Canon of Windsor.

Life and Career

William Lowther was educated at Westminster School but did not go to University. Instead in 1803 he entered the service of the East India Company (EIC) on the recommendation of William Pitt the Younger, who had preceded William’s father as MP for Appleby in 1780, again owing to the patronage of Sir James Lowther who controlled the constituency. William was not alone in choosing to make his career in India; he was joined there by his younger brothers James (1783-1815) and Robert (1790-1879). James was first a Lieutenant in the 21st Madras Native Infantry then a Writer in the Bengal Civil Service; Robert entered the Bengal Civil Service at age 18 after attending the East India College at Haileybury and retired as Commissioner of Allahabad 49 years later in 1857 whereupon he returned to England. There is a memorial plaque to him in Swillington Church in Yorkshire, where an important branch of the Lowther family was resident. Sir William Lowther Bt. (1757-1844), elevated as the first earl of the second creation in 1807, was the son of the Reverend Sir William Lowther Bt. (1707-1788) of Swillington and that branch accordingly then inherited the main Lowther estates.

1803 was a propitious time to go to work for the EIC in India. The Battles of Assaye and Delhi in that year had decided the future fate of India as the Marathas, the last indigenous Indian power that was militarily capable of defeating the EIC, had been humbled and were about to be conquered. The EIC now controlled a land empire including over half a million square miles of territory and most of peninsular India was administered by 600 well-trained EIC civil servants. In 1803 Thomas Munro wrote: ‘We are now complete masters of India’. William Lowther went to the state of Uttar Pradesh in north-east India and in particular to the city of Benares (or to give it its Hindustani name Varanasi) on the banks of the River Ganges. This had been a cultural centre of Northern India for several thousand years, known worldwide for its many ghats (embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablations) as well as its estimated 23,000 temples. The Kingdom of Benares had been given official status by the Mughals in 1737 and its kings continued to wield power and importance through much of the period of EIC dominance and indeed into the British Raj 50 years later. Benares was accordingly the site of the negotiations between the last great Mughal prince Shal Alam, the Nawab of Avadh Shuja ud-Daula and the British which led to the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765.

William Lowther was a part of the EIC senior civil service in Benares from 1803, being employed as a Writer on 11th July 1803 before becoming a judge there in 1816. In due course he was elevated to Judge of the Provincial Court of Appeal at Benares in the Bengal Presidency. He held this position until his death on 2nd March 1833 in Benares where there is a monumental inscription to him in Jaunpur Cemetery. He was not however a trained lawyer. This was because the EIC, as it took over control of India from the 1750’s onwards and in particular under the de facto Governor-Generalship of Warren Hastings from 1773-1785, acquired the administration of justice in the areas of its dominion alongside its powers to collect taxes and levy customs. The role of Muslim qadis or judges was over and they were replaced by traders or men of commerce, albeit that the daily administrative tasks were performed by locals in the employment of the EIC with only the positions of ultimate power being occupied by those sent out from England. This gave rise to considerable grievance amongst the indigenous population but the power of the EIC, particularly after 1803, ensured that the system was maintained. The English doctrine of precedent was however introduced which is now institutionalised in both India and Pakistan. The highest court of appeal was to the Privy Council in London, although the practicality of this in the early 19th century meant that judges such as William Lowther exercised almost total authority. He would however have remained throughout on the payroll of the EIC notwithstanding the conflict of interest which this must have caused in relation to legal disputes affecting Company affairs. 


William married twice, both times in India. His first wife was Elleanor Louisa Grief (1790-1818) whom he married in 1808 and who bore three children Louisa, Catherine Olivia and Robert Owen, all of whom died in infancy before their mother herself died aged 28. In Jaunpur Cemetery there are touching memorial inscriptions to all of the children: that for Robert Owen reads: ‘This sacred spot contains the earthly remains of Robert Owen, only son of William Lowther Esq. of Jaunpur removed from this to a better place in the tender age of infancy, being only 10 months 17 days old when died on 24thMay 1813’. In the same year as the death of his first wife, William then married Caroline Frances Becher who had herself been born in Jaunpur, Benares in 1794. The Bechers were a long-established Anglo-Indian family; her grandfather Richard Becher was EIC Company Resident in Murshidabad in the 1760’s and 1770’s and had been a fierce critic of the Company and its policies which in his view had significantly aggravated the effects of the disastrous 1770 Bengal famine upon the native population. Caroline was also the sister of Captain Martin Becher (1797-1864) of the Indian Army who gave his name to Becher’s Brook at Aintree racecourse in Liverpool. In his will written a week before his death in Benares in 1833, William recommended his widow Caroline ‘…to the affectionate solicitude of my much respected friend the Earl of Lonsdale to favour her with his protection and my fatherless children with his care and I implore him with my dying breath to be their friend and patron’. His plea was not entirely in vain. His widow returned to England and died in Marylebone in London in January 1868.

William and Caroline had three sons and a daughter, all born in India but returned to England for schooling, in the case of the sons at Westminster School like their father. The second son, the Reverend John Mordaunt Lowther (1824-1888) returned to Cumberland to continue his education at St Bees Clergy School and carried on the family tradition by becoming Rector of Whicham in 1855 then Bolton in 1874 where he succeeded his uncle Henry, again both livings still in the gift of the Earls of Lonsdale. He was an eccentric bachelor well-known at local shows where he frequently exhibited horses. Tragically he committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol. According to the finding of an inquest jury, he did so whilst in a state of temporary insanity; he was at the time due to appear at Cumberland Sessions to face a charge of assaulting his domestic servant. Their third son was James Harrington Lowther (1827-1868) who found fame as a sculptor, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1857 and 1866 and whose work included a statue of Emperor Napoleon III. Their daughter was Mary Lowther (1825-1871) who married Richard Kettle Barnes, an eminent surgeon.

Their eldest son was William Henry Lowther (1821-1898) who had a distinguished career in the Indian Army. He was originally destined for the law but after six months in a solicitor’s office, he told his mother that unless she obtained a commission for him he would enlist. As a consequence he was commissioned at the age of 19 in the Bengal Army of the EIC, fought in the Sikh Wars of 1848/9 during which we was wounded at the Battle of Gujerat and in particular distinguished himself in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 by arresting the Rajah of Debroghur in Assam and sending him under guard to Calcutta accompanied by highly incriminating documents, whereafter he was tried and executed. For this Captain Lowther received the thanks of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, as well as much favourable press comment. He was promoted Colonel by the 1870’s when he was Officer Commanding at Benares Garrison; his papers include accounts of the barracks inventories of the period. He retired from the Army in 1879 and was further promoted Major-General, an honorary rank. He returned ‘home’ to Cumberland living first at Cardew Lodge, Curthwaite then Eden Lacy at Lazonby and finally at Brooklands in Penrith. There he pursued his loves of botany and horticulture. In 1861 he had married Amelia Jessie Painter (1845-1919), who had been born in South Africa of a notable Cape Colony family, and he used his all colonial connections to further these interests as evidenced by a letter written by him in 1896 to the Natal Botanic Garden in South Africa in relation to the importation of exotic African plants. He died in Penrith two years later and there is a stained glass window in his memory at Great Salkeld Church erected by his widow. They had three sons and a daughter of whom their eldest son Henry (1862-1925) followed his father into the Indian Army where he rose to Lieutenant-Colonel and their eldest daughter Mary (1864-1940) married William Danckwerts KC whose son Harold later became a Judge of the English Court of Appeal, thus finally bringing a legally-trained appeal court judge into the family.


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